February 1, 2013

Link-O-Rama

Aaron Rupar of City Pages was at a coffee shop when he witnessed the start of a blind date, so naturally he stuck around for the whole thing and live-tweeted it.

• I'm thrilled that one of my favorite writers, Joe Posnanski, will be joining NBCSports.com as a columnist, blogger, and all-around "digital voice." And now that he's a co-worker I'm going to use Posnanski to become friends with Ken Tremendous/Michael Schur and then use him to meet Aubrey Plaza. Any writing Posnanski does is just a bonus.

• Speaking of Posnanski, it almost seems like he didn't enjoy watching "Trouble With The Curve."

• And speaking of NBCSports.com, my blog-mate Craig Calcaterra put together an extensive oral history of HardballTalk.

Tony Soprano's daughter is marrying Lenny Dykstra's son.

• As a kid I owned a Nick Van Exel jersey, so this news makes me feel both old and sad.

• I made my triumphant return to Paul Allen's show on KFAN yesterday and we talked Twins, but the highlight was when he sang to me and asked how my mom is doing.

• I'm asking my family to do the same thing, but with Chinese food carryout.

Eddie Guardado was elected to the Twins' team Hall of Fame. I ranked him as the 26th-best player in Twins history.

• My first concert was Boyz II Men (with opening acts Babyface and Tevin Campbell) at Target Center in 1994. They're coming back to Target Center in July ... with New Kids On The Block and 98 Degrees, which is probably more nostalgia than I can stomach at this point.

• Twins president Dave St. Peter was our guest on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode and we asked him all about payroll, revenue, television money, attendance, and a lot more.

• Also on this week's podcast: If you listen closely John Bonnes mentions magnets at one point and I start to say this before realizing he won't get it.

• This would be a bargain at double the price, but as always the University of Minnesota could have saved $3,406 and just watched "Seinfeld":

"Fake, fake, fake, fake" is one of my top-five lines in "Seinfeld" history.

• And people think I never leave the house.

Phil Miller has officially started covering the Twins for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, so you should definitely be following him on Twitter.

Carl Pavano had his spleen removed after suffering a laceration when he fell shoveling snow.

Chuck Klosterman wrote a very interesting, nuanced article about mental illness and Royce White, who's yet to play an NBA game.

• As someone who relies on a GPS to get him everywhere, I now have something new to fear.

• Saturday night's attempt to #GetSethDrunk at the Twins Daily get-together was unsuccessful, but this receipt shows that I tried my best. Sadly, he gave up after one.

• I posted a few other pictures from Twins Fest and the star-studded post-Twins Fest get-together.

• Based on this study Nick Punto should have been murdered years ago.

• I consider these men American heroes and hope their story is the plot of "Ocean's Fourteen."

• Phillies manager Charlie Manuel summed up Delmon Young's entire career in one depressing but true quote.

• On a related note, reading what Phillies blogs wrote about signing Young is quite an experience.

• I don't know enough about the non-baseball part of Boston sports media to say if Alan Siegel's article in Boston Magazine is particularly accurate, but it definitely raises some interesting topics that can be applied to Minnesota and every other major market.

• And to think, people make fun of me for only wanting to go to bars around Hopkins.

David Fincher is my favorite director and I'm obsessed with Netflix instant, so I'll probably watch "House of Cards" in one sitting.

• "End of Watch" was a mediocre movie overall, but it's worth renting just for Anna Kendrick singing "Hey Ma" by Cam'ron:

Seriously.

• As if that video didn't make world-renowned Kendrick fan and 1500-ESPN producer/writer Dana Wessel happy enough, his wardrobe is about to expand significantly.

• On a related note, Wikipedia says the following about Cam'ron's pre-music days:

Cameron Giles was born and raised in Harlem, New York. He went to school at Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, where he would meet his long time friends Mase and Jim Jones. He was a promising basketball player alongside Mase, however, he was unable to take advantage of various scholarship offers due to a poor academic record.

I'm the biggest Mase fan in the world, but not living in the alternate universe where Cam'ron and Mase became the next Stockton and Malone makes me very sad. If nothing else, based on this video we can say conclusively that Cam'ron was a better basketball player than David Arquette.

• Friend of AG.com and Twins Daily blogger Nick Nelson profiled fantasy sports payment service LeagueSafe and its creator Paul Charchian.

• As a nation we're not talking enough about Michael Beasley's hair.

Terry Ryan's explanation for signing Kevin Correia makes it difficult to buy into the Twins' supposed embracing of statistical analysis or trust their scouts.

• Friend of AG.com and longtime prominent stat-head Tom Tango now works exclusively for the Cubs after consulting for multiple teams and they're also looking to hire a Director of Research and Development in Baseball Operations.

• After his 10-year NFL career former Vikings running back Leroy Hoard struggles with memory loss and emotional problems at age 44.

Carson Cistulli's first act of journalism since joining the Baseball Writers Association of America involved asking Brewers reliever John Axford about his mustache and Ryan Gosling.

• New podcast discovery: "Put Your Hands Together" with Cameron Esposito, who records the weekly stand-up comedy show she hosts at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Los Angeles and mixes in some interviews. Through three episodes the list of comics featured includes Aziz Ansari, Anthony Jeselnik, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Kinane, Steve Agee, Bobcat Goldthwait, James Adomian, and Jerrod Carmichael. Stand-up comedy nerds will absolutely love it.

• I guess A's left-hander Brett Anderson is my new favorite player now.

• Some of this week's weird and random search engine queries that brought people here:

- "Can you get skinny by going swimming?"
- "What team did Denard Span go to?"
- "Quick ways to lose 150 pounds"
- "Jason Kubel tattoos"
- "Twins pitcher sucks"
- "Aubrey Plaza tied up"
- "29th birthday"
- "Rob McElhenney bench press"
- "Dan Gladden daughter"
- "Is winter statistically harder to lose weight?"
- "Girlfriend obsessed with podcast"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is "Hey Ma" by Cam'ron:

This week's blog content is sponsored by Peter David Benson's book "All Babies Suck," which is available on Amazon.com as a free Kindle download. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

May 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Perkins, James, Hughes, Thome, Revere, Capps, and Mauer

Glen Perkins emerged as one of the few bright spots for the Twins in this miserable season, escaping the doghouse with a 1.59 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 innings, so naturally he injured his oblique muscle Saturday night and is expected to miss at least three weeks. Normally that would give Jose Mijares an opportunity to step forward and prove himself in a higher leverage role, except he's already on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

You'd think that losing their two main left-handed relievers would motivate the Twins to call up Chuck James, a former Braves top prospect signed as a minor-league free agent after injuries derailed his career. James has thrived in the Triple-A bullpen with a 1.75 ERA, .177 opponents' batting average, and 35-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 innings, but because he's not on the 40-man roster the Twins opted instead to bring back Dusty Hughes.

Hughes was demoted to Triple-A just two weeks ago after allowing 12 runs in 11 innings as opponents hit .356/.434/.622 off him and didn't even fare particularly well in five appearances at Rochester. From a roster management perspective turning to Hughes again is much easier than giving James a shot, but from a trying to actually win some games perspective it looks like the Twins are content to just shuffle through the same replacement-level players.

Ron Gardenhire's left-handed relief options are now Hughes, who never deserved an Opening Day job to begin with and pitched his way to Triple-A just 15 days ago, and Phil Dumatrait, a 29-year-old journeyman owning a 6.95 ERA in 113 innings. And three of his five right-handed options are Alex Burnett and Anthony Swarzak, who shouldn't be trusted in anything close to an important spot, and Kevin Slowey, a career-long starter struggling to adjust to relief work.

At this point the seven-man bullpen consists of one mediocre closer, one formerly great closer coming back from elbow surgery, one mid-rotation starter not well suited for relieving, and four guys who should be at Triple-A. There's no "risk" to losing replacement-level arms like Hughes, Dumatrait, and Eric Hacker on waivers, but the Twins predictably avoid 40-man changes and no one in Rochester's bullpen besides James is pitching well enough to really force the issue.

Heading into the season the Twins' two biggest non-injury question marks were the bullpen and middle infield, as guys like me wondered all offseason why they did so little to address the lack of depth in both areas. Injuries have magnified that lack of depth while also wrecking the Twins in other areas, but through 45 games they rank dead last among AL teams in bullpen ERA and middle infield OPS. Sometimes big question marks turn into big problems.

• As expected, after yesterday's game the Twins activated Jim Thome and Jason Repko from the disabled list and sent Luke Hughes and Ben Revere back to Triple-A. Matt Tolbert sticks around instead of Hughes for the same reason he beat out Hughes for an Opening Day roster spot, which is his ability to play shortstop. Hughes struggled in his first extended taste of the majors, hitting .211/.253/.296 with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75 plate appearances.

Revere was on the roster for 17 games, but started just six times and made his lone start in center field yesterday afternoon, misplaying a double into a triple ahead of what proved to be the game-winning run for Arizona. Revere also hauled in a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch in the same inning and made several impressive grabs while playing left field, but his lack of arm strength and limited offensive potential were both on full display.

Gardenhire hinted that he may have pushed the front office to keep Revere instead of bringing back Repko, saying he "really enjoyed Ben" and "told Billy [Smith] ... Rep hasn't swung the bat great down there." Repko "hasn't swung the bat great" anywhere, really, and the fact that he's a right-handed hitter backing up the left-handed-hitting Denard Span and Jason Kubel is rendered nearly meaningless by Gardenhire's refusal to platoon anyone.

Because he rarely starts, even versus lefties, Repko's main duties are coming in as a defensive replacement and pinch-running, both of which Revere could handle. Of course, it doesn't make much sense to keep Revere in the majors as a bench player and with Thome returning to the lineup the outfield playing time will be even harder to come by. Repko is very expendable, but Revere will benefit more from starting at Triple-A than sitting on the Twins' bench.

• I've written plenty about how closing is a role rather than a skill and about how closers are made rather than born. Matt Capps showing that the "proven closer" label is silly while Wilson Ramos thrives with the Nationals has brought the topic to the forefront, but posting the Rick Aguilera installment of my ongoing "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" series caused me to think about the issue in terms of Twins history.

Prior to becoming the Twins' all-time leader in saves Aguilera wasn't a closer. In fact, he didn't even want to be a reliever. Yet the Twins thought he had the raw stuff for the job and gave him a role he'd never filled before rather than give up assets to acquire an experienced closer. Nathan joins Aguilera as the only pitchers with more than 150 saves in a Minnesota uniform, yet when the Twins acquired him from the Giants he was a 29-year-old with one career save.

Eddie Guardado has the third-most saves in Twins history, but he was given the job almost by default in mid-2001 and at the time had a grand total of 18 career saves in eight seasons. Not every successful Twins closer lacked prior experience, as Ron Perranoski and Jeff Reardon racked up saves elsewhere before arriving in Minnesota. And not every good reliever pans out at closer, as Guardado only got his chance to close after LaTroy Hawkins flopped in the role.

Players can sink or swim at closer just like every other role, but logic, history, and specifically Twins history all show that paying a premium for experience accumulating saves is misguided. Judging from the bullpen's current state the Twins may have to go outside the organization for their next closer, but my hope is that they learn a lesson from Ramos-for-Capps and focus on ability instead of previous save totals. Aim for the next Aguilera or Nathan, not the next Capps.

• During his weekly radio show on 1500-ESPN yesterday Gardenhire explained that the plan is for Joe Mauer's first game action since April 12 to come today or tomorrow at extended spring training. That doesn't necessarily mean Mauer is close to returning from the DL, as he'll likely start out as a designated hitter and work his way back into playing shape, but at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Tsuyoshi Nishioka may also get into a game there this week.

Justin Morneau revealed that he got cortisone injections for neck and shoulder pain on May 12. Obviously after missing nine months with a concussion Morneau had enough on his plate without new health problems, but those injuries perhaps help explain his early struggles and altered hitting mechanics. His season totals are still ugly, but since getting the shots Morneau is 12-for-40 (.300) with one homer and three doubles.

• Each season when the Twins travel to National League ballparks for interleague games Dick Bremer asks Bert Blyleven about his career batting average and the FSN announcing crew jokes about his hitting. Blyleven hit more or less like most pitchers do, batting .131 with a .290 OPS in 514 career plate appearances. So far this year Drew Butera is hitting .110 with a .288 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Not quite as funny without the Hall of Fame pitching attached.

• I've seen some confusion about whether Michael Cuddyer has the ability to veto trades as a 10-and-5 player. That requires 10 full seasons of MLB service time, including five seasons with the same team. Cuddyer has the latter and this is his 11th year in the majors, but they aren't full seasons. He got merely a September call-up in 2001 and spent much of 2002 and 2003 in the minors, totaling just 76 games with the Twins in those two seasons. He can be traded.

• Perkins' injury left the Twins in a bind Saturday and put Capps into a two-inning save chance that he blew before recording two outs, but Edward Thoma of the Mankato Free Press explains why Gardenhire not making a double-switch while playing under NL rules cost the Twins twice.

Tom Brunansky's son, Terry Ryan's son, Mickey Hatcher's nephew, and Tyler Robertson's brother are among the 2011 draft prospects with relatives in baseball.

• Between the injuries and bullpen shuffling the Twins have already used 36 different players through 45 games. In the previous five seasons they used 42, 42, 40, 42, and 39 players, and that includes September call-ups.

• Since winning two of three games from the first-place Indians in mid-April the Twins are 6-18, with a pair of three-game winning streaks surrounded by losing streaks of nine, six, and now three games. Overall they're 15-30, which is the worst record in baseball and puts the Twins on pace to go 54-108 for the worst record in team history. Their current winning percentage is .333 and the only sub-.400 seasons so far (1981, 1982, 1995, 1999) were all above .370.

January 10, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #26 Eddie Guardado

Edward Adrian Guardado | RP/SP | 1993-2003, 2008 | Career Stats

Taken by the Twins in the 21st round of the 1990 draft, Eddie Guardado made his pro debut in 1991 and had a 1.86 ERA in 14 rookie-ball starts, throwing a no-hitter in his final outing. He moved to low Single-A in 1992 and struggled with a 5-10 record and 4.37 ERA in 101 innings, but still received a late-season promotion to high Single-A and was nearly unhittable there by winning all seven of his starts while posting a 1.64 ERA in 49 innings.

Guardado began 1993 at Double-A and went 4-0 with a 1.24 ERA in 10 starts, posting a nifty 57-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 65 innings. Combined with his great work at high Single-A the previous season, Guardado was an astounding 11-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 96/20 K/BB ratio in the span of 17 minor-league starts. That was enough to convince the Twins he was ready for the majors and Guarardo made his MLB debut on June 13, 1993.

Starting against the last-place A's at the Metrodome his first pitch was to Rickey Henderson, the best leadoff man of all time, and Guardado got the Hall of Famer to ground out to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. His second batter was native Minnesotan and former University of Minnesota star Terry Steinbach, who welcomed him to the big leagues by homering. Brent Gates, another former Gophers star, stepped to the plate after Steinbach and flied out.

After facing Oakland's assortment of Hall of Famers, ex-Gophers, and future Twins he quickly learned there's a huge difference between Double-A and the big leagues. Oakland knocked him out of the game in the middle of the fourth inning, having scored three runs with two more runners on base. Mike Hartley came in and got Henderson to hit into an inning-ending double play to get Guardado off the hook for additional runs, and he ended up with a no-decision.

Guardado went on to appear in a total of 19 games for the Twins in 1993, including 16 starts, and went 3-8 with a 6.18 ERA in 95 innings. That earned him a trip back to the minors in 1994, and Guardado was 12-7 with a 4.84 ERA in 24 starts at Triple-A before the Twins called him up again in early July. He wasn't any better, going 0-2 with an 8.47 ERA in four starts before the players' strike ended the season in mid-August.

Guardado began the strike-shortened 1995 season in the Twins' bullpen as a long reliever, but was moved back into the starting rotation in late May. He again struggled as a starter, going 0-5 with a ghastly 9.28 ERA in five starts, which combined with his numbers from 1993 and 1994 gave Guardado the following career numbers as a major-league starting pitcher: 25 starts, 125.2 innings, 3-15 record, 6.95 ERA, 169 hits, 60 strikeouts, 50 walks.

It would be difficult to pitch any worse than that, although a few years later LaTroy Hawkins gave it a valiant effort. As a starting pitcher Guardado's so-so stuff barely missed any bats and because of that he gave up hits in bunches. However, lost in the pathetic numbers as a starter and the sub par 5.12 ERA overall in 1995 is that Guardado put up the following numbers as a reliever: 46 appearances, 70 innings, 3.86 ERA, 65 hits, 61 strikeouts, 31 walks.

His lack of velocity didn't matter as much out of the bullpen, as he struck out 65 batters in 70 innings. The attempt to turn him into a starter had failed horribly, but in the process the Twins found one of the most durable relievers in team history. During the next eight years "Everyday Eddie" appeared in at least 60 games per season, including a league-high 83 games in 1996, and his ERAs were better than league-average each year from 1997-2003.

Guardado was initially used as a left-handed specialist, logging 233 innings in 294 games from 1996-1999 for an average of just 0.8 innings per appearance. Then in 2000 the Twins started using him as a more typical one-inning setup man and that's when Guardado really began to thrive. He went 7-4 with nine saves and a 3.94 ERA in 62 innings, posting a 52/25 K/BB ratio while holding opponents to a .238 batting average.

The Twins began the 2001 season with Hawkins as their closer and Guardado as his primary setup man, and it worked well for a while. The team shocked the baseball world by leading the division at the All-Star break and Hawkins had 23 saves with a 3.48 ERA. However, as the entire team fell apart in the second half so did Hawkins. In 18 post-break innings he gave up 21 earned runs on his way to a 0-3 record and 10.70 ERA.

It was a complete implosion and very painful to watch, and while it didn't occur until it was too late the Twins eventually took away Hawkins' closer job and handed it to Guardado. Guardado converted nine of the 10 save chances he was given down the stretch to finish the year 7-1 with 12 saves and a 3.51 ERA in 67 innings, and never looked back. He entered 2002 as the full-time closer and the Twins began a string of three straight division titles.

Unlike Hawkins the year before, Guardado was fantastic from April to September. He converted 14 consecutive save opportunities to begin the year and ended up saving a league-leading 45 games with a 2.93 ERA while making his first All-Star team and finishing 15th in the MVP voting. Trusted with ninth-inning duties again in 2003, he put together another great and remarkably similar season:

YEAR      G       IP      ERA     SV    OAVG
2002     68     67.2     2.93     45    .215
2003     66     65.1     2.89     41    .207

He was somewhat shaky at times, often wriggling out of jams rather than abruptly slamming the door in the ninth inning, but in two-plus seasons as closer he converted 95 saves in 106 chances for a success rate of 90 percent. Even in the playoffs, where his ERA was 9.00 in three series, Guardado converted all three save chances he was given and found a way to escape from a potentially disastrous ninth inning against the A's in Game 5 of the 2002 ALDS.

Following 14 years in the Twins organization, including 11 seasons in the big leagues and two great years as closer, Guardado became a free agent in the winter of 2003. Both Guardado and the team spoke of wanting him to return, but the Twins used the money they would have needed to re-sign him (and Hawkins, who also left) to bring back Shannon Stewart, and then brilliantly found Guardado's replacement in Joe Nathan.

Guardado signed a three-year, $13 million deal with the Mariners and the Twins used one of the draft picks they received as compensation to select Glen Perkins. Guardado pitched well in his first two seasons in Seattle, but struggled through injuries on two last-place teams. He lost the closer job in early 2006 and was later traded to Cincinnati, where he converted eight of 10 saves with a 1.29 ERA before blowing out his elbow in August.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery Guardado made his comeback with the Rangers in 2008, emerging as Texas' primary setup man at age 37 and even briefly taking ninth-inning duties from then-closer C.J. Wilson. He had a nice-looking 3.65 ERA in 49 innings, but a poor 28/17 K/BB ratio hinted that Guardado was running out of gas and sure enough he struggled after a mid-August trade to the Twins, finishing his second go-around in Minnesota with a 7.71 ERA.

He returned to the Rangers in 2009 as a lefty specialist and then got cut by the Nationals last spring to end his 17-year career ranked 21st all time with 908 appearances. He's the Twins' leader with 648 appearances, out-pacing second place Rick Aguilera by 32 percent, is third in team history in saves behind Aguilera and Nathan, and after moving to the bullpen Guardado was one of the league's most consistent, durable, and valuable relievers for nine years.

Plus, those chants of "Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!" were sure a lot of fun.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Appearances           648     1st
Saves                 116     3rd
Games Finished        258     3rd
Strikeout Rate       7.79     8th
Strikeouts            610    13th
K/BB Ratio           2.26    21st
Opponents' AVG       .253    22nd
Innings               705    24th
Batters Faced        3009    24th

March 9, 2010

Life Without Nathan: Closer Likely Facing Tommy John Surgery


When closer Joe Nathan left Saturday's spring training debut with pain in his surgically repaired elbow the Twins hoped it was merely scar tissue breaking up, but after flying back to Minneapolis for an MRI exam he's been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Nathan is expected to rest for a couple weeks in an effort to find out if can possibly pitch through the pain, but more likely than not he's headed for season-ending (and at age 35, perhaps career-threatening) Tommy John surgery.

There's no getting around the fact that losing Nathan would be a huge blow to the Twins. Since arriving in 2004 as part of the famed A.J. Pierzynski deal he's been arguably the best reliever in all of baseball, saving 246 games with a 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 418.2 innings spread over 412 appearances. During that six-season span Nathan's adjusted ERA+ of 236 is the best of any pitcher with 300 or more innings, and Mariano Rivera at 234 and Billy Wagner at 202 are the only others above 200.

Nathan is irreplaceable because no other reliever will be able to match how consistently fantastic he's been with yearly ERAs of 1.62, 2.70, 1.58, 1.88, 1.33, and 2.10. He is not, however, irreplaceable simply because of the role he filled. Closers are made, not born, and despite what you may hear from people looking to build the role up into some kind of mythical test of wills the primary characteristic needed for handling ninth-inning duties is being a good pitcher. Period.

Nathan has been a great closer, but before that he was a starter moved to the bullpen because of arm injuries and had just one season as a setup man. Eddie Guardado was also a failed starter who spent a decade as a middle reliever before getting a chance to close, and then saved 86 games in two years. Rick Aguilera is another former starter turned reliever, and was 27 years old before recording his first save. Being an established closer isn't a prerequisite for being a successful closer.

Losing a great pitcher like Nathan hurts because the Twins don't have an equally great pitcher to take his place, not because the role he filled is much too vast and important for a mere mortal. Nathan was a mere mortal before assuming the role, as were Guardado, Aguilera, and so many other top closers. Nathan has converted 90.7 percent of his chances with the Twins, which is amazing, but the MLB-wide success rate for all closers is 86.5 percent and all but the disasters are usually around 80 percent.

Nathan has had 45.2 save opportunities per year and by converting 90.7 percent of those chances he's averaged 41.0 saves. An "average" closer converting 86.5 percent would have 39.1 saves and a "poor" closer converting 80.0 percent would have 36.1 saves. Per season that equals 1.9 fewer saves at 86.5 percent and 4.9 fewer saves at 80.0 percent. And it's important to remember that not every blown save ends in a loss, so being without Nathan will likely cost 3-4 wins including his work in non-save spots.

Ron Gardenhire hasn't dropped any hints about the replacement closer because he's still holding out a slim hope that Nathan can pitch through the injury, but bullpen depth was one of the Twins' strengths coming into spring training and he has several decent options from which to choose. I'd likely go with a closer-by-committee approach based on matchups, at least initially, but my guess is that Gardenhire's preference is to find one man for the job even if it takes giving a few guys tries before settling on him.

Matt Guerrier has been setting up Nathan for the past six seasons, with a 3.31 ERA in 389 innings as a reliever, but his raw stuff isn't exactly overpowering and more importantly his valuable ability to make multi-inning appearances or rescue other pitchers from mid-inning jams would likely cease given how Gardenhire has used his closer. In terms of raw stuff Jon Rauch is much more similar to Guerrier than Nathan even if standing 6-foot-11 with neck tattoos makes him look like a closer.

With that said, Rauch has more closing experience than the rest of the fill-in candidates combined and even if that basically amounts to just 17 saves with the Nationals two seasons ago I'll be surprised if it doesn't play a big factor in Gardenhire's decision making. Rauch as a closer is obviously far from ideal, but he has a 3.59 ERA in 363.1 innings as a reliever, including a 3.60 mark last year, and was indeed right "around 80 percent" when given regular save chances in 2008.

Jose Mijares had a good rookie season with a 2.34 ERA in 62 innings and was often billed as a future closer while coming up through the minors thanks to raw stuff that sits a step above guys like Guerrier and Rauch, but Gardenhire seems unlikely to trust a second-year pitcher in the ninth inning right away. Mijares also allowed right-handers to hit .283 with a .791 OPS last year while completely shutting down fellow lefties, so for the short term at least he's probably best suited for a semi-specialist role anyway.

Once upon a time Jesse Crain was also thought of as a future closer and still has the mid-90s fastball for the job, but he's hardly been consistently reliable even as a setup man and spent six weeks of last year at Triple-A following a midseason demotion. Setting aside whether Crain could handle closing I'd be shocked if Gardenhire trusted him enough to give it a try, which is also why prospects like Anthony Slama and Robert Delaney aren't realistic options.

Francisco Liriano may be an intriguing closer candidate, but if he looks good this spring the Twins will want him in the rotation for 200 innings rather than the bullpen for 70 innings and if he isn't impressive in camp they surely won't be handing him late leads. Pat Neshek emerged as Nathan's top setup man in 2006-2008 with a 2.91 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 121 innings and might be the leading candidate to step into the job if not for the fact that he's coming back from a Tommy John surgery of his own.

Neshek's recovery is said to be going well and his spring training debut last week was promising, but he hasn't thrown a regular-season pitch since May of 2008. Tossing him right into the ninth-inning fire is highly unlikely and probably ill-advised. And while his vulnerability to left-handed batters was grossly exaggerated before the surgery he certainly benefited from being used in spots that weren't heavy on lefty sluggers. He'd benefit from that now more than ever, but it isn't doable for a one-inning closer.

Before the surgery Neshek would have been my choice to step in for Nathan and even after the surgery if healthy he'd be a good fit in a closer-by-committee situation with Mijares, but with his status up in the air and no need to rush him into anything it's a moot point. And of course Gardenhire is unlikely to use multiple, matchup-based closers anyway. At some point pining for Mijares, Neshek, or Mijares/Neshek could make sense, but for now Gardenhire may lean toward Rauch and I'd find it hard to disagree.

Whatever happens the bullpen's depth has the Twins remarkably well-positioned to handle losing their stud closer and any decision Gardenhire makes will likely result in less of a game-saving dropoff than most people seem to think. Nathan has been spectacular, but the role he's filled is so rigid and fawned over that the gap between truly "great" and merely something resembling "mediocre" in the ninth inning is typically overstated and often unpredictable, with last year providing a pair of prominent examples.

MLB's best save percentage belonged to Fernando Rodney, a 32-year-old career-long setup man with a 4.28 ERA who went 37-of-38 for Detroit. Philadelphia won 93 games and the NL pennant despite one of the worst closer seasons ever by Brad Lidge, who went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and MLB-high 11 blown saves. Nathan's injury drops the Twins' playoffs chances, which is difficult to stomach after a productive offseason had the team looking so strong, but they can definitely survive and even thrive without him.

And maybe the Twins will stumble upon their next great closer in the process.


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