Joe Nathan was again one of the top closers in the American league in 2013. Third in the league among relief pitchers in WAR, fourth with 43 saves, and a 1.39 ERA.
Nathan turned 39 years old in November. A veteran of 13 major league seasons, he is a six time All Star with a career ERA of 2.76 and a WHIP of just 1.09. Twice, he has finished among the top five in Cy Young voting.
Nathan spent his first four seasons with the San Francisco Giants. He was traded with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser to the Twins in exchange for AJ Pierzynski. He spent the next seven seasons in Minnesota, where he made at least 64 appearances and threw at least 68 innings until his elbow injury in 2010. He is the Twins all time leader in saves.
After completing a four year, $ 47 million contract in 2011, the Twins declined to exercise a $ 12.5 million option, and he instead signed a two year contract with the Texas Rangers for $ 14 million. The Rangers declined a $ 9 million option for 2014, and made him a free agent available to sign with Detroit. His current contract is for $ 9 million in 2014, $ 10 million in 2015, and there is a club option for $ 10 million in 2016 with a $ 1 million buyout.
Any concerns about Nathan's health following Tommy Surgery which caused him to miss the entire 2010 season had vanished from the rear view mirror. Nathan finished up a two year deal with the Texas Rangers, making 66 and 67 appearances and throwing over 64 innings in each of the last two seasons, recording a total of 80 saves, and making the All Star team both seasons. He recorded his 300th career save last April.
There are many who complain that free agent relief pitchers, and closers in particular, are over paid on the free agent market. By comparison with the amount of production that other players provide, and by comparison with what many teams are able to get from young pitchers fresh up from the minors, this is very true. But the Tigers tried the other method a year ago, when they gave Bruce Rondon first crack at the closer's job in spring training, and he failed to make the team.
On a team that is perennially poised to win a World Championship, Dave Dombrowski is clearly more comfortable having an established closer pitching the ninth inning, and there was no more proven closer available than Joe Nathan. 2013 was the exception for Dombrowski, who had always had a free agent signed for ninth inning duties until last year, and the Tigers wound up returning to a free agent in Joaquin Benoit to get the job done. He did that, and has moved on to San Diego where he will get $ 8 million per year, setting up for Huston Street.
One could argue that, by comparison with what other "proven closers" have gotten in the past, Nathan is a relative bargain at just $ 10 million per season. The top closers in the game have gotten $ 12 to 15 million in recent years. It is the most that the Tigers have ever paid a closer, but there have been a dozen contracts for closers with a higher average annual value than Nathan's deal with Detroit. In a year when the club was shedding other contracts to create flexibility to retain other star players, they made a major commitment to sign a proven closer.
Nathan's salary will be the same as what Mariano got in his final season, and the same as what Brian Wilson, fresh off his second Tommy John surgery, will receive in a set up role with the Dodgers. Nathan figures to be the better bargain.
Odd Numbers: It's hard to find a weakness in Nathan's career numbers, but there are two lines that stand out. The 2011 season, recovering from surgery, he understandably struggled with a 4.84 ERA in 44-2/3 innings, with a WHIP of 1.16 (for him, that's struggling). He still recorded 14 saves and had the closer's job back by August. In nine innings of post season work, Nathan has an ERA of 9.00 in nine appearances. He has been bitten by walks and home runs, which are very uncharacteristic for him. Small samples.
Key to success: Stay healthy and thrive in the post season. When Nathan has been healthy, he has been absolutely dominant.
Outlook for 2014: If Nathan is anything other than a lock down closer and an All Star, the Tigers will be very disappointed. Any turbulence in the bullpen won't be in the ninth inning this season.