While sabermetricians have long downplayed the value of a "proven closer," most teams feel that having one provides an important security blanket. "You want to know that you're going to win the games you're supposed to win," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, whose team opens its season tonight in Toronto. "There's nothing more disheartening than working for eight innings to get the lead, then losing in the ninth."
The Twins, then, should feel doubly good about winning games in which they lead after eight innings, with two proven closers in Joe Nathan and Matt Capps. Nathan served as the Twins' closer from 2004-09 and converted 246 of 271 save opportunities—90.8 percent—during that six-year span before missing last season while recovering from Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his elbow. The Twins acquired Capps at the trade deadline last July, after he served as a closer for the Pirates and Nationals, as well as picking up the win in last year's All-Star Game.
Nathan will begin the season as the primary closer but Gardenhire will use him judiciously. Thus, Capps will also likely get some save opportunities.
"It's a great situation to have," Gardenhire said. "A lot of teams have a hard time finding one legitimate big-league closer they can count on. We have two. It's very reassuring as a manager to know you have two big guns down in the bullpen at the end of games."
After Nathan and Capps, though, the Twins bullpen has plenty of question marks. After an offseason when set-up and middle relievers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch, and Ron Mahay all departed as free agents, the bridge between the starters and Nathan and Capps looks like it might not pass inspection.
Left-hander Jose Mijares is the only non-closer returning to the bullpen. The Twins are filling three of the other four spots with Kevin Slowey, Jeff Manship, and lefty Glen Perkins. Slowey lost out to Scott Baker for a spot in the rotation and will be the top righty set-up man. Manship and Perkins have had opportunities with the Twins in recent seasons but have yet to establish a foothold in the major leagues. Dusty Hughes, claimed off waivers from the Royals in the offseason, provides Gardenhire with a third lefty.
Gardenhire certainly didn't give his bullpen a ringing endorsement when he said, "These are the guys we are going with, and if they don't work out, then we'll bring in somebody else."
The Twins are going to need a strong bullpen if they are to win a third consecutive American League Central title. Though the Twins were third in the AL in runs allowed last season with an average of 4.14 a game, they ranked that high despite having no dominant starting pitcher, though Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano tied for 10th in the league with 4.9 SNLVAR.
While the bullpen may be cause for concern, the Twins left spring training feeling good because catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, a pair of former AL Most Valuable Players, are both ready to start the season on time, as are left fielder Delmon Young and right fielder Michael Cuddyer. Mauer had arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of last season, and there was concern early in camp when he needed three injections of lubricant in his knee. Morneau suffered a concussion last July 7 while breaking up a double play and missed the remainder of the season. Young and Cuddyer both missed the first half of the Grapefruit League season with foot injuries.
"You always want to have all your big guns available, and there is no doubt that Mauer and Morneau are big guns," Gardenhire said. "From a health standpoint, we're very pleased that we've got everybody ready to go."
Morneau was leading the major leagues with a .360 TAv when he was injured. Despite losing his big bat, the Twins still finished fifth in the AL in runs scored with 4.82 a game. The Twins' lineup looks the same for 2011 except for a new middle infield, as shortstop Alexi Casilla and second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka will replace J.J. Hardy, who was traded to the Orioles, and Orlando Hudson, who left as a free agent.
While the Twins christened Target Field with an outstanding 53-28 home record last season, Gardenhire was adamant that his team needed to add speed in order to succeed in the big ballpark on a long-term basis. The Twins signed the fleet-footed Nishioka as a free agent over the winter after he won the Japanese Pacific League batting title last season for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Nishioka, a 26-year-old switch-hitter, will bat second in the order behind center fielder Denard Span and ahead of Mauer and Morneau.
"I like Nishi a lot," Gardenhire said. "I think he's going to be a really nice addition to our ballclub. He puts the bat on the ball consistently, slaps the ball around, and looks like a guy who will generally make a pest of himself. I think he's going to give us a little bit different dimension this year."
Rumors and Rumblings: While the Phillies are saying closer Brad Lidge should miss 3-6 weeks with a strained shoulder, he is more likely to be out until the All-Star break. … The Rangers' decision to trade Matt Treanor did not sit well in the clubhouse, and it will be interesting to see how left-hander C.J. Wilson, who starts today's opener against the Red Sox, fares this season after losing his personal catcher. … The Giants plan to use a committee of left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez and right-hander Sergio Romo to close games until Brian Wilson is activated from the disabled list. … The Rays are also beginning the season with a closer-by-committee setup, with Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth expected to get the majority of the early save opportunities. … The Braves plan to move left fielder Martin Prado to third base when Chipper Jones isn't in the lineup, which is likely to be in day games after night games and in the first home game following a West Coast trip. … After talking throughout the offseason about wanting his team to be aggressive on the bases, Cubs manager Mike Quade has backed off that idea after seeing in spring training how little speed his team possesses.
White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle: "He's Mr. Dependable. He never misses a start, keeps you in the game almost every time out, and usually does more than that, and he's a great athlete. He's really one of the most underrated pitchers of this generation. He's going to be a free agent after this season and he's going to make a lot of money."
Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford: "I'm curious to see what kind of season he has. He looked like he was pressing all spring, trying to justify the big contract (seven years, $142 million) he got in free agency. He's a guy who cares. Sometimes he almost cares too much. He needs to take a deep breath and relax."
Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez: "I know the Brewers are giving him a shot to be the everyday guy, but trading for Nyjer Morgan is a pretty obvious sign that they don't trust the guy. I wouldn't trust him, either. He's got all the tools in the world, but he's never going to figure out what to do with them."
Rockies infielder Jonathan Herrera: "If I were the Rockies, I'd play him instead of Jose Lopez at second base. He doesn't have half the pure talent of Lopez, but he puts the bat on the ball, he'll take a walk, and he has great instincts. He'll help you win ballgames."
Athletics right-hander Brandon McCarthy: "He's remade himself. He's more of a finesse guy instead of the power guy he was before he had all the arm problems. He's learning to sink and cut his fastball instead of just trying to throw it past the hitters."
Rangers right-hander Mason Tobin: "If you saw the guy pitch in spring training, you wouldn't believe he's a Rule 5 pick who has never pitched above High A and missed almost all of the last two seasons [because of elbow problems]. He has a real presence on the mound, and he didn't back down from major-league hitters."