Monday, February 11, 2013

Benchmarks for 2013: Bullpen roles

Ron Gardenhire has managed the Twins for 11 seasons, some good, some bad. In most of those seasons, he and pitching coach Rick Anderson have had strong bullpens.

2011 was a horrid exception. The 2012 bullpen was better -- it could hardly have been worse -- but it was still short of the excellence displayed in some previous seasons.

The Twins are to have 34 pitchers reporting to camp this week. I view 17 of them -- exactly half -- as more likely to be in a starting rotation (majors or minors) than relieve, and the other 17 as primarily bullpen candidates. (And yes, I have Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak in the bullpen group.)

Seventeen pitchers for seven, perhaps eight, bullpen jobs, some of which have definite incumbents who aren't losing their job this spring unless they get crippled. Let's look at the roles and who exited 2012 with the jobs, all of whom are back:

Closer: Glen Perkins
Setup 1: Jared Burton
LOOGY 1/Setup 2: Duensing
Middle relief 1: Casey Fien
Middle relief 2: Alex Burnett
LOOGY 2/MR3: Tyler Robertson
Longman: Swarzak

Three of those guys figure to be safe in their jobs: Perkins (who will be out of Twins camp for a while to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic); Burton (who set career marks for appearances, innings and effectiveness in a season in 2011 and won a multi-year contract); and Duensing (who might claim a rotation job instead).

That's a good start on a bullpen, especially if Duensing is indeed part of it. But with Gardenhire's established preference to use his relievers frequently but in short bursts, three late-inning arms aren't enough.

Breaking it down by roles

Right-handed middle relief: Fien had an impressive half-season in the majors last year -- 35 appearances, 2.06 ERA, 32 strikeouts in 35 innings. Burnett's 3.52 ERA was acceptable, but his walk and strikeout rates were weak, and they have steadily deteriorated over his three seasons in the majors.

Fien should have a stronger grip on a job than Burnett does, but neither is as secure as Burton.

Primary competitors for their jobs: Ryan Pressly, Anthony Slama, Tim Wood.

Pressly is a Rule 5 draftee, taken from the Red Sox, a 24-year-old reformed starter whose chances of a big-league career rose sharply when shifted to the bullpen last year in Double A. He doesn't have an extensive track record of success, but he does have a good arm, And, of course, Rule 5 picks either stick on the 25-man roster or get offered back to their original team.

Slama is a non-roster invitee and an Internet favorite. He's dominated the minors at every level, but the Twins have been reluctant to give him a sustained opportunity in the majors, and he's also missed significant time the past two seasons. My guess is that Slama will again be in Rochester to open the season, but if he stays healthy he'll get a chance. The Twins clearly don't think his pitch-outside-the-strike-zone approach can work in the majors, but certainly even Triple A hitters can't make him change it.

Wood, 30, had a big season in Triple A for the Pirates last year, but like Slama, the big club never saw fit to call him up, and the Twins signed him as a minor league free agent, then added him to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft.

I'd rather see one of those three in the Twins bullpen than Burnett.

LOOGYS: Pretend for a moment that Duensing shows early in camp that he's got a pitch with which to effectively attack right-handed hitter. If so, he's a genuine starting candidate. Then what?

The Twins, for all their activity in bringing in pitchers, didn't add much in the way of left-handed bullpen candidates, which leads me to suspect that they expect Duensing to be the primary lefty specialist.

Behind him is  Robertson, who hung a few too many sliders to left-handed hitters to be secure in his position, and behind him is Caleb Thielbar, a Minnesota native who climbed from A ball to Triple A in 2012 and won a spot on the 40-man roster.

I expect the Twins to have two of the three in the 2013 bullpen. Right-hander Josh Roenicke, who I'll deal with as a threat to Swarzak's role, was better after lefties than righties in 2012 and might be seen as an alternative. The question is, does he really give lefties problems, or was 2012's success a fluke? I'll assume the latter until given good reason to believe otherwise.

Long man: Swarzak's 5.03 career ERA breaks down thusly: 4.03 in relief, 5.79 as a starter.

That's fairly well known. What's less well known is that he's been more effective in low-leverage situations than in games the Twins have a chance to win. Teams will always carry pitchers whose jobs are to work the innings that don't matter, but it makes sense to use the role to graduate to more important innings.

That hasn't worked with Swarzak, and after two seasons and an injury that has to be described as an act of self-inflicted dumbness (although not as dumb as the Red Sox prospect who shot himself in the leg), the Twins might be inclined to try someone else in the role.

Roenicke figures to be a primary contender. He had something of a breakthrough year with Colorado as a "bridge" reliever in their experiment with a four-man rotation with very low pitch counts -- a role somewhat akin to long relief -- but the Rockies took him off their 40-man roster early in the offseason anyway. I went into some detail on him here after the Twins picked him up on waivers.

If the Twins do see Roenicke as somebody who can deal with lefties late in games AND give them a couple of innings in long relief, and if they doubt they can ever entrust key innings and at-bats to Swarzak, I can see this switch coming.

This might also be a place to stick Pressly. Or one of the starting candidates who doesn't secure a rotation spot.

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