By Joe Christensen
The Twins need to set their 25-man playoff roster in 13 days, and there is no relief in sight for their beleaguered bullpen.
Once the Twins submit that playoff roster, they can use their 40-man roster to fill spots in case of injuries. But no matter how creative they get, their playoff choices will be limited to those pitchers and players.
I know, I know. The Twins should worry about getting there first.
Sunday’s 11-8 victory over Seattle seemed like another cry for help. It was proof that no matter how well the offense does, and no matter how well the young starters do, an ineffective bullpen can spoil everything.
Ron Gardenhire showed he’s not afraid to use Joe Nathan in the eighth inning, and this time it worked. Nathan needed 29 pitches to get four outs. He’ll be available tonight, but using him in the eighth inning isn’t the only answer.
Here is my five-part plan to fix the bullpen:
1) The Twins need to accept that the cavalry isn’t coming. (Calvary either, Jesse!) We know they put in claims in Alan Embree and Jarrod Washburn — the latter telling us anything’s possible — but at this point, it’s safe to assume the waiver options have pretty much run dry.
2) Matt Guerrier needs his mojo back. I thought he had the same stuff Sunday, but no command. Yes, the Twins wore him down, and he needs less work here for a while. But it doesn’t sound like he’s injured, and the team feels his 20.25 ERA in August is more mental than physical.
“I think [Sunday] wasn’t as bad for Matty as he probably thinks it was,” Nathan said. “We’re going to need him in September, and I think he’s going to be fine.”
3) Boof Bonser, Jesse Crain and Brian Bass — or, at least, one of the three — needs to become effective again. The Twins are concerned Crain has hit the wall after having shoulder surgery last year. Bonser has the stuff to be good out of the bullpen, but just when you think he’s figured things out, he stumbles.
Bass, who was overworked early but has had plenty of rest lately, needs to justify the team’s decision to stick with him all this time. He is out of minor-league options, but if a move is made before Aug. 31, he’s the first to go.
4) The Twins need one pitcher from their system to emerge. Not an eighth-inning guy, a seventh-inning guy. As someone said to me yesterday, “You can’t bring one of those guys up here and expect him to get those (eighth-inning) outs.” Looking below, these are the four candidates:
(*) Bobby Korecky: Rochester’s closer has a 1.42 ERA in his past 10 appearances, with 12 strikeouts and two walks. He has been pitching multiple innings. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but the Twins have always liked his guts. I think he’ll get his chance in September, when rosters expand.
(*) Tom Shearn: Signed to a minor-league deal this month, he is not on the 40-man roster, but he is 1-0 with a 2.31 ERA in four starts for Rochester, with 22 strikeouts and six walks in 23 1/3 innings. He has allowed 24 hits but seems to be impressing people there. Gardy mentioned him first Sunday, when asked on his weekly radio show about candidates who could help.
( *) Philip Humber: He had another good start Sunday, allowing two runs on four hits in eight innings. When the Twins acquired him in the Johan Santana trade, there was some thought immediately that his best role might be setup relief. He throws fairly hard and has a good breaking ball. Gardy sounded lukewarm when talking about Humber on Sunday.
(*) Robert Delaney: He started the year at Class A Fort Myers and has posted a 1.24 ERA in 19 games since reaching Class AA New Britain, holding opponents to a .190 batting average. Asked about Delaney on Sunday, Gardy was clearly intrigued. But I’ve been told the front office is very reluctant to make this move, as they would only be guessing if he is ready for the big leagues.
Delaney is not a flamethrower, so it’s not like the Twins are sitting on a Joba Chamberlain here. He is not on the 40-man roster. If they promote Delaney, and he’s not ready for the big leagues, they would be starting his “clock” prematurely when it comes to things like minor-league options, etc. It’s hard to explain, but the front office always has the long view. In their minds, if they’re going to do this, they better be right.
5) Convert a current starter to relief. Nobody likes talking about it. The five young starters are doing too well. But if the current relievers don’t right themselves soon, and the Twins can’t find an in-house pitcher to plug a hole, they’ll have to consider it.
One thing Gardy said is that if such a move were made, it’s important to note that it wouldn’t be viewed as a demotion. The pitcher would be changing roles to fill a glaring need for the team.
If the current bullpen meltdown continues, the Twins might be forced to give a start to Bonser, Humber or Brian Duensing (when he returns from the Olympics) and shift Nick Blackburn or Glen Perkins to the pen. To me, those are the two starters best suited for the swap because they’ve done it before and they have the pitches to succeed in late-inning relief.
Again, the Twins view No. 5 as a last resort. But something needs to happen, or setting that playoff roster will be an exercise in futility.