Bad news on the Joe Nathan front today. As Craig Calcaterra reported today, the Twins’ elite closer has a torn ulnar collateral ligament. The Common Man wishes he was wrong yesterday to doubt the initial assessment that this injury was minor, but it looks likely that Nathan is headed for Tommy John surgery (gee, The Common Man wrote about that last week, too). So while TCM remains convinced the Twins are well-positioned to absorb the loss of Nathan, the big question today (as Craig asks) is who takes over the closer spot in the wake of Nathan’s injury?
Let’s look at the candidates:
Because he has closing experience, Rauch will undoubtedly be considered the frontrunner. However, it’s not as though Rauch’s experience was all sunshine and lollipops. Rauch saved 17 games for the Nationals in 2008 with a 2.98 ERA before he was traded to the D-backs. However, he also blew five saves and was pretty clearly pitching over his head. Rauch certainly did a fine job last year after coming over from Arizona, posting a 1.72 ERA and winning 5 games in 17 games, striking out 14 in 15 innings. But that was in extremely limited action. His career FIP is 4.02. And all of his success has come in the National League. Last year, Rauch’s K/BB ratio was his lowest since 2005 and his WHIP was a career high (except for 28 innings in 2002), but was mitigated by a career low HR/9. Rauch in the closer role probably won’t be a disaster, but you should expect an ERA from 3.75-4.00.
Buster Olney tweeted that Guerrier might be the Twins’ best option. Aside from a hiccup in 2008, Matt Guerrier has indeed been a solid option out of the bullpen since 2005. Guerrier’s K/9 is relatively low for a reliever, coming in at 6.01. Last year, despite a dip in his K/9, Guerrier posted a 2.94 K/BB and a .97 WHIP. His terrific performance in 2009, however, was lucky. His BABIP was an unsustainable .222 last year, far off his career mark of .278. Guerrier’s 2.36 ERA is attractive, but his underlying numbers suggest he should remain in the 7th inning slot, particularly as his GB/FB percentage was at a career low. Even at his best last year, Guerrier’s FIP was 4.35. Expect his ERA to rise dramatically.
Mijares is not likely to get the nod at the end of the game, given that he’s the only dependable lefty the Twins have in their bullpen (not including potential #5 starter Brian Duensing). But the Twins have not shied away from lefty closers in the past (Eddie Guardado), and Mijares has proved effective in his 1+ seasons in the Twins’ pen. Mijares’ K/9 last year was a strong 8.03. However, his BB/9 (3.36) was high and he is a flyball pitcher. Mijares’ numbers are artificially skewed because he’s been used disproportionately against lefty batters. In his major league career, Mijares has allowed a .458 OPS against lefties, while a .704 against righties. If Mijares moves in to the closer role, obviously, his exposure to righties is going to increase dramatically, and his overall numbers will suffer. There are two other strikes working against Mijares. First, if he closes, the Twins will want to carry another lefty reliever. That could be Brian Duensing, Jose Lugo, Mike Maroth, or Glen Perkins (or the Twins could go outside the organization). None of these options is ideal. Second, Mijares has been criticized in the past for being a bit of a head-case. It’s unclear how fair this criticism is, or how much may have been due to simple immaturity. But if Mijares is mentally unprepared for the pressures the job creates, his tenure could end in disaster.
Frankly, this is probably TCM’s favorite option, as The Common Man is an unapologetic Neshek fanboy. His freaky delivery and fan-friendly persona have made him a favorite of Twins fans too, who would embrace the colorful side-armer as a closer. Neshek has struck out 10.59 batters per nine in his career and has a strong 3.84 BB/K. He is an extreme flyball pitcher, but has kept his HR/9 low. The trouble, of course, is Neshek’s injury history. As he works his way back, it’s unclear just how soon Neshek will be ready and how effective he will be in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. The Twins might be better served by letting Neshek work his way back more slowly.
This is idea is batshit insane, but might also be the Twins best chance to replace Nathan’s production at the end of games. Liriano has himself struggled since coming back from Tommy John, posting an ugly 5.80 ERA last year, and a not much better 4.87 FIP. However, all reports out of Florida and the Dominican Republic this winter have heralded the return of the phenom who won 12 games and posted a 2.16 ERA and 144 Ks in 121 innings in 2006. Liriano’s career K/9 is a terrific 9.22 and, when healthy, his K/BB ratio is solid. In addition, when he’s on, Liriano generates a ton of ground balls. Moving Liriano to the back of the pen creates two problems. First, the Twins would lose a great deal of Liriano’s value by throwing him an inning or two at a time. Starters are inherently more valuable than relievers because they throw more innings and, thus, have a greater impact on the outcome of the game. It would also leave the Twins’ rotation a man short to start 2010. The solution would be to plug last year’s hero, Brian Duensing (5-2, 3.64 in 84 innings) into the rotation. Duensing is, at best, a mid-rotation starter, and would probably not be able to match the production of a healthy Liriano, but would allow the Twins to have an above average 5th starter, while maintaining an elite level of performance out of the closer role. Much has been made in the past about the injury risks associated with Liriano’s delivery, and perhaps a move to the pen would reduce some of the wear on Liriano’s arm.
As The Common Man mentioned yesterday, a Nathan injury opens up a role for other Twins relievers, such as Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney, or even Carlos Gutierrez. It also creates the possibility that the Twins will look outside of their organization for help. If the Rays falter in the AL East, the Twins would likely be interested in Rafael Soriano, for instance. Likewise, the team may make a push for Joaquim Soria, Mike Gonzalez, Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, Kerry Wood, Matt Capps, Heath Bell, Octavio Dotel, or whoever becomes available and is effective once teams start to fall out of contention.
Note: The Common Man omitted Jesse Crain from the discussion. This probably says more about Jesse Crain than it does about The Common Man at this point.