Closing Time: Where Do The Twins Go From Here?
Up until yesterday, the Minnesota Twins were the prohibitive favorites to win the AL Central and were considered a strong contender for the World Series. Minnesota might have been swept by the Yankees in Round 1 of the playoffs last season, but this year the Twins were built for a different outcome. Not only had their key players gotten healthy, but Minnesota revamped their biggest offensive/defensive weakness; their middle infield. With the additions of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy, the future began to look a little bright in Minnesota. All of that changed yesterday when it was announced that closer Joe Nathan was likely out for the season with an elbow injury.
As great a player that Joe Mauer is, it is Joe Nathan that the key to the Twins. Traditionally closers are one of the most overrated and over paid positions on a major league roster, Nathan is the exception (though he is paid quite well). Nathan’s name might get mentioned in the same breath with other top closers, but usually its not the first couple of names mentioned. In reality, no closer has been more dominate than Nathan since he started closing games in 2004. On top of that, no closer is more important to his team than Joe Nathan. While all contending teams need top closers, teams like the Red Sox and Yankees have ace pitchers like Josh Beckett and CC Sabathia, the Minnesota Twins have Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins. Minnesota doesn’t have the starting pitching that can win games by themselves, they rely on their bullpen to hold leads or keep it a 1 or 2 run game. And Nathan is the best stopper in the game. When Minnesota turns a lead over to him, they know that the majority of the time they can put another game in the win column.
Without Nathan the Twins are hurting, they have a pretty good collection of arms in the bullpen, but none of these guys can fill his shoes. First off if the Twins slot one of the other bullpen arms in the closers role, it will create another hole in the bullpen, and will still have a similar overall effect. While arms like Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek and others are impressive, they have their own roles in this bullpen. And their numbers might not be quite as good in a 9th inning pressure situation. While I think the Twins could cobble together a closer by committee for a month or two, they don’t have the experience or quality starting pitching to not address this need externally.
There are four primary options out there on the trade market that the Twins could look to right now:
Kerry Wood, Indians: The Indians wouldn’t mind making this trade in the division as they are looking to rebuild, and Wood isn’t part of that process. While wood has transformed himself as a quality closer, he carries an 8 figure salary that the Twins can’t absorb. Unless the Indians were willing to eat quite a bit of the contract, and the Twins were willing to offer up the better quality prospects to ensure that they do, Wood doesn’t seem likely to be pitching for Minnesota this season.
Heath Bell, Padres: Bell was great as the Padres closer last season and only makes $4 million. As an added bonus, Bell also has another year left of arbitration, which is good since Nathan probably won’t be 100% for much of next season. The downside to Bell is the Padres have attached a value to him, like he’s Joe Nathan. Their demands seem to be quite high in any trade negotiations, and might be more than the Twins are willing to give up. It is also a lot to ask since Bell has only been a closer for one season, and spent half of that year closing games at Petco Park, the best pitching park in baseball. While his numbers were good on the road, you have to wonder if that will keep up and how he will do in the American League. Bell is a nice addition, but probably too rich for Minnesota’s blood.
Jason Frasor, Blue Jays: The Blue Jays would definitely be looking to move Frasor as they are another rebuilding team looking to cash in on their trade chips. Frasor has been a good bullpen arm, who had a very good season in 2009. While he’d help upgrade the bullpen, he probably isn’t the answer to the loss of Nathan. Frasor has never been a full time closer, so this would be a jump for him. Also while Frasor’s 2010 price tag is nice ($2.65 million), he is a free agent after this season, which is a bit of a knock to his value.
George Sherrill, Dodgers: So far you haven’t heard Sherrill’s name attached too often to Minnesota’s situation, but he seems like the perfect candidate. Sherrill has a year and a half of full time closing experience, which is more than either Bell or Frasor have. Also Sherrill has spent the majority of his career in the American League, including closing games for that year and a half in Baltimore. The O’s have a great hitters park, and faces the best offenses in baseball. Sherrill like Bell, has another year of arbitration, and makes only $4.5 million this season. In addition Sherrill brings another benefit to the table, he is a lefty. He is absolutely devastating towards left-handed batters, which will allow him to be a great set-up man when Nathan returns next year. The Dodgers will move him since they have Broxton in their bullpen and don’t seem to like too much paying Sherrill ‘closer’ money, compared to ‘set-up’ money. Los Angeles also doesn’t seem to be asking for the arm and the leg that San Diego seems to be looking for, making Sherrill the best buy out there.
What do you think? Who should the Twins look at to replace Nathan?