Thursday, January 20, 2011

Don't doubt Joe Nathan!

The Twins have lost 4 top flight free agent relievers in the 2010 off-season. A post about the 2011 bullpen options is forthcoming, but I ended up wanting to examine Joe Nathan more.

I'm here to tell you to be hopeful. Don't Doubt Joe Nathan!

Jim McIssac/Getty Images

Joe Nathan came to the Twins before the 2004 season. Nathan had never closed before, but all he has done is save 246 games in 271 chances. He's never had an ERA above 2.70, has struck out at least 9.67 batters per 9 innings and never walked more than 2.88 per 9. He was a top 5 closer from 2004 - 2009. He's been awesome. 

Late in spring training, Nathan injured his elbow. He had to have the ulnar collateral ligament replaced. He had to have Tommy John Surgery! His season was over. Surprisingly, the Twins were fine without him. The bullpen, led by John Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier had a solid season and was further augmented by late season trades of Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes. The Twins did a great job of replacing Nathan's impact. While no reliever was as individually as dominant as Joe Nathan, the bullpen as a whole was solid.

The Twins don't have the same bullpen depth in 2011. They lost Crain, Guerrier, Rauch, and Fuentes this off-season and they have not picked up a single free agent reliever. The Twins may not have missed Joe Nathan in 2010, but the Twins could sure use him in 2011.

Ideally, Nathan comes back and takes the closer position from Matt Capps early in the season and dominates as if he'd never left. As a closer, Nathan has been a much more dominant closer than Matt Capps. He's had much better strikeout rates and allowed far less base runners over his career. His WHIP is almost always under 1.00. If Nathan is nearly 100% of his 2009 numbers, he is a much better closing option than Capps. Sliding in a healthy Nathan as the closer and Capps as set-up guy would give the Twins a nice back of the bullpen.

His Tommy John surgery is the great unknown. Many pitchers take about 2 years to come back from the surgery and it should be expected that Nathan might as well. The Twins have examples of guys coming back slowly from Tommy John surgery. Francisco Liriano took 3 years, just to return to 95% of his 2006 self. Pat Neshek wasn't the same pitcher in 2010 as he had been pre-surgery. Looking further back, Joe Mays was never the same after he had the surgery. Three examples of Twins guys coming back slow.

Will Nathan have the same set-backs? Not everyone comes back from the surgery so slow. Many pitchers return at close to 100% after just one year. Tim Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery in 2009 after only 11 months. In the month of September, he'd thrown well enough to earn a new 3 year/$28 million deal. His strikeout rates and walk rates in 2010 were virtually the same as the rest of his career. He was the same pitcher in 2010 as he was in 2008.

The one name that keeps coming up in my mind though is Billy Wagner! Wagner returned from the surgery in 2009, about 10 months after his surgery. His K rate actually went up in 2009/2010 and his walk rate only went up a tad. He was still throwing 98 in 2010. Wagner, like Nathan was a closer near the end of a great career. Wagner wanted to prove that he could be the guy he was before the surgery. He wasn't ready to retire. Nathan could do the same thing!

I'm not saying Nathan can do what Wagner or Hudson did, but why couldn't it happen. Nathan is near the end of his career. He is not a guy who's mechanics are going to be changed. He is not going to be brought back slow or babied in advance of his return, like Liriano and Neshek were. Nathan is owed a lot of money by the Twins in 2011. Then he is a free-agent. The Twins won't hold Nathan back if he feels fine, due to his age and their investment in him. Nathan isn't going to be interested in holding himself back either. Nathan will want to pitch. He's a guy fighting for one last chance at a title, one last chance at a contract. He has an option for 2012 that he'd like the Twins to pick up. He has a lot to prove in 2011 in order to have the option picked up or have an option to close in 2012.

Am I saying Nathan will return to form as quickly as Hudson or Wagner? No. They both pitched well near the end of a season and then had another off-season to rest. What I am saying is, it's not impossible that Nathan will come back at close to 100%, in fact, there is precedent.

Most Twins fans are nervous that Nathan's return won't go well, many aren't even expecting him to do much in 2011 at all. Guessing his effectiveness and his return to closer date has been a popular topic on twitter and other blogs. This just shows how nervous Twins fans are. Neshek, Liriano, and Mays are three Twins that have had difficulty coming back from Tommy John surgery. Though those players had different circumstances than Nathan. All three players were in their prime and the Twins had long term investment in them. Nathan is near the end with a short-term investment. He has something to prove and the Twins could be the beneficiaries. There is reason to be hopeful for Nathan, not just pessimistic.

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