Four Answers to the Minnesota Twins Bullpen Questions
With just over one-third of the 2009 season gone, the Twins have already used 11 relievers and still lack a stable bridge from their rotation to closer Joe Nathan.
Brian Duensing barely got his feet wet before returning to AAA. Philip Humber was the first regular to go, but his replacement, Juan Morillo, didn't last much longer.
Craig Breslow got his walking papers in mid-May, and Jesse Crain was designated for assignment after melting down in Wrigley.
Even with the turnover, the Twins still just have three non-Nathan relievers that inspire any confidence: Matt Guerrier, Jose Miajres, and R.A. Dickey.
Because Ron Gardenhire cannot pitch the same reliever on consecutive games, this isn't enough to keep the Twins from using the likes of Sean Henn and Louis Ayala.
Already today, Louis Ayala joined the list of players either optioned or assigned to Rochester. Bobby Keppel will meet the team in Milwaukee tomorrow to take his place.
This is likely to be the first of a few moves as the Twins try to find relief from their bullpen problems.
The question is: Which of the potential call-ups is likely to stick?
Keppel's call-up was met with a certain amount of skepticism.
Like Philip Humber, Keppel was a high draft pick of the Mets that simply hasn't been worth the pick.
Until last season, Keppel was a starter in the minors who made a major league roster only twice. His 0-4 record and career 6.10 ERA don't inspire much confidence.
What gives this move a chance of succeeding is Keppel's improvement since being converted to a reliever (though his last three appearances were starts). Keppel boasts a 1.15 WHIP and a 2.15 K/BB ratio in AAA this year, while holding opposing hitters to a .242 BAA.
He induces a fair number of groundballs at Rochester and continuing to do so will be the key to his success. He's got a reputation for being a hard thrower and a tenacious competitor, both of which will help him in his transition to the majors.
Keppel's stuff isn't overwhelming, but he's got as good a chance as anyone of actually getting hitters out in low leverage situations.
Already on the 40-man roster, Gabino has shown the ability to go multiple innings in an appearance, something few of the Twins' current relievers can do.
While Gabino has yet to be linked with the Twins, Sean Henn's days are almost certainly numbered and Gabino costs nothing to call-up.
Like Keppel, he's mostly minor league filler, but could be an innings eater if the need arises. His WHIP is down to 1.03 this season, his best mark since he made it out of A-ball, and is holding hitters to .200 BAA.
Both he and Keppel are perfectly able to pitch better than Ayala and Henn have, but the question is if they will.
The move from Ayala to Keppel and the potential move from Henn to Gabino are lateral moves, but if new blood helps the Twins win more games, then that's what needs to be done.
It isn't as though the Twins are completely devoid of relief help in the minors, both Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney are legitimate prospects that could help the Twins right now.
Delaney earned his call-up to AAA earlier this season in what amounts to yet another example of the Twins' cautious ways with prospects.
He looked good in the very hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League, and was the 2008 Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year after a very strong campaign with AA New Britain.
A slight uptick in his walk rate accompanied his promotion to Rochester, but his WHIP remains a stellar .89, and, once his strike out rate rises to the level it has been at all levels in the minors (that is, greater than 9.5/9), he'll drop even more.
Delaney could use more time in Rochester to truly dominate AAA competition, but that isn't what the Twins are worried about.
His stuff is good enough to play at the highest levels; "dominating" AAA is irrelevant if he can get major league hitters out, and there's no reason to believe that he'll be unable to do so.
Still, the Twins are as protective as can be and since he hasn't shown perfection yet at AAA, his call may be a ways away.
Slama burst onto the Twins' radar last year when he posted a WHIP under 1, saved 25 games, and struck out 110 hitters at High-A Ft. Myers.
Even though he was splitting time with Delaney at AA until recently, Slama has racked up 53 strike outs in 31 appearances. His 13.01 K-rate gives a pretty clear indication of what he can throw.
He took some time to adapt to AA hitters, but has given up just two runs in his last 10 outings. Slama has annihilated righties to the tune of a .155 BAA and 32 of his 53 strike outs, so his future may be as a ROOGY or late inning specialist, but one thing is certain: the man can get hitters out.
Slama isn't ready for the majors yet, but he needs to be in AAA as soon as possible.
If he can dominate lefties the way he has righties, he'll be a huge asset in September. But, even if he can't, the Twins could still use a pitcher who can come in with runners on and strand them.
The best thing the Twins can do at this point is move both Delaney and Slama up a level. Delaney would certainly benefit from the watchful eyes of Rick Anderson and even if he struggles, he can't be any worse than Henn has been.
If the Twins are serious about contending this season, they'll quit making lateral moves and hoping that a new set of eyes will solve their problems.
The pieces to a great bullpen are available to them, they only need to turn away from the career minor leaguers to find them.
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