Twins exploring options at closer
Rauch, Liriano among potential candidates
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins have spent the last two weeks considering their options for the closer role should Joe Nathan need surgery on the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.Now, the time has come for the club to make some decisions on those contingency plans. The Twins learned officially on Sunday that Nathan will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. So with two weeks remaining until Opening Day on April 5, the club must now figure out its plans for the ninth inning. "We've really been focused on getting to this point [with Nathan] -- one way or the other," Twins general manager Bill Smith said. "Now we will move forward. We've been talking about some different contingencies, but obviously we'll have to step up on that." The Twins have been exploring the trade market for a closer, but they also have internal options. The in-house relievers likely to take over Nathan's role include Jon Rauch, who has 26 big league saves, the most of any Twins pitcher besides Nathan. Other possible candidates currently in the bullpen are Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain. But one name that keeps getting brought up in the closer discussion is Francisco Liriano, who is currently in the running to be the club's fifth starter. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said on Saturday that he met with Liriano this week to let the pitcher know that for now he's a starter and will prepare for the season as one. But Gardenhire continued to hint on Sunday that it's a possibility the team could look to the left-hander as an option for the ninth inning. "[There is] one guy that we all know that probably can be a closer," Gardenhire said in reference to Liriano. "He's got all the closing stuff -- punchout pitches, the whole package. If it's the right thing and he wants to do it, we have to see. Let everybody stretch out and go from there." When asked if the club would hesitate to put Liriano in the role if he did want to close, Gardenhire had this answer. "We would talk about him for sure if he wants to close," he said. "He has the stuff." Liriano has 16 strikeouts in 10 innings this spring, and a 2.70 ERA. He's impressed the team with better location of his fastball as well a nasty slider, which Gardenhire likened to the one that the lefty had during his breakout 2006 rookie season.
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"Those sliders that he is throwing are unhittable," Gardenhire said. "Guys are swinging and missing by a foot on those sliders, some pretty good hitters. When he throws it good, that slider is really snapping."Liriano has said this spring that he'd prefer to stay in a starting role, but after his start against the Rays on Saturday, he seemed to ease on that stance slightly. "I'm just ready for anything," Liriano said. "If I have to close, I'll close, but they haven't told me [about changing roles]." Rauch has the most big league closing experience on the team. The right-hander has 26 career saves in 44 attempts. Most of those came in 2008, when he went 17-for-22 in save opportunities with a 2.98 ERA for the Nationals before being dealt to the D-backs. While Guerrier might not necessarily have the ideal stuff of a closer, some close to the team have mentioned the right-hander's makeup in terms of his heart and guts on the mound as a reason why he might be successful in the role. Mijares and Crain have both been used in late-inning situations. The Twins' front office has also been scouring the market for possible options. Minnesota has already been linked to Jason Frasor and Heath Bell in trade rumors. But the market appears to be relatively thin on relievers with closing potential and with the Twins' need for a closer known throughout the league, it might be costly to try to acquire someone at this time. Smith said the team will weigh all of the factors before making a decision on whether to go outside the organization for help. "We're going to try to make the right decision," Smith said. "Obviously we're going to weigh what we'd have to give up in any trade as we do all year round. But let's look at what's available." The Twins' GM also indicated that whoever starts the season in the closer role might not be the same person who finishes it. "Nothing has to be set for the entire season on April 5," Smith said. For now, Gardenhire will focus on his internal candidates. He has said previously that it's not possible to develop a closer during Spring Training, so for the time being, they'll let all of their pitchers prepare for the season as normal. And Gardenhire said that before they make a decision on a pitcher -- or perhaps two -- to fill the role, he wants to talk with some of his options about their thoughts on it. "We know that probably everybody out there would say, 'Yes' if we said, 'You're the closer,'" Gardenhire said. "But what if that guy is not really comfortable doing it? We'll give it a little more time here, get the arms where we want them to be, see how it goes through the next time through [the rotation] and then we're going to make a decision on who is going to be in the 'pen and who is going to be in the rotation. We'll talk to a couple guys."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.