By Mike Gallagher
246 saves, a 22-12 record, and an ERA under 2.00. An impressive resume over the last six years for Twins closer Joe Nathan, who is widely considered the second best closer over that span in Major League Baseball.
Obviously, with such gaudy stats and being such an unquestionable rock at the end of the bullpen, it would be ridiculous to say the Twins won’t miss Joe Nathan. In a bullpen that was shaky in a lot of other areas over the last two years, Nathan was the only sure thing after Ron Gardenhire made his first trip to the mound in a game.
It hurts, yes, but it’s equally ridiculous to believe that this injury is one that decimates the Twins and puts them in a spot that could end up costing them the division.
Losing Nathan to a torn UCL takes away one piece to the bullpen puzzle the Twins have been trying to put together, but there are answers and you don’t have to look far for them.
The most obvious replacement for Nathan would be Jon Rauch. The 6’11”, 290 pound beast has 26 career saves, most of which came with the Nationals in 2008. He was extremely effective after coming over from Arizona last year, recording five holds and five wins with a 1.72 ERA in 17 appearances for the Twins.
Matt Guerrier is another option, but a much less attractive one. He has more blown saves (10) then he does converted save opportunities (four) and the club is hoping to keep him in the setup role he excelled in last year, where he recorded 33 holds and a 2.36 ERA. Jose Mijares is in the same boat, an inexperienced reliever who did very well in his setup spot last year, with 27 holds and a 2.34 ERA. Those two are expected to hold down the eighth inning this year, with Guerrier being a righty and Mijares taking care of the lefty opportunities.
The dark horse candidate to fill Nathan’s spot is Anthony Slama. The right handed power reliever recorded 29 saves between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester last year. He struggles with his control at times, but has an impressive minor league resume, including winning Twins minor league pitcher of the year and Class A pitcher of the year by MILB.com in 2008. His development has been surprising considering he was drafted in the 39th round in 2006, but the maturation of his changeup and a solid low-90’s fastball have been the keys to his success.
Should the Twins go outside the organization to fill the spot, which is extremely unlikely for anyone that knows the club, the list includes a few former Twins.
Eddie Guardado is a guy the Twins have already re-acquired once since his “Everyday Eddie” days and is currently on a minor league deal with the Nationals.
Ron Mahay helped the Twins greatly after being acquired from Kansas City, posting a 2.00 ERA in 16 appearances for the Twins. He still sits on the free agent market unsigned.
Juan Rincon is on a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies, but spent the better part of eight seasons with the Twins and had three years with a sub 3 ERA.
All of these out-of-organization options are more likely to be brought in to shore up the early part of the bullpen to fill the spot of a guy like Jon Rauch or Anthony Slama that may be thrown into that closer position instead of the seventh or eighth inning spots. Guardado has plenty of closing experience, but is getting very long in the tooth. Mahay and Rincon are guys I wouldn’t trust to watch my fish let alone close a MLB game, so they would be subjected to sixth or seventh inning duties.
Whichever way the Twins go, the one for-sure thing is Joe Nathan’s season, and possibly career, is over. A 35 year-old pitcher with 10 years of MLB wear and tear and two elbow surgeries within six months of each other doesn’t add up to an effective comeback. Combine that with the mandatory 12-18 month recovery time from Tommy John surgery, and you have what looks to be an early end to a career. The Twins are going to wait two weeks before they make a final decision, hoping the swelling will go down or Nathan will be able to pitch with the pain, but let’s be serious, with that significant of a tear of your UCL, time doesn’t heal that wound.
Overall, there are worse things that could’ve happened to the Twins than Joe Nathan going down. Closers are an extremely overrated part of a team, and it shouldn’t be impossible to find a replacement with all the options the Twins have.
It almost makes you wish the Twins would’ve moved Nathan after his playoff struggles last year and gotten something out of the deal.