March 23, 2010 – First of all, congratulations to the Minnesota Twins and Joe Mauer for getting a deal done, and in the nick of time too, because both the fans and the writers were all confident that a deal would get done and Joe would resign with Minnesota but lately some ugly rumors and discussions had started surfacing that maybe Mauer should be traded if he is not interested in signing for the “big” money that the Twins were offering. These kinds of stories could only cause ill will between all parties concerned and it is a good thing that both sides were able to get together and get a deal done before the ‘mud slinging” had a chance to really get going and things were said that would not be easily forgotten.
Now that everyone has had a chance to relax and take a deep sigh of relief after Joe Mauer signed an eight year extension for $184MM it is time for the Twins brain trust to get back to solving the next big issue, what to do about the closer problem. When Joe Nathan hurt his elbow back on March 6, he decided to take two weeks and see if he could pitch through the pain and the other day he decided at he couldn’t and now will undergo the infamous TJ or “Tommy John” surgery which has a minimum recovery time of 12 months.
Internally the names that have been discussed have been Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, Anthony Slama, and Francisco Liriano but I don’t see any of these names as the answer. Let’s take a look at each one of these guys.
Jon Rauch has the most experience of the bunch with 26 career saves on the books but Gardy says that he wants a closer that can punch out a hitter when needed and Rauch’s strikeouts have dropped from 86, to 71, to 66 and 49 in the last 4 years. In addition, Rauch has given up 37 home runs in the last 4 years, I am not sure that I would like to see Rauch as my everyday closer.
Jesse Crain is also not strikeout pitcher and seems to be too inconsistent from one outing to another in my eyes to be sent out to shut the door on a team day in and day out. Having said that, Crain can be very effective for short periods of time but I would never let Crain pitch more than one inning in whatever role he is in.
Jose Mijares is the lone lefty in the group but he just lacks the experience at this stage of his career to carry the load as the teams closer. He has the stuff to do the job but his lack of experience and his questionable attitude will keep him in his current role.
Matt Guerrier probably has the right mental attitude to be a closer but I am not sure he has the “stuff” to get the job done. Matt gives up about 10 home runs a year on average and his strikeouts have dropped for the last 3 years in a row. Matt is one of the best set-up guys in the business and I would hate to weaken that spot to put him in a closer role where he might be less effective.
Pat Neshek is coming off an injury and did not pitch at all in 2009. Neshek’s funky delivery has served him well in the past but I don’t think that the Twins can thrust him into a closer role after such a long layoff. He meets Gardy’s requirement of having the “punch-out” ability and he for the most part can keep the ball in the ballpark but the recent injury is just more risk then the Twins will want to take at this time.
Francisco Liriano probably has the stuff to be the closer but his mentality will not allow him to fill that role. You have to be a “cool customer” to be a closer and not allow a bad call or runners on base to get to you and there is no way that Liriano can over come these obstacles at this point in his career. Plus you have to ask yourself, is Liriano really ready to jump back into the starter role? If he is, he is probably more valuable there then in the closer role.
How about Anthony Slama? Would you put a rookie driver in your Corvette? I think not.
So, there you have it, the Twins have a good bullpen but they have a missing piece and it is a key missing piece. The Twins don’t have the right spare part to fix their engine without going outside the organization. It won’t be a cheap fix and you have to give up something to get something but the Twins have no choice. The Twins $90+ million car has headed full speed into 2010 and right now the brakes are not working, they need to find the missing link that can slam on the brakes on the opposing team in the 9th inning of those close games when the Twins have the lead. The Twins cannot afford NOT to find a closer, and soon.