Twins exploring possible closer options
Rauch, Guerrier among candidates if Nathan needs surgery
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- While the Twins remain hopeful that closer Joe Nathan can avoid surgery and return to the mound in 2010, there's no question that it's now necessary to at least begin a process to consider a contingency plan should Nathan need to go under the knife.
A determination on Nathan's future won't be made for a week or two, until after he's completed his attempt to rehab and strengthen his elbow. While no one in the Twins' organization is ready to wave the white flag in terms of the All-Star stopper taking the mound this year, the club also knows it needs to be prepared in case his torn UCL needs more than rest and exercise.
"Obviously, we're going to have to start thinking about that," said manager Ron Gardenhire, who made it clear it would be Nathan's decision whether he can pitch following this rehab period.
"Right now, until they tell me Joe's not going to pitch, he's our closer. But we have to start looking in other directions and start the thought process. This all of a sudden came up. It is what it is. No one's going to cry for us. We just have to try and make our way through it. Right now, our focus is on Joe and where we're at with Joe. We'll sit down as a staff and with [general manager] Billy [Smith] and start looking at our options as we go along."
Should Minnesota decide to look internally for a replacement, there are several arms who could potentially be asked to step up and fill in.
Jon Rauch has the most big league closing experience on the team. The right-hander has 26 career saves in 44 attempts. Most of those came in 2008, when he went 17-for-22 in save opportunites with a 2.98 ERA for the Nationals before being dealt to the D-backs. He went 5-1 with a 1.72 ERA for the Twins over 17 games after coming via trade last August. Rauch isn't ready to consider stepping into that role just yet.
"He's our closer," Rauch said of Nathan. "As of right now, he's still our closer. We expect him to hopefully make a speedy recovery and be back in the bullpen for the start of the season."
The reality of the situation is that Nathan's chances of avoiding surgery are likely slim. Rauch still wouldn't look too far ahead, but appeared ready for whatever the future might hold.
"It is what it is," Rauch said. "I'm going to pitch when they tell me to pitch and that's it. I'm not going to read anymore into it than that."
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Another internal option could be Matt Guerrier, the right-hander who's established himself as Minnesota's primary setup man. He's picked up a save in each of the last four seasons, but hasn't closed since 2000, when he racked up 26 saves at two Minor League levels in the White Sox system. He's not the power arm one often looks for in a closer, but he's been one of the more dependable relievers on this staff for the past several years.
"It's always tough to lose a guy like Joe," Guerrier said. "He's what makes the bullpen so good. We do have a lot of different options, so it's something to look at. I feel like whoever they decide to use at any given point will be able to step up and do something. Obviously, we're not going to do what Joe did. We'll see how it plays out. However they decide to do it, that's their decision."
If it's power stuff they're looking for, Jesse Crain has the kind of repertoire that fits the role. Once given "future closer" status, Crain twice saved 19 games in a season in the Minors, including in 2004, the year he received his first callup to Minnesota. But he's collected just two saves at the big league level.
One last, albeit less likely, in-house option would be Pat Neshek. It's not that he couldn't handle the job -- he's got seven career saves, a .188 batting average against and a 10.59 K/9 ratio -- but he hasn't pitched since 2008 and is still less than a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery.
"We had a deep bullpen coming into this year," Crain said. "We have Rauch, who's had a lot of saves. We have Guerrier, who can do it. I think I can do it. Neshek can do it. We have a lot of guys who can take over that role. We'll just have to ask somebody to step up and see what happens. We still have a strong bullpen, but we'd definitely miss a presence like that if he's not going to be able to be there."
If the Twins don't like what they see internally, there's always the chance they could hit the trade market for help. Trustworthy closers aren't readily available. The name most frequently mentioned is that of the Indians' Kerry Wood. Wood has saved 54 games over the past two seasons, 20 last year in his first with Cleveland.
An obstacle to that potential deal could be Wood's contract. The right-hander is set to make $10.5 million in 2010 and he has a vesting option for '11 worth $11 million if he finishes 55 games this year. The Indians aren't going out of their way to shop Wood and would only do so if another team is willing to take on most, if not all, of that contract.
"I've never dealt with [trade speculation] before, and I don't want that to change," Wood said. "I don't want to deal with it. I'll go out and get ready to go every day. And every time I get a chance to save a game, I'll go out and do my job."
Padres All-Star closer Heath Bell is the other short reliever whose name has cropped up in trade rumors. He led the National League with 42 saves last year, his first as a full-time closer. He and San Diego avoided arbitration this winter by agreeing to a one-year,$4 million contract. There has been speculation that the Padres could look to shop him as the summer progresses.
For now, these are all just suggestions and conjecture, part of the process the Twins will undoubtedly go through as they wait to see if Nathan's elbow responds. The prevailing thought throughout the clubhouse was simple: Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
"He's going to be a guy we won't be able to replace," starter Kevin Slowey said. "It's not going to be easy to find a replacement for him, whether it's for a week, a month or the rest of the year. He's not a guy that someone else is going to step in and do that. He's been so good for so long.
"But at the same time, if or when we need someone to come in, we're going to have guys who would be able to step in. Obviously, we don't want it to come to that. We want Joe to come back and, by the hand of God, say, 'Hey, I'm ready to go.' But it's just going to have to be something we'll have to wait and see."
"If we lose him, somebody else has to step up," outfielder Denard Span said. "Being the Minnesota Twins, everybody some way or another has had to step up. It'll come down to somebody in that bullpen that will have to step up and pull together."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.