By far the most difficult group to project at this point in the year is the bullpen. It was the most significant weakness at the beginning of 2011 and proved to be so all season. It was identified by everyone as a priority to be improved for 2012, and so far, it is hard to say it will be much better.
Matt Capps as closer is not very comforting. He will need to have a year worthy of comeback of the year considerations to regain my confidence.
Glen Perkins was the best pitcher on the staff last year and he will be counted on to be as good again this year in the set-up role. He is the most likely in-house candidate to fill in if Capps fails or suffers an injury. Perkins was less effective toward the end of the year, but I am hoping that was due to overuse rather than the league adjusting to him.
Brian Duensing looks to be headed to the bullpen and that would mean an improvement in the left-handed specialist role over those who tried to do that last year. Jose Mijares being non-tendered and subsequently signed by Kansas City almost assures Duensing of that role.
I expect Anthony Swarzak to be the long-reliever and spot starter again in 2012 as he was for a good part of the season last year. He performed well in that role and seems to be liked by the manager and pitching coach, which should help to earn him a spot for opening day this time.
Alex Burnett has potential to be a good major league relief pitcher and he has shown flashes of that the last two years, but he has been inconsistent. He might benefit from some seasoning at the AAA level, but as thin as the Twins are right now, he may be counted on to improve and play the middle innings role.
The other two spots in what is probably going to be a seven pitcher bullpen are more up for grabs. I see Terry Doyle as filling one of those spots, if only because he was a Rule 5 draft acquisition. If the Twins like him enough as a starter they might work out a deal to keep him and send him to Rochester, but if that happens the bullpen will need more bolstering.
I don’t know enough yet about the several free agent minor leaguers signed this off-season to know if any of them have a real shot at making the opening day roster, so in the meantime I’m projecting Jeff Manship as the final bullpen guy.
I remain somewhat hopeful that Terry Ryan will sign one more veteran reliever or work out a trade to improve the bullpen, but that might be overly optimistic. He may wait and see how things look in the spring before making any deals.
If this is the bullpen for 2012, we are in for a long difficult year again.