Twins to Use Brian Duensing in Relief?


The Minnesota Twins have won the AL Central two years running, but they face the 2011 season without many key members of a previously outstanding bullpen. Even with the return of closer Joe Nathan, the Twins will be without the services of Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier, and Jesse Crain; all of whom left via free agency.

The Twins retained Matt Capps, who closed last year, along with Nathan, who missed 2010 after Tommy John surgery. Nathan is said to be progressing well and is expected to reclaim his ninth inning role this year. Minnesota figures to use a host of young arms to compile their relief corps. One of the key names being discussed in the twittersphere is that of left hander Brian Duensing.

Tigers fans are all too familiar with Duensing. In his brief two-year career, the southpaw has had 12 appearances against the Tigers (4 starts). He’s thrown more innings against Detroit than any other opponent and has a 2.77 ERA versus the Tigers. Duensing is just 1-2 against Detroit, but is a combined 10-0 against the rest of the AL Central. His ERA is a combined 2.99 versus divisional opponents and he has made 13 of his career 22 starts within the division. Doesn’t sound like a guy you would want to move out of the rotation, does he?

But it appears that Minnesota will at least plan to use Duensing in relief this year. They have Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey lined up as starters and many Twins bloggers seem to feel that Duesning’s left handedness plays better in relief than the other options.

This situation isn’t unlike that facing the Tigers this year. Detroit has decided that Phil Coke is more valuable as a starter than as the ace bullpen left hander he was last season. Duensing is in line, it appears, for a role similar to the one Coke filled last year for the Tigers. The Twins will still have a southpaw in the rotation, and a darn good one, so it’s not exactly the same, but it looks like they’re going to be willing to weaken the rotation in order to strengthen the bullpen.

Duensing may not have the experience that Blackburn has as a starter, but his results have been better. He’s also been more effective as a starter, posting a 2.93 ERA in 138 innings as a starter versus a 3.13 ERA in 76 career relief innings. The biggest difference comes in his walk rate. Duensing has issued free passes to 37 hitters when starting (2.41/9), but that rate jumps to 29 walks in relief (3.42/9), an increase of over one walk per nine innings.

Duensing does have some pretty dramatic splits working against him and that seems to be the focal point of the Twins blogosphere. Left handed batters have managed just a .192 average and .502 OPS against Duensing career (4.05 K/BB ratio) while right hander have been far more successful, hitting him at a .277 average and .747 OPS (1.47 K/BB). I can understand the reluctance to proclaim Duensing as the best fit to face right handed slanted lineups. But the Tigers are decidedly more right handed than most clubs (especially in the Central) and Duensing has held them to a .245 average and OPS under .700 in his 12 outings against them.

In fact, despite his overall struggles against right handed hitters, Duensing has had a good amount of success against the Tigers right handed bats. Miguel Cabrera is just 4-for-17 (.235) against him, Magglio Ordonez is 2-for-10 (.200), Ryan Raburn is 2-for-16 (.125), Austin Jackson has gone 1-for-8 (.125), and Carlos Guillen is 0-for-4 (.000).  On the flip side, Jhonny Peralta (.364), Brandon Inge (.375) and Casper Wells (.571) have enjoyed facing Duensing. Still, if I were the Twins, I’d want a guy who has held the meat of the Tigers order in check to be facing those guys two or three times per game.

While Blackburn has made only eight of his 100 career appearances in relief, I can’t seem to find a good reason why the Twins keep running him out there, not when they have a better option. Blackburn has owned the Indians, posting a 2.51 ERA against them in 11 starts, but the White Sox (3.95 ERA against), Tigers (4.79), and Royals (5.57) have all hit him well, or at least better than they have hit Duensing. If you want to win the Central, it’s best to put your club in position to beat the other teams therein. You face divisional opponents 18 times per year, you might want the guys who have shown the ability to pitch well to be throwing in those games.

Just the same, though, I’ll take all the advantages the Twins want to give.

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