Riding the Closer Carousel

Now I love Joe Nathan, hell, I’ve drafted him for the last 3 years for fantasy baseball, he’s a truly dominant closer and one of the top 4 in baseball, that much is undeniable. But the signing of him to a 4 year $47 million contract to me makes zero sense. Consider the trade that brought Nathan to the Twins; the Twins traded AJ Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants for Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, and Nathan. Obviously, Brian Sabean (the SF GM) is an idiot for that trade, but look at how easily the Twins were able to acquire a front-line closer. Add in that the Twins are one of the most respected and well-run organizations (despite the signings of Sidney Ponson last year and Livan Hernandez this year) and it seems safe to assume that the team could manage to attain a closer candidate, (not even counting in-house replacement option Pat Neshak.)

All of which comes back to the fact that the Twins are not going to win their division this year. Or next year most likely. Which means that paying $47 million for a closer is unnecessary. The Twins felt they couldn’t afford to resign Johan Santana, the single best pitcher in the world and have claimed poverty, despite being owned by the single richest of all the owners in baseball, Carl Pohlad.

I don’t doubt that Joe Nathan will be worth the money they are paying him, but why have a small-market team with a relatively low budget that is occupied by a guy who, at most is going to pitch 80 innings in a season? And the drop-off from Nathan to someone like Neshak is what, maybe 5-6 games in the long run? So probably not a huge difference.

The value in a player like Joe Nathan is most evident at the trading deadline. While generally the consensus is that the Mets stole Santana away with a less than stellar offer of prospects, mid-season, with contenders desperate for strong relief pitching it seems almost guaranteed that Nathan would fetch quite the package. Look at what the Rangers got last year for Eric Gagne, a decent 4th starter, a good 4th outfielder and a strong young prospect with some development time ahead of me but a huge upside. Not bad. And Gagne is not Nathan, not anymore.

How much would a contending team give up for the final piece in the puzzle? That extra little push to put them over the top in a close race? So then why sign Nathan to such a deal? Essentially the Twins budget is hamstrung because a quarter of their payroll is invested in 3 players, one of whom plays in 5% of the innings played over an entire season. For a contending team a strong bullpen and closer are musts. Look at the success of the Yankees over the 90s, or the difference in the Red Sox from before Keith Foulke arrived or the superhuman Papelbon. But when you are planning on having a young, developing team, spending that kind of money just doesn’t seem to make sense. Had they opted to give the money to Santana, that I certainly understand, but this deal confuses me. I’d rather have the best starter over the best closer any day of the week. Who knows, maybe the Twins think Santana is gonna have his arm fall off any day now or something. Clearly for the Twins, the better investment they felt was Joe Nathan.

My concern is that this becomes like what happened with the Oakland A’s when they opted to sign Eric Chavez long-term instead of Jason Giambi or Miguel Tejada. At the time Chavez was a great player but the other two were MVPs. Chavez has been terrible since signing that deal, while Giambi and Tejada have been inconsistant (all three of them are over-paid). I wonder if steroids played a part in the A’s decision and they felt that Tejada or Giambi wouldn’t be able to maintain their bodies over the long haul. Certainly, Johan Santana hasn’t been linked to any steroid items, but I wonder if there was something else, maybe in his elbow which was hurting him last season that led the Twins to believe he wasn’t worth the long-term investment compared to a 80 inning closer.

That said, I hope Nathan saves 40 games this year and has an ERA of 1.32

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