Is there hope to save Nathan’s season?

All indications are that Joe Nathan will not pitch for the Minnesota Twins in 2010. The perennial All-Star closer is likely headed for Tommy John surgery after suffering a significant tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm.

But MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo writes that, as unlikely as it sounds, it is possible that Nathan could pitch this season with some effectiveness.

Mayo cites last season, when veteran Boston Red Sox reliever Takaski Saito opted not to have Tommy John surgery and pitch through the pain. He was reasonably effective, appearing in 56 games with a 2.43 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and .244 opponents’ batting average.

Saito, who is now with the Atlanta Braves, insists he’s all better now.

I, of course, remain skeptical of this. There are some similarities between what Nathan will go through and what Saito did go through. But my guess is there’s far more cases where this didn’t work out at all.

On the radio today

I’m making my weekly appearance on "Sports Talk" from 1-2 p.m. today on 970-AM WDAY.

Forum colleague Heath Hotzler and I will discuss some more of the fallout from the likely loss of Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan for the entire season. We’ll also talk Minnesota Vikings, as LaDainian Tomlinson will visit the team tomorrow. And we’ll touch on the North Dakota Class A state basketball tournament, which starts tomorrow in Bismarck.

To take part in the show, call 293-9000 or (800) 279-9329 or e-mail talk@wday.com. We’ll have plenty of time for calls today, as my efforts to track down a guest for the topics listed above failed.

Analyzing the potential Nathan replacements

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Minnesota Twins were expected to have pretty good depth in their bullpen this season. There’s no shortage of bodies to replace Joe Nathan, assuming the Twins closer does miss the season due to a torn ligament in his pitching elbow.

Matching his effectiveness will be the biggest obstacle.

Let’s look at a few in-house candidates to replace Nathan:

  • Matt Guerrier: Guerrier was about as dominant as any set-up man in baseball last year. In 79 appearances, he posted a 2.36 ERA, a .97 WHIP and an opponents’ batting average of .207. It was a very nice bounce-back year from a poor showing in 2008, which followed an extremely effective 2007. Can Guerrier post back-to-back great seasons? Only time will tell.
  • Jon Rauch: Rauch is the only Twins reliever with extensive experience as a closer. He saved 18 games between stops with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Washington Nationals back in 2008. Rauch pitched very well for the Twins down the stretch last year after a midseason trade from Arizona. In 17 games with Minnesota, he posted a 5-1 record with a 1.72 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.
  • Pat Neshek: Often considered the closer of the future, Neshek hasn’t pitched for the Twins in nearly two years due to arm trouble. He’s back in camp and green-lighted for the 2010 season, but should he be thrust into the closer’s job from the get-go?
  • Francisco Liriano: I’ve heard his name mentioned a lot, but not from anybody within the organization. Call me crazy, but I’m not ready to shut the door on Liriano as a starter. And I certainly wouldn’t advocate putting him in the closer’s job even if he did move to the bullpen. He’d have to work his way into that role, in my opinion. There is reason to think that Liriano could be an effective reliever, as his numbers from pitches 1 through 30 thrown are much better than beyond 30 pitches. But I still think the Twins should give him 5 to 7 starts this season to see if he can return to form, or at the very least return to 2008 post-minor league stop form (11 starts, 2.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 60 Ks in 65-plus innings).

So, what are my thoughts?

Well, I immediately wouldn’t consider Liriano or Neshek, and the Twins aren’t going that route anyway. They are just two names that I’ve heard people bring up over the last 24 hours. But neither guy should be put in a spot like that right away.

So that leaves Rauch and Guerrier. I think the Twins would be best served leaving Guerrier in the eighth-inning role and letting Rauch close if it came to it. Don’t get me wrong. I think Guerrier is the better pitcher, assuming he doesn’t revert to 2008 form.

But I like the flexibility in having that best reliever pitch when he’s most needed, rather than pegging him as a ninth-inning guy. If Rauch bombed, then I’d consider a change. But the ninth inning doesn’t matter if you can’t maintain the lead in the seventh or eighth innings. And with two baserunners on and a one-run lead to protect in the seventh, I’d rather call on Guerrier than Rauch.

I know that’s not traditional baseball wisdom. But that’s just how I feel. Like I said, if Rauch doesn’t get the job done, than changes must be made. But I’d give him the first chance.