Early yesterday morning, the Twins received news that Joe Nathan had a torn UCL. That should sound familiar to Twins fans, because both Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek tore their UCL's over the last two years. The surgery most often employed for a pitcher with a torn UCL is the most dreaded three word phrase in baseball: Tommy John Surgery. However, a torn UCL does not automatically require surgery.
I'm certainly not a doctor, but I've seen someone pitch an entire season with a torn UCL so I know it can be done. In 2008, around the same time the Twins had decided to shut Neshek down for the season, Jefferson High School made a surprise late-season charge to get to the state tournament, and managed to get all the way to the State Championship before losing to a less-talented Coon Rapids team.
That year, my brother led Jefferson with 53.1 IP, posting a 2.36 ERA and going 5-2. He did that with a torn UCL all season. For those claiming Nathan may pitch well early in the year but it will only get worse and he will collapse come playoff time, you're wrong. The longer you pitch with a torn UCL, the more bearable it gets simply because more scar tissue builds up over the injury. It's still incredibly painful, but pitching well late in the season is something that can be done. Again I'll point to my brother, who threw a complete game in the state semi-finals to lead Jefferson to a 3-1 victory and one of the most improbable State Championship runs in recent memory.
Now, I'd like to give Nathan the benefit of the doubt based on Lavelle E. Neal's report that he's going to wait a few weeks before throwing and then attempt to pitch through it. For now, I will. However, if Nathan deems the pain unbearable, I will be the first one to criticize him. Watching my brother will his way through a seven inning start, every week, while making a grand total of $0.00 was great, and if Joe Nathan can't fight through it to throw his usual 70 innings over five months while making $12MM, criticism doesn't seem unfair. Of course, pitching with a torn UCL and pitching well with a torn UCL are completely different scenarios. Nathan's control will undoubtedly be less than perfect, and he may feel like he has little to no control of his pitches. If that's the case, and that is the reason the team gives for him deciding to shut it down, I will at least understand. If he shuts it down because he's in pain, when the injury can't get any worse than it already is, criticism will come.
However, by all accounts Nathan is doing everything he can to assure he pitches this season, so I hope he can deal with the pain enough to pitch one inning every few days. Of course, as good as Nathan is at what he does, if the Twins were going to lose a 'core' piece for the season, Nathan would've been my preference. No, despite what a lot of the local media thinks because of the post-season last year, Nathan isn't slipping much. He's still an elite closer, but the reason his loss can be dealt with is because he's averaged just under 70 innings a year since becoming the Twins closer. 162 games, times 9 innings per game, is 1,458 innings. Nathan's 70 innings are just 4% of the pitching staff's total innings over a full season, and it's actually less because of extra inning games.
Some will argue pitching in the 9th inning is a lot different than pitching in the 7th or 8th inning, and they will point to someone who blows save after save but can get the job done in other situations. I disagree with those people, because the fact is you can find outliers to back up your assertion no matter what you're arguing. Fernando Rodney, for instance, was very good last season in strictly save situations but was awful in non-save situations. Does that mean he would be unable to be used as a set up man? I doubt it, considering he was a fairly effective middle reliever and set up man before taking over the closer role.
Nearly every closer in the league today started out in a different role. Even the great Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of baseball, was a set up man early in his career. When Francisco Rodriguez jumped onto the scene prior to the Angels playoff run, he did so in a setup role to Troy Percival. The truth is there are plenty of capable relievers who may excel if given a chance to close on a regular basis, but the opportunity never arises. While losing Nathan's sparkling ERA and his crazy good K/9 among other things, the fact that his numbers accounted for such a small portion of the team's season makes his loss at least bearable if he decides to follow through with surgery.
I have no idea who the team will anoint as the closer for this coming season, and while I tend to disagree with the whole 'closer mentality' argument, I don't want to see a closer by committee approach. It's failed spectacularly far too many times to be a coincidence. I would prefer the team simply gives the role to Rauch, Mijares, or even Neshek, promotes Slama or Van Mil to fill the last bullpen spot (which may actually end up going to Glen Perkins now... vomit) and continue on with their season. Chad Cordero, who's in camp with the Mariners, likely will be available after the spring because the Mariners have a loaded bullpen. Cordero has closer experience and was among the best closers in baseball just a few years ago, but like Neshek he's coming off a fairly serious injury and honestly doesn't seem like a worthwhile risk when the Twins have plenty of depth and young talent looking for an opportunity. Of course, it's possible the Twins give the 5th spot in the rotation to Duensing or Perkins, and decide to try Liriano as the closer. While I think Liriano could be deadly as a closer, he pitched so well this past winter I believe the Twins absolutely need to give him one more chance in the starting rotation.
Losing Joe Nathan would certainly weaken the Twins, but they still should be the favorites in the AL Central and if their starting rotation can continue to improve they could still finally make some noise in the playoffs. Nathan is an elite closer, but with the way closers are incorrectly used these days, losing even an elite closer isn't nearly the blow losing someone like Slowey or Baker would have been. Maybe this injury will allow the Twins to find their closer of the future, and if they're really lucky, their closer for this year too.