Joe Nathan's Injury Could Give Other Stars a Chance To Shine

Bryan CurleyCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2010

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)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Last season, Joe Nathan saved 47 of Minnesota’s 87 victories.

The All-Star closer will be lucky to get one this year.

Nathan was removed from Saturday’s pre-season contest against the Red Sox after just one batter, citing elbow tightness and soreness. It was originally thought that the discomfort was due to breaking up scar tissue from an October surgery to remove bone chips from the reliever’s elbow, but an MRI showed the damage to be much more severe.

He was diagnosed with a “significant tear” to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and Tommy John surgery to repair the ligament would cost Nathan his 2010 season.

After learning of the injury’s severity, Nathan had this to say:

"Right now, I want to take it one step at a time. I’m going to work as hard as I can in that week or two to be as strong as I can and hope the arm responds, that it feels good enough to go out there and throw. I don’t want to look past that right now. My thought is I’ll be fine in a week or two and I’ll be ready to go."

Nathan has been the rock of the Twins’ bullpen for the last six seasons, and his lingering injury concerns will have a dramatic impact on his fantasy value. Even if he declares himself ready to go for Opening Day, the grind of a full season is likely to take its toll. It is hard to imagine Nathan putting up numbers close to what he has in past years, and that assumes he is healthy enough to play.

Since arriving in Minnesota, Nathan has used his fastball less and less, instead opting to attack batters with his slider and curveball. Last year, Nathan threw his fastball only 58.9 percent of the time, the second-lowest rate of his career. With a torn elbow ligament, the effectiveness of his slider and curveball should be diminished, and Nathan will have to change the way he approaches batters.

At the very least, it kills his fantasy draft stock.

So, who picks up the save opportunities if Nathan is too injured to play in 2010?

Jon Rauch has closer experience, but he’s only converted 26-of-44 career save chances.

Pat Neshek has been dominant in his short career, compiling an impressive 2.91 ERA and 0.96 WHIP to go along with 10.6 K/9 and a .186 opponents’ batting average, but he missed all of 2009.

Nathan aside, Jesse Crain is Minnesota’s most tenured reliever, but in his six seasons with the team he’s been primarily a seventh inning man. Last year, Crain saw his most appearances in the seventh (22).

Matt Guerrier has led baseball in appearances each of the last two seasons and posted a 2.36 ERA and 0.97 WHIP last year, making 56 of his 79 appearances in the eighth inning.

And then there’s Jose Mijares . He was Nathan’s other main setup man last year, making 50 of his 74 appearances in the eighth inning and posting a 2.34 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, but Mijares has never saved a game.

Guerrier is probably the next man in line for the Twins’ closer gig given his history and tenure with the team. Mijares is deserving as well, but his lack of experience will likely hurt his candidacy.

Of course, no official statement will be made until Nathan is declared unable to play in 2010, since he is arguably the third most recognizable name on the team’s roster (behind Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau ).

Either way, if you’re going to take a risk on Nathan after he falls several rounds, make sure you grab his backup to ensure you have a closer for when Nathan inevitably misses time.

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