It seems that more than a few Twins fans are angry with the team for not re-signing Joe Nathan. They should not be. Joe Nathan’s departure to Texas is a good thing for the Twins. And I’m not just saying that because I want Minnesota to retire number 36. Nathan’s age and health issues make him a risky player at best. And the two year, $14.5 million deal that the Rangers gave him would have been an expensive waste for the Twins.
Sometimes it’s difficult for fans to come to terms with the fact that a beloved player no longer fits in their team’s plans. Hell, I’m sure it’s difficult for the team’s owners and executives to come to terms with that, too. Maybe even more so, since they actually have personal and working relationships with them. Nathan was with the Twins for eight years, he contributed to many of the organization’s winningest seasons, and he symbolized a crowning Twins success as a part of the famous A.J. Pierzynski trade. You can’t help but like a player with that kind of history.
But he turns 37 years old today. Even under the best of circumstances, a 37 year old pitcher is a major risk to decline in playing ability. And Nathan is not under the best of circumstances. He missed an entire season due to Tommy John surgery. He also spent more than a month on the Disabled List in 2011.
Even so, I wrote several months ago that I hoped Nathan would continue to be a Twin for a long time. I stand by that sentiment – it would have been nice to see him stay with the Twins. But certainly not at $7.5 million per year. Perhaps not even at half that amount. There are plenty of more intelligent ways to spend that kind of money. $7.5 million is enough to sign two (perhaps three) decent relievers. It’s also a good chunk of what you’d need to sign a good starting pitcher or an outfielder who can hit. A team like the Rangers, who came agonizingly close to winning a championship two years in a row and have money to burn, can afford to throw piles of cash at Nathan. They don’t have a lot of expensive holes to fill. If he falters, Texas might not even fall out of first place; they’ll simply move Alexei Ogando back to the bullpen and carry on. But the Twins have much bigger priorities for 2012 than a guy who will pitch 70 innings at most.
Interestingly, Nathan’s return from Tommy John surgery has followed a similar path to Francisco Liriano’s. Liriano missed 2007 while recovering, but he broke camp with the Twins in 2011. He then proceeded to pitch about as badly as humanly possible that April (0-3, 11.32 ERA). After a stint in the minors he got his mojo back and pitched very well in the last two months of the season for the Twins. Nathan missed all of 2010, and his 2011 started out a lot like Liriano’s; he had an ERA of 9.00 in April. But after some time on the DL and a self-imposed exile to the setup role, Nathan was arguably the Twins’ best pitcher after the All Star Break. Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but he did put up a 3.91 ERA with 1.00 WHIP and 8.6 K/P in the second half of the season. If Nathan continues to follow Liriano’s path, he’ll have a rough year in 2012.
I hope that does not happen. I want Joe Nathan to be a good pitcher. He is fun to watch, and his presence among baseball’s elite receivers is good for the game. He is a high-risk, high-reward player. I’m very glad it is the Texas Rangers taking that risk instead of the Twins.