Perhaps no group on the Twins suffered more as a result of the starting staff’s struggles last year than the bullpen. Success stories were overlooked, dominant relief outings were often wasted in losses and the unit as a whole was generally taxed and overworked.
That’s too bad, because the significant strides made in this department sort of got lost in the shuffle. One year after ranking last in the American League in bullpen ERA (4.51) and WHIP (1.46), the Twins moved to the middle of the pack in both categories with marks of the 3.77 and 1.26.
Granted, “middle of the pack” isn’t anything to brag about, but it’s still a substantial improvement over the wreckage of 2011. And those overall numbers were dinged heavily by 52 terrible innings from Jeff Gray, who was inexplicably kept around for most of the season. When you look at the core relievers who are returning to this year’s mix, the performances were almost uniformly stellar.
Let’s take a look at the seven arms that will be at Ron Gardenhire’s disposal when things get underway on Monday…
Closer: Glen Perkins, LHP
2012 Stats: 70.1 IP, 2.56 ERA, 16 SV, 78/16 K/BB, 1.04 WHIP
Perkins was one of the few bright spots in that dreadful 2011 bullpen, putting a forgettable career as a starter behind him to emerge as one of the league’s most dominant relievers. Last year he put to rest any notion that his breakout campaign was a fluke, backing up it up with an equally splendid effort and taking firm hold of the closer role by year’s end. Complementing a mid-90s fastball with a lethal slider that baffles righties as well as lefties, Perkins has proven that he’s got everything it takes to slam the door in the major leagues.
Setup Man: Jared Burton, RHP
2012 Stats: 62 IP, 2.18 ERA, 5 SV, 55/16 K/BB, 0.92 WHIP
Plucking relief arms from other organizations on minor-league deals has been a common practice for the Twins, and it’s one that typically hasn’t worked out too well lately (see: Jeff Gray, Matt Maloney, Dusty Hughes, Eric Hacker, etc.). While Burton technically falls into the same category, it was clear when the Twins signed him that he was from a different mold. Unlike many of the marginal arms brought in through this avenue, Burton’s question marks were health-based rather than talent-based. He had previously been a stand-out reliever for the Reds, but lingering shoulder issues had finally pushed him out of the picture in Cincy. The Twins smartly took a flier and it worked out brilliantly, as Burton regained his health and unleashed his splitter/changeup hybrid (aka the “splange”) on unsuspecting AL hitters to devastating effect. Burton’s numbers in Year One with the Twins were better than any he’d posted in the past, and seemed too good to be true. In fact, they probably were. He’s almost certain to regress this year, to some extent, so we’ll just have to hope that he stays healthy and the fall isn’t too hard.
Lefty Specialist: Brian Duensing, LHP
2012 Stats: 109 IP, 5.12 ERA, 69/27 K/BB, 1.40 WHIP
The stats listed above for Duensing are a bit misleading, because they’re heavily weighted by his ugly stint as a starter. Hopefully that won’t again be a factor for the southpaw, who has settled comfortably into a role as a situational weapon in the bullpen. To that end, he’s been fantastic. Even last year, when his overall numbers were bloated, Duensing posted a 3.47 ERA and 1.14 WHIP as a reliever. He’s been pulled out of his appropriate role too often in the past couple years, but when used properly he's among the best in the league at what he does. Valuable asset.
Middle Reliever: Casey Fien, RHP
2012 Stats: 35 IP, 2.06 ERA, 32/9 K/BB, 0.97 WHIP
Even more so than Burton, Fien’s tremendous results in his first year with the Twins don’t exactly seem sustainable. His lights-out performance over 35 appearances was not necessarily a total fluke, as he’s been a solid reliever in the minors for many years, but Fien was a 28-year-old who had previously totaled 14 innings in the majors. The Twins will likely be leaning on him as their No. 2 right-handed reliever, at least out of the gates, so heavy regression would hurt in a major way.
Middle Reliever: Ryan Pressly, RHP
2012 Stats (A/AA): 103.2 IP, 5.38 ERA, 82/36 K/BB, 1.40 WHIP
Selected from Boston in the Rule 5 draft, Pressly is a former starter who’s found new life as a hard-throwing reliever, and he'll now get his first chance to pitch in the majors. Reports from Ft. Myers have generally been very positive, with observers calling out his noticeable velocity and sharp breaking ball. But here’s the thing: his purportedly nasty stuff hasn’t translated to strikeouts. Not in Double-A last year, where he averaged 6.8 K/9, and not in Florida this spring, where he’s managed to whiff just six of 51 batters. Color me skeptical.
Secondary Lefty: Tyler Robertson, LHP
2012 Stats: 25 IP, 5.40 ERA, 26/14 K/BB, 1.40 WHIP
Much like with Duensing, there is more than meets the eye when looking at Robertson’s numbers from last year. A glance at the ugly ERA and high walk total would suggest that he was a complete mess in his first exposure to the MLB ranks, but the truth is that Robertson was quite effective when in his element, holding lefty hitters to a .190 batting average and .585 OPS while fanning one out of every three. Against righties he truly was a complete mess (twice as many walks as strikeouts), and that's been his M.O., so Gardenhire would be wise to exercise even more stringency with Robertson’s usage than Duensing’s.
Long Reliever: Josh Roenicke, RHP
2012 Stats: 88.2 IP, 3.25 ERA, 54/43 K/BB, 1.44 WHIP
A shiny ERA covers up some serious flaws exhibited by Roenicke last year. He was erratic, walking 43 and uncorking eight wild pitches in 88 innings, and he allowed too much contact. That's a recipe for trouble even when you throw hard, as Jeff Gray demonstrated last season. If the Twins are expecting Roenicke to walk the tightrope so effectively once again they are bound for disappointment. But my guess is that they're not so much concerned with his results as his workload. The guy was a horse in Colorado’s bullpen last year, making 63 appearances and frequently logging multiple innings. There’s value in a rubber arm like that, especially for a team that figures to weather several abbreviated starts. As long as Roenicke can merely hold his own (a la Anthony Swarzak, who may be gunning for his job when he returns from the DL) he’ll have a chance to stick.