I have been on the record for expressing concern about trading Joe Nathan. The recent signings of Mike Lamb and Adam Everett make a trade unlikely this offseason, but even before those moves were made, my hope was that the Twins could fill holes through free agent signings and the Johan Santana trade.
The main reason for this is I just don't see any healthy closer candidates in the bullpen. Pat Neshek could become a closer, but after last season's second half collapse, that's a pretty risky proposition. Matt Guerrier is a good set-up man, but he blew almost as many leads as Neshek last year. Juan Rincon has been in steady decline the last three years and projects as a mop-up guy at this point. Dennys Reyes is likely a one-year wonder, and he's coming off of elbow surgery. Glen Perkins will likely be converted into a starter. Removing the Twins' best reliever from that mix makes the bullpen highly suspect. And trading the Twins best closer prospect in Eduardo Morlan makes a Nathan trade even more risky.
The one guy who could possibly close is a big question mark. Jesse Crain, who will be nine months removed from rotator cuff and labrum surgery when spring training begins, projected as a closer before he got sidetracked with the injuries and excessive tinkering by his pitching coach. If Crain comes back to his rookie form after recovery, Nathan might become expendable, but that's a big if. The near-term future of this bullpen rests on Crain's shoulder, so I'm trying to get as much info about it as I can.
I am inherently pessimistic about shoulder injuries, especially labrum injuries. Some guys like Nathan have come back from rotator cuff injuries to dominate, but it usually takes a couple of years to regain their former velocity. The prognosis on labrum injuries is worse. If you have both rotator cuff and labrum surgery, your career could be over, especially for a short reliever who relies more on stuff than guile.
My doctor friend who regularly talks with Dr. Steubs--the Twins designated joint cutter--gave me a little inside info on Crain. He said some shoulder surgeries are more clean-up jobs than major reconstruction. In these cases guys can return to their former selves (perhaps a little better) in one year or so. He said Crain is this kind of case. Both tears were small and clean, which makes the healing much more certain and predictable. So the Twins' published prognosis of nine to 12 months from last May, or in time for spring training, doesn't sound so outlandish at this time.
A little birdie filed this report in the Pioneer Press today. "Forgotten Twins reliever Jesse Crain, who was in town last week, is long tossing from 120 feet as part of his rehabilitation following rotator cuff surgery last May and is expected to be recovered for spring training."
I know we have to consider the source, but if this is true, it's really good news. A healthy and productive Crain gives the Twins a great midseason trade option in Nathan. But I wouldn't condone trading Nathan until Crain demonstrates against live major league hitters that he can consistently put zeros on the board. That was by no means certain before the surgery. And it remains to be seen if it will happen after the surgery. But if it happens, it could set the team up for a trade that completes the puzzle for this team to contend as early as 2009.