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Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Twins scramble to replace Nathan's ninths


Perhaps this isn't the time to rehash the Twins' decision to devote a significant percentage of their relatively limited payroll to a relief pitcher. With Joe Nathan out for perhaps the whole season, let's instead turn to the practical implications:

There are not many experienced free agent closers available, meaning the Twins might have to turn to their farm system or make a trade if they chose not to promote another reliever from within the bullpen.

Jon Rauch, a 6-foot-11 right-hander, has the most experience closing games of anyone in the Twins' bullpen, with 26 career saves over five major league seasons. He split 2009 between the Twins and Arizona Diamondbacks, finishing with a 7-3 record, a 3.60 ERA and 17 holds in 75 appearances.

Matt Guerrier, another right-handed reliever, went 5-1 last season with 33 holds and a 2.36 ERA in 79 appearances.

Other candidates on hand include Pat Neshek, Clay Condrey, Jose Mijares, and Jesse Crain. Without running through the pros and cons associated with each, we can instead simply say this: It doesn't matter which of them gets the job.

OK, it does matter a little. But none of those pitchers -- not one of the six -- is a good bet for an ERA in 2010 much lower or higher than 4.00. "But how can that be true?" you might be saying. "In 2009, Mijares and Guerrier both finished with ERA's lower than 2.50, and Condrey was dead on 3.00 with the Phillies."

Unfortunately, none of those guys have demonstrated the skills necessary to maintain ERAs that low.

It's not that one of the Twins' relievers won't finish this season with an excellent ERA; it's just that it's almost impossible to know which one. Which of course makes it difficult for Ron Gardenhire to somehow divine the identity of his best closer candidate.

I'm sure he'll try, though.

Joe Nathan took over as the Twins' closer in 2004. Before him, Everyday Eddie Guardado was the every-day closer. Before him, it was LaTroy Hawkins, who lost his job to Guardado only because of an ERA approaching 6. To find a season in which the Twins didn't have a firmly established closer, you have to go back to 2000, when Tom Kelly never quite decided between Hawkins (14 saves) and Bullet Bob Wells (10), both of them right-handers.

My point being that Ron Gardenhire is probably going to choose someone this month, or in April, and stick with him for a while. Which isn't the worst thing in the world. But the best thing would probably be to let the left-handed Mijares get some save opportunities in left-heavy ninths, with one (or more) of the righties getting the others.

That would leave Gardenhire short a left-handed setup man; in fact, the only other left-handed candidate to even win a roster spot is Brian Duensing, who's been a starter throughout his professional career. But Duensing is fighting for the No. 5 slot in the rotation, and sliding him into the bullpen would seem a relatively easy move.

The American League Central is weak enough that the Twins could win it without doing anything at all unorthodox. Just hand the closer chores to Guerrier or Rauch, and beat out the White Sox for the division title by two or three games. But they could improve their chances just a bit by doing what managers used to do as a matter of course: thinking.