Friday, May 29, 2009

Bullpen Ray guns

The Twins today open a series in Tampa Bay against the defending AL champs, which sets up a compare and contrast opportunity regarding the two bullpens.

Ron Gardenhire is a slave to current convention in handling the relief corps. Joe Nathan pitches the ninth inning in save situations. He gets three outs and he's out; he has yet to pitch more than an inning at a time. He is the only Twin with a save so far.

This is probably not the optimal use of a relief ace; there's no way a three-run lead in the ninth is more crucial than a tie in the seventh or eighth, but that's the way managers regulate the workload these days. As for the three-outs-and-done ... well, Nathan's 34, and he didn't seem to handle four- and five-out assignments with any success last season, when the middle relief implosions prompted Gardy to expand Nathan's workload.

Anyway: Nathan in the ninth, Jose Mijares and Matt Guerrier as the primary set-up men, R.A. Dickey as the long man, Sean Henn (theoretically) as a LOOGY, Jesse Crain and Luis Ayala trying to re-establish themselves as serious options. It's a bullpen of set roles, and four of the seven, at least, are doing well in those roles (Nathan, Mijares, Guerrier, Dickey).

Joe Maddon is a bit more adventuresome, or at least he was late last season, when Troy Percival was on and off the DL and not always available when active. The Rays have six pitchers with saves — Percival has six to lead the team, and may never have another (he's on the disabled list again and contemplating "retirement;" I put quote marks around the word because he's "retired" and returned before.)

Last season, six Rays had at least two saves. Percival, who led the team in saves (28), also had four holds — meaning he was occasionally used to protect leads in the seventh or eighth innings.
Maddon shuffled lefty J.P. Howell, former Twins fireballer Grant Balfour, journeyman Dan Wheeler and phenom David Price — plus ROOGY Chad Bradford and LOOGY Trevor Miller — through a variety of roles in the postseason with success.

This year, the no-role bullpen has struggled. Howell's faring well — 2.63 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 24 innings — but Balfour's ERA is 5.75, and he's walked 14 men in 20 1/3 IP, and Wheeler has thown four home run balls in his 16 innings (4.86).

The bullpen may not be Maddon's greatest concern these days; his middle infield is on the DL, and two of his starters, Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnenstine, have ERAs above 7. But he's not getting much relief from his no-role pen either.

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