For $14 million and a two-year commitment, the Twins were right to let Joe Nathan take his recovering closer act to Texas, where the Rangers hope they can move Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation with as much success as they had when C.J. Wilson made that switch for them before the 2010 season.
Nathan was part of the core that was consistently able to get the Twins into the postseason but not beyond. That was before the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for 2010 and his inconsistent return in 2011. There was little to Nathan's 2011 performance that would lead the Twins to offer him significant money and the closer's role. I'd consider Glen Perkins the leading in-house option and I'd be looking at the Francisco 3 as potential game-finishers too.
That would be Frank Francisco, the Toronto reliever; Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod to most of us), who split last season between the Mets and Brewers, and even Francisco Liriano, whom I'd ponder as a throw-the-snot-out-of-it bullpen option as much as I'd consider letting him flail away again as a starter. (K-Rod shouldn't be considered if there's a bidding war, but he could find there's a gap between what he thinks he should get and the market for him and his baggage.)
And there are other closers who could be had through free agency, if the Twins are going to get a bit spendy that way, or through trade. Drew Storen, anyone? Also keep in mind that, with the exception of Jeff Reardon in the late 1980s, every first-rate Twins closer has been created rather than acquired. Nathan was a set-up man for the Giants before he was heisted from them, along with Liriano and Boof Bonser, for A.J. Pierzynski. So was Eddie Guardado. Rick Aguilera had been a starter for the Mets.
So there are lots and lots of options.
Unless an established closer is acquired, I hope there's good competition for the role because it would be a sign of culture change -- a sign that not many players are entitled to much of anything based on what happened last season.
(Yes, Jamey Carroll was signed to play shortstop, but the fact is that he can play second or even third -- positions that shouldn't be considered locked down at this point in the off-season. It would be great if Danny Valencia found more of his 2010 self in 2012 and Alexi Casilla could stay healthy and consistent. But would you take an even money bet on those? Ryan Doumit's signing makes life that much more uncertain for some young players who might have thought themselves more certain of a roster spot than their 2011 performance warranted.)
The biggest flub of last winter -- aside from the Nishioka debacle -- was the bullpen makeover. In fishing terms, the Twins let the walleye get away and restocked the bullpen pool with carp. Terry Ryan has to do better at that than Bill Smith did last season. Much better, actually.
Bringing back Nathan as the closer would have been, at best, a running-in-place move.
That being said, the six seasons Nathan put in as a healthy closer -- from 2004 to 2009 -- are among the elite stretches in Twins history. By almost every standard, he was extraordinary -- less than one runner per inning, almost 11 strikeouts per nine innings and a virtually certain positive outcome when he came to the mound.
No other Twins closer did so much for so long -- Aguilera came the closest -- and that's the Nathan I'll remember.
In other words, it's not fun to say, but it's time to move on.