Patrick Reusse stirred up the Internet with his suggestion that the Twins should trade Joe Nathan (among other things). It was a very good, thought-provoking piece. It doesn't mean you have to agree with all, most, some or any of his points. But he came at things directly and in a way that addresses some underlying questions for the 2010 Twins.
We loved the piece, quite frankly -- in part because we've been thinking about Joe Nathan and a possible trade for about a month now. The only evidence we have is a cocktail napkin from the first night of Lebowski Fest and the word of friend and occassionally controversial media personality Tom Linnemann. That night, as we ate before the movie, the two of us compiled a list of Twins players we thought might not be with the team in 2010. Nathan was our surprise entry, though it was hardly with extreme conviction.
That said, we offer that as at least suspect proof that it was on our mind well before the meltdown in New York (though it was, to be fair, not long after the meltdown against the White Sox ... you know, the fourth out of the six times everyone gave up on the Twins making the playoffs). Why would a team moving into a new stadium trade a pitcher who has been among baseball's steadiest closers in the past six years? Well, that's the obvious question. The obvious answer is, "they wouldn't," and plenty of people would like to stop there. And they very well could be right.
In the regular season, Nathan has 246 saves in six seasons -- 41 per year. He's never posted an ERA above 2.70, and he has four years below 2.00. He has blown 24 saves during that time. That's four per season and about 1 blown save for every 10 he converts. He's been dominant and reliable for a franchise that has seen its share of closers who were neither. What more could you ask for in a closer?
But let's think about this a little more. Nathan is going to be 35 in a month. His numbers were good again this year (in fact, he set a career-high and achieved a team recored with 47 saves). For whatever reason, though, his stuff didn't seem as overpowering as it has in the past. There were a few more shaky saves, a little more reliance on breaking pitches instead of a fastball that didn't quite seem as nasty. His post-season sample was too small to really consider, but it was hardly encouraging. Is he due to start
ascending descending (fixed ... thanks buglerguy. That was pretty bad) down the hill faster next year? Might the ERA and blown saves creep up? That's impossible to know for sure, and perhaps it isn't even quite fair to ask given his overall track record of excellence. But it's better to trade someone a year too early than a year too late.
Let's also think of this: Nathan is owed $22.5 million over the final two years of his contract. That's not outrageous money, but it is a pretty hefty sum for a guy that pitches 70 innings and who, theoretically, could be replaced for far less money. Again: there is no replacement for the feeling you get from having a closer that is close to automatic. But there are also stat-hounds and others out there who argue that closers are over-rated and that most good relievers with a couple of out pitches and the right mindset can be closers. Nathan himself had one career save and one pretty good year as a set-up man before he arrived here from San Francisco. Not every story turns out like his, of course; but there might be a younger, cheaper version of Nathan out there. He might even be on the Twins already.
Let's get back, though, to the real reason we started thinking about a possible Nathan trade: he is the Twins' most expendable asset who also has real value in a potential trade. They have other players we assume they'd love to unload, but the fan dream scenario of "let's trade our three least favorite players for the best player on that team" is a tiresome and unrealistic proposition. Equally absurd is the idea of trading Justin Morneau just because the Twins had three hot weeks without their former MVP. That said, this is a team with obvious weaknesses and glaring holes. As great as the 17-4 finish was -- and believe us, we enjoyed it as much as anyone -- it was fueled by short-term aberrations more than production that will be replicated in the long-term.
The Twins will likely spend more now that they have a new ballpark, but they will not spend crazy money. As Joe C notes, think $85-90 million -- a lot of which will be accounted for already by increases to salaries of core players. We would never suggest trading Nathan in some sort of salary dump. Rather, we see his value as an intriguing piece to a possible trade for a front-of-the-rotation pitcher or a bona fide stud on the left side of the infield.
Clearly, a move like that would be risk-reward, and part of the equation is asking whether GM Bill Smith can make the right deal when his early track record in blockbusters has been spotty. It would create a giant "if" at a spot that has been well-covered since Nathan took over, and it would force Pat Neshek, Jose Mijares, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, Anthony Slama or Cheaper Free Agent X to step up. If the right deal never comes along, you happily head to spring training with Nathan as your closer. But if the right deal comes along -- say the Cubs make an offer or the Phillies are undone in the NLCS by a Brad Lidge implosion and knock the Twins' socks off with an offer -- we say it's worth pursuing.