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1 Minnesota Twins Hopes for a division threepeat rest heavily on a new closer's right shoulder

April 05, 2004
April 05, 2004

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April 5, 2004

Baseball Preview 2004

1 Minnesota Twins Hopes for a division threepeat rest heavily on a new closer's right shoulder

Joe Nathan questions the conventional wisdom about closers--that
pitching the ninth inning requires something special, a gnarly
mien or mental fortitude other relievers lack. "The game's under
a microscope then," says the Twins' de facto finisher, who has
just one save in a four-year career, "but a lot of the time the
seventh and eighth innings are when you'll see men on base or
face the middle of the lineup. That's when you'll see the guy who
isn't the closer getting the biggest outs in the game."

This is an article from the April 5, 2004 issue

Nathan's contrarianism will be useful this season. After
negotiating the late innings as San Francisco's setup man in
2003, Nathan (obtained in November with two pitching prospects
for catcher A.J. Pierzynski) supplants closer Eddie Guardado,
whose 86 saves over the last two years led the AL. Guardado
signed with Seattle, and eighth-inning specialist LaTroy Hawkins
is now with the Cubs, depriving Minnesota's bullpen of its most
effective weapons. Says rightfielder Jacque Jones, "We lost a lot
of heart--those two guys."

A superb pen separated the Twins from middling division
competition as they won back-to-back AL Central titles. Last
season Guardado, Hawkins and Johan Santana (before his July move
to the rotation) combined for a 2.64 ERA, 9.2 strikeouts per nine
innings and a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while throwing 39% of
the pen's innings; Minnesota's other relievers had a 4.61 ERA,
6.2 strikeouts per nine and 1.5 strikeouts per walk. Into that
breach steps Nathan, a righthander who, healthy last year for the
first time since arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder in
2000, excelled in setting up Tim Worrell. But the ninth is a
perilous place. "There are a lot of guys that you say, Damn, this
guy should be able to close: He's got arm strength; he can pitch
three, four, five days in a row; he has out pitches; he holds
runners well," says Twins G.M. Terry Ryan. "The thing that
separates them usually is their capacity to handle that
responsibility. I don't know if Joe can or not. We'll have to
see."

After the surgery it took almost two seasons before Nathan could
throw pain-free and get consistent velocity on his
bread-and-butter fastball. A fireballer who topped out at 97 mph
before his surgery, he had regressed to the low 80s when he began
the '01 season; with little else to turn to, he was hammered. "It
was basically pro hitters against high school pitching," Nathan
says.

While he rebuilt his shoulder strength and his heater, Nathan
developed alternatives. He learned a hard, biting slider and
honed his changeup; after fiddling with grips, he now throws it
off the tips of his middle and ring fingers, which allows him to
reproduce his usual fastball motion. By the time his fastball
returned to the consistent mid-90s last season, he had become a
more complete pitcher. "People told me I'd be better off for the
experience because I'd learn to throw other pitches," he says.
"It was a positive. I'll throw my slider and changeup in 2-and-0,
3-and-1 counts now, where normally I would have said, 'Here it
is; hit it.'" Also in the pen are J.C. Romero, nails in '02 but
uncomfortable while battling a pulled groin all last season;
righthander Juan Rincon; and, before long, 22-year-old
righthander Jesse Crain, who has an explosive fastball and what
manager Ron Gardenhire calls "a curveball from hell." Crain
devoured Double A hitters last season, striking out 56 and
allowing just 13 hits in 39 innings. Should Nathan falter, Crain
is the likeliest replacement long-term.

Aside from rookie catcher Joe Mauer, who's replacing Pierzynski,
the lineup returns intact, since Ryan devoted the bulk of his
free-agent bankroll--$18 million over three years--to re-signing
leftfielder Shannon Stewart. His arrival from Toronto last June
coincided with the Twins' dash past Kansas City in the standings,
forcing the club's hand. But he's being overpaid: Though he gets
on base (.384 with Minnesota), he has below-average power and arm
strength for a corner outfielder and at 30 isn't getting better.

Nor is the bullpen, but should Nathan thrive, the Twins have a
fighting chance to match their performance of a year ago.
Possessed of a cool, relaxed demeanor, Nathan entered games last
year not to throbbing Metallica or Guns N' Roses, but to the
title track from the forgettable Mark Wahlberg-Jennifer Aniston
film Rock Star--forgettable, except that it's about a talented
unknown who, given the opportunity, becomes a star
himself. --Daniel G. Habib

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO STATE OF MIND Nathan has the strong arm--but it remains to be seen if he has the right mental stuff to thrive in the ninth.COLOR PHOTO: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES GUZMAN

IN FACT

Johan Santana held opponents to a .165 average with runners in
scoring position, lowest for any AL pitcher in '03.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Twins

"Minnesota has one of the most underrated general managers in
baseball in Terry Ryan.... Catcher Joe Mauer is the real deal. I
still think the Twins made the right choice in drafting him over
Mark Prior.... A wrist injury bothered Doug Mientkiewicz last
year, but he looks healthy this spring. He saves their infield a
lot of errors at first base.... Shortstop Cristian Guzman can be
an annual All-Star, but he has a tendency to take plays off....
Torii Hunter is the best centerfielder in the AL. He saves so
many runs for his staff.... Their top three starters--Brad Radke,
Kyle Lohse and Johan Santana--are solid. Lohse is on the verge of
making the jump to the next level. If he does, he could be the
Opening Day starter next year.... Carlos Silva has been
tremendous this spring after being a reliever for the Phillies
last year. He throws 95 with a hard slider, but he needs to come
up with something soft, a curve or change or something, to be an
effective Number 4 starter.... The question marks will be the
bullpen and whether they have enough power to win a power-laden
AL."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

LF Stewart
2B Rivas
1B Mientkiewicz
CF Hunter
RF Jones
3B Koskie
DH LeCroy
C Mauer
SS Guzman

SHANNON STEWART
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 120 .307 13 73 4

LUIS RIVAS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 158 .259 8 43 17

DOUG MIENTKIEWICZ
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 161 .300 11 65 4

TORII HUNTER
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 89 .250 26 102 6

JACQUE JONES
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 104 .304 16 69 13

COREY KOSKIE
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 109 .292 14 69 11

JOE MAUER (R)*
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 253 .341 4 41 0

CRISTIAN GUZMAN
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 209 .268 3 53 18

BENCH

MICHAEL CUDDYER
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 219 .245 4 8 1

JOSE OFFERMAN [New acquisition]+
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 349 .232 5 31 9

DESIGNATED HITTER

MATT LECROY
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 205 .287 17 64 0

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Brad Radke 70 14 10 6.4 1.27 4.49
LH Johan Santana 22 12 3 6.1 1.10 3.07
RH Kyle Lohse 71 14 11 6.1 1.27 4.61
RH Carlos Silva 197 3 1 4.0 1.48 4.43
[New acquisition]
RH Grant Balfour (R) 240 1 0 2.7 1.42 4.15

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Joe Nathan 66 12 4 0 1.06 2.96
[New acquisition]
LH J.C. Romero 128 2 0 0 1.71 5.00
RH Juan Rincon 215 5 6 0 1.31 3.68

MANAGER
Ron Gardenhire
third season with Minnesota

2003 RECORD
90-72
first in AL Central

New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Double A stats
+2002 stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)