The past two seasons have been filled with disappointment and negative outcomes, but one of the few resoundingly encouraging developments has been the emergence of Glen Perkins at the back end of the bullpen. After fizzling as a starter, Perkins made a supremely successful transition to relief duty and, after signing a contract extension last year, he's in position to provide the Twins with stability at the closer spot for years to come, as long as he can stay healthy.
The Twins value continuity in the closer role as much as any team in baseball, as evidenced by the hefty four-year extension they handed Joe Nathan back in 2008 and the considerable resources they invested into acquiring and retaining Matt Capps.Perkins has given us every reason to believe he can be relied upon to close out games for the foreseeable future, allowing the Twins to concentrate on building a bullpen around him and his reasonable contract.
Early in the offseason, Terry Ryan cited the bullpen as his second-highest priority behind the rotation. In a way that makes sense, since being able to take a lead means nothing if you can't hold it, but there is clearly a lot less work to be done when it comes to the relief corps. Perkins is entrenched at closer and Jared Burton, who also inked an extension following a sensational Minnesota debut, is locked in as his top setup man.
Beyond those two, you've got Brian Duensing, who has established himself as one of the league's better situational left-handed specialists. There's also Anthony Swarzak, a solid fit as the team's long reliever who is out of options and nearly assured a place on the roster.
That's four slots in the bullpen that are as good as spoken for, barring injuries in spring training. So even if the Twins characteristically go with a 12-man pitching staff out of the gates, they'll have only three spots left to fill. With a number of candidates vying for jobs, competition figures to be brisk.
The picture is already a bit crowded, so it seems rather unlikely that Ryan will be seeking out anymore external help, even though contracts like the one Jason Frasor signed last week with the Rangers suggest that reasonable deals can be had.
Here are some of the internal candidates with defensible cases for claiming one of the remaining gigs:
Casey Fien, RHP
: Fien was something of a journeyman when the Twins acquired him on a minor-league deal last year, but he quietly posted excellent numbers in the second half after an early July call-up. The 29-year-old allowed runs in only two of his first 21 appearances as a Twin and finished with a 2.06 ERA and 32-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 innings. He'll have a hard time repeating that performance but it'd be tough to deprive him of a spot based on merit.
Alex Burnett, RHP
: Like Fien, Burnett finished with a good ERA last year (3.52) but his overall production was far less impressive, as it included an ugly 36-to-26 K/BB ratio and 1.35 WHIP in 71 2/3 innings. Oddly, despite a mid-90s fastball and a sharp slider, Burnett's ability to strike out major-league hitters has waned over time, and last year his K-rate ranked as the second-worst among qualifying MLB relievers (ahead of only Jeff Gray). If he maintains those peripherals he's a poor bet for continued success, but considering his heavy usage and adequate results last year, it's hard to see him being left out.
Rich Harden, RHP
: The Twins haven't stated their intentions with Harden, who has mostly been a starter over the course of his career, but it stands to reason that they could give him a shot in the bullpen, where his outstanding raw stuff could make an impact and his workload could be better managed. If it works out, Harden could be a great asset in the late innings.
Ryan Pressly, RHP
: Selected from Boston in the Rule 5 draft, Pressly had success after converting from starter to reliever last year and his high-velocity stuff clearly caught the Twins' attention. He's nowhere near ready for the majors based on his track record, but if the Twins roster him they'll either have to send him back to the Red Sox or work out a trade.
Tyler Robertson, LHP
: He struggled with walks and homers in his first taste of the majors last year, but Robertson also showed some positive signs, averaging over a strikeout per inning and shutting down lefties. If the Twins desire a secondary lefty specialist in the bullpen behind Duensing (since Perkins doesn't really count) Robertson is a logical choice.
Anthony Slama, RHP
: The Twins seemingly have very little interest in giving him a chance, but Slama's ridiculous numbers in Triple-A last year make him a necessary inclusion on this list. It sure would be nice to see what he could do against major-league hitters with an extended chance.
Tim Wood, RHP
: Wood was acquired on a minor-league deal earlier this winter after he proved very effective as the closer for Pittsburgh's Triple-A affiliate last year. He's 29 and his overall career numbers aren't particularly impressive, but he'll be in the mix by virtue of having a 40-man roster spot. The same goes for Josh Roenicke, a rubber-armed right-hander brought over from the Colorado organization.
Who would you like to see rounding out the last two bullpen spots? Who else would you like to see in the mix?