Twins hit nail on the head by keeping Nathan

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2008 - 11:45 AM

Upon reaching that crossroad where a small-market team must decide whether to give big money and years to a closer, the Twins chose right -- and now are pursuing the postseason distraction-free.

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The Twins broke a three-game losing streak Thursday by beating Detroit 7-6. It's no surprise Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer played important roles.

While the major league landscape is cratered with fallen stars, the Twins decided to invest long-term in three All-Star-caliber players, and all three -- Nathan, Morneau and Mauer -- earned All-Star berths.

While signing Morneau and Mauer required little imagination, the Twins faced a difficult decision with Nathan.

Nathan wanted to stay, because of his admiration for the way manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson handle him and run the team. The Twins have rarely invested heavily in a closer, and few low-revenue franchises invest heavily in closers when they aren't expected to contend.

Gardenhire and Anderson lobbied the front office, saying they thought Nathan was vital to the health of their pitching staff. Note that the field staff did not lobby on behalf of such players as Johan Santana and Torii Hunter.

The Twins signed Nathan to a four-year, $47 million deal that means the Twins will have all three of their current All-Stars when they open the new stadium in 2010.

The decision to sign Nathan in March was the most unusual of all the moves the Twins' new front office made this winter. It was also the smartest.

Consider how much upheaval this franchise went through last fall and winter -- losing acclaimed General Manager Terry Ryan, Hunter, Santana and Carlos Silva, and trying to patch holes at third, short, second, left field, center field and at the top of the rotation through trades and free agency.

Many of the common sense, quick-fix moves -- like signing third baseman Mike Lamb and shortstop Adam Everett -- have failed. Signing Nathan produced both the desired result and at least one subtle benefit.

With Nathan signed, the Twins bullpen -- with the exception of the Boston series this week -- has thrived. Without him, especially considering the season-ending elbow injury to setup man Pat Neshek, the bullpen would be a smoldering pile of ashes, and the Twins would be battling to stay out of last place. Without him, the Twins would have no one capable of closing games.

With Nathan closing, the young rotation has seen its good work rewarded, providing the best possible atmosphere to develop, and try to win with, young arms. With Nathan closing games, the Twins are contending against all odds.

And with Nathan signed, the Twins have a comfortable, distraction-free clubhouse. Don't underestimate the importance of that.

If Nathan hadn't signed that deal, his name would be among the first mentioned in trade rumors every day on ESPN.com.

Consider the Twins' fortunes this decade. In 2002, they faced no contract issues or significant trade rumors, and ran away with the division. In 2003, with Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins worried about pending free agency and A.J. Pierzynski sensing a trade, the Twins played like dogs until trading for Shannon Stewart at the All-Star break and coming back to win the division.

In 2004, with Guardado, Hawkins and Pierzynski gone, and hungry players like Nathan in place, the Twins played better than expected and won the division. In 2005, with Kyle Lohse, Jacque Jones, Luis Rivas, Joe Mays and J.C. Romero facing the end of their time with the Twins, the team fell back to 83 victories.

In 2006, with a young and hungry team, the Twins pulled off the miracle comeback and won 96 games. In 2007, with talk of the futures of Santana and Hunter dominating the clubhouse discourse, the Twins slumped again in an odd-numbered year, winning 79 games despite a talented roster.

In 2008, the Twins, with a calm, distraction-free clubhouse, already have overachieved, and Nathan has been as dominant as ever.

Signing Nathan created a season without damaging trade rumors, and the Twins are performing above expectations. That is not a coincidence.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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