The biggest question created by the departure of Joe Nathan is, obviously, who is going to fulfill his role as closer for the Twins.
This is an organization that has highly valued the ninth-inning job over the years, as evidenced by their willingness to hand Nathan a $47 million extension back in 2008, and later by their willingness to trade for and subsequently overpay established closer Matt Capps to be Nathan's fallback plan.
I would guess that the front office considers the closer position less of a priority at this point, given the likelihood that the team will not contend next year, but this is still not a decision I expect to be taken lightly. As I see it, there are four options for proceeding:
1) Promote Glen Perkins.
Perkins has certainly done plenty to earn consideration. He was one of the most dominant relievers in the American League this year, posting a 2.48 ERA with an excellent 65-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 2/3 innings as a setup man.
What the Twins have to ask themselves is whether they're comfortable removing the southpaw from a role in which he was so wildly effective. As the Twins' de facto bullpen ace for much of the season, Perkins was frequently called upon to get more than three outs, to dispatch lefty hitters (whom he held to a .589 OPS) and to work out of sticky situations.
Perkins would not be utilized as optimally in the closer role, where he'd generally be facing whatever batters happened to be due up in the ninth, with a clean slate and with a lead ranging anywhere from one to three runs. All of those tricky spots he worked out of last year would go to someone else.
If the Twins believe Perkins is capable of repeating what he did in 2011, I think they're better off leaving him where he's at.
2) Re-sign Matt Capps.
I know, I know. This is an unthinkable option. But really, it's not.
In an interview with KFAN's Paul Allen yesterday, pitching coach Rick Anderson called out Capps as a potential replacement, saying "I wouldn't give up on a guy like him so quick." Anderson pointed out that the right-hander's struggles this season were largely attributable to a forearm injury that he pitched through, and it's a fair point.
When he's been healthy, Capps has generally been a good enough reliever to adequately handle closing duties, and he has the kind of makeup and accountability that Twins coaches like to see. He showed signs of returning to normal late in the season season, and if he could be signed for significantly less than he earned in 2011, he wouldn't be the worst option as a late-inning counterpart to Perkins.
There's no question that the Twins would have a tough time selling this one to the fans, though.
3) Sign another free agent.
There are a number of closers out on the market, which is one reason the loss of Nathan is easier to bear. On the high end, you've got guys like Ryan Madson, Heath Bell and Francisco Cordero, all of whom the Twins are likely to pass on due to cost.
But then you've got a number of intriguing buy-low candidates. One example is Jonathan Broxton, the formerly dominant Dodgers closer who was limited to 12 innings this year by injury but is still only 27. Another example is Brad Lidge, the slider-flinging right-hander from Philly who pitched only 19 innings but turned in a 1.40 ERA with lots of strikeouts.
4) Acquire a replacement via trade.
The Twins have already flirted with this option, as they were reportedly close to a deal with the Nationals in July that would have brought Washington's young closer Drew Storen to Minnesota. Joe Christensen said a week ago that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of those talks being rekindled, but Ryan may also turn his attention to another closer that is apparently being made available: Andrew Bailey of the Athletics.
ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted this week that the odds of Bailey being traded "appear to be about 100 percent." Like Storen, he's a young right-handed reliever with dominant numbers and several years of team control remaining. Bailey is four years older than Storen and he experienced some elbow problems this spring, but those factors should make him easier to acquire.
Of course, another option is that the Twins follow the route they did with Nathan, identifying a quality setup man in another organization who hasn't yet been established as a full-time closer. The Rays pulled this off quite successfully with Rafael Soriano in 2010.
Whichever direction they choose to take, the Twins will be wise not to invest a huge amount of money into the closer position considering the various uncertainties that surround this club in the short term. With Terry Ryan at the helm, I feel a lot more confident about their ability to do so successfully than I did before.