Hey, remember when The Common Man was supposed to go to Arizona this weekend. Yeah, not so much. It turns out that The Boy’s fever and cough stemmed from a mild case of pneumonia, which pretty much made flying a bad idea and relegated him to the couch for much of the weekend. The trip is being rescheduled, perhaps for the last weekend in March, when TCM hopes to enjoy the last bits of Spring Training before teams head north.
Someone else didn’t exactly have the weekend he expected, and The Common Man is feeling his pain today. Twins closer Joe Nathan was shut down on Saturday after experiencing some elbow soreness. Nathan is an elite closer who has had a 1.87 ERA and averaged 41 saves a season in his six years as the Twins’ closer. His K/9 is an otherworldly 11.1 and his K/BB is a terrific 4.32. Though he has typically been limited to around 70 innings, his overwhelming dominance at the end of games is a comfort to Twins fans that they can stop worrying when they have a lead after 8.
At this point, Nathan and the Twins are saying they are not terribly concerned, but their actions are merely “precautionary.” The Twins have not been the most forthcoming organization with accurate medical information recently. The troubles that relievers Jesse Crain, Juan Rincon, and Pat Neshek, OF Rondell White, and 3B Joe Crede underwent never were really addressed efficiently, and all five have suffered significant time and performance loss as a result. The Twins’ insistence that Neshek rehab his elbow injury, in particular, was troubling, given that the best case scenario involved him getting back after several months on the DL and the worst (and far more likely case) had him missing a year with Tommy John surgery. Alas, the rehab didn’t take, and Neshek needed the surgery anyway, and has been out for nearly two seasons after being one of the best set-up men in the majors in 2007, relegated to rehab, blogging, and marathon sessions of autograph signing. All of which is to say that The Common Man isn’t taking what the Twins have to say at face value, but he’s hoping for the best.
Fortunately, even if the Twins were forced to break camp without Nathan (who is terrific with fans, by the way), the team is far better prepared for it than in years past. Yes, Nathan is an elite reliever and is head and shoulders above the rest of the bullpen. But his actual impact on the club’s fortunes is relatively low, especially this year. First and foremost, the Twins have done a good job this offseason in upgrading their offense. The outfield is better, 2B is better, 3B is more reliable on a consistent basis, SS has been upgraded, and DH is stronger. Even the bench is stronger. Barring a rash of injuries, the club will not have to turn regularly to Matt Tolbert or Alexi Casilla, and will not have to bring in questionable offensive players such as Orlando Cabrera. Teams that have the ability to outslug their opponents generally have less need of a truly Nathan-level closer, since they have fewer one-run leads to protect in the final frame.
And for those late innings, the Twins have put together a stronger overall bullpen this year than in year’s past. In 2009, the Twins benefited from three terrific seasons from Nathan, Matt Guerrier, and Jose Mijares, who combined to post a 2.26 ERA in 206 innings. However, the team also had to endure rough performances out of the back of their bullpen, particularly from Bobby Keppel (4.83 ERA in 54 IP), Jesse Crain (4.70 ERA in 52 IP), R.A. Dickey (4.62 ERA in 64 IP), and Luis Ayala (a deceptive 4.18 in 32 IP). Instead, in addition to Guerrier and Mijares, the team will get a full season out of the intimidating Jon Rauch (3.65 ERA in 320 IP over the past four years), Clay Condrey (3.16 in 111 IP over the past two years). Jesse Crain remains with the club and hopes to bounce back from a subpar and injury filled (balky shoulder) 2009. He may not be the same pitcher who won 12 games and had a 2.71 ERA in 2005, but a return to the 3.50 ERA of 2006 and 2008 is likely if his shoulder holds. And, of course, 2010 will see the return of the aforementioned, Frisbee-throwing, and hopefully full-strength, Neshek to the Twins’ pen.
Indeed, if the Twins do lose Nathan, this could create an additional bullpen spot or spots for last year’s season-saving swingman Brian Duensing (3.64 ERA in 84 IP) or minor-league phenoms Rob Delaney (9.2 K/9, 5.37 BB/K, .994 WHIP, and 2.41 ERA in 4 minor league seasons) and Anthony Slama (13.3 K/9, 3.66 BB/K, 1.04 WHIP, 1.86 ERA in 3 minor league seasons).
Not that losing Nathan is a good thing. Undoubtedly, the effectiveness of the Twins’ pen would suffer somewhat, and that’s an important consideration in what could be a tight division in 2010. But the Twins are well-prepared in that they have less need this year for a lights-out closer and more quality options for the pen than any year since 2005 or 2006. Which is why The Common Man isn’t pushing the panic button yet.