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Joe Nathan: Deal, or No Deal?

The 2008 series of the GameDay magazine debuts a week from Monday, and Guest Editor Nick Nelson was kind enough to invite me to do a feature for the April issue.  With the recent talk of an extension for Nathan looming on the horizon, it seemed a good time to give you a preview of my contribution.  Many thanks to GameDay and to Nick Nelson for the opportunity.

Contracts, payroll and rollover.  That's an easy way to summarize Bill Smith's first off-season as General Manager of the Minnesota Twins, and there's been endless discussion and debate around those terms over the last six turbulent months.  Smith's introduction to his new position has been a trial by fire, and while we may not agree with each decision that's been made, it's become clear that there is a direction for this team.  Minnesota is on a road to 2010, and while there's every reason to believe this club can and will be competitive in the preceding seasons, the story of this past winter has made it clear that everything is being built to culminate in the summer that the new ballpark opens.

With that in mind, let's turn our attention to the biggest name to survive the winter. Joe Nathan is in the final year of a contract he signed in 2005, and his role in the future of this team has yet to be determined.  If you're Bill Smith, where does your evaluation begin?


Nathan's contract expires after the 2008 season, so the first question is "what would it take to keep him in a Twins uniform?"  Francisco Cordero signed a four-year, $46 million deal over the winter.  Mariano Rivera signed a three-year, $45 million deal.  Initial speculation led to the belief that a new contract for Nathan would require the Twins to pony up roughly $40 million over a four-year span, but considering Nathan has been arguably better than both of the aforementioned closers (who are both in roughly the same age range), one could argue that Nathan is worth more.

Name                   Save %     IP     K/9    WHIP   HR/9
Joe Nathan              92.4    140.0   11.06   0.91   0.45
Takashi Saito           91.3    142.2   11.67   0.82   0.50
Mariano Rivera          90.1    146.1    7.93   1.04   0.43
Francisco Rodriguez     89.7    140.1   12.06   1.17   0.58
J.J. Putz               89.4    150.0   11.16   0.81   0.60
Bobby Jenks             89.0    134.2    9.09   1.15   0.47
Jonathan Papelbon       88.9    116.2   12.27   0.84   0.62
Billy Wagner            88.1    140.2   11.13   1.12   0.83
Trevor Hoffman          88.0    120.1    7.03   1.04   0.60
Todd Jones              86.2    125.1    4.38   1.34   0.50
Joe Borowski            84.4    135.1    8.11   1.40   1.06
Jason Isringhausen      84.4    123.2    7.71   1.37   1.02
Bob Wickman             84.1    104.1    6.81   1.38   0.52
Chad Cordero            83.4    148.1    7.95   1.25   1.27
Francisco Cordero       78.6    138.2   11.03   1.23   0.71
Brad Lidge              78.5    142.0   12.17   1.33   1.20
Huston Street           74.6    120.2    9.70   1.03   0.67

This table is cumulative over the 2006-2007 seasons.  Nathan was best in converting saves, had the second-best home run rate, allowed less than a base runner per inning and induced lots of strikeouts.  But this table isn't to tell you how good Nathan is.  It's about his comparison to the league's best (and more well-known) closers.  Note where Rivera and Cordero fall on this list.

Ignore the finer points and smaller print of our imaginary contract for now; that's for you to debate later.  So just forget about things like no-trade clauses and option years; just focus on the money.  After a signing bonus, Nathan is likely to be making $10-$12 million per season, average, and could be making much more in the latter years of a new deal.


In an era where baseball has been dissected to the point where you can gauge nearly every aspect of a pitcher's game, we know that The Closer is a position that's relatively easy to create.  Think about it.  The job of The Closer is to enter the game with a lead (on most occasions), get a few outs (rarely more than three) without surrendering that lead, and get a Save (which is like getting a gold star for coming to work).  It certainly takes mental dexterity and talent, but finding a pitcher to fill the role doesn't require a mystical chant or a worldwide search.

This doesn't mean that the pitcher awarded the role of The Closer deserves any less credit for being a good pitcher.  We don't need to examine Nathan's numbers to know he's been an extremely valuable member of the bullpen and one of the game's best closers.  But on a team where management will always be conscious of payroll, even if it has gone up over the last handful of seasons, can you justify spending $12 million on a player when a far less expensive option could fill the position?  The financial value of a closer simply escalates much quicker than his bullpen counterparts.


During the offseason months, this organization has once again seen its share of turnover.  This time, however, the turnover has involved some of the biggest names not just over the last five years, but also in franchise history.  Gaps left by those-who-shall-not-be-named aren't easily replaced.  Could this young team absorb the loss of Nathan?

This argument goes beyond fiscal commitments and speculation on whether Juan Rincon or Jesse Crain or Pat Neshek is ready to be The Closer.  It becomes about leadership, confidence and even something as intangible as name recognition.  Joe Nathan isn't just a guy we love; he's an elite player at his position.  His place on the Twins' active roster has more impact than the Saves he collects, and there are times when "the good of the team" has to do with more than money.

Enter the Closer

I'm not going to give you my opinion on whether or not Nathan should be re-signed.  You all have the information, and the debate of the armchair GM is part of the experience.  This is about the good of the team: a team whose apex is currently planned for 2010.  When deciding whether or not the Twins are retaining more value by keeping Nathan than by trading him or letting him walk, there are a number of scenarios you should be playing out.  Not just the money he'll cost per year, but injuries, his value in July, contract stumbling blocks (no-trade clauses, signing bonus, incentives) where his replacement will come from and how the team would be affected.  Let's get to it.

Hey you, GameDay reader.  Joe Nathan, $12 million:  Deal, or no deal?

Be sure to find your GameDay outside the Dome for home games all summer long, just off the concourse.