I’ve thought for the past several years that we were taking Joe Nathan for granted. I also thought that was silly for a team to give 15 to 20 percent of its payroll to a guy who will pitch 70 innings. It sucks that it took a season-ending injury before the season started for me to remember these things.
Nathan came up with the Giants, then was moved to the Twins along with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski (OOPS). I’ve never been much of a Pierzynski fan, but give or take he’s been an average major league hitter for the catcher position for nine years, which has a lot of value. Nevertheless, this wasn’t Giants GM Brian Sabean’s finest move. Nathan came up with the Giants as a starter, was tagged around in 180 innings and 30 starts, and was sent to the minors for the 2001 and 2002 seasons. In 2003, the Giants put him in the bullpen, where he went 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA and a strikeout per inning.
The trade was made after the 2003 season, and the Twins immediately installed Nathan as their closer, and uh, it’s worked. In his six seasons in Minnesota, he’s gone 22-12, with a 1.87 ERA and 246 saves in 271 chances. Nathan struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings, while giving up only 0.58 home runs per nine innings. He’s been worth about three wins per season over a replacement-level closer (see: Gregg, Kevin) and worth much more than he was paid in every season until last year.
After the 2007 season, Nathan was a free agent and re-signed with the Twins for 47 million dollars over 4 years, with a club option for the 2012 season. He’ll be paid 11.75 million dollars for this season, and their payroll will be 90 million dollars, up from the 55 to 70 million dollars they’ve paid for the last seven years. I had thought that this would be worse, that Nathan would be taking up closer to 20 percent of the payroll. At just 12 percent, this hurts, but it’s been done before. Obviously, moving into their new ballpark has given them some financial flexibility for the 2010 season, but now a good portion of that is a sunk cost, spent on Joe Nathan’s torn ulnar collateral ligament.
On the field, this creates several issues for the Twins. Ron Gardenhire will have to find someone he trusts to finish games and pitch in high-leverage situations, and a lot of the candidates have obvious flaws along with their considerable talents. Also, usually when a player gets hurt, you replace him with someone on the bench or in Triple-A, and that’s the entire effect on the roster. The bullpen, with six or seven guys available, presents an odd situation. Essentially, by bumping everyone up a spot, you replace Joe Nathan not with your second best reliever, but with the guy who takes the last spot. Now, not all of these guys pitch the same number of innings or in the same situations, but the chain effect is fairly obvious. Your second best reliever now gets the highest-leverage innings, your 3rd best reliever takes his spot, your former mop-up pitcher now has to pitch every once in a while when it matters, and the last man is probably a replacement-level reliever.
This was going to be a different kind of season anyway for the Twins. They added J.J. Hardy, Jim Thome, and Orlando Hudson to an offense that scored the fourth most runs in the American League in 2009. The bullpen was supposed to be a strong point, with Nathan, Jon Rauch, Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier, and Jose Mijares all better than average relief pitchers. The Twins rotation looks like a list of #4 starters. Scott Baker is the best of the bunch (and better than average), but the murderer’s row of Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, and Francisco Liriano signals that Gardenhire will be watching a lot of 8-7 games.
The Twins will score runs. Their relief pitchers will get people out. Their defense should play well. If I’m Gardenhire (and you don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I was), I’d be a lot more worried about the guys getting the first 18 outs than the guys getting the last 9. The smartest thing to do is probably to not give the role of “closer” to anyone, but rather play match-ups as best he can by utilizing the several platoon advantages he has in the bullpen. Overall, it’s easy to say Nathan’s injury will cost the Twins two games, four games, ten games, whatever you might think. But removing him from the equation goes a lot deeper than hoping Jon Rauch can close a 2-1 game for you in your fantasy leagues.