November 22, 2011

Joe Nathan leaves Twins, signs two-year, $14.5 million deal with Rangers

Joe Nathan became a free agent last month when the Twins declined his $12.5 million option for 2012, buying him out for $2 million instead, and yesterday the 37-year-old reliever signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Rangers. Nathan was born in Texas and repeatedly talked about wanting to finish his career as the closer on a winning team, so the Rangers are an ideal fit coming off back-to-back AL titles with plans to move Neftali Feliz into the rotation.

Making a multi-year commitment to pay a 37-year-old relief pitcher $7.25 million per season for 65 innings is questionable enough for a nearly guaranteed contender like the Rangers with an otherwise stacked roster, but from the Twins' point of view it would've been extremely difficult to justify. There are too many other issues to address and too little money to spend thanks to a shrinking payroll. And he may not have trusted the Twins to turn things around anyway.

Nathan missed all of 2010 following elbow surgery and initially struggled in his return this year, showing decreased velocity and allowing 15 runs in 15.1 innings before a disabled list stint for more elbow problems in late May. He spent a month on the shelf and then looked like a new man for the final three months of the season, throwing 29 innings with a 3.38 ERA and 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .193 batting average.

His velocity was still down a couple miles per hour compared to his pre-surgery dominance, but Nathan's control and off-speed pitches looked very sharp and he's certainly capable of thriving with a low-90s fastball. If he stays healthy and performs like he did down the stretch Nathan will rack up tons of saves in Texas, but counting on that at age 37 and one year removed from Tommy John surgery is a big risk and the Twins shouldn't be paying a premium for saves now.

Nathan went to a better team, likely for more money, and the Twins put themselves in position to spend half of their remaining payroll space on something more vital than 65 innings of relief pitching. Whether or not they will actually accomplish that wiser spending obviously remains to be seen, but in the meantime they made the right decision (or at least had the right decision made for them) and Nathan's just-completed contract paid him $47 million for 181 innings.

None of which should take anything away from how amazing Nathan was in seven seasons for the Twins. He was a 29-year-old with zero closing experience and just one season of bullpen experience when the Twins acquired him from the Giants along with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser in a November of 2003 deal for A.J. Pierzynski, but Nathan quickly emerged as Eddie Guardado's ninth-inning replacement and leaves as the greatest closer in team history.

And even that might be selling Nathan short. From joining the Twins in 2004 through 2009 he saved 246 games with a 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 419.1 innings. During that six-season stretch his 1.87 ERA was the lowest in baseball and his 246 saves were the most in baseball, topping second-place Mariano Rivera (1.90 ERA, 243 saves) in both categories. Nathan wasn't merely great, he had one of the greatest six-year runs by any closer in baseball history.

Nathan going down in 2010 led to the Twins overpaying for a so-called "proven closer" in Matt Capps and my hope is that the incredibly costly mistake at least taught them a valuable lesson about the role. Closers are created, not born, and Nathan, Guardado, and Rick Aguilera going on to become the three best closers in Twins history after beginning their careers as starters and setup men should make that point just as clearly as Capps' failures did.

Their challenge now should be to identify the next pitcher capable of stepping into the role like Nathan in 2004 or Aguilera in 1990 or Guardado in 2001. Find a very good reliever and let him become a very good closer, and in the process avoid the temptation to once again overpay for the "closer" label that can only be earned through opportunity in the first place. That doesn't mean it'll be easy, but focusing on ability rather than saves worked before and will work again.

24 Comments »

  1. Our next closer: Brian Duensing.

    Comment by Tracy — November 21, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

  2. Now that Nathan is gone, what are the chances Perkins will be the closer?

    Comment by Kevin — November 21, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

  3. Where will Nathan appear in your top Twins list?

    Comment by Chris — November 22, 2011 @ 2:58 am

  4. Right move for all people.

    Joe is too old
    Joe is declining
    Joe is a texas native
    Joe wants to play on a winning team
    Twins needs no closer …with no leads…
    too much money for a closer
    Good Luck Joe Nathan, you were one of my alltime favs!!! :)

    Comment by chris — November 22, 2011 @ 4:11 am

  5. Nathan was amazing, but this works out well for both parties. We couldn’t afford him (might not need him), and he deserves a shot at a ring.

    It’s too bad the M&M’s 38 mil this year has left us so little to work with.

    Comment by festivus — November 22, 2011 @ 5:25 am

  6. “Our next closer: Brian Duensing.”

    I’d go with that, Tracy–if, and only if, every opposing batter would agree to bat left-handed.

    Don’t be surprised if our next closer is…Glen Perkins. That, or closer by committee.

    Comment by David — November 22, 2011 @ 7:05 am

  7. Rangers are not a dumb team but what did they see in Nathan last year to warrant the years and money they gave him?

    The chance he’ll be an effective closer with low 90′s stuff?

    I suppose Feliz proved a fastball in the upper 90′s doesn’t always equal post season success.

    Comment by pk — November 22, 2011 @ 7:51 am

  8. In addition, it’s been suggested due to their new tv contract the Rangers will act, ie spend, like the Yankee’s of the West.

    Just feels like a high risk deal the Yankee’s or Red Sox usually do while not showing concern for the downside risk.

    Comment by pk — November 22, 2011 @ 8:03 am

  9. This is one of those things where memories fail. I remember that when the Twins first acquired Aguilera in 1989, they put him in the rotation and my recall is that it was a disaster. But I just looked up the stats and his numbers in those starts (11 of them) wasn’t bad, leading with an ERA of 3.75. Not great, but certainly not the disaster I remember it being. Nevertheless, moving him to the closer’s role the next season was one of the most brilliant moves in Twins history.

    Comment by Tom — November 22, 2011 @ 8:27 am

  10. I’m gonna miss ol’ Twitchy on the mound. Terrific pitcher, had a great run with the Twins, but this was probably the best move for everyone. Nathan wants to play for a contender, the Twins aren’t in a position where paying $14M over 2 to a 37 year old closer with a major arm injury in his history makes a lot of sense.

    What worries me is the idea that Capps might come back at an inflated “closer” price tag and get handed the job again because Gardy wants an experienced guy back there. I understand the thinking (and applaud it actually) in not moving perkins into the role (would much rather have him pitch more innings and in more high leverage situations), but ITA with Gleeman here: closers are made and can be found. We can take the money Nathan might have gotten and get 2-3 quality relievers who could all be potential closers.

    Comment by Josh — November 22, 2011 @ 8:53 am

  11. “It’s too bad the M&M’s 38 mil this year has left us so little to work with.”

    Nothing about this statement is true. Let’s stop perpetuating this false meme, at least those of us with half a brain.

    Comment by ML — November 22, 2011 @ 8:57 am

  12. For every person that complains about the Twins overpaying Mauer, there are five more who would have complained about a cheapskate franchise that duped taxpayers into funding a new stadium had he been allowed to walk. The lesson: people will always complain.

    Comment by thegeneral13 — November 22, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  13. ““It’s too bad the M&M’s 38 mil this year has left us so little to work with.”

    Nothing about this statement is true. Let’s stop perpetuating this false meme, at least those of us with half a brain.”

    ML – this comment is neither helpful nor constructive. Calling someone stupid is not a good way to convince them that their opinion is wrong.

    Comment by Andy — November 22, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  14. Great player. Seems like a great person. Gave me some great memories. But, this team doesn’t have $7.5MM to spend on a reliever that only pitches 65 innings per year. That is partially because they are paying two players more than 1/3 of their total payroll. That doesn’t mean it was wrong (or right) to sign those players to that much money, it just means that given the other gaping holes they have, and the committments they have to other players, that they don’t have $7.5MM to spend on a closer right now.

    I’m glad he’s going to a very good/great team. I’d like to see him get a ring.

    Comment by mike wants wins — November 22, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  15. Whether you see the Twins not signing Nathan as a good/reasonable thing or not depends on (1) whether you think the team is a “small,” “mid” or “big” market club, and (2) whether you think the team is retooling or rebuilding. Personally, while the Twins have a ton of holes, they still have some established ML talent on the team, and I don’t think any other team in the Central is a cinch to be great next year. In other words, I think Twins management should be trying to contend.

    I also think the Twins feel that way. Why else sign 37 yo Jamey Carroll? He’s no building block for the future. Same with Doumit. These guys, though reasonably priced, still cost way more than a rebuilding team would pay, especially since they’re not clear bridges to a good young prospect who’s just a year or two away.

    $7+M is a lot to pay for a relief pitcher, but good teams with decent-sized budgets can afford to overpsned on a couple of positions. The Twins clearly need more good arms in the bullpen. Nathan pitched well in the 2d half, is a good clubhouse guy, won’t fall apaart because you call his name in the 9th, and is in good gneral health, his TJ surgery notwitshtanding (i.e. he’s not a fat guy crumbling as he ages). And $7.5M is NOT a lot to pay for an “established free agent closer.” We’re not talking $12M per and we’re not talking a 4-year deal. Texas is taking a very modest risk here, one that allows them to move Feliz to the rotation without upsetting the rest of the pen. The biggest problem for teh twins is that, even if they move Perkins to the 9th inning, they’ll need to find another good arm to take his high leverage innings, plus a notehr guy to fill the 7th/8th inning gaps that existed this past season. In other words, they need TWO more arms now that Nathan is gone, and they have to hope somebody fits the 9th. Eddie G did a great job of moving into the closer role from a set-up spot. Latroy Hawkins did not.

    Comment by BR — November 22, 2011 @ 10:16 am

  16. Nathan was a great acquisition – from a throw-in to the Twins record for saves. I still put Aguilera and Reardon above him as Twins closers because they won World Series. Despite Nathan’s wonderful career here, I still can’t get the blown 3-1 playoff game to the Yankees out of my mind. His career is an interesting example of why you should not pay a lot of money for a closer. His highest earning years were spent injured or recovering from injury. I would rather take that money and add bullpen depth. I live down here in Arlington, TX so we will welcome Joe and his family down here – he sounds like a real good guy.

    Comment by wavedog — November 22, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  17. BR, what is the alternative to signing Carrol? It’s not like there are young stud SSs just sitting out there waiting to be signed. They signed him for little money, to play a position where they have no other clear option. I’m not sure what else people expected them to do to fix SS temporarily.

    In not signing Nathan, they can sign 3-4 other RPs, and see which ones stick. For a team missing 2 starting pitchers, possibly a 3B, 2B, 1-2 OFers, a DH, maybe a 1B and certainly 2-3 relief pitchers, not signing one RP for $7.5MM makes sense to me. Now, if you can find a way to get rid of some of the other contracts, or reduce some constracts, then maybe you can sign Nathan for that price (assuming you think this is a team that can contend).

    Comment by mike wants wins — November 22, 2011 @ 11:13 am

  18. Good points made that Texas is worth more to Nathan and Nathan is worth more to Texas. But here’s another thought: Nathan may not be appreciably better than many among the glut of FA relievers in the market, so better “value” will be available, and the Twins can “afford” to wait it out. Also, I’m among the tiny minority that thinks the current in-house options are already much better than most think. Let’s give some of these guys another chance: Oliveros, Swarzak, Bulger, Manship, Burnett, Mijares, Perkins, Hoey, Diamond, Gutierrez, Waldrop, Duensing, Guerra, Blackburn, Hendriks, Robertson, Slowey, Slama, Capps (yeah, I know), Dumatrait, and at least a half-dozen new free agents. By my reckoning, if one out of four of these guys can be competitive, we have our solution for 2012. With a few unnamed prospects knocking at the door for 2013. I just don’t see the prospects as being all that bleak.

    Comment by birdofprey — November 22, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  19. Nothing but love for Joe Nathan, but this move was a no-brainer.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — November 22, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

  20. Well, the Twins paid $7+ million each on two relievers last season for some odd reason.

    Sadly, paying a player to rehad from an injury never scores points on eitehr side.

    What is tragic is that the Twins could’ve probably kept a Crain or a Guerrier. I am pretty shocked that the White Sox basically tabled Crain and kept him in the supporting role. If Crain was still a Twin, he would be the closer in waiting.

    The Twins could get Capps back at a lower price, if they were to offer him closership. Capps will grab the best one-year deal he can and work his tail off to get back into a moneied situation for 2013. But who do the Twins have in waiting. Some of us thought Slama, others Bromberg. Is Tyler Robertson or Guiterrez a choice? Any chance Neshek can join the watsebasket of arms the Twins are accumulating (and, again, why did they let Neshek go instead of 40-man outrighting him to Rochester last year). Looking at Balfour and other TJ recoveries, Neshek might be a good gamble again!

    But who is closing? Keep Perkins as setup. Get Hawkins or Rauch back as set-up.

    I just wish the Twins ahd ponied up the $15 million for 3-years of Crain, who would now be looking at as being a reasonably priced closer!

    Comment by Joel Thingvall — November 22, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

  21. Actually, the best option for closer right now isn’t Duensing or Perkins – It’s Francisco Liriano. He’d be absolutely lethal in a one-inning role, as he simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to make it as a consistent starter.

    Comment by Teddy — November 23, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  22. Is working his tail off like battling your tail off? Capps had a one year deal this year that could have led to a monied situation, but instead he sucked something fierce. Look at Capps history. There have been a few stretches where he pitches well, but for the most part the guy is crap.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — November 23, 2011 @ 11:39 am

  23. I predict that the Twins will trade Span to the Nationals for Drew Storen.

    Comment by Dave T — November 23, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

  24. The word is now that the Twins will NOT offer Capps arbitration.

    Comment by scot — November 24, 2011 @ 8:34 am

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