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Updated: November 16th, 2010 11:06pm
Key offseason decisions: Bullpen bridge has several questions

Key offseason decisions: Bullpen bridge has several questions

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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With the GM meetings taking place in Orlando this week, dominos have begun to fall in the MLB free agency market. Those dominos will continue to fall as the deadline to offer arbitration to free agents nears (November 23), and with the Winter Meetings fast approaching (December 5-9).

The Minnesota Twins have plenty of decisions to make this offseason, including on a slew of relief pitchers -- Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch, who are all free agents, and Matt Capps, who enters his final year of arbitration eligibility.

Without those five men, the Twins would be left with Joe Nathan, who is highly unlikely to be at full strength in his first season coming off Tommy John surgery, LHP Jose Mijares, RHP Alex Burnett, RHP Pat Neshek, RHP Anthony Slama, LHP Glen Perkins, and possibly RHP Rob Delaney and RHP Kyle Waldrop.

Not exactly a bullpen that screams "bring on the Yankees."

Despite losing Nathan prior to the season, the Twins bullpen posted a 3.49 ERA (8th in MLB) and a 3.91 FIP (13th). Those numbers are a notch or two better than the 3.87 ERA (10th) and 4.32 FIP (18th) posted in 2009.

Of course, the overall league ERA dropped from 4.32 to 4.08 over that same time span, which makes the Twins' statistical improvement a little less impressive.

But credit general manager Bill Smith for going out and landing Capps and Fuentes in an effort to keep the late-inning bridge steady -- bold moves that haven't always (or ever) been made near the trade deadline during the Ron Gardenhire era.

Now Smith must decide what to do with the following five arms:

RHP Matt Guerrier, age 32, Type-A free agent
2010: 71 IP, 3.17 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 42 K, 21 unintentional BB

This is by far the most difficult decision the Twins have among the five relievers in question.

Guerrier, who earned $3.15 million last season in his final year of arbitration, was very hittable for much of the summer, and he showed signs of decline and/or wearing down. That could be a product of the fact that he's thrown at least 69 2/3 innings in every season since 2005.

Guerrier has also vastly outperformed his career 4.44 FIP and 4.41 xFIP, posting a 3.38 career ERA -- an odd trend, a stroke of luck, or somewhere in between?

Not to mention, Guerrier is a Type-A free agent, which means if the Twins offer arbitration -- and if he rejects -- any team that signs him must give up a first-round draft pick.

It's unlikely any team would give up a first-round pick for the right to pay Guerrier -- a seventh- or eighth-inning guy, not a closer -- $4 million per year (give or take).

If the Twins offer arbitration -- probably somewhere in the $4-5 million range -- it's likely Guerrier would accept.

Is that good or bad?

RHP Jesse Crain, age 29, Type-B free agent
2010: 68 IP, 3.04 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 62 K, 23 unintentional BB

Reinforcing his status as one of the more polarizing figures, from a performance standpoint, in recent Twins history, Crain turned a disastrous start to the season into a career year in 2010.

The Twins must now answer two questions: Can Crain maintain a level of consistency as a set-up man? And is he worth a multi-year contract?

Because Crain earned only $2 million last year, his potential price tag appears to be somewhat manageable, especially considering the upside.

The Twins have put way too much time and effort into Crain to just let him walk, and he rewarded them by carrying the bullpen on his back for the final three months of the regular season.

In return, will the Twins reward Crain with a multi-year contract of some sort?

LHP Brian Fuentes, age 35, Type-B free agent
2010: 48 IP, 2.81 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 47 K, 19 unintentional BB

In limited duty for the Twins down the stretch, Fuentes did not allow a run in 9 2/3 innings. He is also completely lights-out against lefties -- opposing lefties hit just .128/.222/.149 with one extra-base hit in 55 plate appearances against Fuentes last year.

But there are three major concerns when it comes to re-signing Fuentes:

Age -- Fuentes turned 35 this past summer, which raises concerns about his ability to overcome signs of decline and issues with durability.

Durability -- Fuentes missed two weeks with stiffness in his back down the stretch, and he hasn't been much of an innings-eater over the last two years (48 IP in 2010, 55 IP in 2009).

Price -- Fuentes earned $9 million in 2010, and because there are likely teams who would sign him as a closer, his value goes up, despite the aforementioned flaws.

In a vacuum, when healthy, Fuentes is an extremely valuable left-handed reliever, and he works as a good complement to either Capps or Nathan. But the Twins aren't expected to enter a bidding war for his services, which means he'll probably wind up elsewhere.

RHP Jon Rauch, age 32, Type-B free agent
2010: 57 2/3 IP, 3.12 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 46 K, 14 unintentional BB

Rauch took some (unfair) criticism last summer for essentially not being Joe Nathan. Of course, it was unreasonable to ever think that Rauch would step in and perform in the closers role like Nathan, who is one of the best relief pitchers of the past 10 years.

Ultimately, Rauch posted career numbers across the board in 2010, including his highest groundball rate (37.7%) and his lowest HR-per-nine rate (.47).

Rauch earned $2.9 million in 2010, and because he is a Type-B free agent, the Twins would have to offer him arbitration in order to receive draft-pick compensation. Because he posted 21 saves, there's likely to be a closer's market for Rauch to some degree, which means he is likely to earn more than $2.9 million.

It's also likely he signs a two- or three-year contract with some team.

If that's the case, offering him arbitration is almost a no-brainer. If he accepts, the Twins would have a very solid late-inning arm at a fairly reasonable price ($4-5 million?). If he rejects, the team receives a sandwich draft pick.

RHP Matt Capps, age 27, arbitration-eligible
2010: 73 IP, 2.47 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 59 K, 13 unintentional BB, 42 saves

Smith told the Washington Post on Tuesday that tendering a contract to Capps is "not at all" a difficult decision, meaning Capps will almost certainly wear a Twins uniform in 2011. The right-hander earned $3.5 million in 2010, and his salary is likely to jump over $5 million -- and possibly well over that mark -- in his final season of arbitration eligibility.

Tendering a contract to Capps, as Smith indicated, really shouldn't be much of a decision. Capps is young, he's fairly durable, and with the exception of a poor outlier season in 2009 that saw him post a 5.80 ERA, 4.90 FIP and career-high 2.82 walks per nine, he has been one of the more serviceable relievers in baseball over the past five seasons.

Not dominant, but serviceable.

Also consider the fact that the Twins traded promising catching prospect Wilson Ramos for Capps, and it makes even less sense to non-tender him, even if the price tag is a little steep.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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