Twins make two good moves: letting Nathan go and picking up bargain catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit

Nathan was born in Texas and repeatedly talked about wanting to finish his career as the closer on a winning team
REUTERS/Mike Segar
Nathan was born in Texas and repeatedly talked about wanting to finish his career as the closer on a winning team.

Joe Nathan became a free agent last month when the Twins declined his $12.5 million option for 2012, buying him out for $2 million instead. On Monday, the 37-year-old reliever signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Rangers.

Nathan was born in Texas and repeatedly talked about wanting to finish his career as the closer on a winning team, so the Rangers are an ideal fit coming off back-to-back AL titles with plans to move Neftali Feliz into the rotation.

Making a multi-year commitment to pay a 37-year-old relief pitcher $7.25 million per season for 65 innings is questionable enough for a nearly guaranteed contender like the Rangers with an otherwise stacked roster, but from the Twins’ point of view, it would’ve been extremely difficult to justify.

There are too many other issues to address and too little money to spend, thanks to a shrinking payroll. And he may not have trusted the Twins to turn things around anyway.

Nathan missed all of 2010 following elbow surgery and initially struggled in his return this year, showing decreased velocity and allowing 15 runs in 15.1 innings before a disabled list stint for more elbow problems in late May. He spent a month on the shelf and then looked like a new man for the final three months of the season, throwing 29 innings with a 3.38 ERA and 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .193 batting average.

His velocity was still down a couple miles per hour, compared with his pre-surgery dominance, but Nathan’s control and off-speed pitches looked very sharp, and he’s certainly capable of thriving with a low-90s fastball. If he stays healthy and performs like he did down the stretch, Nathan will rack up tons of saves in Texas, but counting on that at age 37 and one year removed from Tommy John surgery is a big risk and the Twins shouldn’t be paying a premium for saves now.

Nathan went to a better team, likely for more money, and the Twins put themselves in position to spend half of their remaining payroll space on something more vital than 65 innings of relief pitching. Whether or not they will actually accomplish that wiser spending obviously remains to be seen, but in the meantime they made the right decision (or at least had the right decision made for them) and Nathan’s just-completed contract paid him $47 million for 181 innings.

None of which should take anything away from how amazing Nathan was in seven seasons for the Twins. He was a 29-year-old with zero closing experience and just one season of bullpen experience when the Twins acquired him from the Giants along with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser in a November of 2003 deal for A.J. Pierzynski, but Nathan quickly emerged as Eddie Guardado‘s ninth-inning replacement and leaves as the greatest closer in team history.

And even that might be selling Nathan short. From joining the Twins in 2004 through 2009, he saved 246 games with a 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 419.1 innings. During that six-season stretch, his 1.87 ERA was the lowest in baseball, and his 246 saves were the most in baseball, topping second-place Mariano Rivera (1.90 ERA, 243 saves) in both categories. Nathan wasn’t merely great but also had one of the greatest six-year runs by any closer in baseball history.

Nathan going down in 2010 led to the Twins overpaying for a so-called “proven closer” in Matt Capps, and my hope is that the incredibly costly mistake at least taught them a valuable lesson about the role. Closers are created, not born, and Nathan, Guardado and Rick Aguilera going on to become the three best closers in Twins history after beginning their careers as starters and setup men should make that point just as clearly as Capps’ failures did.

Their challenge now should be to identify the next pitcher capable of stepping into the role like Nathan did in 2004 or Aguilera in 1990 or Guardado in 2001. Find a very good reliever and let him become a very good closer and, in the process, avoid the temptation to once again overpay for the “closer” label that can only be earned through opportunity in the first place. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, but focusing on ability, rather than saves, worked before and will work again.

Ideally, Ryan Doumit would see minimal action at catcher, but if Joe Mauer isn't playing, Doumit gives the Twins a better alternative than Drew Butera.
Jason Cohn/REUTERS
Ideally, Ryan Doumit would see minimal action at catcher, but if Joe Mauer isn’t playing, Doumit gives the Twins a better alternative than Drew Butera.

Versatile Doumit a bargain signing
For the second time in a week, the Twins moved quickly to fill a hole with a low-cost free agent, signing Ryan Doumit to a one-year, $3 million contract after previously signing Jamey Carroll to a two-year, $6.75 million deal.

Doumit, like Carroll, was a player I recommended targeting in my position-by-position breakdown of inexpensive, realistic free-agent options, and $3 million is an absolute bargain for the flawed but very useful 30-year-old.

He has been a catcher for most of his career, making 403 starts and logging 3,513 innings behind the plate during seven seasons with the Pirates, but his defense has always been a weakness. His arm is decent enough, as Doumit threw out 24 percent of steal attempts this year and 25 percent for his career, but his passed ball and wild pitch totals aren’t pretty, and a study by Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus showed Doumit as MLB’s worst at framing pitches.

Ideally, he’d see minimal action behind the plate, but if Joe Mauer spends time on the disabled list again and his backup is forced into an extended role, Doumit will allow the Twins to sacrifice defense for offense with a better alternative than Drew Butera. And if Mauer can stay mostly healthy, the Twins can keep Butera in a limited backup role and plug Doumit into the lineup as a corner outfielder, first baseman and designated hitter.

Doumit isn’t going to be a standout defender away from catcher, but he’s logged 489 innings in right field and 251 innings at first base and should be passable at worst in either spot. And his bat is strong enough to be an asset anywhere, as Doumit is a switch-hitter with a career .271/.334/.442 line and batted .303/.353/.477 this year.For comparison, Michael Cuddyer is a career .272/.343/.451 hitter and batted .284/.346/.459 this year.

Doumit and Cuddyer have almost identical overall numbers, but within that are very different hitters. Cuddyer destroys left-handers and is mediocre versus right-handers, while Doumit is very good against righties and mediocre off lefties. That means Doumit doesn’t fit quite as well in a Twins lineup heavy on lefty bats, but even in a different form, production is still production, and a poor man’s Cuddyer who can also play catcher is a great fit for $3 million.

Along with shaky catching, his injury history is another reason Doumit was available so cheaply after the Pirates declined his $7.25 million option. He broke his ankle this year, broke his wrist in 2009, and has had concussions. However, the fractured ankle came when a runner plowed into him at the plate, and the concussions stemmed from foul tips to the mask, so transitioning away from catching regularly should significantly increase Doumit’s odds of staying healthy.

And if Doumit can stay healthy, he’s capable of posting some very nice numbers. He’s been an above-average hitter in four of the past five seasons, batting .280/.337/.454 during that time while averaging 20 homers and 37 doubles per 500 at-bats. He’s a free-swinger, drawing just 43 walks per 600 plate appearances over that four-year span, but Doumit also leans into quite a few pitches to boost his on-base percentage and doesn’t strike out much.

Doumit is far from a perfect player, but he hits well enough to replace Cuddyer or Jason Kubel if they go elsewhere as free agents, can also fill in at first base if Justin Morneau‘s concussion symptoms persist, has enough catching experience to be far better than Butera if needed to replace Mauer behind the plate, and brings some much-needed versatility to a roster filled with health questions.

For a modest one-year commitment, that’s some good shopping on a budget.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jim Roth on 11/22/2011 - 12:03 pm.

    It’s a good example of Terry Ryan being Terry Ryan. Let’s see how it works.

  2. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 11/22/2011 - 01:17 pm.

    Good article Aaron. I agree with both moves as well. It’ll be nice to have a backup catcher with some pop again. It’s been awhile.

    But for closers, do the Twins actually need one for 2012? Assuming they won’t be contenders, I’d like to see a closer-by-committee approach this year. Any reliever can close out a game, and our closers didn’t get a lot of action in the 2nd half of 2011.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/22/2011 - 01:27 pm.

    I think the Twins doomed themselves the day they signed Mauer to his new contract. Even if he ever returns to his MVP-type play, he will never justify that salary. No small market team can afford that kind of payroll hit. Texas never won when they were paying Rodriquez (spelling?) 25M per season. You can only pay someone that much when your payroll is essentially unlimited. The Twins are letting 3 pretty good players go and keeping 2 “stars”, the M & M boys, who are both damaged goods losing value. Letting Cuddy go and keeping the honorary cake eater was a mistake.

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