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Joe Nathan and history

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: February 2, 2011 - 12:20 AM

Joe Nathan is saying all the right things as he attempts to come back from Tommy John surgery.

Upon learning last spring that he'd be spending the next year rehabbing from one of baseball's most serious medical procedures, Nathan pledged to return at full strength in 2011. Every step of the way, he has remained positive, hopeful and determined in his demeanor. He's backed up his words, too. The right-hander hasn't reported any setbacks in his recovery, and was so confident while throwing a bullpen session at Target Field last Friday that he asked his manager to step into the batter's box for a few pitches.

During an interview with ESPN 1500 later in the weekend, Nathan reiterated that his goal is to be the team's closer this year. There's nothing surprising about that, and -- like Twins fans everywhere -- I'm pulling for him.

My interest was piqued by a comment Nathan made in the same interview, when discussing his future outlook: "Before (the surgery) I didn't know how many more years there were. But now that I've had this I feel like this is something that could let me go for another five, six, seven more years."

Now, that's obviously a very optimistic estimation for the 36-year-old reliever. Coming back from Tommy John surgery at this age is one thing, but coming back and pitching effectively for another five, six or seven years?

It's hard to imagine. But if there's one guy who could pull it off, it's Nathan. He's a fiery competitor with a tremendous work ethic, and he'd avoided injury almost completely over his first six years as Twins' closer.

So, for the sake of today's column, let's say Nathan manages to make good and close for another six years, pitching effectively through the age of 41 like fellow closer and recent retiree Trevor Hoffman was able to. Not only would this be an impressive personal feat and one of the great Tommy John success stories of all time, it would also place Nathan among the top statistical closers in baseball history, with a case for the Hall of Fame.

Let's say Nathan averaged 35 saves per season over the next six years. (In his first six years as Twins' closer, he averaged 41.) That would give him 457 career saves and place him third on the all-time list, behind only Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith.

It's difficult to guess how Hall of Fame voters will view closers in a decade, when Nathan would become eligible, but big save totals have certainly aided some cases (Hoffman and Rivera are widely considered locks and Smith has received as much as 45 percent of the vote despite being far less dominant than Nathan by other measures).

It's odd to think of Nathan as a Hall of Fame pitcher, because while he's clearly been one of the game's best closers, it doesn't seem like his service in the role has spanned enough time for him to be considered one of the all-time greats. And it hasn't. He's only closed for six years and he's 36, which is why his suggestion that he'd like to do it for another six or seven seems extreme.

The man likes to dream big and set his sights high. I respect that. But for now, he can aim for a more immediately attainable goal: the Twins' all-time save record, held by Rick Aguilera. Nathan is only nine short, and if all goes well he'll own it by the All-Star break.

Then, he can shift his gaze to 450 and the Hall of Fame. Knowing what we know about Nathan, I'd expect nothing less.

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