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Updated: February 20th, 2011 11:29pm
Mackey: Forget saves; Nathan and Capps give bullpen versatility

Mackey: Forget saves; Nathan and Capps give bullpen versatility

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Minnesota Twins are one of three teams paying two relief pitchers a combined $18 million or more in 2011.

Matt Capps will earn $7.15 million and Joe Nathan will earn $11.25 million.

The New York Yankees will pay Mariano Rivera $15 million and Rafael Soriano $10 million. The Boston Red Sox will pay Jonathan Papelbon $12 million and Bobby Jenks $6 million.

Both men are being paid like closers, and both men are preparing this spring as if they will handle ninth-inning duties.

"Sure, that's their mentality," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That's what they both are. They're both closers. It's what they've done. So, that's what you expect them to come in here as -- closers, and not anything less than that."

And thus begins my annual argument against saves.

In all likelihood, the Twins will begin the season with Nathan and Capps slotted in as the eighth- and ninth-inning pitchers -- not necessarily in that order.

Gardenhire said Sunday he hasn't made any initial decisions. It's simply too early to judge.

"I don't make any decisions until the end of spring training and we decide where people are going to be," he said, later adding, "If (Nathan) comes back and he throws like he did two years ago then he will probably be our closer."

Nathan has thrown two 40-pitch bullpen sessions since Thursday, reporting no ill effects with his surgically-repaired elbow. It remains to be seen if he can retire live hitters with consistency. We'll find out soon enough.

If Nathan is effective, the Twins could be in a perfect position to implement perhaps the most effective bullpen strategy -- a cross between the old-school mentality, which suggests a closer should almost always be saved for ninth-inning leads, and the new-school, sabermetric mentality, which suggests a team's best relief pitcher should be used in various high-leverage situations at any point after the fifth or sixth inning.

The old-school mentality suggests holding the closer until later. Sometimes the game has been decided, for better or worse, by the time a closer even warms up.

The new-school mentality suggests using the "bullpen ace" immediately -- in the seventh inning, for instance, in tied games and even when trailing by a run -- thus putting out a fire and worrying about the next inning later.

With Capps and Nathan, the Twins can do both.

In fact, the Twins' bullpen was at its best in 2010 when Capps closed and Jesse Crain -- arguably the team's best relief pitcher at the time -- was more of a roamer between the seventh and eighth innings.

"More times than not, the ballgames are won and lost earlier in the game than later," Capps said. "So even with a defined role of closer or setup guy, it's not always the most important position or the most important role. Games are won and lost more, I think, in that middle third -- the fourth through the seventh (innings), or the fifth through the eighth."

"I try to be ready from the seventh inning on," Capps added. "If the manager calls down in the seventh inning, I feel like I need to be ready. If he asks me to throw two innings, I need to be ready to throw two innings. If he asks me to throw three innings, I need to be ready to throw three innings."

The problem with having a designated "bullpen ace" who could enter games in different innings each night, as Capps pointed out, and as Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson will attest to as well, is that most relief pitchers are creatures of habit. They don't want to be on-call for four innings. They want defined roles.

"I certainly think it's easier mentally to be prepared when you know what your role's going to be," Capps said.

"But that's part of being a professional. You've got to take the ball and be ready any given moment of 162 days."

"We will see how it happens," Gardenhire said. "I have a couple closers here."

And that's a luxury most teams don't have.

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.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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