With Joe Nathan succumbing to injury, Minnesota’s closer situation has become one of the most speculative in baseball. This is bad for the Twins, but good for your fantasy baseball team (unless you have Nathan). The Twins have several solid relievers, but who will close is totally up in the air. The candidates are:
Jon Rauch—Rauch has been widely-discussed as a favorite to replace Nathan. The 6-10 former prospect saved 18 games last season for the Washington Nationals with an ERA under 3.00. He was also effective last season after being acquired by the Twins. He is a logical choice to step into the closer’s role, but do not be surprised if the Twins look elsewhere.
Jose Mijares—Mijares could eventually become the Twins’ closer this season. He possesses “closer stuff:” a mid—90’s fastball and a solid curve. The Twins would presumably like to see Mijares move into the role over seasoned veterans who have been solid in their current roles.
Jesse Crain—Crain is a former prospect I thought would become the Twins’ closer before Nathan emerged. While Crain never became closer, he carved out a nice role for himself as the setup man. The Twins will consider transitioning Crain into the closer’s role this season. Like Mijares, Crain throws a mid-90’s fastball and a solid curve. Also, moving the right-handed Crain into the closer’s role would allow the Twins to continue using Mijares as a lefty out of their pen.
Carlos Gutierrez—Gutierrez is a darkhorse candidate to have a breakout season. A first-round selection from the University of Miami in 2008, Gutierrez was one of the best closer’s in college baseball. Gutierrez, already 25, features a 96 mile per hour fastball and a great sinker. His weakness is the unspectacular numbers produced last season in AA, but if he can improve, look for the Twins to be willing to give him an opportunity in their bullpen.
Francisco Liriano—the Twins were already discussing having Liriano pitch out of the bullpen, and if he pitches effectively, the thought of him closing is not far-fetched. He will not begin the season as the team’s closer, but his performance in the Domincan League indicates he can still be effective.
Pat Neshek—Neshek did not pitch last year and made only 15 appearances the prior season. Nevertheless, as one of the most popular veterans in the Twins’ bullpen, some believe he will get a shot to take Nathan’s role. I don’t see it. Neshek is returning from serious injury and fits extremely well into the setup role.
Matt Guerrier—Guerrier was among the Twins’ best relievers last season and in 2007 (not in 2008). He is a veteran who could adequately fill the role assuming he pitches like last season.
Recommendation: Rauch is the best candidate for fantasy teams. But keep an eye of both Mijares and Crain, as they will be next in line if Rauch falters. Pickup Carlos Gutierrez immediately when he is called up from the minor leagues, as he could have the potential to save games if his middle relief performances are successful. Also, if you can get Nathan for a discount price, buy him on the assumption he will close next season.