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Springtime Hope Blooms In The Bullpen

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It’s still early in spring training – early enough so that our eyes could be fooling us from this bright sun thing – but maybe there’s some hope for the Twins bullpen after all.

The bullpen has been a sore spots for Twins fans for…wow…how long has it been? This offseason, obviously. Last season, for sure. 2010 was a bit of respite, though there was enough panic to trade away Ramos Wilson for Matt Capps. In 2009 it struggled beyond Joe Nathan and Matt Guerrier. 2008 was REALLY bad up until Jose Mijares was given a role for the last two weeks of September. In 2007…ok…I’ll let you decide where you want to draw the line, but it’s fair to say it’s been a sore spot several times recently.

It looked to be so again this year, especially when free agent Joel Zumaya was injured which caused some bloggers to lose their cool. (Justifiably, I would argue.) It looked like the bullpen was going to be manned by - let’s make sure I quote this right – “either a member of last year's shaky corps or a waiver or minor-league pickup.”

That’s still true. But some of those pickups are producing some surprising results, especially when it comes to some strikeouts. With three spots likely open in the bullpen, three guys – two right-handers and one left-hander – have shined in early contests.

Jared Burton was scavenged from the Cincinnati Reds, courtesy of a shoulder injury and a hyperthyroid condition that cost him most of the last two years. That doesn’t change the fact that the 30-year-old right-hander has earned a 3.41 ERA in the majors over 169 innings. “Hits” are not a trustworthy stat in spring training, but the fact that Burton hasn’t given up any in his four relief outings, while striking out four and walking just one at least puts him on the right path.

Left-hander Matt Maloney, statistically, looks like the most exciting option. Cincinnati was also kind enough to contribute Maloney to the roster this offseason, though at least it cost the Twins a 40-man roster spot this time. In the majors, Maloney has mostly been used as a starter, but in his relief appearances, he’s struck out 21 batters in 24 innings, with just six walks (albeit 28 hits). This spring he’s dominated, striking out eight in 5.1 innings, while walking just one and giving up just three hits. Those are numbers that can’t be ignored, no matter which inning one is pitching.

Speaking of “which inning one is pitching,” Jeff Manship has steadily been working his way from the late innings to the early innings in spring training games – an indication that manager Ron Gardenhire wants him to face better competition. He’s earned it. In his four appearances, he’s struck out six, walked none and given up just two hits. Both times I’ve seen him, his strike outs came on a what Seth Stohs describes as a “spiked slider.’ I have no idea what that mean, but I love the name, and I love the way it ends up at a batters ankles as he swings.

Manship has been with the Twins for years, making a few appearances with the big league club, looking mostly mediocre, both as a starter and a reliever. His biggest weakness has been that he just plain gave up a lot of hits. That wasn’t a weakness in the minors, and a strikeout rate in AAA nearing 7 per nine innings – mostly as a starter – indicates he could take a significant step up given the chance to relieve. For instance, Joe Nathan averaged 7.2 K/9 in AAA, also as a starter.

Of course, Nathan had that nasty slider – but Manship also looks like he’s got his “spiked slider” and I’ve heard reports of a top shelf curveball, too. (Though, maybe they’re talking about the same thing. It’s hard to tell sometimes.) The point remains: if Manship can stay healthy – and the same goes for Maloney and Burton, knock, knock – the Twins bullpen, on the shoulders (literally) of some washouts and pickups, could look like a strength a month from now.
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  1. Teflon's Avatar
    I envy your optimism. Relief pitching is so hard to evaluate in one-inning increments especially if you get used to start those innings.
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