Johan Santana has one year remaining on his contract with the Twins. I'm on the record as stating that "the absolute worst thing that could happen would be for the Twins to hang onto Santana for another year, miss the playoffs, and then collect a pair of draft picks next winter when he signs a mega-deal with some big-market franchise." The organization faces a similar situation with Joe Nathan, but my feelings when it comes to the dominating closer are dramatically different.
In each of his four seasons as Twins' closer, Nathan has saved more than 35 games. He has blown a total of 14 save opportunities over those four years. Three times he posted an ERA below 2, and his K/BB ratio during his career as a closer is about 4.5-to-1. The numbers speak for themselves, and they show that Nathan has been one of the top closers in the game for the past four years. In fact, one could easily argue that he has been the very best closer during that span. Nathan will make $6 million in the option year of his contract (which the Twins are sure to activate), and afterward he will be eligible to become a 33-year-old free agent unless he signs a contract extension.
The type of money Nathan is likely to command in a new deal could be staggering. While the closer position might be the most overrated in the game, teams seem to value it more and more and the position's stock on the free agent market has risen quite a bit in recent years. A couple contracts signed during the 2005-06 offseason provide us with a good benchmark for contemplating what Nathan could be looking at after next season. That winter, the Blue Jays signed former Oriole B.J. Ryan to a five-year deal worth $47 million dollars. At the time, Ryan was a 30-year-old (he turned 31 about a month after signing the deal) with one year of experience as a full-time closer. At the time, Ryan's contract was the largest ever for a relief pitcher, but the distinction would last only a few hours. On the same day the Jays finalized their deal with Ryan, Billy Wagner and the Mets came to terms on a four-year contract worth $43 million. Wagner was 34 and coming off a season similar to the one Nathan just finished.
If these examples are any indication, Nathan will be very expensive if and when he hits the market. Given their financial situation, the Twins really can't afford to pay a relief pitcher $10+ million per season, especially considering the number of talented young arms that populate their farm system. So, no, re-signing Nathan is not a realistic option for the Twins.
With that being the case, one might guess that I'm a proponent of trading him this offseason to get maximum value in return. Not so. I think the Twins should hang onto Nathan for next year, get one more season of dominant relief at a value price, and then let him walk for a pair of draft picks the following offseason.
Trading Nathan right now would be detrimental to the team's chances in 2008. Many argue that Pat Neshek could step in and close, but I think there have to at least be some questions about that plan of action after Neshek's 4.82 second-half ERA and the late-season revelation that he was experiencing elbow and shoulder issues. Even if Neshek could take over as an effective closer, losing Nathan weakens the bullpen to a devastating degree. Matt Guerrier had a great season in 2007, but it's far from a given that he'll repeat that performance. And there are many questions swirling around Jesse Crain, Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes. I have long felt that the Twins need their bullpen to be a strength in order to succeed, and if they trade Nathan this offseason, their relief corps will not be a strength in 2008.
Fortunately, by the time Nathan leaves via free agency after next year, some help could be in place. Eduardo Morlan, who is being groomed as the closer of the future and is likely to start next season in Double-A, could be ready by then. Furthermore, a player like Boof Bonser or Glen Perkins may have settled into a relief role. For the time being, however, I just think there are too many questions surrounding the bullpen for the Twins to be able to trade their best reliever and continue to compete. Of course, if they are uncompetitive around the trading deadline next year, the Twins could start listening to some offers.
Nathan has blossomed as a dominant reliever in Minnesota -- consistent almost to the point of being automatic. That's refreshing for Twins fans who had to endure the heart-pounding years of LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado in the closer role. As much as I'd love for Nathan to stick around and continue to slam the door on Twins' opponents, the numbers show that it's just not feasible. And while his trade value might be pretty high, I don't think the Twins can afford to deal him right now considering their current bullpen situation. Unlike in Santana's case, I think the best choice here is to enjoy one more season of Nathan and then let him walk for draft picks.