FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — The Minnesota Twins’ bullpen will look quite different this season even with the return of a familiar face.
Joe Nathan, who has saved 246 games for the Twins since becoming the closer in 2004, has returned from reconstructive surgery on his throwing elbow last March.
Even with Nathan’s return, there were enough departures from last year’s unit to provide plenty of opportunities this spring.
“Our biggest challenges are going to be in the bullpen,” Twins general manager Bill Smith said. “We had four guys in the bullpen who we lost who were good pitchers for us. We’re going to have to replace them.”
Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier combined for 14 seasons with the Twins bullpen. They and Jon Rauch helped the Twins win two straight AL Central titles, with Brian Fuentes also assisting in 2010.
All four of those relief pitchers have departed as free agents.
Nathan saved a career-best 47 games in 2009 before the injury.
“I’ll be on a regular program,” Nathan said. “I think everything’s full-go unless something comes up. Until we get to a game situation with a little extra adrenaline going, I’m sure they’ll watch me then and give me a day off extra. But leading up to games, everything’s full-go.”
He and Matt Capps appear to be the front-runners to claim the closer’s role.
“Time will tell,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Nathan. “He’s probably in as good of shape as he’s been in a long time. Now it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it on a day-to-day basis. He has worked himself hard to get back to this point. We’ll know more when we get him on the mound and get him throwing the baseball.”
Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson do not want to name a closer until the end of camp.
“If he comes back and throws like he did two years ago, then he’ll probably be the closer,” Gardenhire said of Nathan. “We’ll see. I’ve got a couple of good closers here. Mr. Capps is a pretty doggone good closer as well.”
Capps saved 16 games for the Twins after a July 29 trade with the Washington Nationals. He saved 26 games prior to the trade and has 109 career saves since 2006, when he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Smith said he liked three homegrown players as candidates to take a bullpen spot: Pat Neshek, Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship.
Chuck James, Yorman Bazardo, Jim Hoey and Anthony Slama also were mentioned by Smith as candidates to contribute.
NOTE: Gardenhire said lefty Francisco Liriano was feeling better after throwing long toss while recovering from shoulder soreness that has pushed back his first bullpen session. The starter is day-to-day.
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