Twins' bullpen could see an overhaul in '11

Twins' bullpen could see an overhaul in '11

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jesse Crain doesn't quite know what awaits him this offseason.

The 28-year-old reliever has spent his entire career in the Twins organization and now is getting ready to possibly become a free agent for the very first time.

It's a scenario that generates a mix of feelings for Crain, including some excitement and a little uncertainty.

"It's a little weird to think about [free agency]," Crain said while cleaning out his locker at Target Field on the Monday after the Twins had lost to the Yankees in the American League Division Series. "Honestly, I haven't really thought too much about it, just because there's so much that's been going on with the playoffs and everything. I can't really control anything. I'm just going to sit back and relax until I have to make a decision."

Crain is just one reliever who might not be back in the Twins bullpen in 2011. The group could take on a much different look next season since there are a number of other relievers, including Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes, potentially scheduled to hit free agency.

After topping the $100-million mark in payroll for the first time in franchise history last season, the Twins front office will face some tough choices this winter in order to keep their payroll within reason. The area of the club that will likely see the biggest change from 2010 is the bullpen -- with six of the team's nine potential free agents being relievers.

The Twins expect All-Star closer Joe Nathan to return in time for Spring Training after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. Nathan is scheduled to make $11.25 million in 2011.

If Nathan proves not to be ready to resume his role right away, the Twins could have a closing option in Matt Capps, who is arbitration-eligible after making $3.5 million in 2010. Capps, a Trade Deadline acquisition, is due for a significant pay raise after saving a career-high 42 games between the Nationals and Twins.

So the Twins will have choices to make with their bullpen since those two relievers -- Nathan and Capps -- could account for close to $20 million of the payroll. And many of their impending free agents could be costly as well.

Rauch, who made $2.9 million in 2010, had 21 saves as the Twins' first-half closer. Fuentes gave up just three hits and no earned runs in 9 2/3 innings in the regular season for the Twins. But Fuentes made $9 million last season and could be offered the opportunity to close on the free-agent market, having served in that role for the Angels prior to the Twins acquiring him in late August.

"It'll play itself out," Fuentes said of his future after the season ended. "Everything's kind of quiet for right now. Everybody's involved in the postseason right now. Once that stuff's all said and done, the free agency stuff should start picking up. For now, there's no point even worrying about it."

Other relievers set for free agency include left-handers Ron Mahay and Randy Flores. Mahay is coming off season-ending surgery on his non-throwing right shoulder and Flores didn't make the postseason roster, so it appears unlikely that either will return to the Twins.

Right-hander Clay Condrey is arbitration-eligible, with a little over five years of service time, but he could be a non-tender candidate. Due to elbow problems, the right-hander didn't throw a single pitch for the Twins after signing a one-year, $900,000 free agent contract with Minnesota last January.

The Twins will likely look internally to fill some of the holes in their bullpen. But of the group of relievers who could be departing, the two pitchers the Twins seem most likely to target to bring back would be Crain and Guerrier, since both have played significant roles in the club's bullpen in recent years.

Guerrier has been one of the most consistent relievers for the Twins, and he led the team with 74 appearances in 2010. Crain is coming off one of the better years of his career. After a slow start to the season, Crain rebounded in mid-June and became one of the Twins' most reliable relievers over the final 3 1/2 months of the season.

One thing that could entice Crain to explore the free-agent market would be the opportunity to close. Crain spent much of his Minor League career as a closer -- and it's a role that he has always said he'd eventually like to have in the Majors.

"Obviously, I'd love an opportunity to do that," Crain said. "I guess we'll see what happens this offseason. A team might come and offer me that.

"I'm kind of looking forward to seeing what happens. I'd love to be back here. I love the guys, I love the organization. It's the only place I've ever been. I feel comfortable. We've done a lot of good things in the community, and I love the fans. We'll just have to see what happens."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.