Spring Training is the time of year when prospects are catching the eye and fans are having fun watching new players performing in their team’s colours. For example, the Braves’ Jason Heyward, the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman and the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg are all turning heads to name but three.
However, it’s the players who aren’t on the field that really grab the attention.
The Cardinals’ two big sluggers, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, have been sitting out games while dealing with various ailments, the Dodgers’ Russell Martin is out with a groin strain and the Royals’ Alex Gordon has broken his thumb. Oh, and the Mets’ Jose Reyes is back on the shelf due to “Hyperthyroidism”, the Orioles’ Brian Roberts has a back problem and the Astros’ Lance Berkman underwent surgery yesterday to “remove loose cartilage debris in his left knee”. Then there’s the White Sox’s top prospect Jared Mitchell who “tore the tendon on the inside of his left ankle” while trying to make a play in the outfield on Friday, ending his 2010 season before it had really begun. Also, the Cubs’ Angel Guzman may have pitched his last game after suffering a severe tear in a ligament in his right shoulder.
And those are just the incidents that immediately come to mind, alongside one other involving the Minnesota Twins.
Twins begin their search for a new closer
Just when you think things are going well, baseball has a nasty habit of tripping you up. Just ask the Twins. 2010 was shaping up to be a great year in Minnesota, with a new ballpark being unveiled and a relatively generous payroll prompting much enthusiasm and optimism for the year ahead.
And then star closer Joe Nathan suffered a “significant tear in his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament”.
Nathan and the Twins’ medical staff are doing their best to help him avoid going under the knife, but it seems inevitable that he will undergo Tommy John surgery: a procedure that is now almost commonplace among pitchers. They are seeking second opinions and devising a rehab programme because you would always want to avoid surgery if possible and especially so when the procedure guarantees that you will be out of action for a year.
The optimistic plan is that they can strengthen the area around his right elbow over the next couple of months to allow Nathan to pitch over the rest of the season. However, the odds of this approach being successful are not high and if the surgery is required, it’s better to get it done now and get him ready for the start of 2011 rather than put his return date back until June (or later) that year.
Much as they will dread the thought, soon the Twins will probably have to come to terms with the realisation that Nathan will not pitch for them in 2010 and that they will need to replace him.
If you think the role of a closer is overrated then that wouldn’t seem like too big of a problem. Nathan has averaged 70 regular season innings per year during his six seasons with the Twins and his 68.2 innings pitched in 2009 amounted to less than 5 per cent of the team’s total of 1453. Replacing those innings shouldn’t be difficult in terms of quantity. Minnesota have limited scope to add a new player on significant money to their roster, Nathan’s injury will effectively be $11.25m down the drain, so they are likely to add a middle-inning reliever (via a trade, free agent move or from their minor league system) and then promote someone from within to take on the closer role.
Matt Guerrier and left-hander Jose Mijares both pitched well in relief for the Twins last year and could be moved to the ninth inning, while Jon Rauch has the advantage of some closing experience. Maybe even Francisco Liriano could get the job if he’s throwing the ball well and they conclude that he has more chance of staying healthy and effective in that role than as a starter. So they do have a number of options to choose from.
However, it might not be quite so simple as that suggests.
There’s a line of thinking that true closers are a special breed, that not every pitcher is cut out for the job. Someone can be celebrated or derided depending on whether or not they have a ‘closer mentality’. That can be thrown into the age-old debate about ‘clutch’ performances: are there players who can raise their game when it matters most or does random luck and selective memory colour our perception of this? I’ve always been of the mind that to a large extent a player doesn’t last long in the Majors if he can’t cope with the pressure of a big situation. Still, maybe some guys prefer the relative anonymity of being a seventh or eighth inning guy rather than living with the greater attention that a closer is under, more so off the field rather than when they are out there on the mound.
You then have the question of whether the potential pitcher has ‘closer’s stuff’. This boils down to being able to dominate both left and right-handed hitters while possessing one or two excellent pitches, rather than having a big enough repertoire to be a quality starting pitcher.
Even if the Twins do have a closer candidate with the mentality and stuff to succeed, replacing Joe Nathan will be a difficult task because he is one of the very best in the Majors. What makes him stand out is that he has been consistent over a number of years in a job where consistency and reliability is in short supply. The fortunes of a closer, indeed even an entire bullpen, can change dramatically from year to year. No one epitomizes that better than the Phillies’ closer Brad Lidge who went from perfection in 2008 to disaster in 2009.
Someone will take Nathan’s place and pitch the innings he would have provided the Twins, but psychologically his absence will leave a big gap. As soon as his replacement blows a save or two (which will happen, even Mariano Rivera blows a save every now and then) it will be natural for people to think that things might have turned out differently had Nathan been pitching. Those thoughts can snowball and manager Ron Gardenhire will need to make sure that the snowball doesn’t turn into an avalanche at a chilly Target Field come the end of the season.
Calling it a career
While Nathan has a good chance of returning to the Majors even if he undergoes surgery, several players have had to call time on their careers recently. They include Nomar Garciaparra and Brian Giles, who both announced their retirements this week.
Nomar got a taste of the Big Leagues in 1996 before winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1997. He won back-to-back batting titles in 1999 and 2000 and by the end of the 2003 season, most observers thought he was sure to end up in Cooperstown. However he was plagued by injuries after his infamous trade to the Cubs during the 2004 season and they ultimately put an end to his Hall of Fame case. Still, he will always be remembered as a great Red Sox player. It was fitting that he was able to return one last time to Fenway with the A’s last year and that he signed a Minor League deal so that he could retire as a member of the Red Sox organization.
Brian Giles is another guy who had a very solid Major League career, although he played most of it out of the limelight with the Indians, Pirates and Padres. He didn’t win any individual awards, but he made the All-Star team twice and ended up with a career batting line of .291/.400/.502, swatting 287 Big League homers and driving in over 1,000 runs (1078) over 15 seasons. That’s certainly a career to be proud of.