The signing of Joe Nathan.
As C.J. Wilson, his agent, and the Angels braintrust of Jerry Dipoto, Scott Servais, and Mike Scioscia got ready to meet up for dinner last night in Los Angeles, the Rangers were busy altering Wilson’s landscape going into 2012, at least to a degree.
And busy altering another Rangers pitcher’s immediate future far more clearly.
I’ve seen Joe Nathan pitch forever. He’s faced the Rangers 30 times in his career, pitched in eight post-season games, been named to four American League All-Star Teams. At some point I’m going sit back and find it odd to imagine Nathan wearing a red Rangers cap.
But for now, the image that I can’t shake is not picturing Nathan in a Texas uniform but instead trying to imagine Neftali Feliz trotting out to the mound from the dugout rather than the bullpen, envisioning the 23-year-old working out of a windup, wondering what will happen when he necessarily takes a little off the fastball and throws more offspeed pitches and the opposing lineup sees him three times a night.
Nathan sat out in 2010 due to Tommy John surgery, and after a crummy start to the 2011 season (decreased velocity, a .274/.370/.500 slash, nine walks and 15 runs allowed [13 earned] in 15.1 innings), he was shut down for a month due to a strained muscle in his elbow. But he came back from that injury around mid-season and pitched very well for a Twins team that was already buried and out of contention.
In 29.1 innings after his June 24 re-activation, the big righthander scattered 21 hits and five walks (putting together an anemic opponents’ slash of .193/.239/.367) while setting 28 down on strikes, saving 11 games in 12 chances. That miserable pre-injury stretch resulted in overall numbers for the year that don’t dazzle, but viewing Nathan’s second half alone – often a useful exercise for pitchers in their return season from Tommy John – at least suggests that the veteran was back in the form that made him one of the game’s most dependable closers for the better part of a decade. His velocity was better (though not quite at pre-surgery levels) and his fastball-slider command was back, as was his effectiveness, though it went largely unnoticed since the Twins were irrelevant in the second half.
Adding Nathan (who passed a club physical last night) keeps Mike Adams in his set-up role, and makes Feliz a starter. Before Thanksgiving, which is a big deal. The decision to take Feliz to camp last year as a starter wasn’t finalized until much later in the winter, and the experiment never gained real momentum. The righty’s already issued a statement about his motivation to start. His new running regimen is already in place. Enrique Rojas of ESPN reports that Feliz may get some Dominican Winter League work in as a starter as well.
Can Feliz pull this off? I have my doubts, for the reasons stated above, but I have faith in the Rangers’ decision-makers. If they believe Feliz can be a front-of-rotation starter – or at least merits a serious look – I’m certainly willing to suspend my uncertainties and see how this thing plays out. I totally buy into the theory that a number one (or two or three) starter is worth more than a closer, and is certainly dramatically more expensive to acquire as a free agent or via trade, so it makes tremendous sense to take a guy arguably capable of both and put him in the rotation. Whether Feliz is capable of both, I don’t know (and it’s fairly clear he’d regressed in some ways as a reliever). But he’s going to get the ball every fifth day in 2012, and we’re going to learn a lot about the kid.
Contrary to what you may read today from various national columnists, the Feliz move happens even if he gets David Freese out in the ninth. There’s no reason for me to even devote another sentence to the flimsy premise that Feliz’s Game Six performance is what led Texas to make him a starter.
Jon Daniels said the acquisition of Nathan, who turns 37 today, doesn’t mean the Rangers will withdraw from the mix on Wilson or forgo opportunities to acquire another frontline starter, even though the club now has Feliz, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando as starters, with Scott Feldman in place as the first reinforcement.
When asked on Twitter if he thought this meant Wilson will not be back and the Rangers are done setting up the rotation, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus said: “Bet for another new name still.” As late as this morning, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports suggests that the Cubs are willing to trade Matt Garza, whom Texas tried trading for last winter.
Nathan became a free agent when the Twins declined a $12.5 million option on him for 2012, instead paying him a $2 million buyout. If you have misgivings about the acquisition here, you shouldn’t point to Minnesota’s decision as support. Paying a closer $12.5 million (the amount Philadelphia is giving Jonathan Papelbon for four years) is hard to defend in the first place, and in Nathan’s case we’re talking about a 37-year-old, and we’re talking about a team coming off a 99-loss season, a team that may not have meaningful games to save in the last two weeks of the season for the couple years that Nathan wanted guaranteed.
The Twins wanted Nathan back. Just not at $12.5 million for 2012. According to Rosenthal, who spoke to Nathan’s agent Dave Pepe, the Twins offered their longtime closer a two-year deal to stay, and on top of that “the prospect of a better deal [than what the Rangers offered] was out there” from an undisclosed team.
But Nathan wanted to be a Texas Ranger.
And the Rangers, preferring a shorter-term deal with a proven closer than what Papelbon received and what Ryan Madson and Heath Bell are likely to get, and preferring not to part with the prospects it would take to get someone like Andrew Bailey or Huston Street, decided to jump out ahead of the developing market and make this deal happen before the Winter Meetings free-for-all. The club’s focus can now shift, not only accelerating the process to get Feliz conditioned physically and mentally to be a starting pitcher but also moving to whatever the next item on the off-season blueprint happens to be.
Nathan will get $7 million in 2012. And $7 million in 2013. And $9 million if Texas wants to pay him that in 2014, a cost the club can avoid by paying him a $500,000 buyout. The Rangers’ expense does not include any draft pick forfeiture, as Nathan was a no-compensation free agent.
Last winter Texas signed Adrian Beltre, even though he reportedly wanted to sign with the Angels, who apparently fell just short in negotiations with the third baseman.
Then Texas acquired Mike Napoli from Toronto, days after the Jays had acquired him from the Angels, who had consistently resisted trade overtures from the Rangers regarding the slugging catcher.
This winter, there were reports that the Angels wanted Nathan. As I tend to do when grading prospects or evaluating player moves, I ask myself how I’d feel if Los Angeles made this deal, and Nathan were settling in as that club’s closer for the next two years at that money.
I wouldn’t like it.
There’s another theme with the Nathan acquisition that brings Beltre and Napoli to mind. He hasn’t won. Nathan’s Twins reached the playoffs three times (2004, 2006, 2009). They won one game – the first playoff game of his Minnesota career (he’d appeared in two playoff games for the Giants in 2003, both losses), a 2-0 Johan Santana gem against the Yankees that Nathan saved. The Twins then lost nine straight playoff games with Nathan suited up – 12 straight if you count the Yankees sweep in Nathan’s Tommy John season of 2010.
Nathan played on a lot of very good Twins teams. They had winning records all but twice during his tenure, averaging 88 wins before last year’s 63-win disaster. But they never got anything done in the post-season, and give the current state of that franchise and Nathan’s age, it makes sense that he’d want to move on for a chance to win.
The Rangers have said that among the reasons they targeted Beltre and Napoli was that both would be hungry, having never won a ring. Nathan fits that profile, too.
And he’s also a fit in terms of makeup. One thing Texas used to say about Eddie Guardado – the man Nathan replaced as Twins closer in 2004 – is that he provided tremendous leadership while he was in Texas. Adding a leader like Nathan to the current bullpen will pay dividends beyond his time here. He’ll help Mike Adams (who, interestingly, will be a free agent a year from now and might be difficult to re-sign if Nathan is healthy and effective, since Adams might attract closer money on the open market). He’ll help Mark Lowe and Koji Uehara. He’ll be a role model for Mark Hamburger, who developed his fastball-slider mix while in the Twins system.
Tanner Scheppers and Matt West and Fabio Castillo and Justin Miller. Neil Ramirez and Roman Mendez and Jake Brigham and Justin Grimm and even lefties Michael Kirkman and Miguel De Los Santos.
And Wilmer Font, coming back from Tommy John surgery. Without question, Wilmer Font.
In ways that Guardado helped Feliz and Wilson and Frankie Francisco, Nathan is going to help a lot of young pitchers while he’s here, young pitchers who will go on to play big roles for Texas once Nathan is gone, if not before.
In his six full seasons with the Twins (2004 through 2009), Nathan saved 246 games, most in baseball (ahead of Mariano Rivera’s 243). Nathan’s 1.87 ERA over that span was best in the game (ahead of Rivera’s 1.90). Nathan struck out 518 batters in 419.1 innings. He was historically great over those six years.
He’s not the same pitcher now. If he were, he gets a better deal than Papelbon’s four years and $50 million. His arm has been operated on, and he’s 37. This is no Beltre signing.
His career Rangers Ballpark numbers are very strong (.245/.333/.377, 22 strikeouts and five unintentional walks in 13.2 innings, one home run), though all but one of those innings were pre-injury. (The exception: last July 26, when he saved a 9-8 Twins win that ended with swinging strikeouts of Mitch Moreland and David Murphy.) And he finished 2011 healthy. This is no Brandon Webb signing.
This may not work. It’s not a Webb-level risk, but there’s risk that a 37-year-old with a repaired arm will hit a wall at some point during his guaranteed stay. But Texas is poised to win now, which makes a veteran closer like Nathan a good fit for the Rangers, and the Rangers an obvious fit for Nathan.
Whether Feliz is going to be a good fit getting the ball every fifth day, in the first inning rather than the ninth, is a substantial unknown, and carries plenty of risk itself. But the time to figure out if this is going to work – whether Feliz will be conditioned to start and whether he can locate his secondary stuff and whether he can succeed three times through a lineup and whether he’s mentally ready to do this – is now, and a two-year commitment to a proven closer who showed in the second half last year that he can still get the final out makes the Feliz transition a cleaner one.
And the fact that that transition is underway in late November, just weeks after the end of the season and nearly three months before pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, feels like one important way to enhance the chances that Feliz-to-the-rotation works out for the best, starting in 2012. It’s still difficult for me to imagine Feliz throwing his first pitch out of the windup, after the Anthem, rather than in the stretch after whatever that walk-up music was. But I’ve got extra time this year to fix that image in my head, and now it absolutely feels like the 2012 season is underway.