Is This ‘Pen Mightier?

Rebuilding a 99-loss team is never easy, especially when an already tight budget is reduced by more than 10 percent. However, that’s the exact thing Twins GM Terry Ryan was tasked with when he returned to the post following Bill Smith’s dismissal in November.

Ryan has done a nice job of mixing in low-cost free agent options with a few buy-low candidates to rebuild the club on pretty much every level, but today let’s focus on how the nearly completely revamped bullpen should be more of an asset than a liability in 2012, especially in light of the signing of the quintessential buy-low option, Joel Zumaya, which became official Thursday.

In moves that more or less mirrored the 2010-’11 offseason, the Twins permitted two of their top late-inning relievers to depart via free agency. However, instead of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, this offseason franchise save leader Joe Nathan and talented, if mercurial, lefty Jose Mijares departed. Say what you will about the portly port-sider, but Nathan is a key loss on the surface. I say on the surface because few, if any, relievers are worth $7 million a year, especially those just a season removed from Tommy John surgery and entering their age-37 season. But I digress, as Nathan was an extraordinarily dominant Twin (2.16 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 10.9 K/9 in seven seasons) despite being thoroughly “meh” in San Francisco. In short: Nathan is a key loss.

The Twins also took Anthony Slama off the 40-man roster. To the casual observer, that’s no big deal, but Slama had racked up an absurd 12.2 K/9 down on the farm, and yet was simply outrighted off the active roster rather than given much a chance on the big league level (7.0 rather yawn-inducing innings between two stints with the Twins). But give credit to the Twins; Rob Delaney (no, not that one) was in a similar boat with the club, and has done little in the interim to besmirch the Twins decision to let him move on in a similar fashion. As a result, both hurlers are exhibits in why minor league K rates mean less than a Washington Wizards game; deception rules supreme in the minors, and oftentimes doesn’t translate.

On a semi-related note, part-time reliever/Kilimanjaro climber, full-time philosopher Kevin Slowey (dealt to Rockies) also won’t be back in the bullpen, nor will erratic fireballer Jim Hoey (claimed by Blue Jays on waivers) or the quotable but hittable lefty Chuck James (Mets). Phil Dumatrait was removed from the 40-man, but re-inked to a minor league deal.

With the departures out of the way, let’s focus on what’s left in the cupboard before accounting for the incoming groceries. Glen Perkins’ 2011 couldn’t have been more disparate from his 2010; he went from fringe back-end starter to elite power reliever basically at the flip of a switch, as he added three ticks to his heater and significant bite to a rejuvenated and downright unfair slider. He’s been told he won’t close, but at least on the surface it’s for the wrong reasons. “He doesn’t have any experience in that role,” TR noted. Now, of course, it’s better to use Perkins in roles which maximizes his leverage, but at least on the surface it appears that TR is forgetting recent history with his closers. Nathan had more home runs that saves when he joined the Twins. Eddie Guardado was a really bad starter. So was Rick Aguilera, who was converted to reliever the first full season after he was dealt to Minneapolis in the Frank Viola deal.

As a result, incumbent Matt Capps has returned as a closer, in spite of his Todd Coffey-esque numbers the past four seasons (Coffey: 3.76 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.5 K/BB; Capps: 3.79, 1.27, 6.5, and 3.4). To be sure, Coffey is by no means a bad reliever, it’s just a head-scratching move on a number of fronts, as Capps battled injuries and inconsistency in 2011, leading to a career-low K rate (4.7 per nine) and a disturbing penchant for longballs (1.4 per nine), which is nothing to say of the draft choice the club would have net had he signed elsewhere (like with the Mets). To be fair, he did lose a mile-per-hour on his heater from 2010, but that really only dropped him to his career mark anyway. To be sure, it’s a wise move not to shoehorn Perkins into the closer’s role, but it’s also an odd one to dump Capps into as well.

The other hurlers returning to the pen that was worst in the majors in reliever ERA, BAA, and second-worst in OPS against are largely uninspiring. Alex Burnett seemed to have a decent amount of potential coming into 2010, but he’s oddly spent most of the last two seasons floundering at the big league level despite initially skipping Triple-A, then getting owned by the IL when he’s been sent back. He’d be best served starting ‘12 in Rochester. Brian Duensing returns to the bullpen after a rough ‘11 season in the rotation, and will likely need to shine as a situation lefty at first (.947/.522 OPS split v. RHB/LHB) before carving out more of a niche in the mid-to-late innings. He’s unlikely to have a Perkins-like resurgence, but he should be an asset out of the pen. The other returners include Anthony Swarzak (shined in long relief but is pressed elsewhere), Lester Oliveros (unknown fireballer acquired in Delmon Young deal), and possibly the aforementioned Dumatrait (dubious command of pedestrian stuff).

The acquisitions have been numerous, if perhaps a bit ordinary. Esmerling Vasquez was plucked from the Diamondbacks just prior to the season finale but won’t physically report until spring training; he profiles as a fireballing righty who misses bats and strike zones, too. Others pulled include NRIs Casey Fien, Aaron Thompson, Daryl Thompson, P.J. Walters, Luis Perdomo, Brendan Wise, Sam Deduno, Jason Bulger, Jared Burton, and Jeff Gray. Of them, Bulger has some big league experience and success, but is coming off major arm and control issues. This is a pretty standard, ordinary group of NRIs that will likely serve as the pen in Rochester.

The big — and quite frankly shocking — bullpen news of the offseason has been the signing of Zumaya, whose last pitch came some 19 months ago on Target Field’s mound as he fired a fastball before his right elbow essentially exploded. This move flies in the face of the Twins typical philosophy in a number of ways.

For one, it’s a big low-risk, high-reward scenario. The Twins have been relatively risk-averse — Joe Mauer contract notwithstanding — as it pertains to giving out deals that could blow up, even those with limited risk like this Zumaya contract. Secondly, Zumaya is far from the ideal ‘Twins’ pitcher; his average heater in his career checks in a 98.5 miles-per hour. The next four fastest hurlers for the Twins over the past five seasons are Hoey (95.2), Crain (94.5), Matt Garza (94.1), and Oliveros (93.6). In other words, this is a seismic shift from the club’s typical idea of what they look for in a reliever.

Now there’s considerable risk at play here with Zumaya; Captain Obvious here makes obvious statements as Zumaya’s yet to clear 40 innings in any single season since his rookie campaign. However, it’s refreshing to see the Twins taking a fresh, more modern approach to its bullpen than even just a year ago (i.e. Capps trade and subsequent tendering, signing Dumatrait, etc.). Even if Zumaya doesn’t make it through spring training unscathed, or completely falls off a cliff (of Dover, perhaps?), the club is only on the hook for $400k, or about half a percent of its projected budget. In a league where risk-aversion often leaves teams out of the playoffs — think about it, most teams deep in the playoffs had a key risk pay off, right? — the Twins have still managed to maintain relatively competitive. Still, at least I’ve gotten the sense that some of this ‘competitiveness’ has been in spite of the moves the club has made, rather than a direct result. The Zumaya signing, at least to me, signals an ever so slight changing of the guard at One Twins Way. Hopefully if it blows up — and let’s be honest, there’s a decent chance it may — that it won’t deter the club from making such gambles again in the near future.

Another right-handed hurler that the Twins have reportedly had interest in is Coffey. Coffey, a burly right-hander who has spent his entire seven-year career in the NL, is another hard thrower who’s a bit shorter on results than Zumaya — i.e. fewer whiffs and struggles with walks a bit — but would nonetheless be a nice pickup to help fill out the bullpen. If the Twins could manage to pull Coffey with the limited resources the club has left, or maybe even Minn. native Michael Wuertz on a minor-league deal, there would seem to at least be a decent chance that this pen would rebound and at least be replacement-level after such an awful ‘11 (-3.38 WPA as a group, third-worst in the major leagues).

So is this pen mightier? I’ll go on a limb and say probably. After all, as good as Nathan was with the Twins, ’11 was by-and-large an off year for him as he spent much of the it regaining velocity and honing his command. Mijares, on the other hand, only hastened the balding process of skipper Gardenhire, and is likely to be less of a loss with the Duensing shift. The pen won’t be an asset unless one more key piece is added — Coffey would certainly qualify — but in its present state, it won’t be an embarrassment either.

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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Maybe you should mention which team you are talking about befote the third paragraph?