OK, before we get to the heart of the matter -- and the elbow of Joe Nathan -- it's probably worthwhile to show you a few numbers that could blow your mind. Here are Nathan's statistics against the other four teams in the American League Central:
Kansas City Royals: 3-0, 0.85 ERA, 35 saves, team hitting .144 against himDetroit Tigers: 2-1, 1.55 ERA, 30 saves, team hitting .153 against himChicago White Sox: 3-2, 2.06 ERA, 24 saves, team hitting .151 against himCleveland Indians: 3-1, 2.98 ERA, 26 saves, team hitting .201 against him
And here is how some of the biggest stars of the division have hit against Nathan over the last six years:
Grady Sizemore: 0-for-15 with seven strikeoutsMiguel Cabrera: 0-for-8 with four strikeoutsFrank Thomas: 0-for-7 with six strikeoutsMiguel Olivo: 0-for-8 with six strikeoutsReggie Sanders: 0-for-12 with six strikeoutsJuan Uribe: 0-for-10 with five strikeoutsAlberto Callaspo: 0-for-9 with two strikeoutsJose Guillen: 0-for-6 with two strikeouts
Admittedly, yeah, the last few there are not stars or even close to stars, but, well, there aren't that many non-Minnesota hitting stars in the American League Central. If you want, you can add in Manny Ramirez (0-for-7 with five K's), Raul Ibanez (0-for-6 with three K's), Ian Kinsler (0-for-6 with one K) and so on. There are more than 200 players who have gotten at least two plate appearances against Nathan and have not managed a hit.
And all that gets us to the point, which is this: NOBODY is going to replace Joe Nathan as closer for Minnesota, not if you understand the word "replace" to mean "fill the role." Nobody. If Nathan's torn ulnar collateral ligament leads to surgery -- and apparently that decision hasn't yet been made -- then he will be out for the season. And if he is out for the season, then the Twins will have myriad options for the ninth inning.
• They could give the job to Jon Rauch, the 31-year-old skyscraper who at 6-foot-11 looks like a closer, and who did the job passably with Washington for a while. He's your experience candidate.
• Jose Mijaries, 25 years old, is the youth candidate. He has a great arm, and he pitched well last season; he was especially good in key moments. The league hit just .169 off him in high-leverage situations -- those situations when the game was most on the line.
• Longtime Nathan setup men Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier are the "don't change horses in mid-stream" candidates. Crain is 28, Guerrier is 31 -- both have been good and shaky in their time with the Twins. Guerrier, unlike Crain, was good last year; he led the league in appearances and had the best WHIP of his career (.969 walks plus hits per inning pitched). Neither candidate will excite anyone.
• Pat Neshek is the surprise candidate. Neshek was terrific in the Twins bullpen in 2006 and 2007 before he underwent Tommy John surgery. He has not thrown a pitch in a big league game since May of 2008, though the hope is that he's healthy again.
• Francisco Liriano is the hope and change candidate. He was electrifying in 2006 as a 22-year-old. He went 12-3, struck out about 11 batters per nine innings, was often unhittable. And then he hurt his elbow, got Tommy John surgery, and he has never been the same. Last year he was 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and he gave up 147 hits in 136 2/3. There is this lingering hope among some that maybe in the pen, Liriano could regain his magic. The Twins would have to go out and get another starter -- maybe someone like Jarrod Washburn -- but it's at least a possibility. (And it's easier to find a mid- to back-of-the rotation starter than it is to find a top-flight closer.)
There are probably other options that I'm not even considering -- don't be surprised if the Twins go closer-by-committee until one pitcher emerges naturally. Still, the one certainty is that whatever substitute the Twins find, he won't be Joe Nathan.
So what does it all mean? Well, people have different feelings about the importance of closers. Many people inside baseball think that a good closer is absolutely crucial to a team's success. Look at Rivera. Look at Papelbon. Look at Nathan. It is true that just about every team that wins a World Series has a strong closer.
Others think that the closer role, while important, is probably overrated. There is a point to that. Look at the Philadelphia Phillies.
In 2008 the Phillies were second in the league in runs scored, and fourth in ERA, and closer Brad Lidge was virtually unhittable -- he saved 41 games in 41 opportunities. He finished fourth in the MVP balloting.
In 2009 the Phillies were first in the league in runs scored, sixth in ERA, and closer Brad Lidge was a fiasco -- he was 0-8, with a catastrophic 7.21 ERA and 11 blown saves.
The Phillies won one more game in 2009 than they did in 2008.
So, yes, there are arguments both ways. It's difficult to say just how much the Twins will be hurting without Nathan's dominance and his aura of invincibility inside the division. I have long talked about how much I think of manager Ron Gardenhire and his ability to improvise. Let's face it: Last year the Twins were without Joe Mauer for the first month and Justin Morneau for the last, and their starters' ERA was 4.84. But they still won the division. So, yeah, it's hard to say what the Twins will come up with.
What you can say is that, even before this injury, the Twins' issue coming into 2010 was their pitching. The rotation -- with Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Liriano -- seems to lack a true No. 1 starter. There may not be a true No. 2 starter in there.
Most people still picked the Twins because their offense should score a bunch of runs -- they were fourth in the league in runs scored and added Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy and Jim Thome -- and their bullpen, with Nathan playing the starring role, would make up for it. Now, with Nathan seemingly out of the picture, it's different. The American League Central has a bunch of flawed teams. The White Sox offense still looks one-dimensional -- homer or nothing -- and the Tigers could have trouble scoring runs; the Indians and Royals need a lot of things to go right.
But with Nathan out, there is definitely a new wind of hope blowing through the American League Central. Combined, the Indians, Tigers, Royals and White Sox hit .161 against Joe Nathan. They'll be happy to take their swings against someone else.