The Twins cut ties with four-time All-Star closer Joe Nathan at least temporarily on Tuesday, declining his $12.5 million option for next year, choosing instead to pay him a $2 million buyout.
It was an expected move that makes Nathan a free agent, just like Matt Capps, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel.
All four are expected to test the market this fall, but general manager Bill Smith told Nathan on Tuesday that the Twins still have interest in re-signing him.
"This didn't come as a surprise," Nathan said. "Now that we're here, we're excited about free agency.
"Obviously the Twins have given me a wonderful opportunity, and this doesn't mean the talks are dead, but I'm definitely going to explore free agency and see what the market is like."
The market will be crowded for closers. Besides Nathan and Capps, other free-agent closers include Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Ryan Madson, Jonathan Broxton and Brad Lidge. The Reds are expected to decline Francisco Cordero's $12 million option, though the sides have been negotiating a new deal.
"If there's a good supply of closers, you still don't want to be the team that doesn't get one," Nathan said.
Without Nathan or Capps in the fold, the Twins move forward with Glen Perkins as their leading in-house closing candidate. He emerged as a dominant lefthanded setup man this year, posting a 2.48 ERA and converting his only two ninth-inning save chances.
Asked if the Twins are comfortable moving forward with Perkins or if they need to pursue another closer, Smith didn't tip his hand.
"We have to strengthen our bullpen this winter," he said. "We've got two key guys who are going to become free agents [in Nathan and Capps], and we definitely have to strengthen that bullpen."
It's possible they'll do that by re-signing Nathan, the team's all-time saves leader with 260. He was a huge part of the Twins' success from 2004 to 2009, posting a 1.87 ERA over that six-year span, but he needed Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in March 2010 and missed that entire season.
After returning this year, Nathan was ineffective early in the season but reclaimed the closer's job in mid-July and converted his final 11 save chances.
In his last 30 appearances, he posted a 3.18 ERA, holding opponents to a .190 batting average, with 28 strikeouts and five walks.
Pitchers tend to be better in their second year removed from Tommy John surgery. Nathan turns 37 on Nov. 14, but he's well-known for his work ethic and conditioning.
He has been one of the Twins' clubhouse leaders for years. Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson both lobbied hard to keep Nathan, but the front office knew the Twins couldn't do it for $12.5 million.
"We have good relationship with Joe Nathan, and we have a good relationship with his agent," Smith said. "We believe that Joe has interest in staying here, and we expressed our mutual interest in that [Tuesday]."