Joe Nathan is probably out for the year, yes, but all is not lost.
Nathan's just come off of a very successful campaign in his age-34 season, recording a career-high 47 saves while striking out 1.3 batters per inning. If he was slowing down, he had an odd way of showing it. No doubt he had a rough patch at the end of the season, but there was little reason to believe it was anything more than a rough stretch.
Going into his age-35 season in 2010, Nathan was expected to join the Mariano Rivera's, Dennis Eckersley's and Trevor Hoffman's of the closer world--guys who managed to continue to be elite closers in spite of being at an age where the game's best burn out or fade away. Now things are a little different.
As Will Carroll mentioned here earlier today, the number of pitchers who continue to pitch with a torn UCL and be successful is very small. By waiting and giving Nathan time to rest, the organization is doing two things: hoping for a miracle, and giving their All-Star pitcher some time to wrap his head around baseball's most infamous surgery. Read: barring a miracle, Nathan will undergo Tommy John surgery. If not by the end of the month, at some point during the season if he intends to continue playing beyond this year.
That's what we've all come to terms with today: Joe Nathan is probably out for the year, because he will elect to go under the knife.
Questions and answers after the break.
How long would it take Nathan to come back?
Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery takes roughly 12 months. "Recovery" isn't an exact science when we talk about TJ, however, and you can realistically add months onto that year before a pitcher is considered "all the way back". Which of course assumes the pitcher falls into the 93% success rate of the operation. It's a gruelling rehab process, both physically and mentally.
Considering his age, could this be the beginning of the end of Nathan's career?
I see two options. In one world, Nathan decides this will be his swan song. He guts through the pain, probably isn't the same guy he's been his six seasons in Minnesota, then hangs it up after this year; he avoids the surgery. In another world, he undergoes the surgery and hopefully is back early next season. Maybe he's the same guy, but he probably wouldn't be...it's a gamble. And it's a lot of work for a 36-year old to make a comeback. That's nothing against Nathan, that's just how it is.
Without blowing it out of proportion at this point, yes, it's possible this could be the beginning of the end for Joe. I hope not.
The Twins have insurance for instances like this, right? How much would they save?
This I'm not entirely sure about, because there's nothing I can find that says the Twins have insurance on Joe's contract. But if they do, which is likely as he's one of the highest-paid players on the team, then the following applies...
Obviously if he were to miss 2011 in addition to 2010, the Twins would get more of their investment back, but if it's just this season then this is what I know:
- Nathan would spend the number of days required on the disabled list to qualify for coverage (45-90 days)
- If the research I found is accurate, contracts are generally insured for 50-60% of their value on career-ending injuries or temporary total disability
- Only top-end contracts for teams are insured
- It will be a bit of a waiting game, because the earlier the Twins claim, the higher their premium would be
- In January, Tom Tango of The Book had an article on insurance in baseball. He links to another article of his from two years ago, but it seems that article is specifically about the NHL, and it slightly contradicts other information I've found. But it seems plausible that this could be how baseball works as well.
Great. So the Twins can use some of that money to bring in another veteran closer, whether that's through trade or free agency, right?
No. First, the Twins wouldn't get that money for a while. Second, even if they did, there's not a lot of incentive for the Twins do do it. Replacing Joe Nathan is impossible. You can't just go out and whip up a magical batch of elite closer to bring out of the oven on April 1.
But what about a guy like John Smoltz?
Let's not throw money away. Smoltz hasn't closed since 2004, hasn't been healthy for a full season since 2007 and turns 43 in May. Oh, and throwing him to the
wolves American League?
The Twins would have to get Jim Pohlad to sign off on anything they do, because they're already over-budget anyway. Free agency just isn't a realistic option.
Okay, how about Francisco Liriano?
After his dazzling winter, he's the favorite to nab the final starter spot. A starter's role will always be more valuable than that of a closer, which means that the Twins can reap the most benefits by having an effective Liriano in the rotation as opposed to the bullpen.
If Liriano struggles as a starter, the Twins could try him in the bullpen. Should he succeed there, there's always the possibility that they could try him in the closer's role but this wouldn't be by April 1. That would be down the line. It's pretty much a great-in-theory-but-crackpot-in-reality theory.
So what the hell are the Twins going to do?!?
The Twins will fill the role internally. Bank on it. Whether this means that Ron Gardenhire goes with closer-by-committee, or with a preferred one-man approach, is the only question. Jon Rauch is probably the best option to close, while Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares will all have their opportunities to show what they can do. Down the line, when Pat Neshek proves he's ready to get major league hitters out, he might get a shot, too.
Closing is just as much about mental dexterity as it is pitching talent, and this is the biggest question mark the Twins have in regards to whoever they chose to be their new man for the role.
As FanGraphs points out, the Twins are probably skimming one or two wins off the top by losing Nathan. Additionally, now that everyone will be promoted in the bullpen heirarchy the cascade effect might play havoc with some guys who aren't used to their new roles. Fortunately, and this goes for whoever gets the seventh spot in the bullpen, the depth of quality that the Twins have in their relief corps should mitigate any additional damage. Rob Delaney, Anthony Slama, Alex Burnett, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing...those are some great options as far as your "bottom of the barrel" bullpen arm goes.
Losing Joe Nathan hurts. Of course it does, he's one of the game's premier closers. But the bullpen was a position of strength for a reason, and it continues to be. The Twins have a number of options to pick up the reigns of the closer, and all of them are good enough to take the job. Save rates are high league-wide for a reason. And without minimizing what Joe Nathan means to the Twins (as opposed to the role of the closer), it would have hurt much more to lose our best starting pitcher or one of our best position players for the season.
The Twins have a lot of good pitchers. Everything is going to be fine, and the Twins are still the best team in the AL Central.