Last week I wrote that barring significant injuries in the AL Central, the Tigers had a 0% chance of making the playoffs. Well, it looks like we’ll never see that prediction come to fruition because we’re at one massive injury and counting. Perhaps the best player in the division over the last six years—and one that has been particularly abusive to the Tigers –is likely out for the season. Joe Nathan a has torn ligament in his right elbow. While not official, yet, it looks like there is a very good chance that he will miss the season. It’s hard not to appreciate Nathan’s resume even though he makes a habit of destroying the team that I root for. He has been one of the best (if not the best) closers in baseball since 2004. Irrespective of team affiliation, it’s always disappointing to hear about season-ending injuries. Hopefully, Nathan comes back better than ever regardless of his prognosis and uniform color. Nonetheless, this is an incredibly fortuitous injury from a Tigers perspective.
Since 2004, Nathan has been an elite, Hall of Fame-caliber, closer. Over that time, he put up a 1.87 ERA, a .934 WHIP, and a .182 BAA in 418.2 innings. He has also had more saves (246) than any closer in baseball over that time. If you’re a Tigers fan, then you probably know he has been even better against the home team. Since joining the Twins in ’04, Nathan has piled up a 1.55 ERA, a .955 WHIP, and a .153 BAA in 52.1 innings against the Tigers. He is a big reason why the Twins are 60-52 against Detroit over that timeframe. Having Nathan in the AL Central is a tough enough obstacle in itself. The fact that the Tigers have had nobody close to Nathan’s ninth-inning dominance closing out their own games makes his presence in the division even more meaningful.
It remains to be seen how Jose Valverde will perform in the closer role for the Tigers. Fernando Rodney and the other cast of characters who have attempted to close out games for the Tigers over the past six years have been abysmal compared to Nathan’s steady brilliance. If Valverde performs well as Detroit’s closer, then Nathan’s injury could have what amounts to twice the impact on the Central Division race. The Twins have always had the upper hand at the end of tight games within the division. Now, instead of possibly narrowing the gap with an effective closer like Valverde, the Tigers may very well have the upper hand with the sudden absence of Nathan to anchor Minnesota’s bullpen. That is quite a change in fortune.
Of course, this all depends on who the Twins are able to find to replace Nathan. No organization in MLB has been more resourceful than the Twins. It would not surprise me to find they have a capable closer already sitting in their bullpen. Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Jose Mijares, and even, former All-Star, Pat Neshek come to mind. However, even if the Twins are able to find a functional replacement, they aren’t going to be able to come up with someone to duplicate Nathan’s success anytime soon.
This is where things get interesting. The impact of Nathan’s injury is not concrete. For instance, if the Twins make a trade for an elite-level closer (i.e. Heath Bell), then the impact could be fairly small. Bell won’t match Nathan’s success but he’ll be better than anything the Tigers have had over the last six years. That would also allow the Twins to maintain their bullpen depth. However, it won’t be easy to snag an elite closer during spring training. This just happens to be the month of infinite hope. Every team in MLB thinks “this is our year.” It’s doubtful that San Diego—fresh off a better than expected ’09 campaign—is looking to blow up its bullpen before the season even begins. Although not a certainty, it’s likely that the Twins will try an internal candidate first. This is where Nathan’s injury reaches its maximum impact potential. Let’s say the Twins look to Guerrier first by yanking him from his regular set-up role. The impact of Nathan’s absence becomes substantial as it essentially weakens two areas that Minnesota considered strengths last season. Guerrier—even with an above average season— would be a huge drop-off from Nathan. Additionally, the Twins would then have to replace Guerrier—one of the most effective set-up men in baseball last season—with an unproven commodity. The Twins have had success in the past promoting players within the organization but predicting success in late-inning pressure situations is no sure thing. Once upon a time, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney were quite effective in set-up roles. You know how that turned out.
Clearly, an injury to Justin Morneau or Joe Mauer would have had a greater impact on the division race since they happen to be AL MVP winners in their primes. However, Nathan has owned the Tigers in tight games. If he is forced to miss the 2010 season, then his void in Minnesota’s bullpen would increase Detroit’s chances of competing for the division significantly. If Valverde ends up being a substantial improvement over Fernando Rodney, then that would help it even more.