Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bullpen overuse could hurt by season's end

After Tuesday night's contest in Pittsburgh, the Twins have played roughly 40% of their regular season schedule and the team is currently under .500 by 14 games. Being at the bottom of the American League is a rough spot for any team and there can be plenty of fingers pointed as to why the Twins have gotten to this point. The offense has failed to score runs and the pitching staff has left plenty to be desired so far in 2012. But in all of this mess, there has to be some positives to dig out of the pit of despair.

While the pitching staff has combined to have the worst ERA in the entire American League, the bullpen has shown some brief glimmers of hope at different points this year. The relief pitchers for the Twins have combined for the 15th best ERA in baseball while holding batters to the 14th best batting average. Only ten relief cores across baseball have allowed few walks than the Twins so the bullpen is doing their best in some tough situations. While these numbers don't jump off the screen, they are much better when compared to what the starting staff has been able to do.

Even with the bullpen producing at about the league average, it is tough to look at their workload and not worry about what this will mean for the pitchers at the end of the year. The Twins relief pitchers have thrown the second most innings of any bullpen in the major leagues. Kansas City is the only team to throw more innings with their bullpen and they have recently had to switch to a 14-man pitching staff, a situation that no team wants to happen. Anthony Swarzak has thrown 50.0 innings as a reliever and a starter, Brian Duensing has been on the mound for almost 35 innings, and Alex Burnett has reached over 33 innings. All of these numbers are starting to add up and it is not even the mid-point of the season.

Glen Perkins made the transition to the bullpen last year and he was untouchable in the first half of the season. He threw 33.2 innings with an outstanding 1.87 ERA and a WHIP of 1.19 with 36 strikeouts. It looked like the Twins had found a gem of a player to possibly be the closer of the future for the franchise. After the All-Star break last year, Perkins saw his ERA rise to 3.21 and his velocity decreased slightly as the season wore on. It seemed like his workload from the first half of the year was impacting his ability to perform in the second half. This is just one example of what the Twins could be looking at in the second half of this year.

If the Twins are going to take some of the pressure off of their relief pitchers, the starting rotation is going to need to pitch deeper into games. Through the 66 games played so far, Twins starters have pitched 345.2 innings and that averages to 5.24 innings per start. PJ Walters is the only Twins pitcher with a complete game under his belt this year and he isn't exactly a player the team can rely on to repeat this feat. The closest thing to an ace pitcher for the Twins has been Scott Diamond and he has averaged 6.1 innings pitched in his nine starts. For the rest of the pitching staff, it has been a struggle to average over five innings an outing.

As the season rolls on, the Twins might have to dig deep into Rochester to find some other arms to help eat some innings out of the bullpen. Anthony Slama looked like he was primed to take a position with the Twins before a broken leg forced him to the sidelines. Kyle Waldrop looked like he had a chance to make the roster coming out of spring training but an injury put him on the DL. Now Waldrop is in the bullpen for the Red Wings and he has looked very good since returning from injury. Lester Oliveros has already made one trip to Minnesota and the Twins would certainly give him another shot in the big leagues.

The Twins are far from contending for a playoff spot but taking care of the bullpen is something the front office should watch carefully. By the end of the season, the Twins don't want to be struggling to find outs from their relief options. It would be best if the starters could throw deeper into the game and allow the bullpen the opportunity to close out some victories. But in a season that already seems lost, this might be a foolish hope.

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