This winter has seen several teams stockpile relievers: the Yankees' signing of Rafael Soriano or the Red Sox adding Bobby Jenks, both in set-up roles, command the most headlines, but the Cubs and Athletics and even the Blue Jays have been active as well. But set against that activity, two of last year's playoff teams from the American League, the Twins and the Rays, have let a number of their veteran relievers walk away, with little or no effort to retain them.
Is relief depth that critical? Of course it is—teams can lose ballgames as easily in the sixth or seventh inning as they might in the eighth or ninth. But stocking a pen with good relievers is less difficult than you might believe. Part of the reason why owes to managers and their coaching staffs: the best skippers identify who can do what well, and create roles that keep everyone sharp while employing all of their relievers in situations they can succeed in. Bud Black's effectiveness in exactly this department was a big part of the reason why the Padres nearly won the NL West last season, and per BP's Adjusted Runs Prevented stat, measuring pen-wide effectiveness, San Diego's 88.9 ARP led the majors going away—the second-ranked Giants were more than 23 ARP behind, or the difference of nearly two wins above average relief work. (ARP works off of average, not replacement level, so the standards are higher.)
The Twins (54.5 ARP) and Rays (47.9) rated among 2010's six best bullpens, but that was before this winter's defections mounted. Identifying useful components to add up to a quality relief corps make for similar challenges for the Twins' Ron Gardenhire and the Rays' Joe Maddon, but fortunately for their clubs, each manager has had success rebuilding his bullpen in the past.
Overhauling the Rays' bullpen in 2008 was as important as their much-discussed defensive improvements to their arrival among contenders, but Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman put together a remarkably improved unit by collecting an unretired Troy Percival, an underutilized J.P. Howell, and oft-injured Grant Balfour and putting them to work. This time around, Maddon will be getting Howell back from last year's shoulder injury, but he won't be back until May, so every slot from closer to situational lefty is there for the taking. Signing frequently flammable Kyle Farnsworth might add a right-hander as overpowering as Balfour, but Farnsworth's track record for handing back his opportunities is daunting.
Going for the other end of the (speed) gun and signing journeyman Joel Peralta on the strength of a career-high 26 percent strikeout rate in a remarkable partial season with the Nats (11.9 ARP) could give them the new Doug Jones—Peralta came back to the majors with an improved changeup that finally gave the former situational righty a reliable weapon against lefties. However, he could also wind up as the new Joe Nelson, the last soft-tossing righty the Rays snapped up cheaply (before 2009), only to be disappointed.
Beyond that veteran crust, Maddon will be challenged to do as he did in '08, picking from among farmhands, the gaggle of nearly-ready pitchers picked up from the Padres in the Bartlett deal, and non-roster invites like LOOGY R.J. Swindle and former Dodgers prospect Cory Wade. Much depends on who Maddon and his staff identify as useful, and on Friedman to provide enough alternatives, but the track records of both men are strong enough to suggest there will be a few surprising relief heroes in Tampa Bay by May.
The Twins' situation is different, in that with Joe Nathan coming back from injury and Matt Capps already in place, they've doubled their fun for possible closers. It's everywhere else that is in flux. But Nathan isn't the only quality reliever coming back from the operating table—side-arming Pat Neshek is hoping another few months since his own Tommy John surgery will have him prepped to resume his situational greatness from the right side. Lefty Jose Mijares is also supposed to be sound after last year's knee injury. While losing Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch involves losing a lot of familiar names, remember that there's plenty of low-profile talent to find rattling around in any organization—like sinker/slider middle man Alex Burnett—or off waivers. The Twins salvaged Guerrier off the wire from the Pirates before 2004. It may not sound promising, but dumpster-diving for tomorrow's bullpen hero is a reliable source of success, as long as you have the staff, scouts, and front office to identify him. —Christina Kahrl
Rays: Since the Rays don't have an established closer, spring training will look like an episode of Closer Idol. On a pure stuff level among the contestants, one a rookie, plus one of those not-quite-a-rookie types, two have the stuff to compete for the job. The name most know is Jake McGee. Even when the southpaw was blistering the minor leagues early in his career, many scouts saw his future in relief, and 2008 Tommy John surgery followed by the success he found in the bullpen last year made that a reality. Left-handers who throw 93-97 mph fastballs are rare, but he's highly dependent on the pitch; he will need to not only refine his power breaking ball, but also find the confidence to use it in pressure situations. Arriving from San Diego in the Jason Bartlett trade, Adam Russell is no longer technically a prospect after playing parts of the last three years in the majors, but he's always shown late-innings stuff with 94-96 mph velocity and a low-80s slider with bite. Control has been what has kept him from staying in the majors, so he's more likely to move slowly into more high-leverage situations, as opposed to begin the year with such assignments. —Kevin Goldstein
Twins: The Twins have plenty of relief prospects, but scouts don't necessarily see ones worthy of late-inning work. The one most likely to get big-league innings in 2011 is right-hander Anthony Slama, who has already defied all odds by merely getting to the big leagues as a 39th-round pick. Despite a career rate of 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors, he's not a power pitcher, but more of a classic sinker/slider type who gets hitters out with movement and changing speeds. That's not a late-inning recipe, but he is big-league worthy. The sleeper to keep an eye on remains Carlos Gutierrez, who is also the system's biggest enigma. A first-round pick in 2008 based on his performance as a closer with the University of Miami, Gutierrez has split time between starting and relief work since signing, and in parts of two seasons at Double-A, his ERA is an unimpressive 5.06. That leaves scouts absolutely baffled, as his sinker is among the best you'll see in the minors with well above-average velocity and movement. He's the kind of hurler who could 'get it' at any moment and find himself in Minnesota, or be left trying to find it all year in Rochester. —Kevin Goldstein
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
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