"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Your 2005 Twins: the Bullpen

"You do not have to be a bit touched in the head to want to earn a living as a reliever, but many relievers seem to be."
--George F. Will
The 2004 Twins bullpen was among the best, possibly the best, in the business. It, unlike the infield, survived the offseason intact in every sense that matters. We lost Joe Roa and Aaron Fultz, who played their parts in a championship season but were, when all was said and done, replaceable.

Twins fans and outsiders alike are making great sport of the re-signing of 42-year-old Terry Mulholland; the "grandpa" jokes alone are legion. But not only is he lefthanded, he can also pitch in long relief, short relief, or as a starter. He did all three for the Twins last season and really pulled our bacon out of the fire a few times when the members of the rotation were taking turns spinning the Wheel of Suck ("Lohse has landed on 'getting shelled like Baghdad' again, folks--let's give him a hand!"). He'll be called upon, though with any luck less frequently, to fill much the same role this year.

Righty setup man Juan Rincón has a fastball that tops out in the mid-nineties and a slider that makes batting champions cry for their mommies. Okay, so he hung one in that last playoff game, and the damn Yankees did what the damn Yankees do, and that inning was only slightly less horrible than being hit by a light-rail car, but it's all in the past now. One of the great things about this guy is his numbers have improved noticeably every year of his career. Great raw talent, ever-improving command, mental toughness and a willingness to take the ball under any circumstances any day of the week combine to make Rincón the unsung hero of the bullpen.

Every bullpen has a mystery man, a guy who is brilliant just often enough to be loved by half the fans and completely collapses just often enough to be hated by everyone else. JC Romero is the Twins mystery man. Case in point: last year he racked up some ungodly number of innings (for a guy who rarely throws much more than an inning at a time) without surrendering an earned run. Great, right? Except that during that stretch he allowed over half the runners he inherited from other pitchers to score, blowing several wins for our starters in the process. That's just the kind of pitcher Romero has been--alternately (and, as illustrated, sometimes simultaneously) hero and goat. He has a penchant for throwing fits that damage equipment and/or relationships when things aren't going his way. Above all things, Romero needs to get control of his emotions. He'll be a better pitcher and a better teammate for it.

Remember all the horror and lamentation when beloved closer Eddie Guardado left? That was before last season. Yep, I'm serious, it was just a year ago. After four big-league seasons with four save opportunities between them, Joe Nathan and his damn-near-100mph fastball came on over from the National League and had us all saying "Eddie who?" by May. He was our only All-Star. He converted 44 of 47 save opportunities--Eddie's team-record 45 saves two years prior included six blown chances. He's healthy and he's got a year's experience as a closer. There's no good reason he shouldn't repeat.

Jesse Crain is a product of the Twins farm system, tagged as their "closer of the future" before he even hit AAA. 2005 marks his first season of apprenticeship under Juan Rincón and Joe Nathan. Nathan is signed through 2007, with a club option for 2008, so there's no rush. Crain will pay his dues as a middle reliever and occasional setup man for some time before being asked to handle the ninth inning regularly. His best pitches are a blazing fastball and a sweeping curve, both of which will benefit from finer focus and control. He's very young (23), so a certain lack of concentration and command is only to be expected, but both the organization and the fans are expecting him to mature quickly and be a critical piece of this bullpen.

Grant Balfour, heir-apparent to Roa's right-handed long relief role, is injured (what else is new?) and the optionless Matt Guerrier has been chosen to fill the breach. What will happen when (if) Balfour is ready to rejoin the team is anyone's guess, and may ride more on Guerrier's performance in the meantime than on pre-season visions of what the bullpen should look like. Control will be key for Guerrier, and staying cool under fire.

2004 Stats

Terry MulhollandL5.18123.11.59603315.23
Juan RinconR2.63821.021063217.13
J.C. RomeroL3.5174.11.33693817.27
Joe NathanR1.6272.10.98892316.92
Jesse CrainR2.00271.07141216.48
Matt GuerrierR5.68191.4711617.42
league average 4.63--1.42----16.46

IP = Innings Pitched, WHIP = Walks & Hits Per Inning Pitched
P/IP = Pitches Thrown Per Inning Pitched

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