Washington Nationals: Can Joe Nathan Make The Team?
By Ron Juckett
Joe Nathan is adding a curveball to his pitching resume. Will it earn him a spot on the Washington Nationals roster? Hard to root against the veteran.
As the Washington Nationals search for bullpen depth, they brought in Joe Nathan to bolster their efforts. What role the veteran has is up for debate, but both sides hope it is with the big club.
As Nathan battles back at 42 from his second Tommy John surgery, he is working on adding a changeup to his deep arsenal. If successful, it would give him four full pitches to battle hitters.
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As a closer with the Minnesota Twins, Nathan featured a 94-mph fastball mixed with a sharp slider. An occasional curve and change found their way in, but 90 percent of his pitches, according to FanGraphs were the fastball/slider combo.
Then the injuries hit. He missed the entire 2010 season with the Twins before a rocky return in 2011. Two All-Star years with the Texas Rangers followed before signing with the Detroit Tigers in 2014.
As with many of those Detroit teams, his numbers jumped the wrong way. By 2015, Nathan needed another Tommy John and missed the better part of the last two years.
Although his days as a closer are likely over, adding another solid pitch to his selection will add to his value. It may earn him a roster spot with Washington.
At the point of his career he is a pitcher, not merely a thrower. Yes, he can still fan around 10-per-nine when healthy, but Nathan’s success now comes from out thinking hitters, not blowing them away. The fastball now dances around 92 while the slider tops out around 85.
Giving others something new to look at preserves the effectiveness of his other pitches. Now, for his career, it is about survival.
Washington will give him game chances to show his stuff. How he mixes those three pitches together. Before, batters making contact hurt Nathan. In 2014, his last full season in the majors, his BAbip was .324. He does not have enough swing and miss stuff to survive that kind of contact rate.
In Spring Training, we tell you statistics are not important. In Nathan’s case, that conventional wisdom is out the window. They mean everything.
Will he struggle to establish command? How hard are balls hit when contact is made? Will he strikeout roughly a batter an inning? If the answers are positive to those questions, he has a role on this team. With a generation of experience, Nathan has plenty to offer the younger guys on the staff.
Yet, even with time last year with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs, Nathan has not pitched double-digit innings in the majors since 2014. Although the Nationals will give him a reasonable chance, old Father Time is not kind to players away that long.
The odds are long, but what Nathan can offer in wisdom and a new changeup can help the Nationals. The question is, are his fastball and slider still strong enough to fool anybody?
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Hard not to root for him.