The Texas Rangers have a new closer and the signing of former Minnesota Twin Joe Nathan will cause more than one domino to fall. By installing Nathan in the ninth inning, the Rangers have given themselves the ability to transition incumbent closer Neftali Feliz to a starting role.
Nathan, who celebrates his 37th birthday today, was considered by many to be at worst the second-best closer in the American League as recently as 2009. When he showed up to camp in the spring of 2010, however, he experienced elbow soreness. Shortly thereafter, Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 2010 season.
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He returned to the mound during Spring Training last season and opened the campaign is his customary closer’s role. Nathan struggled early in the season, however, fighting command issues that saw hi walk seven batters in his first nine inning of the season. Eventually, Nathan was removed from the ninth inning role he had solidified for so long and wound up working only 17.1 innings in the season’s first three months.
As the heat of July came around, and Nathan was every day that much further removed from surgery, the life on his fastball returned, as did his ability to hit his spots. He resumed closing duties in the season’s second half and also got back to missing bats. Nathan worked in 24 games in the first half, allowing a 5.82 ERA and posting a pedestrian 2.33:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the seocnd half of the season, he also worked in 24 games, but his ERA was a much more palatable 3.92 and his K:BB ratio was 4.40:1.
While Nathan was able to return to the mound barely a year after surgery, most Tommy John patients usually don’t make a full recovery until about 18 months after undergoing the procedure. He entered the offseason with a clean bill of health and should be back to good by the time camp rolls around for the Rangers in February.
The added benefit of this signing was that Nathan, in large part due to his lost season of 2010, didn’t qualify as a ranked free agent. Had he not gotten hurt, he surely would have been Type-A and Texas might not have pursued him at all, not wanting to surrender a first-round pick in exchange for a closer when they already had one in place. Given that Nathan did not have such a price tag, his salary is the only thing the Rangers owe, and at $7-7.5 million per year, he essentially replaces the salary that C.J. Wilson made in 2011.
By adding Feliz to the rotation, along with holdovers Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, and Derek Holland, the Rangers no longer need to pursue a top-tier starter, or over-extend themselves in trying to retain Wilson. Right hander Scott Feldman will also be in the mix as a long man and spot starter. For what it’s worth, the Rangers are saying that the Nathan deal does not mean they won’t continue to pursue Wilson.
There are still questions to be answered, especially in middle relief, but no matter how Texas proceeds with their middle relief options, the back-end of the bullpen will be as formidable as ever, and maybe more so. As good as Feliz has been in that role, Nathan brings a track record as one of the absolute elite closers. After watching him down the stretch last year, I’m convinced the stuff is still there, and the command is coming back as well. Texas made themselves better with this signing.