After the Minnesota Twins made the obvious decision to decline Joe Nathan‘s $12.5 million option on Tuesday, SI’s Jon Heyman reported that the right-hander’s agent, Dave Pepe, made it clear that his client does not want to be a setup man and remain a closer in 2012.
One has to wonder if Nathan would be a fit for the Jays and their hole at closer, but given the crowded free agent market for them this winter, what sets him apart from rest of the pack?
Nathan’s impressive track record speaks for itself. After all, the Texas native put up some of the best numbers in all of baseball from 2003-2009, averaging 71 innings pitched, 53 games finished, a 2.04 ERA, 0.954 WHIP, 5.8 hits per nine innings, and an uncanny 10.86 strikeouts per nine frames.
With video game numbers like those, it was obvious why the Twins were quick to hand him a lucrative four-year/$47 million contract extension during spring training in 2008.
“I feel like I’m in great shape right now,” Nathan said to ESPN at the time, optimistic about pitching past the length of that deal. But almost two years later to the day, Nathan went under the knife and had Tommy John surgery which forced him to miss the entire 2010 season.
He made his triumphant return to the Majors back on April 3 against the Jays at Rogers Centre and earned his first save since October 3, 2009 despite allowing one earned run on two hits and a pair of walks. His string of good health didn’t last long, though, as he was put on the 15-day disabled list on May 28 with tenderness in his throwing elbow and was out for a month.
While the numbers Nathan managed to put up this season weren’t nearly as dominant as his ones from previous seasons, they weren’t too shabby at first glance, either. He finished the year with a 4.84 ERA ERA (4.28 FIP) in 48 games, with 38 hits, 14 walks, and 43 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. To put that in perspective, Nathan’s 2011 campaign, which was statistically his worst since 2000, was still better than Jon Rauch‘s first (and likely only) year as a Blue Jay.
However, looking more into Nathan’s statistics this past season reveals a lot more. While he whiffed the same amount (22%) of left-handed and right-handed hitters in nearly an identical amount of innings, Nathan finished the year with a 4.30 ERA against lefties and a 5.57 ERA against righties — nowhere close to his career 2.69 and 1.88 ERAs against left-handers and right-handers, respectively (he did manage to hold left-handers to a .198 average and .620 OPS, though).
While the fact he was rebounding from injury and the small sample sizes were likely reasons for his bloated platoon stats, there were a few other factors that could have affected them as well.
While with the Twins from 2004-2009, Nathan, a four-pitch pitcher, relied heavily on his fastball and went to his slider as his primary off-speed pitch. In 2011, Nathan threw his fastball a career-low 57% of the time while decreasing the use of his slider in favor of using his curveball the most he ever has since 2003 when he was with the Giants. Plus, while the average velocity of his three off-speed pitches has remained the same, Nathan threw his fastball an average of one mile per hour lower in 2011 than he did from 2008-2009, and a 2.5 mph lower than he did from 2005-2007.
He’s also gotten ahead in the count less than previous seasons by throwing 58 percent first-pitch strikes, his lowest percentage since 2003, and his 8.2 swinging strike percentage in 2011 was the lowest of his career. Both are still respectable numbers, but as a result, opposing hitters are making contact on his pitches more than ever before both inside and outside the strike zone.
The fact Nathan was healthy for the entire second half of the season, while posting a .207 average and .654 OPS against and a 3.91 ERA during that time, should be enough to entice teams to line up for his services on a short-term deal this winter. Though the Twins have expressed a desire to re-sign him, Nathan should have enough suitors this winter given the fact that he won’t cost any teams a draft pick to sign him, which can’t be said about the majority of available free agent closers.
If Alex Anthopoulos was to go after Nathan, a high-reward signing on a one-year deal, and he returns to his previous form, the Jays would likely reap draft pick fortunes next year when he became a free agent once again. But there’s also high risk in signing Nathan, though, as he turns 37 years old next month and it’s impossible to know if he has fully recovered from his surgery.
If Anthopoulos can’t acquire a closer via trade and does not want to give up a draft pick to sign one via free agency, then Nathan could very well be the most intriguing option considering the remaining ones are Jonathan Broxton and ex-Jays Rauch and Frank Francisco.
Would you sign Nathan to be the Jays’ closer in 2012 if you were Anthopoulos?