COMMENTARY | In all the years under manager Ron Gardenhire, there has been one thing that has been nearly constant for the Minnesota Twins: a strong bullpen. That wasn't the case in 2011-12 as the Twins lost at least 96 games.
But, so far in 2013, the Twins once again have a great bullpen.
In Gardenhire's first five seasons (2002-06), the Twins won four AL Central titles and finished in the top three in the AL in WAR in all five seasons, according to Fangraphs.com. The Twins also finished tied for fourth in WAR in 2010 when they won 94 games.
Through the first month of the 2013 season, the Twins lead the league in WAR. If they finish the season in first, it would be the first time they have led the AL in WAR for relievers since 2006, when the Twins won 96 games, their highest total under Gardenhire and their most since 1970.
In 2011, the Twins finished dead last in reliever WAR as they struggled to replace Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes, who all left as free agents. Joe Nathan struggled in his return from Tommy John surgery, and Matt Capps just struggled.
As I wrote earlier this week, the Twins traded shortstop J.J. Hardy for hard-throwing reliever Jim Hoey and a minor leaguer before the 2011 season, and Hoey was a complete disaster. Hoey was expected to be a setup man for the Twins, but he was demoted in June of 2011, was brought back up in September, and then was released in the offseason.
The bullpen was improved in 2012, but not much. The Twins still finished 13th in WAR in a 14-team league.
Twins' Perkins, Burton Are Baseball's Best Right-Left Reliever Tandem
Although the relievers as a whole struggled those two seasons, the Twins were finding important pieces for the future. The first was Glen Perkins. The former first-round pick was a disappointment as a starter and struggled in 2010 to convert to the bullpen. However, he appeared to embrace the role in 2011 and has become one of the most dominant relievers since then.
Prior to 2011, Perkins averaged 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings in just over 300 innings pitched. Since then, his K/9 is 10.0 in 140 2/3 innings pitched. He went from a left-handed specialist to eighth-inning setup man in 2011 and then took over the closer role full time in 2012. His numbers in April 2013 were better than ever with 13.5 K/9 and a 0.92 WHIP (walks and hits allowed per innings pitched).
Prior to 2012, the Twins signed free agent Jared Burton to a minor-league contract. Burton was a solid reliever for the Cincinnati Reds but had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in 2011. However, he's been nothing short of brilliant with the Twins and, combined with Perkins, gives Minnesota the best right-left reliever combo in baseball.
Prior to 2012, Burton had a mediocre 7.6 K/9 and a 1.33 WHIP in his career. With the Twins, Burton has an 8.5 K/9 and a 0.90 WHIP. He's even better in 2013 with an 11.6 K/9 and a 0.75 WHIP.
Another big piece for the 2013 bullpen emerged in 2012 as well. Casey Fien signed as a minor-league free agent with the Twins after being released by the lowly Houston Astros. He started in Class AAA and earned a promotion to the Twins in July and quickly earned the trust of Gardenhire.
Fien is now most often the seventh-inning reliever for the Twins and has occasionally pitched in the eighth instead of Burton, who rarely pitches more than two days in a row because of his past struggles with arm injuries. In his career with the Twins, Fien has an 8.2 K/9 and a 0.98 WHIP.
Former Starters Thriving as Relievers for Twins
Brian Duensing is the only other left-hander in the bullpen for the Twins. He has alternated between starting and relieving for the Twins, but, like Perkins, he has had better results in the bullpen. Unlike Perkins, this is largely because Duensing struggles to get right-handed batters out.
In his career, right-handed batters have an .829 OPS against Duensing, but lefties have just a .557 OPS against him. Working out of the bullpen, Duensing's exposure to potent right-handed bats can be limited and it has shown in the results. In his career, Duensing has a 4.57 ERA and 1.43 WHIP as a starter and a 3.31 ERA and 1.27 WHIP as a reliever.
The Twins have also had good results from the middle/long relievers in Anthony Swarzak, Josh Roenicke and Ryan Pressly.
Swarzak has been indispensable as a long reliever that needs little rest, so he is able to use up innings when the bullpen is in danger of being overused. He also has shown an improved slider in 2013, which has helped him to have a 1.00 WHIP and an excellent 5/1 K/BB ratio.
Roenicke and Pressly were bargain-bin pickups, as Roenicke was selected off waivers from the Colorado Rockies and Pressly was selected in the Rule 5 draft from the Boston Red Sox. Both have ERAs under 2.00, but both also have low strikeout totals and mediocre or worse control. However, both have shown the ability to pitch multiple innings, which keeps the Twins from having to use better relievers unnecessarily.If the Twins are going to get back to their winning ways, they will need a strong bullpen to pick up the slack for a questionable starting staff. So far, the 2013 bullpen has had great results. The backend of the bullpen looks great going forward, but the bullpen lacks a lot of depth. The Twins will need good luck with health or will need to add from outside the organization if they sustain any key injuries.
Darin McGilvra has been a professional sports writer since 1997 and has been a Twins follower since Kirby Puckett's breakout season of 1986. He has been published in The Californian, a newspaper covering Riverside County, and multiple websites, including LendingLeaves.com and MyCashTime.com.
Follow Darin on Twitter at @SoCalTwinsfan.
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