Friday, October 19, 2007

The Nathan Situation

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.

9 comments:

BD said...

While I've talked about packaging Santana & Nathan for something elsewhere (I won't hijack your thread by starting that argument over here too), I can see your point - to a point.

To improve in 2008, the Twins are going to have to take some chances & have it work out well.

There's no reason to believe the boost the Twins' offense needs is already on the 40-man roster. The Twins have two hitters who would be considered "good" (Mauer & Morneau) , a few that are "decent" (Cuddyer, Bartlett, Kubel if what we saw toward the end of the year is what we're going to get) and it drops off from there. It is NOT a championship offense, even if it winds up backed by the best bullpen in baseball.

The Twins past practice has been to address concerns by trying to squeeze one more good year out of a veteran past his prime (see, e.g., Rondell White, Tony Batista, Ponson & Ortiz).

IMO, as we head into 2008, that approach is itself too risky for a couple of reasons:

First, you aren't going to have this pitching staff pitching at this level forever - at some point, you have to aggressively pursue the offense this staff deserves or the opportunity will disappear.

Second, which is probably 'verse 2' of 'First', taking the "hope the low cost vet has a good year" approach would just confirm Santana's "The Twins aren't prepared to do what needs to be done to win" talk we heard from him during the season. We probably don't have much of a chance at keeping him regardless, but that won't help.

The Twins offense simply has too many holes to hope to nibble at it around the edges. IMO, being willing to trade Nathan for a real bat, even though it puts the bullpen in some jeopardy, has to be on the table.

SL__72 said...

Totally agree about both Nathan and Santana. Nice post.

I don't think the difference in value between what we could get in a trade for Nathan and the picks we get if we let him leave via FA is enough to compensate for what his absence would do to our pen next year.

Beau said...

I remember Guardado's closer years being filled with angst and "heart attack" saves. But his WHIP both years was under 1.00, similar to Nathan's first two years here (and better than this year's). Are the stats deceiving or is it our eyes?

Nick N. said...

The Twins offense simply has too many holes to hope to nibble at it around the edges. IMO, being willing to trade Nathan for a real bat, even though it puts the bullpen in some jeopardy, has to be on the table.

That's why I'm a supporter of the notion of trading Santana. I think you get those bats you speak of from trading him, and then you keep Nathan to support an improved offense with a strong bullpen. Also, in your comment you call Mauer and Morneau "good" hitters and Kubel a "decent" hitter. I think it's fair to assume Mauer and Morneau will improve next year and be closer to "great," and if Kubel's second half is any indication, he should be a lot better than "decent" next year. So I think there's more to work with there than you let on, but I certainly agree they need some significant additions to get the offense to where it needs to be.

That said, trading BOTH Nathan and Santana would be disastrous, both from a PR standpoint and a competitive standpoint.

I remember Guardado's closer years being filled with angst and "heart attack" saves. But his WHIP both years was under 1.00, similar to Nathan's first two years here (and better than this year's). Are the stats deceiving or is it our eyes?

You're right Beau. As much as it seemed like Guardado put two or three guys on before getting the job done in every save opportunity, he allowed less than a baserunner per inning in his last year with the Twins. Perhaps those nerve-racking close calls just stick with us more.

brianS said...

I think I disagree about Neshek. He entered a LOT of games in high-pressure situations this year (runners on base, often in scoring position). Nathan generally only entered at the top of a half-inning.

I suspect that a move to the closer position would (or at least could) be less stressful for Neshek than the way he was (ab)used this year.

bd said...

Nick:

I agree that Santana's the better choice for a trade for a couple of reasons: #1, he'd bring more of a return than Joe alone; and, #2, we might even have a shot at keeping Joe in Minnesota after 2008 (whereas I think we have NO SHOT at Johan).

With that said, I wouldn't be opposed to asking what we could get for the package, just to see if anyone shocks us (in a good way). I mean, the Vikes made the Herschel Walker deal ..... the Giants made the A.J. deal ..... maybe there's another idiot out there whose pocket we could pick?

As far as Joe & Justin are concerned, I too believe 2008 will be better than 2007 for both of them. The question is "How much better?"

Justin's 2007 is pretty close to his "career" line in BA, OBP, SLG & OPS. While it's unquestionably dragged down by the rough year he had in 2005, the historical record suggests 2007 is "in the ballpark" (and hopefully "low end" of that ballpark) of what we can expect from Justin in a typical year.

Joe's 2007 is under his career line - and yet its similar to his 2005 line. I think he'll be better in 2008 ... but how far below 2006 is he going to settle in as "normal"?

That's the issue re: the offense - these guys were out-of-their-minds good in 2006 & all it got us was broomed in the first round of the playoffs.

They need lots of help. I don't think the "help" is on the 40 man roster. Which is why I think the Twins have to take some chances.

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