March 24, 2010

Nathan Officially Opts For Surgery

As expected Joe Nathan will have season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery to fix a torn ulnar collateral ligament, officially making that decision Sunday morning after feeling soreness during a highly anticipated game of catch with pitching coach Rick Anderson (only to have the news overshadowed by Joe Mauer signing hours later). Nathan and the Twins had hoped that a few weeks off would allow him to pitch through the pain, but that was always a massive long shot.

Now the optimism is aimed at Nathan making a full recovery for next season, but as Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek have shown recently Tommy John patients can have a true recovery timetable that stretches beyond the oft-quoted 8-12 months. Liriano underwent the surgery in November of 2006 and has a 5.12 ERA in 212.2 innings since returning, while Neshek took the mound again about 14 months after surgery and may not be 100 percent yet at 16 months.

For every Liriano and Neshek there are also examples of pitchers who returned to the mound sooner than 12 months and didn't miss a beat, but at 35 years old Nathan seems an unlikely candidate to be one of them. He'll miss all of this season, there's a good chance he'll miss at least some of 2011, and his career is very much in jeopardy following a seven-season run as arguably the best reliever in baseball.

As part of a four-year, $47 million extension signed in March of 2008 he's owed $11.25 million in both 2010 and 2011, with the Twins holding a $12.5 million option or $2 million buyout for 2012. Add it all up and the Twins have another $24.5 million committed to Nathan, which is a harsh reminder of the risks involved in handing out long-term contracts to even the very best players. However, insurance will reportedly cover as much as half of his salary for this season.

There's no doubt that losing Nathan is a big blow to the Twins' playoff chances, but my hope is that they don't overreact by paying a premium for an "established closer" via trade. Closer is the most overrated "position" in baseball, as many people attach some sort of mythical value to the role despite the fact that the MLB average for converting ninth-inning saves is typically around 85 percent and elite closers like Nathan top out at around 90 percent.

Beyond that, Nathan himself is an example of how most successful closers are failed starters, former setup men, or both. In fact, Nathan, Rick Aguilera, and Eddie Guardado all fall into the "both" category and rank 1-2-3 on the Twins' all-time saves list. Prior to thriving as closers for the Twins that trio had accumulated a grand total of just 26 career saves in 17 seasons as big leaguers, which coincidentally is the exact number of saves Jon Rauch has in seven seasons.

Heath Bell of the Padres saved 42 games with a 2.71 ERA last season and is now being linked to the Twins as a possible Nathan replacement, but at this time last year he was a 30-year-old setup man with just two career saves. That he's now viewed as an "established closer" whose experience in the role is touted as evidence that the Twins should pay a premium for him via trade shows just how silly the whole notion is in the first place.

Certainly there are some scenarios in which trading for a quality reliever could make sense for the Twins and depending on the cost involved Bell might even be a worthwhile target, but to overpay for that same quality reliever largely because he has "closing experience" that their in-house options lack would be a mistake in logic. Bell only has experience at closer precisely because the Padres focused on his ability rather than his save total one year ago.

Truly replacing Nathan is impossible because he's a great reliever, but for closers the dropoff from "great" and "mediocre" is typically 3-5 blown saves, some of which still end up as wins anyway. Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and a post-surgery Neshek don't fit the description of an ideal closer, but the same is true for many pitchers who have success in the role. Hell, last year the best save percentage in baseball belonged to Fernando Rodney.

Once you set aside the inflated, often hyperbolic importance placed on the closer role there's no reason to think that group can't produce someone capable of converting save opportunities at an 80 percent clip, which all but the disasters tend to manage each season with or without "closing experience." Bell is better than Rauch or Guerrier or Crain, but if the price tag involves Aaron Hicks, Wilson Ramos, or Ben Revere they're better off trusting the in-house options.

  • AM

    Aaron, please tell us you are the stats guys the Twins just hired.

    [And I say Slama or Gutierrez for the closer spot.]

  • chris

    I always said Perkins for Bell otherwise no deal. Heck, I would even throw in Casilla if they wanted but no way shoudl they overpay to get a 32 year old Bell.

  • Matt S.

    Are there any Heath Bell “prototypes” — good setup men with established track records — we could target in trade? Someone like Chris Perez two weeks ago. Or is that a political game not worth playing?

    5% of 50-60 games finished (what most full-time closers get) is not 3-5 blown saves. It is 2-3. If we lose the division by only 2-3 games, I don’t see how you can blame just the closer. There are going to be more games that we lose X-0 than are lost by downgrading from Nathan to Rauch/Guerrier/Neshek.

  • Jesse

    no one seems to draw the next line to “connect the dots” — with all of the “any normal reliever would save 80% of opportunities … Nathan at 90% gives you 3-5 more per year” comments, the conclusion should be, you can get those same wins back just from adding another quality reliever, and a full season of rauch and neshek being better than whoever from last year they are taking innings away from. If the Twins can trade away perkins (i.e.) for a solid setup man, nathan’s loss may not actually be missed in the win total.

  • nathangau

    Not sure I’d lump Neshek into that category. He’s been just fine this spring and hasn’t exactly showed difficulty in coming back.

  • festivus

    “Not sure I’d lump Neshek into that category. He’s been just fine this spring and hasn’t exactly showed difficulty in coming back.”

    I hope Neshek rebounds well, but we won’t have solid evidence as to where he stands for several months.

    As replacing Nathan goes, I’m with Aaron. It’s nice to have an All-Star closer in the pen, but not as crucial as some make it seem. I love Joe Nathan, but lets not forget, even our All-Star blew it hard core last year against the Yanks.

  • http://twins.gearupforsports.com/blog Steve L.

    please don’t mention Slama’s name in trade talks. I’ve talked about him for 2+ years now and if they were to trade him and he dominates for someone else like I think he can, I don’t know what I’d do to myself, I’d certainly lose some faith in the Twins scouting department and how they run things.

    And, he’s still one of the minor league guys left in camp, so he might just be making a good enough impression to make the team. (crossing fingers).

    Matt Guerrier is gonna close out games to start, yesterdays game provided proof of that, as he was the first reliever to come in after Pavano was done. I think he’ll do a good enough job, plus, Neshek is looking pretty good, so he’s another potential setup guy to go along with Rauch and Mijares, and hopefully Slama’s in there too. I wonder how fast they push Gutierrez and Bullock through the system this year if anyone struggles…

  • Freddrick

    Only if the twins still had Boof….

  • http://www.twinsfix.com David

    Totally agree. I’d be thrilled with Bell – if he came at a reasonable price. That the Pads would requesting any of our top prospects is pretty absurd, but the report the other day that they’re looking for Revere AND Hicks is laughable. I’m in the camp that thinks/hopes Neshek will rebound well; hopefully that means he can take on closing duties by June.

  • BR

    I agree with AG’s basic points and also believe that the Twins will not allow themselves to be held up in any trade for an established guy. But let’s not get too haughty here. “Only” 3-5 blown saves is the difference between winning and losing the Central for BOTH of the past 2 years. When you’ve built a 90 win team, the marginal value of those extra wins is amplified. Pittsburgh might not need a great closer (65 v. 60 wins is meaningless), but Minnesota can’t afford to lose those extra games unnecessarily.

    If they can get a competent guy through trade, they have to. Maybe a Perkins + Slama or A.Morales package, something along those value lines, gets it done. Keep in mind, they’ve lost not only Nathan’s “closing” experience, they’ve lost 70+ high quality innings. Moving an in-house option to the 9th still creates a void that’s not easily replaced.

    Oh, and while the Twins have had success creating closers, ther’s always the Latroy Hawkins object lesson to sober us up a bit…

  • Steve J

    The biggest blunder in trading away guys like Ramos, Revere, Hicks, etc for someone like Health Bell goes beyond the illusion of scarcity and value that the title “Established Closer” affords. The notion of trading away potentially viable catchers and center fielders which are in short supply for commodities like Bell that are more universally common should give anyone a reason for pause over this.

  • Dave T

    I think closer-by-committee will work just fine. Put Slama on the committee!

  • scott

    BR, theres no “closer” in the game right now i can think of worth a package of perkins, slama and A. Morales. Twins have a deep pen, they’ll use it effectively.

  • zebano

    BR,

    You really want to give away Slama? Have you seen his K/inning he produces. I think it’s a shame if he doesn’t make the team and get a chance to log some serious innings and I would be more than willing to give him a chance to close if that goes well for a month (he’s even got experience closing for what that’s worth).

  • Nick W

    Giving up anything substantial for a “closer” would be proposperous. I couldn’t agree more with Aaron about how overrated the closer position is. We have 3 or 4 solid setup guys on the roster right now. Surely 1/4 of those guys can step up and save 87% of save opportunities. What we should be looking for is another relief pitcher to take over Rauch, Guerrier, Neshek, or Mijares’ role. Slama has made a case to be considered for the pen this spring. We just resigned Mahay. Unless we can deal Perkins and/or Casilla for a guy like Jason Frasor, we might as well stay in house.

  • JB (the original)

    Where’d my posts go?

  • BR

    Scott: I said “or”…

    Zebano: Yeah, I’d certainly trade Slama in the right deal. Straight up for Bell? In a heart beat. Bell’s the type of pitcher you HOPE Slama becomes in a few years. But I’d like them to win this year and next.

    Slama along with Perkins? That’s the top of the value chart for me.

    Bell’s not just a the gusy who gets saves, he’s a good relief pitcher. Career k/9 over 9 (in the majors, even if it was the NL!). K/BB over 3 last year and for his career. FIP of about 3. That’s the kind of guy they should target.

  • TMW

    In agreeance with AG here. The other thing to consider about having such a dominant reliever late in games is that it’s more crucial with relatively weak lineups like the ones the Twins normally trot out with the exceptions of 2006 and 2009.

    This 2010 team with this strong, deep lineup is capable of winning a lot of games 8-3, 10-5, 9-4, etc. If the Twins were using a lineup like the White Sox this year with Nathan going down, I’d be a bit more inclined to want to be talking about Brett Favre already.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    Wow. Trading Angel Morales for Heath Bell? Slama for Heath Bell? I want these guys in the front offices of other ball clubs. Ideas like these are the reason we got Liriano, Bonser, and Nathan for AJ.

    Slama and Morales are potential long term impact players (especially the latter). Even if they end up being role-players and not stars – they will be cheap for several years once they reach the major leagues. Teams like the Twins always need production for a good price. Trading away young, cheap, needed talent for older, expensive veterans is always a good way to sabotage this.

    If you trade for Bell, it has to be someone the Twins feel is expendable. Obviously Perkins seems to fit the bill. He’s been an effective starter and is still cheap – but might have difficulty fitting into the Twins rotation. Of course other teams know this, so they want more. Don’t give it to them.

  • BR

    Neither Morales nor Slama is a top prospect. Not top 50. Not top 100. Not even top 150. If you’re not willing to give up a guy like this for a good relief pitcher like Bell, well, then you won’t be making any trades.

    I could be wrong, but when AG talks about not paying a “premium” for someone like Bell, I think he’s talking about Hicks or Gibson. I agree – that price is too steep. But those guys are worth FAR more than Morales or Slama…

  • http://www.goodreads.com/story/list/812323 haplito

    Can I get a lego version of this?

  • manuelito

    Sometimes the politics of having a closer gets in the way of prudent decision making.

  • jimbo92107

    Jesse Crain could do it. He’s got good zap on his heater, a good, tight curve ball, and his delivery is quick and simple, like a catcher’s throw. Closer would force him to concentrate harder on his form and balance, which would give him better control.

    Liriano has closer stuff, but I don’t like the idea of moving him out of the rotation just when his arm appears to be nearing 100 percent.

    Crain could save 85 percent, and then some.

  • Mike Green

    The Jays and Twins do have a natural match, depending on how the Twins value their non-Hicks CF prospects. The Jays have relievers coming out the ying-yang, no reasonable prospect of winning in 2010, and no good CF prospect behind Wells (whose defence has made him a prime candidate for a move to the corner). The Twins are, of course, ready to compete in 2010.

    Frasor for Revere? Frasor and Downs for Revere? Morales instead of Revere? I have no idea.

  • ganderson

    I’m not a fan of the modern “Cult of the Closer” Closer by committee sounds good to me

  • don’t trade Revere

    I wouldn’t trade Revere for Frasor straight up. Revere will be virtually free for years to come and appears to be a great on base guy. Relievers tend to be up and down; a few good years, then who knows. Frasor is a perfect example. He had an ERA of 2.50 last year — and it was the second time in six years his ERA was below 4. Trading for relievers is like trying to time the stock market and buying stocks only after they’ve shot way up. Chance are you’re getting in just in time for them to go back down. I’d rather keep throwing out guys like Slama, Delaney, Burnett, Gutierrez, or Hunt and see who sticks. They have as good a chance as anyone, and they’re free.

  • MattK

    Revere or Morales for Frasor? are you kidding me? closer by committee unless the price is right.