Monday, February 28, 2011

Bullpen candidate profiles: Brian Duensing and Kevin Slowey

Brian Duensing was 10-3,
2.62 last season.
Kevin Slowey was
13-6, 4.45.
Pitcher: Brian Duensing
Throws: Left
Age: 28
Roster status: 40-man roster
Chance of making team: Certain

Pitcher: Kevin Slowey
Throws: Right
Age: Turns 27 in May
Roster status: 40-man roster
Chance of making team: Certain

The Minnesota Twins have six established starting pitchers in camp. Five of them have seven-digit contracts; the sixth has ended each of the last two seasons in the rotation and sports a 15-5, 3.02 career record.

The money and the success add up to this: Barring injury or trade, those six figure to make up half the Twins 12-man pitching staff.

But six is not five, and there are only five slots in the starting rotation. One of the starters is bullpen bound.

We know it won't be Francisco Liriano or Carl Pavano. Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn are somewhat less secure, but they have the biggest salaries of the remaining four, Baker has the most upside, and Blackburn is the most durable. Expect them to be in the rotation or on the DL (both are coming off surgeries).

That leaves Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing. And they are such dissimilar pitchers, with different potential roles in the bullpen, that the choice to fill out the rotation should affect who makes the team as a relief pitcher.

Duensing sparkled in a relief role in the first half of the 2010 season, putting up a 1.80 ERA in 40 relief outings. He held left-handed hitters to a weak .162/.217/.239 slash line for the season as a whole.

The lefty has saved the rotation in each of the past two seasons. But as good as he's been as a starter, there are those in and out of the organization who think he's better suited to be a relief pitcher.

If Duensing is in the bullpen, he's almost certainly going to be used late and close. He could well supplant Jose Mijares as the primary lefty specialist. A late-in-game combo of a healthy Joe Nathan and Matt Capps from the right side and Duensing and Mijares from the left would be imposing indeed.

And the odds of more than one of the remaining left-handed candidates (most notably Glen Perkins, Dusty Hughes and Scott Diamond) make the roster would be sharply diminished. Perkins or Diamond might get the call as the long man, but the remaining two bullpen jobs would likely go to right-handers.

One of Slowey's drawbacks as a starter has been a pattern of fading after three or four innings. He made 29 starts last season, and was pulled in five innings or less in 10 times. That might suggest that shorter stints are in order -- and that means moving to the bullpen.

But Slowey has seldom been used in relief, and certainly not in game situations, as Duensing has. Slowey in the pen would be best used in long relief — which would probably foreclose Jeff Manship's chances of winning a berth, and would certainly mean that the Twins would need at least one of the Perkins-Hughes-Diamond trio to emerge as a second lefty.

It would be easier for the Twins to keep Duensing in the rotation if one of those three convinces Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson that he can be death on lefties, and even easier still if either Pat Neshek or Jim Hoey can be deemed capable of getting big outs in middle to late innings.

It's an intriguing decision. My guess is that Duensing will open the season, for the third straight year, in the bullpen. But it wouldn't be all that surprising if it were Slowey in the pen.

And all this becomes moot if one of the starters gets hurt or is traded.

(This post, with some alterations, also serves as the Monday print column.)

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