2014 Relief Pitchers

In this last segment of my five-part review of the Twins’ roster, I look at the bullpen. Last year it was the strength of the Twins. Going into spring training it looks like it will again be the strength with competition keen and enough quality pitchers to consider trading one or two to fill other needs before the season begins.

Glen Perkins is the leader of the pen. He has established himself as an effective closer and will continue in that role again in 2014.

Jared Burton has performed well the last couple of years even if wearing down by late season each year, and if he remains healthy, he will again be one of the set-up men.

Brian Duensing was less consistent last year, but still was effect in key spots. His salary, now over a million dollars, probably dictates that he will be on the roster opening day, but he may be used as trade bait.

Anthony Swarzak has established himself as a reliable long relief man, a position that can be important to help save the rest of the bullpen. At times he has been a spot starter, and if the circumstances are right, he could serve in that role again. He also may be a valuable piece in a trade, but I expect him to be the long man with the Twins when the season begins.

Casey Fien has also established himself as a valuable late inning reliever, so if he is not in a trade package, he will be a fixture again this year.

Ryan Pressly, Caleb Thielbar and Michael Tonkin were all in the bullpen the last month of the 2013 season and they will again be competing for a spot, but will have some other competition as well. Two other members of the 40-man roster, Kris Johnson and Edgar Ibarra, will make strong cases to be included when the team goes north to open the season. One other note on Pressly, who was a Rule V pick last year and therefore had to be on the active roster all year, may see a role shift. Although the Twins’ management have not said much about it, he might find himself at New Britain or Rochester in the starting rotation in hopes he would develop into a viable major league starter. The clue as to whether or not this is in the offing will be if he is stretched out during spring training.

Matt Guerrier, recently signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, is recovering from elbow surgery, but if he is healthy, he also could be a strong contender.

And, finally, one or more losers of the rotation competition may end up in the bullpen so as not to lose them completely.

Unless something goes greatly awry this year, the relief corps should be solid again. If they are not overworked, they should help the Twins win more games this year.

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Series Two in the Books

This afternoon the Twins completed their weekend series in Baltimore, the second series of this young season. Now with a record of 4-2, the Twins are leading the division (tied with the White Sox) and have won their second consecutive series since who knows when. It is very good to see they have finally broken the spell the Orioles seemed to have on them in Baltimore.

During the weekend the Twins made their second roster adjustment of the season already. It’s hard to not see a connection between Tyler Robertson’s first pitch in relief Friday night resulting in a grand slam for Chris Davis, and Robertson’s being optioned to Rochester after the game Saturday. He was replaced Sunday by Anthony Swarzak, who was activated off the DL and pitched the same day, and picked up the win even though he was not particularly effect. He just happened to be the pitcher of record when the Twins took the lead.

Glen Perkins notched his second save of the series (and season) after backing into a “vulture” win in the Detroit series. Overall, a good first week for him.

Once again in this series, the Twins played every position player in at least one game and used the bullpen effectively to keep the Orioles from mounting comebacks after the colossal failure of the first game of the series Friday.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Roberto Hernandez after his decent stint as the starting pitcher Sunday filling in for Cole De Vries, whose forearm has still not loosened up enough to work and currently on the DL. Scott Diamond is due to come off the DL later in the week and probably will pitch in the series against the NY Mets beginning Friday, so one possibility is for Hernandez to be optioned out to clear room for him. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if he sticks a while longer with the Twins if Liam Hendriks has another terrible start Monday at Kansas City. It would be nice to have another lefthander (Hernandez) among the starters to complement Diamond when he returns.

Intriguing times for the fifth starter competitors. We shall see.

First Look At 2014

The game tonight (July 4) marks the midway point (game 81) in the season for the Twins. It also is the third game of the four-game series in Detroit to be followed by a three-game series in Texas to wind up the traditional first half of the season before the all-star break.

The Twins’ record is not good enough to realistically expect them to contend for the division title this year, but they remain close enough to the top (8 games back) to not rule them out completely. For many of the Twins fans who have consoled themselves by looking forward to a pre-trade deadline selling spree, this position is the worst one could hope for. Not close enough (not to mention too weak a rotation) to have real hope for a miracle finish, and not far enough out to trigger the full rebuild most of us believe is going to be necessary for the Twins to be competitive in the future.

Right now, 2013 looks like a bleak year mostly because the starting rotation is a disaster with little on the horizon in the upper minors to make one feel like there are reasonable options. We will know more in the next three to four weeks which direction the Twins are going to go the rest of this year. Most likely, it will be during the off-season that Terry Ryan gets serious about fixing the rotation for next year. That is of course assuming that Ryan remains the GM. All bets are off on that if the Twins collapse the way they did last year.

Just for the fun of it, I’m going to look ahead – beyond next year – and see what 2014 might look like, based on the players currently in the Twins organization who are either under contract extending through 2014 or likely to still be with the Twins. Where I see no close to worthy alternatives, I’ve indicated the need for acquisition via trade or free agency to fill the hole.

  • C Joe Mauer, Chris Hermann
  • 1B Chris Parmelee
  • 2B Brian Dozier
  • SS Pedro Florimon
  • 3B Trevor Plouffe
  • LF Josh Willingham
  • CF Ben Revere
  • RF Oswaldo Arcia
  • DH Ryan Doumit
  • Bench: Alexi Casilla, Darin Mastroianni, utility player
  • Starters: Scott  Diamond, Kyle Gibson, (Liam Hendriks), two or three via trade or free agency
  • Relievers: Glen Perkins (CL), Jared Burton, Alex Burnett, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, Lester Oliveros, several internal options (Tyler Robertson, Kyle Waldrop, Deolis Guerra, Anthony Slama, Esmerling Vasquez, Jeff Manship, Matt Maloney)

Pavano Needs Time Off

I was disappointed that Carl Pavano was not placed on the DL after his last start and tonight he again showed he is not up to pitching in the rotation. The Twins are likely to make some kind of move tomorrow as even Pavano said he was hurting the team right now and needs to get back on track.

Good options for replacing him are not abundant, but there still are a few viable options. Liam Hendriks could be recalled, but I suspect the Twins want him to spend a little more time getting AAA experience. There is not much else available at AAA, but as I said in my last post, Brian Duensing may get the call. Jeff Manship, recently recalled, is also a possibility, although he was being groomed for a bullpen spot. Anthony Swarzak has had his opportunities and not done well. Tonight he proved again that he works best out of the bullpen as he came in to follow Pavano and pitched three and two-thirds innings of shutout ball.

It’s still too early for the trade talk to heat up, so it is highly unlikely that the Twins will trade for a starter right now, but by mid-July we might see some significant action to bolster the pitching staff for the future, if not for this year.

Patience is called for right now. For most of us Twins fans, that is currently in short supply.

Rotation Shuffle

Once again, the Twins’ starting pitching has failed and another shuffle is about to occur.

Francisco Liriano’s work in the bullpen, while less than stellar, was good enough that he is back in the rotation beginning Wednesday. It appears to be not so much that he has earned the spot than the poor performance of the other options. Anthony Swarzak pitched miserably yesterday relegating himself back to the bullpen to make room for Liriano.

The more I think about the move, the more I believe it is really the only option left for the Twins when it comes to this enigmatic pitcher. He has great stuff, as everyone says, but he is maddeningly inconsistent. For some time now I’ve been of the opinion that he will not be with the Twins next year and it is only a matter of time before he is gone this year. Unfortunately to be worth anything in a trade, he will have to pitch better and it will need to be as a starter. Thus his promising career is hanging in the balance.

Carl Pavano again failed to get out of the fifth inning today even after delaying this start by two extra days, and that signals that something is wrong. Has he hit the wall and his career is over? Is he just still slow at developing the his normal velocity in the early season? The signs have been there over the past two years, and now I think he is not going to regain any significant velocity. He does not have good enough stuff to pitch consistently anymore, so I look for the Twins to put him on the DL and hope for a rehab that builds back some strength. Like Liriano, if he does not improve, he will be worthless as trade material and may face the same fate as Jason Marquis, being designated for assignment or released.

I’m guessing the Brian Duensing is going to get another chance to make it in the rotation replacing Pavano. That will mean calling up one of the relievers who has done well in Rochester. If I am right, it probably will be announced tomorrow and then I’ll review who I think the options are for call up and who I think should be the one.

Is There a Plan?

Over the last couple of weeks as the Twins have made some roster moves, I’ve been trying to discern a plan. So far, the closest thing I can come up with is a short-term strategy of trying out some younger players to see how they do. No real long-range plan is clear yet.

Brian Dozier has been very good so far, both at bat and in the field. He looks like a possible long-term answer at shortstop and that is good news. Of course, the sample size is small and we’ll have to see how he handles the inevitable slumps, but he is a promising prospect to help solidify the infield in the future. Whether he is the solution at shortstop for the next five or six years at least will be determined not only by his play, but also by the progress of other shortstops in the system – namely Levi Michael, the Twins’ first round draft pick in 2011 now playing at Fort Myers, and Pedro Florimon, a waiver wire claim in the off-season. Florimon seems to be on a fast track right now as he was promoted from AA New Britain, where he began the season, to AAA Rochester, and is playing well enough to be noticed. I would not be surprised if later this year he is called up to play shortstop and Dozier moves either to third base or second base to make room for him.

As I predicted in my last post, Danny Valencia is no longer on the 25-man roster. He was demoted to Rochester and had a slow start there. It is hard to see him in the long-term plans for the Twins. The best hope they might have now is that he plays well enough to be worth something in a trade. Jamey Carroll continues to be a solid player, now at second base most of the time. At his age, he is destined to be the veteran utility player, but that will be delayed as long as no one else plays better and earns a right to play every day at third base or second base. So far, Alexi Casilla has been too inconsistent to be a regular.

Trevor Plouffe appears to be getting an opportunity to earn a regular spot in the lineup playing third base in the absence of Valencia. He has not been bad in the field at third, but he continues to struggle at the plate. It will be very interesting to see how long they give him to get his act together as a hitter. Almost certainly, the primary reason for a long tryout is the power he showed last year when he hit 15 home runs in a partial season at AAA last year. When the Twins broke camp to open the season, he was pegged as an outfielder, but his play in the outfield (both left and right) has been less than stellar and there is a bit of a log jam there with recently claimed Erik Komatsu and Darin Mastroianni (another off-season, waiver pick-up recently called up from Rochester) showing much better defensive prowess. They both have been decent at the plate so far as well.

Today Justin Morneau will return to the active roster from the DL. Chris Parmelee will be optioned to Rochester to make room for him. Parmelee played well enough in the spring to earn an opening day spot. While he did hit well in spring training, at least one reason he started the season on the 25-man roster was the uncertainty surrounding Morneau and his readiness to play first base. That all is past now. Morneau will return to play first base, meaning Parmelee would be relegated to bench duty, so it will be better for him to go to AAA where he can get his hitting stroke back in order. In some respects, it’s too bad he had to be rushed to the majors because of the Morneau situation, because he really needs time to develop more and he has not spent any time at AAA yet. Now he will get that chance.

Starting pitching has continued to be problematic. The good news has been the way Scott Diamond and P. J. Walters, both recent call-ups from AAA, have pitched. Diamond in particular has impressed with two outings of 7-inning, shutout ball each time. Walters pitched well, but got no run support in his first start. The rest of the rotation has been dismal. What the Twins have in mind for the rest of the year is not at all clear. They appear to continue to hope that Francisco Liriano will regain his dominance while working out of the bullpen for a while so he can return to the rotation, but I do not hold out much hope for that to happen. Carl Pavano and Jason Marquis are just not effective enough to even be the innings eaters they were intended to be. A couple more starts each and if they continue to be bad, they should be let go so younger players can gain some experience. Nick Blackburn pitched a little better the last two times out, but still is missing consistent location of his fastball, which has meant too many home runs. Since he is under contract through next year, I expect he will either remain in the rotation, if he improves, or end up in the bullpen, perhaps as the long man.

Surprising to many, the bullpen has been the bright spot of the season so far. Jared Burton and Glen Perkins have done the job in the set-up role, Matt Capps has converted all save opportunities (although he has blown two tie games that he came in and took the loss), and the others have pitched better than expected. Perkins, Burton, and Alex Burnett are probably keepers for the near term. Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak are being kept stretched out enough that they could be options for the rotation, although both seem better suited to bullpen use, as that is where they have excelled this year.

The whole pitching situation is still muddled enough that it is premature to project long-term. The next month or so will probably provide some clarity as to what the Twins’ powers that be are planning.

For now, my speculation is on which players are most likely to be on the trading block this summer. Topping my list are Denard Span, Matt Capps (if he remains effective as a closer), Francisco Liriano (if he does reasonably well in the pen), Ben Revere (no longer seems to be in the long-term plan) and Justin Morneau (if he returns and hits well with power). My off-the-wall guess is Morneau will be traded to Toronto for a starting pitcher filling needs for both teams and giving Justin an opportunity to play in his native land, Canada.

Time will tell if any of my thoughts are anywhere close to what the Twins have in mind. I look forward to the next few weeks to see how the rebuilding process plays out.

What to do with Liriano

Now that Francisco Liriano has had four consecutive bad starts, it is not difficult to believe the Twins’ brass will not even let him try “one more time” before looking at some alternatives. Given the comments by manager Ron Gardenhire after Liriano’s last start, patience has run out and options are being considered.  As a result, there is a good deal of speculation on what might be in the works for him, at least in the short term.

Perhaps most likely is his being moved to the bullpen, at least to see if he can regain some semblance of consistency on locating his fastball. If this is the decision, someone else may need to be moved to the starting rotation. My guess is the number one option for that is Anthony Swarzak, who has started a couple of games and pitched out of the bullpen to relieve Liriano on Sunday putting him in the right position to rejoin the rotation in a normal time interval.

If Liriano is envisioned to return soon to the rotation, the Twins could just skip his next start using the day off to keep the others in a normal five-day rotation. That would allow him to pitch out of the bullpen a couple of times in between starts.

A more radical alternative would be to send him to AAA to give him time under less stressful circumstances to regain his form and confidence before calling him up again later in the year. Because he has been in the major leagues for five or more years, he would need to give his consent to be optioned to Rochester. He might be amenable to that because in this contract year it is also in his best interest to demonstrate his value. Pitching well in AAA would be an improvement over his poor showing so far. Sending an established player who is struggling down would not be new for the Twins, so this choice cannot be ruled out.

If he is taken out of the rotation, one other move might be considered by the Twins. The fact that Scott Diamond has pitched so well at Rochester, gives them the option of calling him up and placing him in the starting rotation leaving Swarzak for the bullpen, where he is better suited.

Least likely, but not completely out of the realm of possibility, is some kind of trade that nets a serviceable starting pitcher for the Twins. I consider this a long shot because it is never wise to trade from a point of weakness, and I cannot imagine Liriano having lower market value than he has right now. Also, if the Twins have any hope of being competitive this year (a rapidly fleeting thought), the need is for a top of the rotation pitcher not another fifth starter type. Swarzak, Diamond or even Matt Maloney or Brian Duensing could fill the latter role cheaper than a veteran available by trade at this time of year.

If the decision was mine to make, I’d have Liriano pitch out of the bullpen a couple of times to see how he does and delay a final decision on his status in the rotation for at least a week. I’d choose to skip his start keeping others in rotation and giving as much bullpen flexibility as possible because the reduction from 13 to 12 pitchers is coming soon, probably after Nick Blackburn’s start on Tuesday. If all goes well for Blackburn, someone will be sent down or released and if he has a recurrence of his shoulder cramp, he’ll be put on the DL, creating yet another problem for the starting rotation.

I expect Blackburn to pitch well demonstrating he is fully recovered and the focus will then remain on Liriano and how to get him back on track.

Orioles Sweep the Series

It’s tough to be optimistic right now the way the Twins played the first three games of the season. Very few flashes of good play and too many signs of mediocrity have a tendency to lead to thinking this could be a rebuilding season sooner rather than later.

Yesterday the offense was anemic – again too little too late – and the defense left much to be desired. Willingham looked bad in left field more than once, and Valencia was very slow reacting a couple of different times on plays he probably should have made. My guess is he took his failings at the plate (hit into two DP’s) out on the field and didn’t have his head in the game on defense. Whether it was the cause or just part of the early season rotation plan, Valencia found himself on the bench for the next game.

Today at least Swarzak pitched well giving up only one run in five innings, a home run to Hardy in the first. Unfortunately, Maloney proceeded to get hit hard and gave up two runs in his first inning of work. Brightest spot in pitching today? Second effective appearance in relief by Duensing – both very good. On the offensive side, it took until the eighth inning to get even the first hit, but then back to back doubles by Morneau and Willingham produced the only run of the game for the Twins.

For the series overall, very weak hitting and less than stellar pitching against the team that is likely to end up in last place in the AL east is discouraging. The next stretch of games will be a continued test even though they will at least be home for six game.

My expectations for the season were not all that high to begin with for various reasons, but I did expect one win out of this series. The best news as the season began has been the health of Mauer and Morneau. Too bad only Morneau is hitting the ball well right now. Returning to the cold weather of April in Minneapolis is not exactly a recipe for sudden improvement at the plate either.

The next few weeks may prove to be agonizing for Twins fans with only the hopes of seeing some of the young rising starts perhaps earlier than I and others anticipated. Of course, three games is not much in the context of a 162-game schedule, and a three game sweep in the middle of the season doesn’t feel quite as dire as it does to open the season, but this team is not awe-inspiring yet. A good run of a six-game win streak would change that quickly.

Bullpen Update

The bullpen picture for 2012 has changed for the better this week as Joel Zumaya signed a one-year, very affordable contract. He is reported to be guaranteed $400,000 and will make a minimum of $850,000 if he makes the opening day roster. In addition he can make up to $1.7 million total based on incentives.

I like this acquisition because if he is healthy, he will be a major improvement over what other options the Twins have, and even if he does not make the roster, the cost is negligible in the grand scheme of things, a risk definitely worth taking.

So, with Zumaya added, the Twins’ revamped bullpen for 2012 is closer to being settled.

Matt Capps is the closer going into spring training and Glen Perkins is returning as the left-handed set-up man. As of today, they appear to be the only two guys from the 2011 opening day bullpen who will be back this year.

Let’s do a quick review. 2011 began with the following seven pitchers in the bullpen.

  • Joe Nathan, closer
  • Matt Capps, set-up man
  • Jose Mijares, LHP
  • Glen Perkins, LHP
  • Kevin Slowey, RHP
  • Dusty Hughes, LHP
  • Jeff Manship, RHP long man

As the 2011 season progressed, many others were used due to injuries and ineffectiveness, but for comparison purposes I will use the opening day bullpen.

The 2012 bullpen seems to be taking shape as follows:

  • Matt Capps, closer
  • Glen Perkins, LH set-up man
  • Joel Zumaya, RH set-up man
  • Anthony Swarzak, RHP, long relief, spot starter
  • Brian Duensing, LHP, middle innings and left specialist
  • Alex Burnett, RHP, middle innings
  • Lester Oliveros, RHP, middle innings

I would prefer that Burnett and Oliveros compete for one spot because I think the Twins really need to pick up at least one more experienced right-handed reliever to solidify the bullpen before spring training opens. Actually, both Burnett and Oliveros would benefit from some time at Rochester to hone their skills and gain experience before being expected to produce at a high level.

Ideally, the Twins would sign one more reliever and one more starter. That would allow Nick Blackburn to move to the bullpen giving Burnett and Oliveros the time they need at AAA. With now a little less than a month to the date for pitchers and catchers to report, there is still time to find the bargain pitchers needed.

Even if the bullpen ends up being as I’ve outlined above, I believe it is much more solid than last year’s. A healthy Capps should be better than he was last year and adequate if he returns to 2010 form. Hopefully Perkins will build upon his good year to become truly elite and stand ready to step in as closer if needed. The others are all steps up from the group a year ago. Overall, I am now cautiously optimistic that this group will perform well enough to compete.

Bullpen Projection a Major Challenge

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.