The news on Joe Nathan's elbow is not good: he's got a significant tear in his UCL and will most likely need Tommy John surgery, meaning he'll be lost to the Twins for the 2010 season. Obviously, it's a huge loss for the Twins to be without their All-Star closer, who has been one of the most consistently excellent at his position since coming to the Twins in 2004. However, all is not lost.
Much has been written about how the role of closer has become overrated, and how just about any competent pitcher should be able to succeed most of the time when asked to hold a lead of up to 3 runs for only 1 inning. For as good as Nathan was last year, he still blew 5 saves (not including the one in the playoffs). And that's normal. Look down the list of the top closers last year, and you'll see that, despite sparkling ERAs and WHIPs and K/9s, only a handful got through the season with 3 or fewer blown saves. And the one who managed to have the fewest blown saves? Detroit's Fernando Rodney, he of the 4.40 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and 7.3 K/9. Would I prefer to have a guy in the role who I could basically pencil in for an ERA under 2.50 and better than 9.0 K/9? Of course. But lacking that doesn't mean the Twins will lose any more games than they would have with Nathan.
The guy is 35 this year. Closers often age very well, and he's in fantastic shape, but a decline has to come sooner or later. There's no guarantee that Nathan would have been as effective this year as he has been in the past.
The other reason I'm not too broken up about this is that the Twins did set themselves up with a very deep bullpen this year. With Nathan set to close and Duensing or Perkins probably picking up the 7th spot in the 'pen as the long reliever, the Twins still had Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain and Clay Condrey for middle relief. That's enough depth to stash Pat Neshek in the minors for awhile. Now, he will have to prove that he's recovered enough of his stuff and command to break camp with the team. If that breaks right for the Twins, I don't think that the non-save situation bullpen is going to be any weaker, even though one of the setup guys will have to move into the Closer role.
In addition, the Twins will have 3 good setup prospects at AAA: Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney and Alex Burnett. And Kyle Waldrop and recent high draft picks Carlos Gutierrez, Billy Bullock, Matt Bashore and Ben Tootle all have the potential to scoot through the system and be options late in the season. At this point, these prospects look to have the ability to eventually meet or exceed the production of some of the present members of the Twins' 'pen. So, if something goes awry with the bullpen this season, the Twins won't have to call up someone with mediocre stuff like Bobby Keppel.
The long-term implications of this seem bigger to me. I was already preparing to think of trading Nathan next offseason, particularly if one or more of the prospects I mentioned progress up to the big leagues. The way the last couple of offseasons have gone, Type A free agents haven't necessarily been signed, especially relievers. Maybe Nathan would be a special case, but he'd be heading into his late 30's by the time his Twins contract is up, and there's no guarantee that another team would want to give up 2 high draft picks for Nathan at that stage of his career. Would he opt for arbitration with the Twins? Maybe, and that would probably keep him at around $12M for 2013. Will there be room in the payroll to give that much money to a 38-year-old Joe Nathan, when the Twins will have so many other cheap relievers in their prime?
Since they can't count on getting much value for him should he depart as a free agent, the best strategy for the team would probably have been to trade Nathan after this year, saving $23.75M while gaining 2-3 quality prospects. Now that's out the window. I can't see another team giving up good prospects for a guy coming off TJS. The Twins will have to see what Nathan can give them in 2011. If that creates payroll problems, they'll have to look to unload one of the other veterans.
I've been working on a separate post about this, but it's expanded itself into an attempt to make a case for why Blackburn is a better pitcher than his numbers indicate. That's proving to be sort of difficult to compile. Lest the news get too stale, let me just say that I think the contract is pretty reasonable. 200 IP of average-ish pitching is certainly worth $3.5M/year. Look at what the Twins are paying for Carl Pavano. Maybe he'll be a little better than average. But how good a bet is he to make 200 IP?
Pitchers like Blackburn frequently make way more than that in free agency and arbitration. So he'll be an attractive trade candidate should the Twins develop better options (like Kyle Gibson). Not a huge risk for a guy who has been remarkably consistent through his first 2 full seasons.
The First Week of Grapefruit Games
Carl Pavano became the first Twins pitcher I projected to make the opening day roster to allow an ER this spring. Even with his semi-rough outing (and Delmon Young could have saved him a couple of runs in the first had he been able to make a sliding catch), those 12 pitchers have a 0.84 ERA and 0.90 WHIP through 32.1 IP with 9 BB, 22 K and 0 HR allowed. We've also seen 2 perfect IP from Anthony Slama with 3 K.
The hitting also portends well. In 2 games so far, the Twins' (mostly) regular lineup has demolished elite pitchers Jon Lester and Adam Wainwright to the tune of 8 ER in 3 IP. They've also been getting some nice AB from some of the prospects who might be needed depending on who hits the DL over the course of the season - guys like Danny Valencia, Brock Peterson, Wilson Ramos and Ben Revere.
Shout Out from the Geek
Finally, I got a nice mention for a comment I recently left the Twins Geek. Thanks, Geek. That means a lot coming from you. You know, I write like that on this blog all the time. And I don't stop at "preposterous" - I've been known to use "auspicious" and "asinine" too.
Don't be a stranger!