This offseason will carry plenty of difficult decisions for the Twins' front office, but they got one of the easier ones out of the way yesterday when they declined Joe Nathan's $12.5 million option for 2012.
The move officially consummates a contract that the closer originally inked prior to the 2008 campaign. Over the life of his four-year pact, Nathan pitched 181 innings with a 2.49 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 206-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When healthy, he remained one of the league's best relievers, but he also missed the entire 2010 season due to injury and went through some rough patches while working his way back in 2011.
It's a cautionary tale for handing expensive multi-year contracts to aging relievers -- one the Twins will have to bear in mind as they contemplate their next step with Nathan. After collecting his $2 million buyout, he'll hit the free agent market and he should have no trouble finding suitors. Despite a 4.84 ERA this past season, Nathan finished strong and posted encouraging peripherals (8.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.16 WHIP).
Losing their longtime closer would be a tough blow for the Twins, who desperately need effective arms at the back end of their bullpen. Yet, there are two major factors working in their favor. One is Nathan's age; he'll turn 37 next month, which, in combination with his surgically repaired arm, could be seen as a red flag. Another is that the free agent market for relievers is considerably deep.
Joining Nathan in the free agent pool are names like Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero, and Frank Francisco. All are hard-throwing righties with a history of closing, and all are younger than Nathan.
With this depth of competition, the Twins' all-time saves leader will probably have to settle for a two-year deal where the total money is close to the $12.5 million he would have made with his option.
So it's easy to see why the Twins bought out Nathan's 2012 season, even though it cost them a couple million. It's also easy to see why they should make a hard push to bring him back anyway.