Last time I said we would cover the 2008 Dodgers bullpen. After looking it over, i want to throw out 2008 bullpens for the time being. Since the season hasn't ended, and bullpens haven't gone through the dog days of August, it looked like 2008 bullpens were favored in the analysis. Instead, we'll go to the third best bullpen: the 2006 Minnesota Twins.
The analysis of the opening day roster to evaluate strategy may be flawed when dealing with the Twins of recent years. This is a team who has made a habit of wasting roster spots on worthless veterans early on, only to surge behind a younger core later in the season. In short, the opening day roster for the Twins looks very different than it does later on in the season. Let's look at the opening day bullpen for the 2006 version of the Twins.
Joe Nathan, 31, RHP
2005 Statistics: 70 IP, 2.70 ERA, 22 BB, 94 K, 5 HR
Signed: Acquired from San Francisco with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski, November 14, 2003
For as overrated as the closer role has become, the value of a dominant shut down closer cannot be overstated. Having a guy like Nathan in the back end of the pen for several years is one of the keys to long term bullpen success. How were they able to get him in this deal? People often forget about Joe Nathan's time with the Giants. Joining the rotation in his first season, Nathan was purely average in 1999 at age 24. He came back the next season, putting up mediocre numbers in the back of San Francisco's rotation amidst shoulder problems. After the 2000 season, Nathan had shoulder surgery followed by weak minor league seasons in 2001 and 2002. Out of options in 2003, he finally moved to relief and put up a promising season for the Giants striking out 83 with a 2.96 ERA in 79 innings. Why the Giants were willing to package him with two prospects in a panic move after the season still makes no sense.
In summary, the Twins were able to acquire Nathan as part of a package in a trade with a dimwitted general manager. They were also able to use the emergence of Joe Mauer to sell high on A.J. Pierzynski before he got expensive. Finally, they noticed the breakout season Joe Nathan had in his first year as a relief pitcher. The peripherals of his 2003 season, healed shoulder, and new role all suggest that Nathan was for real.
Juan Rincon, 27, RHP
2005 Statistics: 77 IP, 2.45 ERA, 30 BB, 84 K, 2 HR
Signed: Undrafted Free Agent, 1996
Rincon is another player with very good numbers the year before. He had two primary question marks coming into the season: minor elbow surgery after the 2005 season may have caused problems, and a steroid suspension in 2005 may suggest that he may not have been able to keep up his previous success. Like Nathan, Rincon was a starter in the minors before being moved to the pen upon his promotion to the Major Leagues.
Jesse Crain, 24, RHP
2005 Statistics: 79.2 IP, 2.71 ERA, 29 BB, 25 K, 6 HR
Signed: 2002 Draft, 2nd Round
Crain was a taken as a reliever in the second round of the 2002 draft and moved quickly to the big league club, cracking the bullpen for good midway through the 2004 season. The K rate was a worry heading into the 2006 season, but he ended up amending that kink in his armor. That Crain would eventually end up with shoulder problems suggest that it might be in a team's best interest to get productive years out of young pitchers while they can. While the Tigers have been aggressive in promoting top starting pitchers, relievers have often lagged behind and rotted in Erie and Toledo.
Francisco Liriano, 22, LHP
2005 Statistics: 23.2 IP, 5.70 ERA, 7 BB, 33 K, 4 HR (AAA: 91 IP, 1.78 ERA, 24 BB, 112 K, 4 HR, AA: 76.2 IP, 3.64 ERA, 26 BB, 92 K, 6 HR)
Signed: Acquired from San Francisco with Boof Bonser and Joe Nathan for A.J. Pierzynski, November 14, 2003
Yes, Liriano started the year in the bullpen while the putzed around with Kyle Lohse. The good news is that Liriano's innings were kept down; the bad news is that it still didn't do a lick of good for them. This shows that the bullpen can be a nice place to get quality innings out of a developing starting pitcher while building him up for a rotation role down the line.
Matt Guerrier, 27, RHP
2005 Statistics: 71.7 IP, 3.39 ERA, 24 BB, 46 K, 6 HR
Signed: Claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh, November 20, 2003
The mop up guy for much of his early time in Minnesota, the Twins were once again able to get a former top prospect on the cheap from an inept general manager. Guerrier had been coming off an injury plagued (shoulder tendinitis) season in 2003, where he still kept his walks to a minimum in AAA. The Pirates foolishly tried to slip him through waivers. Duaner Sanchez was also lost on waivers to the Dodgers the same day, and this is the year where they lost five players in the Rule 5 draft.
Willie Eyre, 27, RHP
2005 Statistics: AAA: 82.2 IP, 2.72 ERA, 28 BB, 74 K, 3 HR
Signed: 1999 Draft, 23rd round
Eyre made the team on the strength of a strong 2005 season in AAA and the fact that he was out of options. That said, he wasn't particularly effective in his time up with the club. The bullpen still survived, despite the dead weight. The problem starts to arise when you have several out of options losers clogging up the bullpen.
The team started with six players. Eventually moving up to seven with Liriano's promotion to the rotation, there were two more guys who played a huge role in this bullpen. These two guys will not count in the data, but they were lights out for the Twins.
Dennys Reyes, 29, LHP
Signed: Minor League Free Agent, February 21, 2006
Pat Neshek, 25, RHP
Signed: 2002 Draft, 6th round
Reyes came out of nowhere, and I don't see any injuries that would have masked his performance in the years leading up to 2006. Neshek was a reliever from the get go, and after dominating the minor leagues at every stop, became the second guy from the 2002 draft to join the bullpen.
Number of Relievers: 6
Average Salary: $1.00 millon
Amount with Options: 2/6
Previous Year ERA: 3.43
Previous Year BB/9: 3.55
Previous Year K/9: 8.24
Previous Year: HR/9: 0.64
Starting Pitching Innings: 65.4%
Team Defensive Efficiency: 0.692
%Innings Pitched by Opening Day Relievers: 74.3%
Major League Free Agents: 0/6
Acquired in Trade: 2/6
Minor League Free Agents: 0/6
The peripherals of the pitchers the previous season were nothing short of amazing. It was enough to make up for a weak back end of the rotation. The move of Liriano to the rotation and addition of a seventh reliever reduced the amount of innings thrown by the opening day relievers. Note once again how the bullpen was comprised of mostly homegrown players. Next, we'll take a look at ways the Tigers could copy the Twins model.