Why the loss of Twins closer Joe Nathan is overrated

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By Jake McCormick

With the loss of Joe Nathan, the Minnesota Twins are stuck somewhere between the woes of the 2008 New York Mets and 2009 Philadelphia Phillies.

The 2008 Mets had a great offense, quality starting pitching, and solid defense, yet their season ended at 162 games. The 2009 Phillies finished with nearly identical statistical rankings, yet made it to the World Series for a second year in a row. They both finished at the bottom of the league in blown saves.

Even without arguably the best closer of the past six years, Minnesota’s chance of repeating as AL Central champions is still high.

Clearly the worst season by a closer in MLB history had no effect in Philly, while a roulette wheel bullpen in New York all but killed their chances at a playoff berth. Much like the office of the President of the United States, the closer can be overrated and crucial depending on the circumstances.

A closer’s value is determined by the company he keeps. The majority of games will be decided by the Twins’ offense, defense, and starting pitching, but the closer is supposed to handle the highest pressured three outs in the game and deliver around 85% of the time. It’s the baseball equivalent of the kicker.

It’s hard to argue against Nathan’s place as the best MLB closer since 2004, as he has compiled a 1.81 ERA and 246 saves in that span while playing under the radar up North. However, the number that should put closing duties into perspective is 1.9. That’s the number of Wins Above a Replacement player that Nathan provides.

They are still a team that made a semi-surprising splash in free agency and has a tradition of winning despite losing a star player or two. The additions of JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson, along with the added momentum of a playing in a new, outdoor stadium, should be enough for Minnesota to make up those two wins Nathan stole in his injured elbow. They also have enough quality relievers competing for the job that at least one of them should come under the radar in a Twins-like fashion.

Pat Neshek, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and (my pick) Jose Mijares are currently candidates for the job, and Francisco Liriano could make a bid if the Twins elect to pick lefty Jarrod Washburn out of the clearance free agents aisle. Each one of them has shown an ability to get outs, and will get a little less than a month to state their case.

If Minnesota fails to repeat as AL Central kings, it’ll be because of their starting pitching and its lack of a true ace, or experiencing baseball in 40 degree April and September weather on a regular basis for the first time. Unlike the 08 Mets, the Twins are veterans with beating adversity consistently. They also only scored four fewer runs in 2009 than the Phillies did, and any closer they could use this year would be hard pressed to top Lidge’s historic campaign of bed wetting.

Every blown save in Minnesota in 2010 will be put under a much larger microscope than usual, but in the grand scheme of things the Twins are a good enough all-around team and organization that the loss of Nathan should be nothing more than an inconvenience.

Heath Ledger’s death led to a change in plans for future Batman movies, but that doesn’t mean the third one won’t be a quality film as long as the right actors are involved. Like Ledger and the Joker, the Twins replacement won’t be nearly as good, but it’s a role that someone will fill respectably.

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