MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins had the worst starting rotation in baseball in 2013, which meant their bullpen was among the most taxed. Yet despite the starters’ inability to go deep into games, Minnesota’s relievers proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season.
The 871 innings pitched by the Twins’ starters were easily the fewest in the majors. Not surprisingly, then, is the fact that Minnesota’s bullpen logged an MLB-high 579.1 innings in relief. Yet despite that extra workload, the Twins’ relievers had a combined ERA of 3.50, good for 14th in the majors and fifth-best in the American League.
"When you say that your bullpen is the strongest point of your team, you don’t have a very good team," said Twins closer Glen Perkins. "You want to be able to do the other two things. You want to be able to have a good starting staff and you want to be able to have a good offense. To say that your bullpen’s your strong suit is kind of probably not ideal."
Those same relievers who were called upon too early in games last year are hoping Minnesota’s commitment to shoring up the starting pitching will help make their jobs a bit easier this year. The Twins signed free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes this offseason, and also brought back right-hander Mike Pelfrey. Nolasco nearly reached the 200-inning mark last year with Miami and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Hughes came close to 200 innings in 2012 with the Yankees.
Pelfrey, meanwhile, is another year removed from Tommy John surgery. The hope is that he can return to his workhorse form from before his injury, as he was twice a 200-inning pitcher.
"Our bullpen was really good last year. I can only imagine how good we would be if we didn’t have to work as much," said reliever Brian Duensing. "In order to have a chance to win, you have to have a starter go deep into the game. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen last year. We struggled a little bit in that department. I’m excited to see how it goes."
What proved to be the strong point of a Twins team that lost 96 games in 2013 appears to return nearly everyone from last year’s bullpen. Perkins is coming off his first career All-Star appearance, and setup man Jared Burton is also back. So, too, are middle relievers Anthony Swarzak, Duensing, Ryan Pressly and Casey Fien. Left-hander Caleb Thielbar was impressive during his first big league season and should likely be in the mix again.
The only member of last year’s bullpen that won’t be back in camp later this month is right-hander Josh Roenicke. Other than that, the Twins’ relief corps looks primed to once again be a strength for Minnesota.
"Because of the continuity down there, that’s going to be one of our strong suits again," said Burton, who pitched a career-high 66 innings in 2013. "We’re all like brothers down there. We all kind of slide into our own role. If somebody’s struggling for a week or two, somebody else moves right in. That’s how a good bullpen is. I think (manager Ron Gardenhire’s) got confidence in all of us, and we’ve shown that the last couple years."
Indeed, Gardenhire is back after signing a two-year deal this winter. He’ll once again have a bullpen filled with relievers he can trust, and a corps of pitchers who all seemed to have found their roles as the 2013 season wore on.
But Gardenhire knows that he’ll need to get more from his starting pitchers in order to better preserve the relievers.
"The way to protect your bullpen is by having our starters go deep in the game and not [forcing the bullpen] to eat up all those innings that they had to eat up last year," Gardenhire said. "We need depth in our starters; we need them getting in the second half. That’s why we went out and signed some guys we believe can do that."
The Twins had some pleasant surprises in last year’s bullpen. That included Pressly, a Rule 5 pick who spent the entire year in the majors and put up impressive numbers with Minnesota despite never having pitched above Double-A prior to this season. Swarzak fell just four innings shy of reaching the 100-inning mark, something rarely seen from a reliever. And Michael Tonkin also debuted in 2013 and put up strong numbers in his limited time in the majors.
Minnesota hopes it won’t have to rely on its bullpen nearly as much in 2014 as it did this past season. But if the Twins do have to turn to the relievers early and often once again, they know they have the right guys for the job.
"You want to be the unsung heroes. You don’t want to be the bright spot," Perkins said of the bullpen. "Hopefully we’ll be able to do our job this year and those guys, the starters that we brought in will do a good job of getting us the ball."