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Nathan Likely Out for Season – Twins Have Decisions to Make

The Twins have not had to worry much about closing games since 2004. That’s when Joe Nathan came to Minnesota from San Francisco in a package deal that included Francisco Liriano for then catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Since then Nathan has saved 246 games for the Twins, appeared in 4 all-star games, and genuinely shut down American League hitters.

A role that has been rock solid was thrown into serious question this morning when it was announced that Joe Nathan has been diagnosed with a significant UCL tear in his pitching elbow.

This isn’t the first time Nathan has suffered discomfort in his elbow. He had bone fragments removed from his elbow early this offseason. The operation was not supposed to affect his performance for the upcoming season, so it came as a surprise to the Twins coaching staff that he had to be removed due to soreness in his “repaired” elbow during his first outing of spring training on Saturday.

The plan now is to wait and see if he can heal and pitch through the pain – which seems incredibly unlikely. More likely Nathan will be going through the ever-popular and highly-dreaded Tommy John surgery in the coming weeks. If this is the case, the long rehab process coupled with Nathan’s age (35), could spell the end of the Joe Nathan closer era in Minnesota.

The Twins will have to do some maneuvering to fill the void left by Nathan. Sure, his on-the-mound ticks and quirks sometimes have left fans nervous, and the end of last season wasn’t the brightest moment of Nathan’s tenure in Minnesota. But Nathan should have been primed to repeat his success in 2010. Now the Twins are left with recruiting talent from within or going outside the organization for help.

Most likely the Twins will start the season by going with the internal option of Jon Rauch. He has the most experience closing and displayed an imposing presence after coming to Minnesota mid-season last year. Standing at 6′11, the tattoo-covered Rauch is the tallest pitcher in MLB history. Other roster options include Matt Guerrier and Pat Neshek. Neshek may be better suited for the role, but he has a large hill to climb – coming off the same Tommy John surgery Nathan seems doomed to have. Jesse Crain even has a shot – he pitched well at the end of last season and throws hard – but we’ve seen him pitch less-than-stellar in pressure situations. Crain would have to prove he can maintain the form he was at during the tail-end of last season.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire would be wise not to name a closer at this point, and probably not until someone has proven they can fill that role successfully. I’d like to see Anthony Slama, the surprisingly effective minor league Twins prospect, get a chance to make the team this year and start being groomed for the closer role. That experience could provide an affordable option for the 2011 season and beyond.

There are a few other options outside the organization that the Twins have surely started looking at. Glen Perkins and Alexi Casilla were mentioned as trade bait all offseason and could find themselves in a package deal that could bring in someone like Heath Bell from San Diego. Personally, I’d be surprised if they made a move before the season started, but with the aggressive moves the Twins front office made this year, it is possible.

So who knows how this saga will unfold? Gardy and Bill Smith will have to play it by ear for awhile and hope for the best. After all, it wouldn’t be a true Twins season if there wasn’t some significant unseen obstacle to overcome. In recent seasons the Twins have shown an ability to fill voids, but the void potentially left by Nathan is the most significant in recent memory.

Mark Levi Spurbeck
http://mntwinsbaseball.wordpress.com

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