Joe Nathan has a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
At best, it’s partially torn, and he’ll be able to avoid surgery and pitch through the pain this season, albeit with a seriously diminished skill-set due to the injury.
At worst, it’s a complete tear, and Nathan will have to decide whether or not to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Nathan, 35, is coming off a year in which he set the franchise record for saves with 47 and posted a 2.10 ERA, a .932 WHIP and earned a trip to his fourth All-Star Game.
However, he is also coming off a year that ended with the sight of Nathan imploding against the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.
That implosion had fans and sportswriters alike calling for his head and demanding that the best closer in franchise history be jettisoned out of town.
This was a notion I completely disagreed with, especially when we later learned that Nathan had bone chips in his throwing elbow. He underwent a procedure last fall to remove the chips and was on track to be ready for spring training.
All seemed well through the winter, as Nathan was throwing free and easy and reportedly felt great on the hill.
After his first performance this spring—a performance that lasted just two batters and roughly 20 pitches—Nathan felt pain in his surgically repaired elbow and was pulled from the game for precautionary reasons.
It was initially believed to be some scar tissue that had broken loose. Nathan flew back to Minneapolis to have an MRI done. The results, however, were far more dire than Nathan or the Twins’ staff had anticipated.
The club has decided to give Nathan’s arm two to three weeks to allow the swelling and pain to die down before figuring out how to proceed.
In this morning’s clubhouse mini-press conference, manager Ron Gardenhire said that the final say regarding surgery would be totally Nathan’s decision.
As is often the case, the club will operate under the guise that Nathan is lost for the season and potentially longer. It is a serious blow to a club that has made such big strides this offseason to improve and build for a potential championship push.
Nathan is slated to make $11.25 million in each of the next two seasons, and the club holds a $12.5 million option for the 2012 campaign.
The current list of in-house candidates for the closer's role is headed by big right-hander Jon Rauch, who has some experience in the role from his time in Washington.
Following Rauch on the list are setup men Pat Neshek and southpaw Jose Mijares.
Neshek is probably a long shot. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery himself and figures to be eased back into late-inning situations.
Mijares reportedly showed up to camp in good shape this year and has made strides as a member of the club’s late-inning attack in recent years.
The Twins' other late-inning specialists include Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, neither of whom figures to legitimately play into the battle for closing duties.
A final dark horse option is Francisco Liriano.
Liriano is coming off a great stint in the Dominican Winter League and currently seems poised to win the fifth starter’s job out of spring training.
He does, however, have a number of incentives worked into his contract regarding work done in the bullpen. After last season’s collapse, the club envisioned Liriano as a weapon out of the pen, and it’s entirely possible that the club could use him as a makeshift closer.
It’s a long shot, but there’s still a shot.
For now, the club will monitor the health of Nathan and hope that things progress well in the coming weeks.
All the while, expect an intense battle to heat up for the seemingly vacant closer role.