AP Photo by Duane Burleson
We’ve been spoiled. While the Twins starting pitching and offense have too often been an iffy, up-and-down proposition throughout most of the 21st century, the bullpen has pretty consistently owned the late innings and protected leads. It was easy, in fact, to take them for granted. It didn’t seem to matter what collection of spare parts and previously anonymous warm bodies showed up in Florida in mid-February; by the time opening day rolled around Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson would have assembled a pen that was generally one thing Twins fans didn’t have to spend a lot of time fretting over.
Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, J.C. Romero, Bob Wells, Jack Cressend, Tony Fiore, Juan Rincon, Mike Jackson, Johan Santana (remember him?), Jesse Crain, Aaron Fultz, Matt Guerrier, Joe Nathan, Dennys Reyes, Pat Neshek….I’m sure I’m missing a few, and, yeah, some of those guys took their lumps in Twins uniforms before they found their niche; others were salvaged from some other organization’s scrap heap. The bottom line, though, is that since the Twins millennial turnaround the bullpen has been a constant.
Fans who have been paying attention long enough –anyone who, say, still shudders at the name Ron Davis, or remembers LaTroy’s brutal stint as the closer — know what a luxury that is. Still, the various meltdowns and injuries (Romero, Rincon, Crain, Reyes, Glenn Perkins) notwithstanding, the late-inning guys have been nothing if not resilient and relentlessly effective.
Which is what makes what’s happened the last week –in Chicago and, especially, in Detroit –so startling. Coming into this season the starting pitching was, charitably speaking, a question mark, and with few exceptions the starters have been pretty damn good. Better, certainly, than any of us had any reason to expect. And they sure as hell should have won three games the bullpen has coughed up in spectacular and debilitating fashion.
The culprits in the first two cases –a 7-4 loss to the loathsome White Sox, and Monday night’s 11-9 heartbreaker in Detroit– have been the uncommonly reliable Matt Guerrier and Pat Neshek. It’s too early to be seriously concerned, I suppose, but these weren’t just instances where Guerrier and Neshek were getting nicked. No, they were getting rocked. Granted, Jermaine Dye’s seventh-inning single off Neshek that tied the score in Chicago was the result of a decent pitch and a very ugly swing, but it seemed to open the floodgates, and they’ve been open pretty much ever since.
Both Guerrier and Neshek are finding way too much of the plate with their fastballs, but also, most notably, with their breaking balls. Maybe it’s the cold weather, but Neshek in particular doesn’t seem to have either access to the velocity he’s showed over the last couple years or that Frisbee-like movement on his slider.
I guess what makes these early struggles a bit alarming is the fact that both guys were in the A.L. top ten in appearances last year (74 for Neshek and 73 for Guerrier). Guerrier set a career high for appearances and innings (88), and pitched two or more innings 14 times. The rotation being what it is –and, sorry, Livan Hernandez is fun to watch, but the league’s eventually going to catch up to a guy with his stuff and his strikeout ratio– the fortunes of this team depend heavily on the seventh and eighth-inning guys getting the game to Joe Nathan. If this shit keeps up all those dollars the Twins are paying Nathan are going to be more a pension or a retainer than a salary.
It’s probably also too early to get too concerned about Joe Mauer, but I don’t think it’s too early to start to recognize and perhaps accept what he is. And what he is is a very good catcher with a pretty swing. Folks, our Joe is not a superstar. He’s not a guy who can carry a team for a week or two at a time. He’s not even a middle-of-the-order guy. He belongs in the two hole until he demonstrates otherwise, and I honestly don’t expect him to ever demonstrate otherwise.
When Carlos Gomez gets on base (and this looks like it’s going to be increasingly infrequent as other teams get the book on him: feed him a steady diet of sliders down and away and fastballs up and in), Mauer’s skills are ideally suited to move him over and even drive him in, provided doing so doesn’t require much more than an occasional line drive or sacrifice fly. He has excellent plate discipline and bat control –perhaps, as many people will tell you, too much discipline and control. Mauer is what he is, and moving him to third base or the outfield, I’m pretty sure, is not going to change the kind of hitter he is. He’s a natural, a controlled, instinctive hitter, but I’m afraid I’ve seen no indications over the last several years that he’s willing to change, adapt, or even learn anything new. If he gets better he might be Wade Boggs.
I never much liked Wade Boggs.