The news for the Minnesota Twins and closer Joe Nathan doesn't get much better than this: He already is throwing off the mound, including breaking balls, and just might return from Tommy John surgery as good as ever -- starting with a full spring training.
Said Twins general manager Bill Smith, "Joe has had a tremendous run. I don't think he's had one single setback day. The guy he's hoping to duplicate is Billy Wagner, who was about the same age and came back in just under a year."
Wagner was 37 when he underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2008. He was back in the big leagues 11 months later. Wagner was even better after the surgery than the three seasons before it. After the surgery, Wagner, who retired after last season, posted a 1.48 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 85 innings. His strikeout rate (13.8) and strikeout-to-walk rate (4.33) were better after the surgery than his career marks. He also threw harder than he had in four seasons.
Nathan was 35 when he underwent Tommy John surgery last March. One of the side benefits of the surgery is that patients often pour their energy into conditioning during the recovery phase. As Smith said, "When you can't throw for four months you work at it. Joe was out every day working with the trainers and got himself into tremendous shape."
The Twins figure to have a solid endgame combination with Matt Capps in front of Nathan -- two pitchers who weren't even with the AL Central champions when last season began. Indeed, Minnesota is one of several AL clubs that will enter 2011 with an upgraded (and pricey) 1-2 combination at the back of the bullpen, including New York (Mariano Rivera-Rafael Soriano), Boston (Jonathan Papelbon-Bobby Jenks) and Detroit (Jose Valverde-Joaquin Benoit).
Minnesota is one of the smartest organizations in baseball in part because it has figured out how to stay away from the typical year-to-year inconsistency of relief pitching. For nine straight years the Twins have ranked no worse than sixth in the league in bullpen ERA (starting from 2002: 4, 5, 5, 3, 1, 5, 6, 4, 4) while keeping that ERA below 4.00. A healthy Nathan will go a long way toward keeping the streak intact.
Now it can be told: new Arizona GM Kevin Towers never really wanted to move 23-year-old outfielder Justin Upton, but thought it was wise to gauge what kind of value Upton had among other teams. What he found was nothing came close to make him even think about moving Upton.
Besides, Towers wants to find out what Upton can do for the first time when surrounded with veteran leaders, especially hitting coach Don Baylor, the mentor for Carlos Gonzalez in his breakout season last year in Colorado.
"Somebody like Don Baylor is really going to help him," Towers said. "Justin was thrust into a leadership position at 21, 22. With Baylor and Gibby [manager Kirk Gibson], and then we bring in Melvin Mora, Geoff Blum, Henry Blanco, Willie Bloomquist . . . you have good character guys who know what it takes to grind it out over 140, 150 games."
After he hit .300 with 26 home runs in 2009, Upton regressed last year with a .273 average and career-high 152 strikeouts while starting only 129 games. Suddenly, guys such as Buster Posey, Jason Heyward and Mike Stanton -- all younger than Upton -- were generating more buzz as The Next Big Superstar. To approach his ceiling, Upton will need to cut down on his strikeouts, stay on the field more, and rely on the wisdom of Baylor.
The retirements of Andy Pettitte and Billy Wagner are all the more intriguing because both lefthanders chose to quit when they could still pitch at a high level -- just like Mike Mussina after the 2008 season. In their own ways, Pettitte and Wagner's swan songs rank among the best exit seasons of all time. First, here are the lowest ERAs in a pitcher's final season with at least 60 innings:
Even if you limit the top exit seasons to relief pitchers (50-game minimum), Wagner still goes out on top, besting the exit season of Tom Henke in 1995 (1.82). Garvin, by the way, "The Navasota Tarantula," essentially brawled and shot his way out of the majors at age 30, taking his dangerous act to the minors for three more seasons.
Now here is where Pettitte shows up: the top winning percentages in a pitcher's final season (minimum: 20 starts).
Koufax, undone by a painful arthritic elbow, remains the pinnacle of what it means to go out on top. Mussina, by the way, is one of just five pitchers to go out with a 20-win season:
Williams and Ciccotte didn't leave on their own terms; they were banned by Commissioner Kenesaw Landis for their role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Schmidt is an interesting tale. He went 22-13 in his only season for Brooklyn, in 1903, as a 30-year-old righthander, but the Texas native decided not to return, writing to the team, "I do not like living in the East and will not report." He returned to the minor leagues instead and eventually to selling fabric in Texas, where he was known as "Flannel."
Finally, here's a look at another recent retirement that quietly ranks among the best exit seasons. Jermaine Dye hit 27 homers in 2009 but was so disappointed with the contract offers made to him as a free agent that he elected not to play -- and that still is the case, putting Dye in some iconic company when it comes to the top five exit seasons according to most home runs:
One last word on the Super Bowl: The difference in the game was as simple as the difference in quarterback play, and it's remarkable just how exactly the quarterbacks played as you read here last week that they would. I told you the Packers had a "big edge" because of Aaron Rodgers' splits indoors, and wow did he play true to form. I said Rodgers is a good quarterback who is even better indoors. Rodgers averaged 308 passing yards per game and a 5:1 touchdown to interception rate when he played indoors in his career entering the Super Bowl. Presto! He threw for 304 yards on Sunday with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
I also pointed out Ben Roethlisberger was nothing special indoors, and he also played to form. He averaged 207 yards and a 1.8:1 touchdown to interception rate indoors entering the Super Bowl. On Sunday he threw for 263 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. If only the World Series were that predictable.