Should the closer be the Twins’ highest-paid player?

Joe Nathan
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan and his agent, Dave Pepe, do not have a typical client/agent relationship. They pal around. They go to NFL games, their families often vacation together, and they talk almost every day. When Nathan’s baby daughter, Riley, was born last year, he asked Pepe to be the godfather.

“Being Italian from the Northeast, that means a lot,” Pepe said.

But even close friends don’t agree on everything. Nathan roots for the New York Giants, and Pepe the New England Patriots. And while Nathan is optimistic by nature, Pepe admittedly sees the glass as half-empty, cracked and about to shatter.

So last winter, when Nathan told Pepe he wanted to stay in Minnesota if he could get a contract in line with other top closers, Pepe thought Nathan was asking the impossible.

Pepe and former general manager Terry Ryan were miles apart when they talked in 2007. The market had grown since then, with the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera re-signing for three years and $45 million, and Francisco Cordero taking $46 million for four years to jump from Milwaukee to the Reds. Pepe and his father, the former New York Daily News sportswriter Phil Pepe, already had begun preparing a statistical package on Nathan to present to clubs after this season, when Nathan would be a free agent.

Initial negotiations with the Twins, shortly after the Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer signings, left Pepe even more pessimistic. “We were in different worlds,” Pepe said in a telephone interview from his law office in Woodbridge, N.J. last week. “I said, ‘There is no way this going to get done.’ I told Joe, and he was disappointed. He was ready to say no if it wasn’t a market deal.”

But the Twins, encouraged that Nathan genuinely wanted to stay, surprised Pepe in late March. With CEO Jim Pohlad’s approval, the club relented on the biggest sticking point, tearing up Nathan’s $6 million option for 2008 and beginning his four-year, $47 million deal this season. With Johan Santana and Torii Hunter gone, Nathan’s $11.25 million salary makes him the highest paid Twin, ahead of Justin Morneau ($7.4 million), Joe Mauer ($6.25 million) and Michael Cuddyer and Livan Hernandez ($5 million each).

“What it says is, we’ve got good, young players,” general manager Bill Smith said. “I don’t want to say it’s his turn, but he’s earned it. We have some other young players whose day will come.”

Nathan’s top salary unusual by MLB standards
Whatever the circumstances, Nathan’s standing on the Twins’ salary scale is unusual. Only two other teams are believed to pay their closers more than anyone else on the team: Florida (Kevin Gregg, $2.5 million) and Washington (Chad Cordero, $6.2 million). San Francisco sent its top salaried player, Barry Zito, to the bullpen last week, but he is not expected to close. Nathan, featured at the end of the Twins’ latest commercial, makes almost twice as much as the rest of the bullpen combined ($6.3 million).

“Every time Joe picked up the paper and read, ‘underpaid closer,’ it grated on him a little bit,” Pepe said. “The only thing that bothered me was, you never read it about Johan Santana, and he was actually in the same position last year. He was equally underpaid.

“Joe’s goal is to win a World Series. That’s it. If Joe didn’t think this team had a chance to win the World Series during the life of this contract, he wouldn’t sign it.”

By mainstream numbers, Nathan deserved top closer money. His 160 saves from 2004 through 2007 matched Rivera’s total and trailed only San Diego’s Trevor Hoffman (172). Earned run average for a reliever can be misleading, but Nathan’s 1.94 ERA in that four-year period was the lowest of any reliever in baseball. This season, Nathan has been equally effective, with 11 saves in 11 chances (six of them in one-run games) and a 0.69 ERA.

Here’s the question, though: Is Nathan, who pitches maybe four or five innings in a busy week, worth a heftier paycheck than someone who plays every day, or even a starting pitcher?

The value of closers has been debated within baseball for years. Michael Lewis, in the landmark book “Moneyball” about the Oakland A’s and the statistically oriented Billy Beane, wrote that closers were “systematically overpriced” because saves are overrated; often, pitchers earn saves without facing the tying run. Many considered Goose Gossage the dominant closer of his day, but it took him nine tries to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Acclaimed statistician and manager agree on closer’s worth
Bill James, the acclaimed author and statistical analyst who consults for the Boston Red Sox, has no problem with a closer topping the payroll. “Certainly there are situations in which a closer would logically be the highest-paid player on a team,” he wrote in an email to MinnPost.com.

Veteran Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who values closers as much as anyone in baseball, thinks the elite ones like Nathan are worth the money.

“For a four- or five-year period, I think Mariano Rivera was the most valuable player in all of baseball,” Leyland said. “That’s what I think of a closer. Not the pitching most valuable player, the most valuable player. I think that speaks for itself, for what he did for his team. When he went out there, the game was over.

“What Nathan does for this team is unbelievable. They know 99.9 percent of the time, the game is over. I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. He’s right at the top of all the closers with Rivera and those guys. I don’t think you can put anyone with Rivera as a closer, but Nathan is one of the best in all of baseball. If he’s their highest-paid guy, then they think along the same lines.”

Twins third baseman Mike Lamb has seen it from both sides, playing with standout closer Brad Lidge in Houston, and often pinch-hitting against the opposing team’s closer.

“If you have a guy at the end of the game you have confidence in, the position is invaluable,” he said. “There’s that psychological advantage you have on the other team, knowing you have a lead, we’re going to bring in a guy like Nathan, and their chances aren’t so good.

“If you have a guy who blows 10 to 15 saves a year, you’re not going anywhere. That’s the difference between 75 wins and 90. That’s why it’s such a big deal.”

Nathan proved his worth again on home stand

Over the last week, Nathan provided a sense of his value by saving four of the Twins’ five victories in an undefeated home stand, two each against the White Sox and Tigers. The trickiest one came Wednesday afternoon. Chicago, trailing 4-3, put two runners on in the ninth against him, but Nathan struck out Nick Swisher looking to end the game.

Most left-handed hitters expect Nathan to throw them sliders, and Swisher said he walked to the plate looking for it. He took a fast ball for strike one and then grounded a slider just foul down third. Swisher geared up for another slider, but Nathan surprised him with a fastball, which Swisher took for strike three.

“He’s one of those guys who can throw any pitch in any count,” Swisher said. “I haven’t faced him enough to know what his tendencies are or what he wants to do. That’s why he’s one of the best in the game.”

Unlike some closers known for one nasty pitch, such as Rivera with his cut fastball, Nathan mixes a starter’s assortment — two kinds of fastballs, a curve and a slider. “And I still claim a changeup, even though I haven’t thrown it in two years,” Nathan said. This season, Nathan added a sinking fastball, known as a two-seamer. That’s the pitch he used to fan Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera on Saturday night.

Count as a surprise Nathan’s desire to stay in Minnesota, even after Hunter left in free agency and Santana was dealt to the Mets. Nathan was one of the players upset by the Luis Castillo trade last July and the Twins’ failure to add a bat at the trade deadline.

In December, Nathan and Pepe met with the Twins brass at the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. — not to talk contract, but to learn why Santana was being shopped and how the club planned to improve the offense. Pepe, who also represents former Mets pitcher Dave Williams, knew something about the players the Twins would acquire for Santana, and that helped quell Nathan’s concerns.

“For me, it was like, OK, we lost those guys who were big parts of our team,” Nathan said. “I’m not saying it was right or wrong, but most people knocked it.

“I was taught to always try to find the positive, to find what’s right about it. I tried to concentrate on what we bought in to improve the club. Seeing how deep our lineup is, it seemed they would score some runs for us. We know our rotation is young, but I think we’re excited about it. They’re going to be good, and we’ve going to have them for years down the road.”   

Nathan’s optimism carried the day. “It was clear from the start that Joe Nathan wanted to stay here,” said Smith, who left the negotiations to assistant general manager Rob Antony. “We had some guys who stepped up and said, I want to stay here and play for the Minnesota Twins — Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan. That’s key. When it starts at that point, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to make a deal.”  

Of course, whether the Twins eventually live up to Nathan’s rosy outlook remains to be seen.  For now, Minnesota’s deep young bullpen has a dominant, reliable and well-paid finisher, which can’t hurt.

“I’ll tell you what,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “If we didn’t have him, we’d be scrambling.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 05/07/2008 - 05:36 pm.

    It seems odd that Jim Leyland would cite “10 to 15” blown saves per year as a bad mark for closers, considering the single-season record for blown saves is only 14, and that was set over 20 years ago, prior to the advent of the modern one-inning closer (i.e. Eckersley). In four of the past eight seasons, no pitcher has even had as many as 10 blown saves. 8 to 10 blown saves per year might be a more realistic figure for the worst modern closers, given their very conservative usage patterns.

    Nathan has converted 92% of his save opportunities since becoming a closer; however, last season, the top 30 pitchers in save opportunities (basically, one closer per team) averaged an almost 86% conversion rate. That’s a difference of only 3 blown saves over a full season with a heavy modern closer workload (50 save opportunities). And even then, a blown save does not equal a team loss; Nathan himself has picked up a win after blowing a save in each of the past three seasons. So Nathan’s actual advantage might be about 2 team wins over the average MLB closer.

    Furthermore, the best closer replacements (those most likely to equal or exceed the average closer performance noted above) are often good, cheap set-up men (which Nathan himself once was), and the Twins have had good, cheap set-up men in abundance in recent years. Given that the 2008 Twins realistically could not expect to contend for a championship, where these extra two wins might mean something significant, they seem like one of the worst candidates to commit big money to a closer, even one of the best closers in the game.

  2. Submitted by Chris Dohman on 05/07/2008 - 05:00 pm.

    Would folks feel better if the Twins gave Morneau an extra 4 mil this year? 🙂

    It’s all supply and demand. You can’t compare apples and oranges. If you want an apple you will have to pay for an apple.

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