After Joe Nathan

Alright, Twins fans, take a deep breath. Today’s announcement that bullpen closer Joe Nathan may be lost for the season is no reason for you to be out on that ledge. It’s not as though Joe Mauer is eight months away from being a New York Yankee or anything.

Step One: Stop listening to (many of) the national experts. This one in Miami ran up the white flag:

I mean, how exactly do you replace a guy who in the last five years has saved more games than any other closer in baseball? It is impossible, you can’t, especially if you are the Twins.

What nonsense.

Joe Nathan is a fine baseball player, but the closer role may be the most overrated position in baseball. Take Joe Borowski, formerly of the Cleveland Indians. In 2007 he led the league in saves — he had 8 more than Joe Nathan — even though he had an ERA over 5 and gave up plenty of hits. The Indians were one win away from the World Series that year. With Joe Borowski. And when they ended up blowing the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox, it wasn’t Borowski who flamed out. It was Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia. Baseball is funny that way.

But how did a marginally talented Borowski get 45 saves? By starting the 9th inning with nobody out and nobody on. All he needed to do was get out of the inning without giving up a run. Is it that hard? Most pitchers in a game do it. Getting three outs is not an impossible task.

What makes a good closer? The opportunity to be one. In four seasons with the San Francisco Giants, Joe Nathan had exactly 1 save. Why? He didn’t have the opportunity to be a closer.

So it’s not unusual to think that the next Joe Nathan is already on the team. In the long run, it’s probably Pat Neshek, who’s coming off Tommy John surgery and probably won’t get the job right away. More likely, it’s Jon Rauch, because baseball mangers like to put people in roles they’ve had before, even if they’re not the best choice.

The problem with Nathan’s injury is that everyone moves up to fill an open spot, thinning the bullpen a bit, especially of the real heroes of the bullpen — the 7th and 8th inning specialists who often don’t have the luxury of entering the game with the bases empty.

I checked with some baseball experts of my own on this subject. Here’s their analysis.

Chris Dall, former Bleacher Bum, now producer of MPR’s Midmorning

I agree that closers are overrated. We’ve known for a long time that the guys you throw out there in the 7th and 8th innings are just as important as the guy who pitches the 9th. Unfortunately for the Twins, while Nathan has held down the 9th inning (last year’s playoffs notwithstanding), they’ve had problems with the 7th and 8th innings. Pat Neshek looked like he was going to be their designated 8th-inning guy, but then he hurt his elbow, and no one knows at this point how effective he’ll be. Jesse Crain has not shown himself to be completely trustworthy in any situation, nor has Jose Mijares. Jon Rauch pitched pretty well in September, but he’s also a guy who had a 6.56 ERA two years ago. That’s the problem with relief pitchers. With the exception of an elite few, most relievers are guys who were never good enough or consistent enough to be starters, and you never know what you’re going to get from year to year.

My suggestion? I’d go with Francisco Liriano. More knowledgeable people than I have noted that his elbow surgery has forced him to become a pitcher, rather than just a thrower. Well, that really hasn’t worked out, and I’m not sure if it’s going to. So, why not allow him just to be a thrower again? His fastball is back in the mid-90s, and his slider, which was his really devastating pitch before he blew out the elbow, has regained some of it’s velocity. Yes, he walks guys, and that’s one thing you don’t want in a closer. But a quick scan through some of his starts last year on Baseball indicates that his first two innings were not the problem. He’ll get hit, but the Twins are good defensively, and he has the ability to strike out the side. Does he have the “attitude” to be a closer? It’s hard to say. But if the Twins stay in house, rather than looking at outside options, most of which are bound to have just as many question marks, I think he might be their man.

Joe Eskola, Manager, Research Analysis – MPR

1) Biggest Twins asset – time – have almost all of spring training to experiment

2) Second biggest – depth – Guerrier, Crain, Mijares, Rauch, Duensing, and maybe even Liriano (if he has rebounded, he should start – but if he can’t go 6-7 innings, he could be lights out for 1-2)

3) Third biggest – motivation – don’t you think EVERY guy I just listed is doing a few more push ups this AM … is running an extra lap or two … is taking better notes today – this is their chance for a closer payday if they do this right – never underestimate this factor.

4) Fourth – current closers/history – yes, Rivera and Papelbon are at different levels – but if the Twins don’t get past the Sox or Yankees again, it probably won’t be because of the closer – ironically, Nathan has stunk in the postseason – so to GET to the play-offs, look at some of the top good-enough closers from last year – Broxton-LA, Bell-SD, Aardsma-Seattle, Franklin-StL, Fuentes-LAA, Cordero-Cin, etc. The Twins can likely find a guy on the roster to be like these guys. And if not, there’s plenty of time to buy one.

5) Fifth – relativity – look at the AL Central – they’ll be fine.

Don’t worry, Twins fans. Unless Mauer doesn’t sign.

Rob Neyer,

Ron Gardenhire is probably going to choose someone this month, or in April, and stick with him for a while. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world. But the best thing would probably be to let the left-handed Mijares get some save opportunities in left-heavy ninths, with one (or more) of the righties getting the others.

That would leave Gardenhire short a left-handed setup man; in fact, the only other left-handed candidate to even win a roster spot is Brian Duensing, who’s been a starter throughout his professional career. But Duensing is fighting for the No. 5 slot in the rotation, and sliding him into the bullpen would seem a relatively easy move.

The American League Central is weak enough that the Twins could win it without doing anything at all unorthodox. Just hand the closer chores to Guerrier or Rauch, and beat out the White Sox for the division title by two or three games. But they could improve their chances just a bit by doing what managers used to do as a matter of course: thinking.