[Update, 3pm CDT]
No sooner have I posted this than it's come through that the Twins have, indeed, declined Nathan's option for 2012. From GM Bill Smith:
"I spoke with Joe and his agent this morning, and expressed our interest in re-signing Joe. We will remain in contact with them as we move forward into the free agent process."
I'd like to see Nathan stick around in Minnesota, and retire as a Twin. But this shouldn't preclude the front office from finding as many talented arms for the bullpen as possible. No more trades for third-rate relievers. This is a lesson that's been learned.
Over at his Star Tribune blog, Joe Christensen states that "all signs point" to Minnesota buying out Joe Nathan's option for 2012. Coming off of a season that saw him steadily improve after missing all of 2010 to Tommy John surgery, if this comes to pass it won't be much of a surprise. Nathan's option is for $12.5 million. His buyout is worth $2 million.
All things considered, this may not be as cut-and-dried of a situation as we all thought it would be prior to 2011, and even into the season itself. At that juncture it seemed beyond doubt that, after missing one full season and struggling the next, the Twins wouldn't pick up the option for a pitcher who would be 37.
Of course, at that time we also had no idea how terrible our bullpen would actually be.
Last winter there were innumerable relievers on the free agent market of quality: Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Rafael Soriano, Octavio Dotel, Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor...and of course Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and Brian Fuentes. This winter will be much the same, except many of the best options will be established closers: Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge, Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Frank Francisco, and Jonathan Papelbon lead the list.
So it's possible that the Twins may choose to take a gamble here, paying the $2 million to buy Nathan out and then hoping to find a closer for less than $10.5 million per season in order to shave some money off the closer position. It makes sense; it's supply and demand. Somebody just might be available for a bargain price. It seems like a decision based on the head, not the heart, which is where so many decisions went wrong last year.
Alternatively, this move is still a gamble. Is it worth it for the Twins to just pay the $10.5 million necessary to keep Nathan around, not just for his talent and stability at the back end of the bullpen, but for security's sake? Maybe the front office is hoping to find a closer in the $7 to $8 million per year range; is it worth paying Nathan the extra couple million to avoid the gamble, to avoid the possibility of not finding someone?
In the wake of the destruction of the 2011 season, I'm still going to say that buying Nathan out is the right thing to do. Hopefully the front office can find a few good pieces this winter, and hopefully The Closer (TM) is one of them.
My only caveat is this: if they do buy Nathan out, their replacement has to be in Minnesota on a multi-year deal. To risk letting Nathan walk is only worth it if the front office is realigning the bullpen not just for 2012, but for seasons beyond.