Texas Rangers Sign Joe Nathan; World Raises Brow


Obviously it is the horse talking.

News broke Monday night that the Texas Rangers signed once-great, maybe even possibly still-great, reliever Joe Nathan to a 2-year contract for $7M a year, plus a $9M option.

FUN FACT: Over the last two years, Joe Nathan and I have the exact same WAR — we both have been worth precisely 0.0 wins! Which makes us ask: Why did the Rangers choose Nathan?

The best relievers in baseball last year included some sort of lineup such as this:

Name FIP WAR Salary
(millions)
Craig Kimbrel 1.52 3.2 $0.4
Jonathan Papelbon 1.53 3.0 $12.0
Sean Marshall 1.86 2.8 $1.6
David Robertson 1.84 2.8 $0.5
Mariano Rivera 2.19 2.4 $15.0
Sergio Romo 0.96 2.2 $0.5

The astute reader’s eyes will notice four of the six best relievers in 2011 earned less than $2M, while a pair of other, very recognizable names earned over $10M.

We could say a lot about this small sample of elite relievers, but perhaps the most true thing we could say is that this group helps represent the volatility of relievers. Sean Marshall of the Chicago Cubs is the only twirler making a repeat showing in the top six — why, in 2010, names like Brian Wilson and Carlos Marmol adorned the list. In 2009, Mariano Rivera makes a second appearance, but none others.

Which is to say: Good one year, gone the next. In an efficient market, the highest paid relievers, we should expect, would be the best ones. Instead, year after toiling year, we see disproportionately large contracts handed to relatively feh relievers — or worse, once-great relievers who suddenly asplode. One could say this is the case with Joe Nathan, but that would be an over-glossing of the issues.

Consider: Nathan was Shaft-awesome from 2003 through 2009.

In 2010, he has Tommy John surgery, though. Fast forward a year, and he’s back pitching with the Minnesota Twins, with relatively (relatively, mind you, relatively) terrible results.

The biggest culprit? His fastball. As Dan Wade points out, Nathan’s fastball lost some notable zip:

His speed pops up a little bit after a mid-season trip to the DL, but then slumps back down in his final few appearances.

And not only did his fastball lose some booyah!, it also lost a little horizontal movement:

Slower, straighter fastballs pretty much universally equal worse results. So it is no surprise Nathan’s four and two-seamers went from about 2.00 wFB/C to -1.15. And it also makes sense — given how his sliders and curves seemed to have maintained their velocities and gained a little horizontal movement — that they should remain effective as they indeed did.

So by handing Nathan $7M per year, the Rangers are making the bet that he can fix his fastball and produce 1.5 WAR per year for the next two years at least. In his prime, Nathan was consistently worth 2.0 to 3.0 wins in any given season, so a return to form actually makes Nathan a bargain.

But that does not change the fact that Nathan is coming off a major injury. Nor does it change the fact that the reliever market is hardly settled. There is the yet-fully-signed Ryan Madson floating about somewhere, spending his time being six years younger than Nathan. Also, the Cubs have declared available the aforecharted Sean Marshall — though at likely pretty price of prospects.

A quick gander at the free agent leaderboards shows there are many recognizable and capable relievers on the free agent boat right now. Part of me suspects the Rangers were willing to pay an extra premium for a pitcher with closing experience. Ask the Tampa Bay Rays and Kyle “12-Walks” Farnsworth if closing experience is worth a salt.

Then again, if Nathan can regain his former majesty — and if I am to place any sort of a bet on a pitching coach this winter, I would place my coins on Mike Maddux — then the Rangers could end up with one of the game’s most elite closers. Oh, and another epic starting pitcher.

As a direct result of the Nathan signing, the Rangers informed Neftali Feliz he would be a starter in 2012. Feliz was mostly a starter whilst zipping through the minors, so he should have little problem transitioning to that role — and he should be at least 2.0 wins more valuable. If we choose to think this way — and I prefer not to — then we could say the signing of Nathan, having pushed an elite 24-year-old pitcher into the rotation, has already met its 1.5 win obligation and exceeded it by 0.5.

In truth though, the Rangers could have probably rolled the dice with a number of other relievers (LaTroy Hawkins, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Qualls) signed them for a combined $7M or $8M, thrown them against the proverbial wall, and seen if one of them could stick as closer. Or, better yet, they could have made Mike Adams their closer — I mean, where will four seasons with an ERA under 2.50 get you if not to a closer role?

Ultimately, it is hard for me to rag on this signing. Yeah, I would have assembled the bullpen a different way, and yeah, I am skeptical of Nathan’s ability to recover his former glory, but the Rangers are presently rich in purse and moreover — being ever on the cusp of another World Series run — can and must afford to pay premiums for high-grade relief talent.

By signing Nathan instead of falling prey to a Francisco Cordero and paying name-brand prices for Walmart production, the Rangers have elected the middle road — paying nearly name-brand prices for, like, Target production, but possibly Trader Joe’s (but also possibly eBay seller from Shenzhen, China, production).

The world may raise a brow at the fact a recently-dramatically-injured reliever is the third reliever signed this off-season, but I will leave my brow tepidly still for now.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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Colin
Guest
Colin
4 years 9 months ago

Did the Rangers sign Nathan and promptly announce him as the closer? I would presume that a pitcher with a 0 WAR over the last two years will probably have to fight it out with somebody like Adams.

SKob
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

7 Million a year for a setup guy? This ain’t the Yankees! They don’t have to declare anything – he’s the guy!

Colin
Guest
Colin
4 years 9 months ago

That’s fine, but after he blows a couple early on and pitches generally mediocre to terribly it will be Adams then?

deadpool
Member
4 years 9 months ago

Judging from the Ranger’s history, the backup plan is Feliz. They’ve shown no stomach at all for forcing him to start.

Uncle Randy
Guest
Uncle Randy
4 years 9 months ago

I hope Adams closes, he’s a proud member of the Randy dynasry

JOHNRR12
Guest
JOHNRR12
4 years 9 months ago

Im inclined to agree overall, just really question the $$ total.

Eric
Guest
Eric
4 years 9 months ago

Can you imagine if Koji gets over his late-season struggles, and Nathan gets back to his old self? This ‘pen will be absolutely dominate. Adams, Koji, Nathan, Oliver, and maybe either Feldman or Ogando, depending what happens with C.J. Scary.

nickmirto
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

Giving Ron Washington that pen to manage in the playoffs is like buying a kid a Ferrari on his 16th birthday.

jake
Guest
jake
4 years 9 months ago

That bullpen would be dominant without Nathan and with a couple of scrap heap guys thrown in. That was the point of the article.

t ball
Guest
t ball
4 years 9 months ago

Perhaps, and you have guys like Scheppers, dark horse Matt West, Neil Ramirez, and Mason Tobin who might contribute in 2012. The Rangers have a lot of live arms for pen production.

TMW
Guest
TMW
4 years 9 months ago

Nathan had basically 2 seasons in 2011: Pre-DL and Post-DL. He was a disaster before, and pretty solid afterward. He’s not going to be who he was from 04-09, but he can be effective without his 2008 fastball which was proven in his last 29 IP. There’s no question this a pricey gamble for Texas, but calling him a 0 WAR pitcher is misleading and oversimplified.

Tom
Guest
Tom
4 years 9 months ago

Nathan was a disaster in April… this seems to be turning into a generalized pre-DL narrative. In May (preDL) he had a 2.83 xFIP…

Post DL:
Jul: 3.48
Aug 4.31
Sept: 2.23

Obviously a tiny sample size… but that’s not all that great for an elite closer, other than 7 innings in Sept. Not sure there is anything but noise in such small samples, pre/post DL sounds nice but you could also say bad April, so-so rest of the year as well…

NEPP
Guest
NEPP
4 years 9 months ago

The 2nd year back from TJ surgery is usually far more telling than the 1st. You might want to hold off on writing him off quite yet.

Bobby Ayala
Member
Member
4 years 9 months ago

Unless your name is Billy Wagner

Joe
Guest
Joe
4 years 9 months ago

How does that trend fit for 37 year olds?

(or are you just lumping all TJ surgery recovery together and age is unimportant?)

TexPantego
Guest
TexPantego
4 years 9 months ago

If Nathan follows the typical TJ recovery process, this year will be better than last year. The age thing has to come into the equation, but he gets his velocity via good mechanics, and that kind of pitcher usually ages better than a Zumaya/Broxton type.

The Rangers also have this kid named West, another converted position player in the minors, whose got lights out closer stuff and could be in Arlington sometime in 2012.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

Typical to pitchers, or 37-year-olds?

Pat
Guest
Pat
4 years 9 months ago

Reliever WAR, it makes me lol.

Sean
Guest
Sean
4 years 9 months ago

Congrats Rangers! You managed to sign the only closer who is softer and more fragile than Neftali!

Seriously look at Nathan’s playoff numbers. Good luck with him as your stopper in September, if that situation presents itself.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
4 years 9 months ago

what, they signed Huston Street too?

Steve
Guest
Steve
4 years 9 months ago

I lolled.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

Fragile? I don’t recall any other Nathan injuries since he run to prominence.

Husker
Guest
Husker
4 years 9 months ago

I have no idea how well Nathan will pitch for the next 2-3 years (nor do the Rangers), but with this signing Nathan has an excellent chance of becoming the Jeopardy question to the Jeopardy answer, “What AL relief pitcher was involved in one of the worst trades in ML history and one of the worst FA signings?”

John
Guest
John
4 years 9 months ago

Who is Alex Rodriguez?

Barkey Walker
Guest
Barkey Walker
4 years 9 months ago

I always thought Rodriguez was a starting pitcher.

Barkey Walker
Guest
Barkey Walker
4 years 9 months ago

You have it wrong. The Nathan trade was one of the *best* trades in Twins history.

Tom
Guest
Tom
4 years 9 months ago

Can we wait until Matt Capps signs?

channelclemente
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

Nathan will turn out to be the trade, along with the Feliz move, of 2012. Madducks may not be up to the job, but if he is!

BW, is Anna’s Bakery still downtown and do they still back those great almond cookies?

MIhir
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

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