Twins' Top 5 relief pitchers: Park's take

June 8th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only ... if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Do-Hyoung Park's ranking of the top five relief pitchers in Twins history, since the franchise relocated to Minnesota in 1961.

Twins' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RHP | LHP

1) (2004-09, '11)
Key fact: Ranks eighth on MLB's all-time saves list with 377

Nathan stands alone in his dominance out of the Twins' bullpen. The club's all-time leader among relievers in ERA (2.16), saves (260) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.9), the six-time All-Star was the shutdown force that awaited at the back end of the bullpen for much of the Twins' extended run of American League Central success in the 2000s. He was part of the 2004, '06 and '09 teams that won division championships, saving 44, 36 and 47 games during those three campaigns, respectively. He was durable in that time, too, making at least 64 appearances in his first six seasons with the Twins until he missed the entire 2010 campaign due to right elbow surgery.

The right-hander's peak seasons involved some crazy numbers -- ERA+ marks topping out at 316, 294 and 284, for example -- and there was hardly any inconsistency to be had in his game. Consider, for example, that Nathan converted 89.13 percent of his save opportunities throughout his career, placing him just ahead of Hall of Fame closers Mariano Rivera (89.07 percent) and Trevor Hoffman (88.77 percent).

"I knew, every single time, when I went to whatever position I was playing that night, I could have taken a lawn chair," said longtime teammate Michael Cuddyer. "That game was over."

When Nathan first arrived in Minnesota in '04 alongside Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano as part of the deal that sent A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants, he was just hoping for a chance to pitch in the late innings. The Twins immediately established the 29-year-old as their closer upon his arrival, and he rewarded them with a 1.62 ERA, 44 saves and a fourth-place finish in AL Cy Young Award balloting. Following seven strong seasons in Minnesota, he wrapped up his 16-year career with stints with the Rangers, Tigers, Cubs and Giants.

"Obviously, when I got traded here, there was an opportunity to take off," Nathan said when he was inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame in 2019. "People gave me an opportunity and said it was my job to lose. That really just kind of allowed me to kind of become a closer and ultimately put a few good years together and become the player I am and ultimately get to where we are now."

2) Rick Aguilera (1989-99)
Key fact: Ranks second in Twins history with 254 saves

Aguilera was actually a starter when the Twins first acquired him from the Mets in 1989 as part of the megadeal that sent Frank Viola to Queens, but he immediately blossomed into a solid closer when the Twins moved him to the bullpen the following year. It's a good thing, too, that he found the best form of his career in 1991, when he made his first All-Star team and finished the regular season with career bests in ERA (2.35) and saves (42) as he anchored the team that finished 95-67 and first in the AL West.

The right-hander was a critical part of the playoff run that followed, as he allowed only one earned run in 8 1/3 innings across seven postseason appearances -- all in high-leverage situations. He notched three saves in the AL Championship Series against the Blue Jays -- including in the clinching Game 5 -- and also saved the first two games of the World Series against the Braves. Notably, he was also the winning pitcher in the legendary Game 6 thanks to Kirby Puckett's walk-off homer, and he would likely have been the winning pitcher in the decisive Game 7 had it not been for Jack Morris' insistence on staying in the game to pitch a 10th shutout inning in his titanic complete-game effort.

All told, Aguilera had a 3.50 ERA in 11 seasons with the Twins, which included a short stint with the Red Sox in 1995. He was traded to the Cubs in '99 toward the tail end of his 16-year MLB career.

3) (2006-17)
Key fact: MLB's all-time leader in saves among players born in Minnesota

After the clear-cut top two of Nathan and Aguilera, we could really go in a few different directions here, and the options get far tougher to differentiate in terms of numbers and statistics. Perkins ultimately rose above Eddie Guardado for his better all-around performance as a reliever, both in aggregate and examining his peak, because Perkins' three-year peak from 2011-13 following his conversion to full-time relief was quite stellar. The graduate of Stillwater High School and the University of Minnesota had a rather shaky track record as a starter, but he combined for a 2.84 ERA over the next five seasons, encompassing 120 saves and three All-Star appearances, including a save in the 2014 Midsummer Classic at Target Field in front of his hometown fans.

Perkins' 2013 season deserves particular attention, when he peaked with a 2.30 ERA in 61 appearances (good for a 178 ERA+) and a similarly stellar 2.49 FIP thanks to his distinguished strikeout and walk rates.

4) (1993-2003)
Key fact: Twins' all-time leader in games (648) and innings as a reliever (579)

Well, they called him "Everyday Eddie" for a reason. Guardado peaked at an MLB-leading 83 appearances during the 1996 season, the first in a streak of eight straight years in which the left-hander pitched in 63 or more games for the Twins. It was only toward the end of that streak, though, when Guardado found his most elite form, with his two best seasons coming in 2002 and '03 after he'd fully assumed the closer's role at the front end of that dominant stretch in club history that included three straight AL Central titles and a trip to the ALCS. Those two years featured a 2.93 ERA and an AL-leading 45 saves in '02 and a 2.89 ERA and 41 saves in '03, making him one of three pitchers in Twins history to record 40 or more saves in consecutive seasons. He did have a career 4.01 ERA as a Twins reliever due to his numbers in those early workhorse years out of the bullpen, but he was as good as they came during his peak.

5) (2016-present)
Key fact: His 9.84 K/9 rate ranks third among relievers in Twins history (min. 200 IP)

There are great arguments to be made for several pitchers who could have rounded out this list, but let's take the chance to recognize the recent dominance and rising stock of Rogers, who could conceivably rise to as high as third on the Twins' ranking of relievers by career WAR (per FanGraphs) with another season at the caliber of his 2018 or '19. Our own Mike Petriello waxed poetic about Rogers' breakout '18 after the left-hander allowed no earned runs in August and September -- a scoreless streak that eventually spanned 30 appearances, including two in 2019. Rogers backed that up with an even stingier '19, when he raised his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate to elite levels to finish second among AL relievers in WAR (2.1) with a stellar 50.6 percent ground-ball rate -- even in this era of increasing launch angle.

Reliever performance is notoriously volatile, of course, but Rogers has given no indications in his traditional or advanced stats that he's due for regression anytime soon, and he could be at the front end of a very productive bullpen career in Minnesota.

Honorable mention
As mentioned earlier, there are a ton of candidates who could have pushed for inclusion on this list -- and deserved to be mentioned in some way or another. Al Worthington only joined the Twins at the tail end of his 14-year MLB career and was a stingy force at the back end of the bullpen for parts of six seasons, including the 1965 team that won the AL pennant and lost the World Series to the Dodgers. ... Jeff Reardon had his best season with a 2.47 ERA in 1988, but he had a more important role as the closer of the '87 team that won the World Series. He finished off Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS and notched his only Fall Classic save in the clinching Game 7. ... He wasn't a closer, but Juan Rincon had an extremely productive peak in the Twins' bullpen from 2004-06 and actually ranks fifth among Twins relievers in WAR, according to FanGraphs.