Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nathan's Middle Finger

For the last two years, we’ve been worried about Joe Nathan’s arm. Last week he showed the Twins that his middle finger is working just fine.

It took me a couple of days to reach that conclusion because Nathan had always been praised for being such a standup guy. He was known as a leader for younger members of the bullpen. In interviews, he did not shy away from tough questions and gave honest thoughtful replies. He obviously worked hard to prepare, exemplified by how quickly he came back from Tommy John surgery at the advanced age of 36. And he and his wife did lots of charity work for the community.

It isn’t clear the Twins appropriately valued all of that. They certainly didn’t value it enough to pay the extra $10.5M to pick up his option for this season. While they apparently gave Nathan a contract offer early in the free agency process, it was likely a starting point, no more. And when the Twins asked him to sign a waiver 30 minutes prior to the trade deadline this summer, the message wasn’t one of eternal fealty.

Joe Nathan

So, it’s not clear how much the Twins really valued Joe Nathan. But that’s also because they were never given a last chance to show it. When the Rangers came calling and made an offer to Nathan, by all accounts the Twins had no opportunity to match - or exceed - it.

Obviously, Nathan isn’t under any obligation to give the Twins such an opportunity. Of course, there’s no reason to NOT do it either – all it can do is drive up the price. He gets to choose when he signs a deal and with whom.

No, there is no reason to NOT do that – unless the player has what he wants and doesn’t need any more. It sounds like that was where Nathan was: he had just received a fair multi-year offer (almost exactly matching our p in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook) to be the closer for a team that has played in the World Series the last two years. What team could match that?

Not the Twins, apparently. All the Twins had in their favor was…
1. Promoting Nathan from middle reliever to closer before he threw a single game for them.
2. Having him close 260 games, giving him the franchise record for saves.
3. Five trips to the postseason, where Nathan had one save and two blown saves with a 1.83 WHIP.

There was also the matter of some financial commitments.
4. The Twins signed him to a two-year, seven-figure deal before his first game, even though his salary was still completely under team control.
5. Two years later, when they could have offered arbitration, they instead signed him to an eight-figure deal, largely because it included an affordable $6M option year…
6. But they ripped up that option year when they signed him to a four-year $47M deal.

So, just to review:
1. In the first year of Nathan’s big deal, he saved 39 games, and could have made just $6M, but instead made $11.25M.
2. In the second year he made that same amount while saving 47 games.
3. In the third year he was out the entire year with Tommy John surgery. Another 11.25M.
4. And in the fourth year he was given back the closer job, lost it, came back from injury midyear and regained it. He saved 14 games, blew three saves and made another $11.25M.
5. Oh, and let’s not forget: then the Twins paid him $2M just so they didn’t have to pay him for a fifth year.

In our podcast, Aaron Gleeman pointed out that Nathan made $47M to throw two-and-a-half years or 181 innings, which is certainly bad enough. But it’s even a little worse than that, because the Twins could have had that first year at half the price. The truth is that they paid $41M for one-and-a-half year, just 113.1 innings. In fact, had the Twins NOT offered that four-year deal, the only real impact was that they would have needed a different closer in 2009. Which, of course, is the year that Nathan laid eggs in Games 2 and 3 of the ALDS versus the Yankees, ending the Twins season.

One might think that a guy whose career literally skyrocketed with an organization might be able to put away recent disappointments. Or that the recipient of that kind of enormous contract might feel lucky, maybe even a little grateful, especially considering how it turned out. Or one could postulate that the relationships formed during an eight-year run, most of which was wildly successful, might result in a single phone call.

It didn’t. Nathan didn’t leave the Twins the way Torii Hunter, Johan Santana or Corey Koskie did, overwhelmed by a team with greater financial resources. Nathan left because he was done with the Twins. The history, the money, and the relationships were quickly forgotten.

They say great relievers must have a really short memory. Nathan just proved it.

Episode 17: Mailbag 2

Aaron Gleeman and I are joined by two great kids: Joe The Random Internet Baseball Guy and his Super-Girlfriend Kate. Together we talk about Twins news and listener's questions, including Matt Capps' return, the hiring of Gene Glynn and why the guy below still gives me nightmares. Also, Aaron reveals his top opening lines for meeting the fairer sex.

Rob Wilfong