Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Twins Suffer Blow With Nathan Injury

Spring training has just started, but a contending team already has to deal with a major loss.

Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan has been diagnosed with an ulnar collateral ligament tear in his right elbow. The injury will likely require surgery, and if you didn't pick up on it by the terms "ulnar" and "elbow," that's the Tommy John surgery that Nathan is staring at.

During a quick press gathering Tuesday morning, the team confirmed the results of an MRI on Nathan, who left Saturday's game with elbow discomfort.

What they didn't do was rule Nathan done for the 2010 season, and they also didn't speculate much on potential replacements.

General manager Bill Smith tried to preach some degree of calm on the matter.

"We're going to send the test results off and get a second opinion,'' he said. "We probably won't have a final decision on where we're going for a week or two. Let it calm down, get some of the soreness out and re-evaluate from there.''

Of course, it seems kind of ridiculous to ask people to be calm over a major injury to a star player on a team not exactly littered with star players.

Plus, let's face it: Nathan isn't pitching this season. The Twins can say all the right things about second opinions and Nathan will talk about trying to pitch through the pain. But if this diagnosis is at all accurate, he's going under the knife, and he will miss virtually the entire season, if not the whole thing.

La Velle E. Neal asks the obvious question: What now?

Well, the Twins aren't void of options. Matt Guerrier has been very good out of the pen for a couple years now, though his .211 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) last year indicates the possibility he'll regress, and ten home runs allowed in 76 innings doesn't scream "PUT ME IN FOR THE NINTH INNING!" to me.

Jon Rauch had 17 saves with Washington in 2008, and he can be a tough pitcher to face in short doses because of the arm angles he uses out of a six-eleven frame. Rauch's closer experience makes him a real good candidate to get a shot at closing.

Jesse Crain was not reliable last year, while Pat Neshek was hurt. Both might be better guys for seventh- and eighth-inning roles, but manager Ron Gardenhire will give them a look.

The darkhorse of the bunch is someone Neal didn't mention.

Francisco Liriano.

He has no confidence in his arm anymore. He is likely shot as a starter, but the reality is that the former Tommy John surgery undergoer guy might be best-suited for short relief. He was awesome for the Twins before he was hurt, and he does have serious stuff. It's just not worked out getting him back in the starting rotation.

Is he better off working as a closer, where he can blow away guys for an inning at a time, pitch probably at least 100 fewer innings in a full season, and perhaps pitch with more confidence and control?

It can't hurt.

If it doesn't work out, the Twins still have depth in their bullpen, and they have guys who could be good in Nathan's role. However, this could be the best way to salvage Liriano's career before he goes from "promising lights-out starter" to "unfortunate Tommy John casualty" with no hope of recovery.

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