Here is third part of my little series on the best roster the Twins can assemble right now. Today: the Bullpen.
Closer - Joe Nathan
Arguably the best closer in the league over the last 4 seasons. Perhaps passing his peak now that he's 33, but even if he were 50% less effective he'd still be 50% better than Todd Jones. I'd like to see him get an extension - I know it's an over-valued position, but the Twins suddenly have money to burn, and they can't let all their All-Stars walk. Anyway, this year shouldn't be too different from 2007: he should convert about 90% of his save opportunities. Hopefully, this year's lineup will provide him more leads, and he'll wind up with 40-45 saves.
RH Setup - Pat Neshek
I'm not very concerned about the loss of effectiveness Neshek experienced late last season. It was probably a combination of lack of conditioning, overuse earlier in the year, and poor execution. He's still young, and he's learned from it. His career has been stellar so far, and his numbers haven't been very different minors-to-majors. I expect him to handle 70-80 innings with an ERA well under 3.00 and more than one K/inning.
LH Setup - Dennys Reyes
Which Dennys Reyes will show up this season? The one who went 5-0 with a 0.89 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 2006? Or the one who went 2-1 with a 3.99 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in 2007? I doubt Reyes will ever display his 2006 brilliance again, there's just no precedent for it in his career. 2007 was a bit worse than his career average, however, so I think we can expect him to be a little better, particularly in the BB department. Luckily, even if he's not magnificent, he has the easiest job in baseball: getting one left-handed batter out. Statistically, that plays strongly in his favor. I think he can still be reasonably effective in that role. But I'm not offering a contract extension any time soon.
RH Middle - Matt Guerrier
One of the few Twins to actually perform at the top of his game in 2007, Guerrier showed that he could thrive in more than just long relief. With Neshek and Nathan locking down the 8th and 9th innings, Guerrier can perhaps make the 7th his own. Or he can take the 8th when Neshek needs a breather. If Guerrier's 2007 is a sign of things to come, the Twins will be effectively playing 6-inning games this season (still a challenge, given their rotation). But, even if he reverts back to his 2005/2006 production (ERA's in 3.30s), the team will be in good hands.
RH Middle - Juan Rincon
I would not have offered Rincon a contract this year. His K/9 has been steadily declining over the past four seasons, while his WHIP has been rising. Not a trend that merits paying a middle-reliever $2.48 million. But, he's under contract, so he's going to get one more chance. While his 2007 BB/9 ratio was the highest it's ever been at 4.22, the number that really jumps out is the HR/9. It had been a superb .23 and .24 in 2005 and 2006 - last year it jumped to 1.36. Rincon was suddenly more than 5 times as likely to give up a home run. The 9 he gave up in 59.2 innings in 2007 were as many as he'd given up in 233.1 combined innings over the previous 3 seasons. Yikes! Interestingly, last years' abysmal season brings his career major league totals very much in line with his career minor league totals. He may have been overachieving his first couple of years in the bigs, or it took the league a little longer to figure him out. Last year was hopefully a bit of an anomaly; there were apparently many extenuating circumstances in his personal life that made things difficult for him mentally. Optimally, if he can recover to his career averages, he'll throw 70-80 innings, and put up an ERA of around 3.50 with a little over 8 K/9 and a WHIP of around 1.33. That's decent, and he won't be in many high-pressure situations, so there's a good chance he can contribute.
RH Middle - Jesse Crain
Crain seemed like the heir-apparent to Nathan until last season. He had shown an ability to rescue other pitchers from jams that was almost magical. His effectiveness for 2008 is very much in doubt. He had season-ending surgery last May to repair a torn labrum and his rotator cuff. Very few pitchers have regained their form after such work. By all accounts, Crain has fulfilled his rehab program, and is ready to go for spring training. I'll be very interested to find out what sort of velocity and ease-of-motion he's able to produce. If he can get it back, he'll be a huge asset to the bullpen, potentially another Guerrier. Until then, he'll be in low-pressure, mop-up type situations.
LH Long - Glen Perkins
Perkins gets the last spot in bullpen, and not just because he's from my alma mater, Stillwater Area High School. He's been effective throughout his pro career, and even more so in his limited Major League use so far. He was decent before he went on the DL last May, and terrific in his brief time back with the team in September. He's been a starter throughout his minor league career, and should get the first crack at the rotation if/when one of the starters falls apart. Meanwhile, I'd expect him to have plenty of 3+ inning stints in relief of disappointing starters in the early-goings. He could also be used as a situational lefty when necessary.
Considering the contract situations and recent track records, there really isn't a lot of space available in this bullpen. It's essentially the same 'pen that was so excellent in 2006. That it should have 7 members to start the season is essential given the uncertainty surrounding the young rotation. Crain, Reyes and Rincon need to recover their former brilliance; Nathan, Neshek, Guerrier and Perkins just need to keep up the good work. Hopefully this crew will find fewer demands placed on it as the season progresses.
Tomorrow: the Bench.