To Trade Or Not To Trade Joe Nathan: The Value Of Consistency

Dan WadeSenior Analyst IOctober 13, 2009

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 09:  Joe Nathan #36 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the New York Yankees in Game Two of the ALDS during the 2009 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 9, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Anyone who spent more than 15 minutes on a college campus pretty quickly came to the realization that there are many things that seem like a good idea until you try them.

For some, it’s a case race or other manner of spontaneous intoxication. For others it was spending an entire day in the library to get a ton of work done (this seldom worked for me, as I still spent large swaths of time reading old political cartoons or the collected works of Bill Simmons).

These things are often tried on the advice of well-meaning (or perhaps not) friends. It worked for them, so it well might work for you. When an authority figure or peer-review text is the one passing on advice, it seems that much more reliable, but recall: phrenology was a mainstream science for a number of years and look where that got us.

The point here is that in life there are very few one-size-fits-all solutions, and baseball is no different.

Billy Beane helped popularize the idea of the overvaluing of closers by trading Billy Koch and Huston Street for large returns, the practice of which was a critical piece of the economic model popularized by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball.

(Seriously, this has to stop. Billy Beane was featured in Moneyball, but it was not BY him. Michael Lewis kills a puppy every time you forget who wrote his book.)

For teams that are in the rebuilding process, trading away a closer can be a great boon. Teams in the market tend to be win-now oriented and willing to give up future assets for a reliever that can consistently get outs late in the game.

Strictly speaking, “closers” aren’t that useful. The ninth inning may or may not be a nervy time, but it’s a virtual certainty that there will be a point in the game at which three outs and no runs is the order of the day.

Closer usage may be messed up, but the fact remains that a pitcher who can come in in pressure situations to consistently get outs is something that is hugely valuable to any team that is going to have late leads to protect.

Joe Nathan is among the elite closers in the game, a class that includes Mo Rivera, Heath Bell, and few others (Brian Wilson, perhaps). Why no J.J Putz, David Aardsma, Kerry Wood, Bobby Jenks, etc?

You might be able to guess the answer (hint: Italics), but it’s all about consistency. Rivera has been lights-out for years now, so much so that the Yankees basically play eight inning games at home.

It was a virtual certainty that when vintage Trevor Hoffman came into the game, it was over. AC/DC's "Hells Bells" meant that it was time to head for the car in San Diego.

Not so with David Aardsma, who had an outstanding year in Seattle in 2009. He’s been a serviceable reliever for many years, but until recently was hardly the guy you wanted your team to run out there in the late innings of a close game.

Plenty of guys have had one or two incredible seasons, then fallen off the map due to ineffectiveness or injury (Eric Gagne comes to mind).

The Twins should be keenly aware of this consideration as much as any team in baseball. The came into the 2009 season looking at a bullpen which had struggled in early 2008, but locked down opponents for much of the second half.

Craig Breslow, Matt Guerrier, and Jose Mijares were supposed to form the late-inning bridge to Joe Nathan and help the Twins keep any lead they managed to get.

Sean Henn, R.A. Dickey, and others were the front end of a ‘pen that should have been an asset to the team from Day One.

That’s not how it went.

The Twins struggled badly in 2009, eventually releasing Breslow, demoting Dickey, trading Henn, DFAing Philip Humber, putting Jesse Crain on the DL. They disposed of bodies in so many different ways, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find Juan Morillo floating in the Mississippi.

Through all of this, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, and Joe Nathan kept their end of the bargain. Through most of the season, if a lead got to these three, the Twins won the game. All three posted WXRL figures in the top-20 in baseball, making the Twins' bullpen statistically the best unit of any team that reached the playoffs.

Contrary to popular belief, the bullpen’s issues in the playoffs ought to serve to indicate why a top-flight corps is so important.

Had the Twins pitchers pitched at the level they showed for most of the season, Game Four would be a virtual certainty, and while the easy counter to that is “Yes, well, they didn’t”, they had as good a chance as anyone to execute, and their inability to do so shouldn’t be a reason to break up the band.

This all brings us to the idea of trading Joe Nathan.

Simply stated: this thinking is cracked. There are teams for whom trading their marquee closer is a really good idea. The Royals should be moving Joakim Soria for future rotation pieces, perhaps to the Cubs, who may still be in win-now mode, even with a new owner.

The Padres are actively shopping Heath Bell, an excellent idea for a team that has a lot of good, young talent (especially pitching talent), but doesn’t look ready to contend for another few years.

Move Bell, get a top-flight hitter back, and wait for another closer to emerge, they’ve got the time and the pieces for a great team in 2-3 years, but Bell likely won’t be part of it.

The Twins, on the other hand, already have most of the pieces in place for their next great team. Mauer, Morneau, Span, Cuddyer, and Kubel form as good a young core as any team in the majors can boast. All of them posted VORP figures above 30, meaning each was worth a minimum of three wins above a replacement player.

The Twins aren’t yet in win-now mode like the Cubs or Mets, as just one of the players mentioned is even 30 (Cuddyer), but they are certainly in win-soon mode.

Mauer’s desire to be on a winning team and the new stadium opening do put a certain premium on winning in the near future, but more than that, it’s hard to envision the Twins being leaps and bounds better in four or five years than they are now.

Joe Nathan is the keystone to an already shaky bullpen. Moving him without an adequate replacement in the wings would be suicidal. Remember how frustrating blowing those games to the Royals?

Now imagine a season where in any given game, that’s a possibility.

Is it a guaranteed failure? Nothing is certain, and Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney have closed in the minors.

However, BP’s Kevin Goldstein indicated that both have been overvalued by Twins fans and neither made his top 11 prospects; neither made Baseball America’s top prospect rankings either.

As with any player not in the Mauer/Pujols class, if the Twins got an offer—say Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez for Joe Nathan—that certainly improves the team in the absolute sense, even while weakening the ‘pen, and they should take such a deal as quickly as possible, lest it be revoked.

Back in reality, the Twins simply aren’t likely to get back enough major league-ready talent to offset the loss of their best, and most consistent, reliever.