The Joe Nathan era in Minnesota is officially over, leaving the team down to just one piece from the trade that sent A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco for Nathan, Boof Bonser, and the eternally enigmatic Francisco Liriano. The deal looked like a huge win for the Twins in 2006 and 2010 — when Liriano looked fantastic — and like much less of a bargain in the years when Nathan was the sole producer of positive value.
For the first time since Nathan’s arrival in 2004, the Twins don’t have a long-term option at closer already on the team. They got a taste of what life post-Nathan was like in 2010 when Jon Rauch (21/25 in save opportunities) and Matt Capps (16/18 in save opportunities) split time, but neither Rauch nor Capps is currently with the team.
In theory, the team could go with closer by committee, but I find that to be extremely unlikely. Knowing that Nathan would be back for the 2011 season, they still went out and traded Wilson Ramos for Capps. Times may have been different then, but it does show something of a fundamental desire to have consistency at the end of games, something that closer-by-committee doesn’t really offer. To that end, here are a few names to keep in mind as potential options for the Twins’ next closer.
Perkins benefited from his move to the bullpen in a big way; it’s not much of a stretch to say that the change likely saved his career with the Twins. His average velocity on his fastball rose 2 MPH to 94 MPH and his slider velocity rose slightly as well. His slider was always a decent offering, generating a 10 percent swing-and-miss rate according to TexasLeaguers, but his ability to use it more frequently made it a much more potent pitch. In 2011, hitters whiffed at nearly 19 percent of his sliders and at 23 percent of his change ups, compared to just 9 percent when he was a starter. In total, his swing strike rate sat three points higher than his career rate in 2011, which illustrates just how much more effective he was when he wasn’t worried about conserving pitches.
It is possible, however, that Perkins’ efficacy is the biggest argument against his closing games. Manager Ron Gardenhire isn’t rigidly bound by the save rule, but he does stick to it fairly closely. Perkins is best used right now as a high-leverage stopper, a pitcher who can get a strikeout in a tight spot instead of putting a ball in play, as is the Twins’ modus operandi; Perkins had the team’s highest K% at 26 percent. If the team is flexible with his usage, there’s no reason that Perkins can’t be the closer, but if it keeps him from being used in high-leverage, non-save situations, they’re better off finding someone else for the ninth and keeping Perkins ready for when the game is actually on the line.
Based on the tighter payroll and the team’s other needs, my hunch is that the Twins will stay within the team to find their next closer and that makes Perkins the odds-on favorite. Carlos Gutierrez and Anthony Slama will theoretically be in the mix, but they’re both extreme long shots.
According to Ken Rosenthal, The Twins have been in contact with Capps’ agent about a return to the team. Given the market for closers and the quality of pitchers still available, I think it’s likely that Capps will be available at a price the Twins can live with, though I’d put the odds of the team offering him arbitration next to nil given the changes to the compensation system. Capps made more than $7 million last year and this is likely to be a case where the market rate could actually be below the arbitration rate.
Working in Capps’ favor is that he has closed before. Mock the concept of a proven closer all you want, but it still matters in some circles, and Capps does have 124 saves to his credit. Whether the label still applies after Capps posted a 6.07 ERA, a 1.42 WHIP, and a 3.3 K/9 in save situations in 2011 — eventually losing his job to Nathan — is a valid question, but he has more experience in the role than Perkins does, and that may be all that matters.
If there’s a team that really wants Capps — either as a closer or as a set-up man — I don’t see the Twins outbidding them to retain Capps’ services, but if Capps is still available in six weeks or so, the Twins could become a more serious player for him at a reduced rate. Using him in concert with Perkins in a high- and low- leverage platoon instead of a traditional set-up/closer pairing could be an intriguing option, though it would be hell for owners of either as they’d likely end up splitting the save chances, rendering both almost unusable.
This is something of a long shot, but as of last week, there were murmurs that the Nationals were still interested in Twins CF Denard Span, who missed most of the season with a concussion and then with a reaggravation of the vestibular neuritis that plagued him in 2009. The teams nearly had a Span-for-Storen deal in place at the trade deadline that reportedly fell apart because of dispute over the secondary parts of a deal. If the Twins now feel that they need a young closer to follow Nathan or if the Nats can’t get traction in any of their other dealings, they could revisit the deadline negotiations.
This deal reveals something of a paradox for the Twins, since they’re on a tighter budget this year and since Span has an exceptionally team-friendly contract. If Span is healthy enough to perform the way he did in 2011 before he got hurt, the Twins almost can’t afford to trade him. If he isn’t healthy, it’s likely that he’d fail the physical and the deal wouldn’t progress in the first place. Span told Fox Sports North that he’s past the symptoms that ended his season, which likely means a deal is possible, but also means that the Twins will need to strongly consider the possibility that they’ll be trading a 3-4 win player who is owed just $14.25 million through 2014.
Though the chatter regarding a potential trade has cooled, Storen still fits the Twins’ perceived needs well. He’s a young closer who has already proven he can handle the job, and outfield is a position of some depth within the organization. If Jason Kubel or Michael Cuddyer return — neither is likely, but the lines of communication are open — perhaps the Twins will be more amenable to trading Span.
If the Twins were flush with cash and ready to spend, perhaps they’d go after one of the bigger free agents like Heath Bell or Francisco Rodriguez, but given the holes they still need to patch and the money they have to do it, I can’t see them going after a free agent other than Capps. If they choose to bolster the bullpen in free agency, I think it’s more likely that they’ll move Perkins to closer and add someone like Michael Wuertz or Dan Wheeler in middle relief.
Perkins has to be the favorite to get the Twins’ saves next year, and if your league keeps at cost rather than at slot, he could be a solid value as a $1-2 player who grabs a bunch of saves with a decent K-rate. Still, until the Twins declare their intentions, I think there’s just enough of a chance that they move for a closer outside the organization that I’d be wary of keeping him. Since Perkins would be a first time closer, I can’t imagine it would cost a prohibitive amount to reacquire him if need be.