Earlier this week I dodged the real question that the Twins face with regard to Joe Nathan. The question isn’t is Nathan awesome? He is, and nationwide, everyone knows he’s awesome. And the question (today) isn’t whether he’s valuable. On Monday we talked about just how valuable he is, and we didn’t resort to ‘Saves’ to do it. No, the question today is should the Twins try to sign Nathan to a long-term extension, and if so, for how much?
Because while Nathan has been great, and exceedingly valuable, he might still be replaceable. At first glance, there’s only one obvious candidate. Pat Neshek has been every bit as dominant by just about any metric as Nathan, though his quirky mechanics and late-season injuries might (and should) give pause to fans. After him, there are lesser candidates both to replace Nathan, or to replace Neshek in the eighth inning.
For instance, there is Juan Rincon, who was Nathan’s heir apparent before last year, but his effectiveness has steadily decreased over the last three years. Or Jesse Crain, another young phenom who is, returning from a shoulder injury this season. (And just a quick note: that is often an injury that a pitcher doesn’t fully recover from.) And others will be able to bring up other candidates from the Twins stable of young starting pitchers. I can think of three off the top of my head.
And almost all of these suggestions will be worth at least a little consideration, because if there is one thing that the Twins have done well over the last twenty years, it’s been to develop a first rate bullpen. And that’s been especially true under manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson.
This is the tandem that turned LaTroy Hawkins from meltdown specialist to dominant right-handed setup man. They turned Eddie Guardado from left-handed soldier into a closer. They coaxed several years of usefulness out of JC Romero, which deserves combat pay on top of any accolades. And they’ve turned spare parts from other organizations, like Matt Guerrier, Denys Reyes and yes, Joe Nathan, into consistently reliable relievers.
Sooner or later, whether you’re an organization or an individual, you have to start trusting in your strengths. Developing relievers and closers has been a strength of this organization for twenty years with the last real flop being Ron “Shudder” Davis. It’s not a sure thing that the Twins can replace Nathan in the bullpen, but if you’re looking for a gamble that will save you $12 million, this is a pretty good one.
Which doesn’t mean you don’t offer Nathan an extension, it just means you do so from a position of strength. The Twins don’t need to get this deal done. They shouldn’t pull the trigger on this kind of deal unless they’re getting a contract that they think will be an asset over the next few years, and maybe they can offer money up front (and the guarantee of a multi-year deal) to get that concession. Above all, it CANNOT have a no-trade clause, in any way, shape or form. That’s a deal-breaker.
From Nathan’s standpoint, he has a choice. He can pitch for $6 million next year and then test the market. The closer market has exploded lately, including a $46 million, four-year contract to the 32-year-old Francisco Cordero. If Nathan pitches well this year, the 34-year-old can likely expect at least a three-year deal. That would probably come in around $40 million, which means he’ll make $46M over the next four years. Or he can take less money now, and have that money in hand, whether or not his arm falls off in 2008.
Does that leave the two sides enough common ground? Maybe. How about a deal that rips up the last year on his contract and gives Nathan a $6 million signing bonus, along with salaries over the next four years of $7M, $8M, $9M, and $10M. That brings the total to $40 million over the next four years.
That gives Nathan his big payday a year early at 85% of its value. It gives the Twins a premier closer attached to a very desirable contract that they can move if the team goes south. Nathan gives up $6M, but becomes wealthy beyond his dreams, and the Twins take on all the injury risk.
And if that doesn’t get the deal done, well, the Twins have plenty of options. The next step would be to begin negotiations with Pat Neshek on a deal, maybe as long as four years. He won’t get to arbitration until 2010, but you never have more leverage with a guy than when he’s not a closer. After all, the team gets to decide who is on the mound in the ninth. That’s an insight that the Twins have consistently leveraged in the spring, after they’ve confirmed their relievers are healthy.
The step after that would be to let Nathan have another great year and then trade him at the trade deadline, where relievers have been incredibly valuable. And Nathan’s next step would obviously be to become incredibly rich while picking the city in which he practices his craft.
Either way, both the Twins and Nathan have a chance to come out winners. So long as he stays awesome.