Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What To Do: Joe Nathan Edition

Prior to the ALDS starting, I planned to write that the Twins may in fact seriously consider trading Joe Nathan this off-season. I expected that viewpoint to be surprising to many, but by choosing to wait until the season was over to start my off-season discussions, I noticed many other writers felt the same way. Opinions vary on what the team should indeed do with Nathan, although lately people seem more willing to trade him because of what happened in Game 2.

The decision is a tough one. The Twins expected payroll next year, without a 3B or SS, is about $75 million as of now. Admittedly, I don't know what the Twins budget is for next season, but I think the highest it would increase to is $82 million, and that seems a bit generous even with Target Field opening. Regardless, the team needs to find a SS and 3B, and should find an upgrade at 2B, with only about $5-$7 million to work with. I'll get into the creative ways to fill those holes another day, but in my opinion it would benefit the Twins more to trade Joe Nathan this off-season.

His value should be extremely high, as he's been one of the best two closers in baseball over the past 5 years, and he was his usual dominating self again this season. From a financial standpoint, a team like the Twins can't afford to use 1/7 of their payroll on someone who is only going to pitch about 70 innings. Nathan is among the best in the business at what he does, but it is not a sound financial decision to pay Nathan the kind of money he's owed.

Nathan will turn 35 in November, and he's owed $11.25 million in 2010, and the same amount in 2011. The Twins then have a $12.5 million club option with a $2 million buyout for the 2012 season. Yes, I understand the market for closers is about what Nathan is making, so he's not overpaid compared to the position. However, teams have proven several times over the years they can turn set up men into closers without much of a problem. The Padres traded for Heath Bell, and inserted him into their closer role and he excelled. Heck, even Joe Nathan was acquired as a little-known reliever before becoming a dominating closer. While teams certainly make mistakes when they try to find bargain bin closers as well, small and mid-market teams need to consistently find them. The Twins can't afford to pay Joe Nathan the kind of money he's owed if they want to fill other, more glaring needs.

Let's try to compile a list of teams that need a closer and could potentially contend next season, leaving out the AL Central for obvious reasons:

Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Seattle Mariners
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago Cubs

The Angels were a bit of stretch at first glance, but with Fuentes struggling quite a bit this year and no clear in-house replacement, I thought they might be interested. They've shown in the past they are willing to bench high paid players for upgrades (Gary Matthews Jr) so it didn't seem like a big stretch after thinking about it. That said, I doubt they would give up the kind of package other teams might.

The Rays seem extremely unlikely with their payroll issues, and they likely can't afford to give up enough young talent to make the deal work anyways. That leaves Toronto, Seattle, Philly and the Cubs as potential suitors.

I don't see Toronto considering themselves contenders in a loaded AL East next season, so I'm going to consider them out as well. The Twins may prefer to keep Nathan out of the AL altogether, but Seattle may be able to put together an enticing package so they need to be considered.

My first assumption was that if Nathan was available, he'd end up in Philly. They are the most World Series ready team, and their biggest weakness all season long was at closer. I think the Twins would almost certainly have to take Brad Lidge back in any trade, as he likely wouldn't be very happy being moved to a set up role and his struggles this season in Philly seem to suggest he needs a change of scenery. Unfortunately, Lidge is owed more money over the next 3 years than Nathan, so that's not a trade that would make sense for Minnesota. If the Phillies were willing to pay Lidge that money to be a set up guy, or if they found a high payroll team willing to acquire him, than Nathan to Philly makes the most sense.

The Cubs and Mariners financial situations are also a bit confusing, so it's tough to find any absolute suitors for Nathan if the team makes him available. Of course, if we are to assume the Phillies, Cubs and Mariners can all afford him, that's more than enough interested parties to create a small bidding war for his services. If Bill Smith doesn't overplay his hand, ala the Santana trade, the Twins could end up with a few very good young prospects and possibly a major league ready reliever. No, I don't think the Twins could get Ryan Madson or Carlos Marmol in a deal with the Phillies or Cubs, and personally I wouldn't want Brandon Morrow in a deal with Seattle. I would hope the Twins scouts could find a talented reliever ready to break out, like they did with Nathan in 2003.

If they do decide to trade Nathan, and there's no indications they are even thinking about it, it will be a tricky situation for sure. However, Smith needs to do everything he can to maximize Nathan's value before he breaks down, and this off-season seems like his best chance to do that. Of course, I'd suggest getting Mauer to ink a contract extension before trading Nathan. Even if it's the right decision for the team, I doubt Mauer will agree with trading the league's best closer for prospects. Unfortunately, as the GM of the team, Smith needs to make the tough decisions, even if they aren't popular with the players. Hopefully, he can make the right decisions for the first time in three years.