I wrote this right after the Twins had suffered a two-game sweep at Comerica Park in a series where the Tigers scored consecutive comeback wins by beating up on the Twins bullpen while never having to face Nathan. Nearly three months later, we find a very similar situation unfolding at Fenway Park. The Twins bullpen has now lost the first two games of this important series against the Red Sox, and the All-Star Nathan has sat in the bullpen watching on both occasions.Free Joe Nathan!
Closer Joe Nathan will make $11.25 million this season as part of the new contract he signed at the end of spring training. The rest of the Twins’ 12-man pitching staff combined will make roughly $13 million this season. Obviously, Nathan’s workload won’t compare to that of a full-time starter, but just look at the way the bullpen innings had been divvied up so far entering play on Thursday:
Brian Bass: 11 IP
Pat Neshek: 6 IP
Joe Nathan: 6 IP
Matt Guerrier: 5.2 IP
Juan Rincon: 4.2 IP
Dennys Reyes: 4 IP
Jesse Crain: 3.2 IP
Despite being the team’s highest-paid player, Nathan hadn’t logged significantly more innings through 15 games than most of the team’s struggling set-up men.
To be clear, Nathan hasn’t been underused, at least not in a traditional sense. He is 5-for-5 in save opportunities, and his six innings through 15 games put him on pace for about 65 on the season, which wouldn’t be a terribly significant drop-off from his workloads during his first four seasons with the Twins. Furthermore, it’s difficult to argue too much with the way Gardenhire has run his bullpen over the past several seasons, and it’s especially tough to criticize his use of Nathan, who has thrived and developed into an elite reliever since joining the Twins while avoiding any serious injury problems. Yet, while the Twins’ bullpen blew late leads in both games in the Tigers series, Nathan sat in the bullpen and watched, waiting for a save opportunity that never actually came.
So, what I propose is this: bring in Nathan during the eighth or even seventh inning of tight games from time to time, and utilize his ability to prevent runs better than any other pitcher on the roster. If necessary, offset his extra usage by letting Pat Neshek or Jesse Crain get a few of those cushy saves where the team has a three-run lead going into the ninth.
This strategy may ultimately result in a few less saves for Nathan, but it also may result in a few more wins for the team. And, when you’re paying a guy such a high percentage of your total team payroll, shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal?
Using closers almost exclusively in save situations is an extremely annoying managerial trait that is certainly not limited to Ron Gardenhire. But as terrific as Nathan has been this year and as shaky as the rest of the Twins' relievers have been at points during the season, you'd think that maybe at some point the manager would try and diverge from traditional thinking. It's enormously frustrating to watch games slip away from the Twins because mediocre (or worse) throwers like Brian Bass and Matt Guerrier are on the hill in crucial situations while the dominant Nathan sits around waiting for an opportunity that never arises. Nathan has not recorded more than three outs in a game once this season, in spite of the fact that he did so seven times last year with no apparent ill effect.
The Twins bullpen was very solid during the team's recent winning stretch, so it's not necessarily appropriate to be overly hard on them for dropping a couple games against a tough offense in a hostile park. Yet, for two straight nights now the Twins have had very good outings from their starting pitcher erased by relief meltdowns while the team's highest-paid player and top bullpen weapon was kept out of the game in order to stringently stick to a traditional role that is built out of poor logic to begin with. That's a tough pill to swallow.
On the bright side, the bullpen won't likely have the opportunity to ruin a great starting pitching performance today with Livan Hernandez toeing the rubber for the Twins. For some reason, that doesn't make me feel much better.