Wednesday

3-10-10: Sorry Joe

Hello again everybody...

The weird world of sports news strikes again. I had a column all planned out in my head for today and then whammo. I get up yesterday morning to find out that it looks like the worst possible outcome of Joe Nathan's MRI has been confirmed.

So bye, bye other column idea. No worries. It'll keep.

But today's going to be my reaction to Nathan's injury. How devastating is the news, really? Who might replace Joe as the team's closer? Are the Twins no longer the favorites in the AL Central?

Lot's to ponder for sure.

Let's do this...

”Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
- Mark Twain (1835 - 1910), American author and humorist


Quoting Twain is a little like being one of Tiger's girlfriends. It's been done. It's almost redundant. I'm taking the comparison too far? You're probably right.

In any case, I usually avoid Twain quotes for those reasons. But this one made me chuckle, so there you go.

«Read the rest of the column by clicking on the title»



Sorry, Joe...

I said on Monday that I wasn't worried about Joe Nathan's arm... yet. Well, the “yet” came yesterday when news broke that Joe has a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow.

The tear has been termed “significant”, though there's still a slim hope that after resting for a couple of weeks, the injury could be rehabbed instead of requiring surgery. When I say “slim”, I mean probably less than 10%. So the strong likelihood is that Nathan will require Tommy John surgery, which will put him out for all of this season, and puts at least the beginning of next season in doubt.

So the first question that occurred to me was, “how big a blow is this to the Twins hopes in 2010?”

Off the top of my head, I could perhaps name 4 guys who'd be more costly to lose. And four might be pushing it.

I believe the stat I heard yesterday was that no closer in baseball has saved more games over the last 4 years than Joe. Clearly having an anchor like that at the back of your bullpen is a huge asset.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if this is as devastating a blow to the Twins as it might seem. Obviously I'd rather have Joe than not have him. But I can't help but flash back to last October as Joe melted down in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Yankees. A game upon which the entire series turned. If the Twins win that game, it's 1-1 coming back to Minnesota, and anything can happen. Instead, Nathan blew a two-run lead, the Yankees won in extra innings and that was the series.

I'm not saying the loss was 100% Nathan's fault, but the boys did get him a 2-run lead. If he can't lock a game down in that situation, then maybe the Twins aren't all that worse off with him on the bench.

But Dan! You have to have a big-time closer to win in the playoffs!

Do you really? Philly won the Series two years ago with a guy who stunk out loud the year before and lost his closing job last year (while they managed to make it to the Series again). Tampa Bay made the Series two years ago while riding the hot arm of a young prospect they're now trying to turn into a starter.

My point is it can be done without a Mariano Rivera or a Joe Nathan at the back of your bullpen.

That's if - and this is a huge if - they can find someone reliable enough to take over the closing role. If they can, then the rest of the bullpen can set itself up where everybody knows their roles. If not... then Nathan's loss will be felt more deeply.

That brings us to the second question, “who's in line to replace Nathan”?

If the Twins choose to stay in-house to find a replacement, there are three main candidates:

Jon Rauch: Of all the current members of the Twins bullpen, Rauch has the most closing experience. Unfortunately, it's not as extensive as you might like. But his 26 saves in his seven seasons in the bigs are more than the rest of the bullpen combined. At 6'11” Rauch is an imposing presence on the mound, which sometimes has as much to do with success as a closer as the quality of a pitcher's stuff. But he's also had a history of being overly-concerned with that presence at the expense of his focus. That's a recipe for big innings, which obviously you can't have as a closer.

Jesse Crain: Once termed a “future closer”, Crain has struggled to find himself of the last few years. His talent is undeniable. His ability to harness that talent has been the problem. While not as physically imposing as Rauch, Crain is certainly a power-pitcher and can work his fastball into the mid-90's. Trouble looms when he tries to work it into the upper-90's, loses his movement, and essentially sets it on a tee for opposing batters. Crain was pretty good down the stretch last year, and I wouldn't be upset to see him get the shot.

Matt Guerrier: Matt's done it all for the Twins... except close. He's been the most under-rated relief pitcher for the Twins for several years running, and for that reason, I'd love to see him get the shot. Unfortunately for him, his value as a set-up and situational guy is so high, I'll be surprised if he ends up in the closing role. Guerrier's not a power-pitcher, and his stuff doesn't blow hitters away. Technical precision is a wonderful thing. It's just not generally the stuff of closers.

I expect one of those three will start the season anchoring the bullpen, but there are a couple of long-shots to consider as well:

Francisco Liriano: Having come back from his own Tommy John surgery, 'Cisco would certainly be an appropriate choice. Especially considering that his trouble since coming back has been his stamina. He's been great for 3 or 4 innings, and mediocre after that. But what if he only had to be great for one inning? It's certainly a tempting thought, but not one I think the Twins are likely to explore. At least not early on in the season. Instead, I think they're going to give Liriano every chance to win that 5th starters position. And that's the right call. Starting pitchers are simply more valuable than relievers. If Liriano is able to contribute to the rotation, then he should be put there instead of putting him in a position that he's completely unfamiliar with, even going back to his time in the minors.

Pat Neshek: His name was one I expected to see a lot of yesterday when the Nathan news broke, but surprisingly wasn't mentioned much. That's probably because Neshek's trying to come back this season from his own bout with elbow problems. And trying to step into the closer's role after a significant injury is an awfully big step. But it's not like Neshek has no experience closing games. In his five years in the minor league system, he amassed 82 saves. That's obviously not the same as getting it done in the big leagues, but it's better than nothing.

All of those names are only relevant, of course, assuming that the Twins don't decide to make a trade for a closer.

I think it's far more likely that they stay in house, but there are a few names being floated as either free agent or trade acquisitions:

John Smoltz: Oh good God, no. People can't really think he can get it done in the AL after the way he flamed out in Boston (whom I hate) last year, can they? I was floored when I heard his name mentioned. I'd consider any of the five names I mentioned earlier to be far better candidates than Smoltz. The only positive is that since he's a free agent, they wouldn't have to give up a player to get him.

Kerry Wood: Really?! The guy hasn't stayed healthy in forever. He wasn't exactly dominant for Cleveland last year. And what makes anybody think that the Indians are going to trade him within the division? Add his ridiculously large contract into the mix, and I'll be quite surprised if this is the route the Twins choose to go.

Heath Bell: Now that's more like it! I said “like it”, not “likely”. There's a difference. Bell was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dismal Padres squad last year, and has been rumored to be a potential trade piece as San Diego tries to rebuild their farm system. That being said, the Pads are going to place a premium on Bell and likely hold onto him until the trade deadline to try and maximize his value. That means the Twins would have to find someone to patch the hole until July, and then be willing to part with a significant package in order to acquire him. Not bloody likely.

So my guess is the Twins will go with one of the relievers already on the roster. And if you put a gun to my head, I'll say it's probably Rauch, although I'm not-so-secretly rooting for Crain to get the nod.

Which brings me to my final question, “does this mean the Twins aren't the favorite in the AL Central anymore?"

No, no, a thousand times no. It doesn't mean that.

Look, it's a blow. I'm not being unrealistic about that. But it doesn't change the balance of power in the Central. Look at the rest of the division's closers:

Chicago: Bobby Jenks and perhaps J.J. Putz

Detroit: Jose Valverde and perhaps Joel Zumaya

Cleveland: Kerry Wood

Kansas City: Joakim Soria

The only guy on that list who has the potential to scare me is Soria, and the Royals still don't have enough talent to be a serious contender in the division. Every other guy has question marks and flaws. Nathan was far and away the best closer in the division. Now, I'd say the Twins are “no worse” than anybody else in the division at the closer position.

Given the line-up and rotation advantages Minnesota still has, I'll still make them the clear favorite to win the Central.

I guess ultimately what I'm saying is, “It's way too early to panic” (copyright, the Hammer).

Yes, losing Nathan sucks. Yes, it puts that much more pressure on the Mauer contract situation. Yes, it could be the first domino to fall in a disappointing 2010 season.

But it doesn't have to be. Baseball is my favorite sport because it requires patience and big-picture thinking. Joe Nathan is a fantastic closer, and by all reports a quality guy. His presence will be missed. But that doesn't mean we give up.

Did the we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? (copyright, Blutarsky)

It just gives us all the more reason to keep an eye on Spring Training. We'll have to watch closely and see who steps up to take that role.

There's no crying in baseball (copyright, Jimmy Dugan), and there's no panicking in Spring Training.

It'll be okay, Twins fans. Really, it will!


That's going to do it for today. I'm back on Friday with your weekly Update column, plus I'll let you know about something special coming next week while I'm on vacation!

Until then, thanks for reading!

4 comments:

  1. the "no crying in baseball" was also in an episode of "Greek" recently...it was quite funny actually.

    do you think that Nathan may have had more of an issue with his elbow earlier than everyone knew about, like for instance when he started to make us all doubt his ability?

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  2. It's entirely possible. We've seen plenty of examples where doctors have misdiagnosed injuries in recent years. Clearly they thought it was just the bone-spur problem with Nathan when they cleaned him up this off-season.

    But from what I've been reading, tears in the UCL don't just "happen". The ligament slowly frays over time until the tear becomes obvious on an MRI. I'm not sure how much they could've done to diagnose it earlier. Or even if there's anything they could have done to stop it once the fraying began.

    It's a good question though.

    Folks, Betsy is too humble to pimp her own writing, but for more Nathan reaction, check out her blog at: http://girllovesbaseball.blogspot.com/

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  3. i think doctors misdiagnose things a lot these days. they don't really know what's wrong with people, they guess.
    it's like patients that are given so much time to live, for instance, my grandma had open heart surgery, and the doctors gave her 5 years to live after she'd have it done. she lived 10 years.
    thanks for the plug for my blog! lol...

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  4. Anytime! Always happy to promote another Twins Fan's blog!

    ReplyDelete