Twins’ bullpen spots are still up for grabs

RHP Matt Capps (closer), 4-7, 4.25 ERA, 15 saves, 1.20 WHIP in 2011; LHP Glen Perkins, 4-4, 2.48 ERA, 2 saves, 1.23 WHIP in 2011; LHP Brian Duensing, 9-14, 5.23 ERA, 1.52 WHIP in 2011; RHP Anthony Swarzak, 4-7, 4.32 ERA, 1.34 WHIP in 2011; LHP Matt Maloney, 0-3, 9.16 ERA, 18.2 IP, 2.143 WHIP in 2011 (with Cincinnati); RHP Kyle Waldrop, 1-0, 5.73 ERA, 11.0 innings, 1.46 WHIP in 2011, RHP Jared Burton, 0-0, 3.86 ERA, 4.2 IP in 2011 (With Cincinnati).

The Twins appeared to have three bullpen spots locked up prior to spring training, as Capps, Perkins and Duensing were sure things. But the remaining four spots were up for grabs, and the dust is beginning to settle on which relievers could make the bullpen out of camp.

Left-hander Matt Maloney has been impressive this spring. He’s now appeared in seven Grapefruit League games, pitching 11.1 scoreless innings. During that span, he’s allowed just five hits while striking out 14 batters and walking just two. Maloney has had brief stints in the majors (22 total games) with the Reds over the past three seasons before Minnesota claimed him off waivers in October.

“He can spin it. We like to see him,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Maloney.

Waldrop has also impressed this spring after making his big league debut last year with the Twins. The 26-year-old right-hander appeared in seven games in 2011 and has allowed one run in six innings this spring training.

Swarzak has spent two seasons with Minnesota, and the Twins used him as both a starter and reliever in 2009 and 2011. Of Swarzak’s 39 major league appearances, 23 of those were starts. But he’s said all along that it doesn’t matter what role he’s in, as long as he pitches at the big league level.

Burton, a 30-year-old right-hander, could fill the last spot in the Twins’ bullpen. He’s pitched in 40 total games over five seasons with Cincinnati, but appeared in just 10 total games over the last two years. He made a career-high 54 appearances in 2008 with the Reds, going 5-1 with a 3.22 ERA. He’s given up just one run and three hits in 7.0 innings this spring.

Capps returns to the closer’s role in 2012 after Joe Nathan signed with the Texas Rangers this offseason. Capps saved 16 games for the Twins in 2010 after he was acquired before the trade deadline, but he struggled in 2011. Minnesota is hoping he can bounce back to produce like he did two years ago and put last season behind him.

Perkins had a breakout year in 2011 and was the Twins’ most reliable pitcher out of the bullpen. The Stillwater, Minn., native signed a three-year extension earlier this spring, and will again be the set-up man in the eighth inning. Now that he’s spent six years in the majors with Minnesota, Perkins is also somewhat of a leader in the bullpen and the clubhouse.

“I’m in a spot where I think some guys look to me, and that’s awesome,” Perkins said. “I like to be that guy. In year’s past there’s always been guys ahead of me (in the bullpen); there’s always been Matt (Guerrier) and Jesse (Crain), and Joe Nathan. Now, Cappy’s got some time, and Carl (Pavano has) obviously got some time, but I’ve been here a lot longer than some of the guys. There’s the Twins Way, and I know that way.”

Duensing spent much of 2011 in the Twins’ rotation, making 28 starts and just four relief appearances. But with the addition of starter Jason Marquis this offseason, Duensing was the odd man out of the rotation. He pitched 40 games in relief in 2010 and posted better numbers out of the bullpen than he did as a starter that season.

The Twins’ bullpen was one of the worst in baseball in 2011— its 4.58 ERA was 29th in the majors, and opponents hit .288 against Minnesota’s relievers, which was worst in all of baseball. But this spring, the Twins feel they have enough arms to leave Fort Myers with a much-improved bullpen in 2012.

“We’re going to try to find the best pitchers that we think work,” Gardenhire said. “We brought all these guys in to take looks at them, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to come out with a good bullpen. We think guys are going to do better than what we had in place or had here last year, then that’s who we’ll be.”

Jonathan Broxton (Royals); Chris Perez (Indians); Matt Thornton (White Sox); Jose Valverde (Tigers).

The Royals were dealt a blow this spring when closer Joakim Soria suffered an elbow injury and will undergo Tommy John surgery, meaning he’ll miss the entire 2012 season. Now, Kansas City has to scramble to figure out its closer situation, but it appears Broxton is the front-runner. Broxton signed with the Royals as a free agent this offseason after spending seven years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He saved 84 games during that time, including 36 saves in his All-Star season in 2009.

The White Sox’s closer situation also remains unsettled late in March, with three possible candidates fighting for a spot. Thornton appeared in 62 games last season with Chicago, posting a 3.32 ERA while saving three games. Youngsters Addison Reed (six career big league games) and Hector Santiago (two games) are also in the mix despite their limited experience.

Valverde was the most dominant closer in the division last year, converting all 49 of his saves to help the AL Central champs. Perez saved a career-high 36 games in 2011, his second year as Cleveland’s closer.

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