When the Tigers signed Joe Nathan, proven closer, to a two-year, $20 million contract, he was expected to be a "bullpen savior" of sorts. It seemed necessary given what the Tigers had been through in the two years prior. Jose Valverde self-destructed late in the 2012 season, leaving the Detroit Tigers without a closer heading to the playoffs. Bruce Rondon never materialized into a savior in 2013, and Joaquin Benoit left after the season as a free agent. Nathan was supposed to be the big fix for a beleaguered bullpen. He was coming off a stellar season with the Texas Rangers where he allowed a 1.39 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP, and struck out over 10 batters per nine innings.
Nathan was anything but the answer to Detroit's bullpen woes, posting a 4.81 ERA, a 1.53 WHIP, and blowing seven saves, four of which ended up in the loss column. Had the offense not bailed him out three times, the damage would have been enough to cost the team its fourth consecutive AL Central Division title.
A big part of the difference in Nathan's success was the increase from a .224 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2013, to .324 in 2014. One hundred points in batting average is enough to change anyone's baseball life. While part of that can be attributed to defense, part of it is that the pitcher was just more hittable.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is not as concerned as many others are.
"In Joe's case, I look at last year as more of an aberration and less as a result of the aging process," he said. "That's why I'm not as concerned about it."
Entering the 2015 season, Ausmus still has Nathan penciled in as the closer, but his grip on the job is not as firm as it was a year ago. Righthander Joakim Soria was acquired at the trade deadline from the Rangers, but he cost the Tigers two of their best pitching prospects to get him. Given Nathan's struggles both last season and this spring, Soria is likely a far better pitcher than Nathan will ever be again, and probably should have been given the closer's job upon his arrival in Detroit last July.
But, a contract is a contract, and the Tigers are not about to flush their investment down the drain without a thorough examination of what can be done to maximize Nathan's value. He is making adjustments, by all accounts. He readily admits that he no longer has the stuff to blow hitters away, and he has to keep the ball down in the strike zone to be effective. Will that be enough?
Nathan is in the second season of a two-year, $20 million contract. The Tigers have a club option for $10 million for the 2016 season, with a $1 million buyout. Few expect that option to be exercised, even if Nathan bounces back in 2015.
Stats and Projections
Nathan pitched better in the second half of the season than he did before the All-Star break in 2014. He was not trying to strike batters out as much, instead trying to keep the ball down in the strike zone. He cut his strikeout rate, increased his walk rate as a result, and didn't give up a home run after June 28. The result was a drop of almost a run per game in his ERA. He still put as many runners on base, but gave up fewer hits, so fewer runs. His fielding independent pitching ratio (FIP) shows that he suffered from the same defense that other Tigers' pitchers endured. A player doesn't stick around in the major leagues until age 40 without being able to adapt, and so Nathan will have to make adjustments in 2015.
Part of Nathan's success will depend upon how his manager uses him. Opponents hit .400 against Nathan when he pitched on consecutive days, but only .215 when he had at least one day of rest. As inefficient as it may seem to keep a $10 million pitcher on the bench, Ausmus would be wise to heed the numbers and bring in Soria, who also has closer experience, and try to get the most out of Nathan.
The Tigers will surely give Nathan a chance to show that he's not finished as a pitcher, and that he can make the necessary adjustments to be a valuable member of the Tigers' bullpen. Whether he remains as the closer, or on the roster at all, depends upon whether he can pitch effectively. That may depend on how he is used, and how often he is used in 2015.