Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse had an article in yesterday's paper laying out his offseason plan for the recently eliminated Twins. The first two steps on his list (both plastered on the title of the column): Trading Joe Nathan, demoting Carlos Gomez.
My problem with Reusse's suggestions isn't so much that they are unreasonable; one can make an argument that this is the right time to move Nathan and it's certainly fair to say that Gomez needs some more time in Triple-A. My problem is that I fully believe Reusse -- like many other Twins fans -- is basing his current convictions on the small sample size provided by the past week's playoff series against the Yankees. Had Gomez batted .400 and made a game-saving catch during the series, or had Nathan pitched lights-out in his two appearances, I sincerely doubt we'd be seeing the columnist clamoring for their dismissal from Minnesota. That's not a good way to make personnel decisions.
Many people are frustrated with the handful of players who are perceived to be heavily responsible to the Twins' defeat. In particular, I've seen plenty of folks directing vitriol at Nathan, and the "Trade Nathan" bandwagon seems to be gaining steam on numerous fronts. But it's important to keep in mind how heavily the deck was stacked against the Twins and many of their players in this series. Yes, Nathan blew an opportunity for the Twins to even the series on Friday night by blowing a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. But it's not like he gave up a walk-off grand slam to David Eckstein. Nathan was facing the heart of baseball's best lineup in a hostile stadium. He walked one of the league's elite offensive players -- a likely top three MVP finisher -- and then gave up a home run to one of the most accomplished hitters in baseball history. It was tough, but it happens, and Nathan was hardly the only closer to struggle in the first round of this postseason.
It sort of astonishes me that this unfortunate turn of events has so quickly caused fans to sour on a guy who turned in a 2.10 ERA and 11.7 K/9 rate while notching 47 saves this season. Are people really forgetting that there was a stretch this year where Nathan went 24 straight appearances without allowing a run? That he was the steady rock for much of the year in an often erratic bullpen? He seemed to wear down at the end of the year, yes, but Nathan can still pitch and his contributions this season were absolutely elemental to the team's success. He remains one of the game's very best closers in spite of some rough patches against an offensive juggernaut in New York.
Laughably, Reusse's candidates for replacing Nathan are Jose Mijares -- who was playing over his head for much of the year and who looked worse than almost any Twins reliever over the final week -- and Pat Neshek -- who hasn't thrown a pitch since early 2008. If Twins fans are annoyed now by having a mostly dominant closer who gives up a couple runs every now and then, I hate to think how they'd react to the number of ninth-inning leads that would slip away under that inferior pairing. It's almost like we've become spoiled around these parts; Nathan has been so good for much of the year that any team he gives up a lead it gets blown wildly out of proportion. An outside observer would have no trouble noticing that Nathan was one of the very best in the league this year at converting slim ninth-inning leads into victories, just like he has been in past years. It is unfortunate that a couple of his rare misfires had to come at such inopportune times, but no pitcher is perfect.
The Twins have performed terribly in the postseason ever since 2003. This understandably causes fans to grow exceptionally frustrated when they are forced to suffer through another quick first-round exit. But understand that while Nathan did blow that Game 2 save and subsequently allow a couple crucial insurance runs across in Game 3, he was facing a powerhouse offense that any pitcher is liable to get nailed by. Understand that while Gomez struggled at the plate and made a costly baserunning error, he was just a kid who'd barely played over the past month, in over his head on the biggest of stages and in the harshest of environments. Understand that while Jason Kubel looked completely overwhelmed at the plate in this series, he drew unfavorable starts against two tough left-handed pitchers along with one of the league's best right-handed strikeout pitchers. That while Nick Punto committed a rather inexcusable error on the basepaths, he had been a key contributor over the rest of the series.
There's a tendency to dwell on the negatives at a time like this, but the Twins did hold their own in that series, largely thanks to some stellar contributions from Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer. The challenges those players faced should only be magnified by the struggles experienced by some of their teammates, and those strong performances should not be forgotten.
The time will come during this offseason to make many important decisions about the future of this ballclub. But don't let the disappointing outcome of a three-game series shade your viewpoint on these decisions too much.