With the minor league signing of Joe Nathan, could he be the answer to the Washington Nationals issues at closer?
Yesterday, the Washington Nationals invited two relievers to spring training on minor league contracts. Those two relievers were right-handers Matt Albers and Joe Nathan. Out of these two, the most notable one is Nathan because the Washington Nationals have struggled to find a closer this winter:
Nathan has only pitched in 11 games combined over the last two seasons because of injury. The 42-year-old has had two Tommy John surgeries in his career with the most recent one occurring back in 2015. Last season, he made three July appearances with the Cubs and seven September appearances with the Giants. He didn’t allow one run with either team.
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Before Nathan had his first Tommy John surgery in 2010, he was one of the best closers in the American League with the Twins. From 2004-2009, he had 36+ saves in each season and had a total of 246 saves in 271 chances. Plus, he made the All-Star team in four of those seasons.
After his first Tommy John surgery, Nathan struggled in 2011 (4.38 ERA), but bounced back with the Texas Rangers. With Mike Maddux as his pitching coach, he had two All-Star seasons, was 80-for-86 in saves, and struck out ten batters per nine innings in each of those years.
The big question will be can Nathan get close to the All-Star level he was once at? His fastball last year averaged out at 91.2 miles per hour and he used his slider over 31% of the time, the most since 2013 with the Rangers (about 35%). Both of those numbers are courtesy of Fangraphs.
If anything, Nathan is a good veteran presence to have at spring training to mentor pitchers such as Blake Treinen and Koda Glover, who could be in that closer role either this year or in future years. But, as Jon Heyman of Fanrag Sports tweeted last night, the Nats have until March 24 to decide whether or not to put Nathan on the roster:
As we saw last year, Dusty Baker has the tendency to go to the veterans first. Nathan was a part of a Giants bullpen that had difficulty closing out games last season. He had a chance in the closer role last year, but ended up giving up a two run walk-off double on September 7 against the Rockies. It was his only save opportunity.
If there’s one thing to be hesitant about with Nathan, it’s his postseason numbers. In ten career postseason outings, he has an ERA of 8.10 and only one save. He was not a part of the Giants postseason roster in 2016.
As Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post tweeted out yesterday, it’s not uncommon for the Washington Nationals to take a chance on a pitcher that has had multiple Tommy John surgeries in their careers. In fact, another reliever the Nats signed to a minor league deal this winter is in the same situation:
But, with Nathan and Shawn Kelley as possible closer candidates, can Baker and the coaching staff rely on these two to go multiple innings or on back-to-back days? Nathan hasn’t appeared in back-to-back games since 2014 and the last time he went multiple innings was September 27-29, 2013.
Right now, Nathan should be a candidate for the closer role based on his experience. If he can have a great spring, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him as the closer Opening Day. However, in my opinion, the favorite for the job should be Kelley because he can throw more than one inning and can go back-to-back days.
With that being said, Nathan will be one of the more intriguing non-roster invitees to watch when spring training begins in West Palm Beach in 13 days.