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Who Will Close for the Twins This Year?

The news came down the pipe this morning that Joe Nathan has a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament and is, in all likelihood, headed for Tommy John surgery. No pitchers in recent memory have rehabbed through a torn UCL. A moment of silence for Nathan’s 2010 season, and for all of the keeper league owners that were happy with their elite closer.

Now let’s have some fun with rampant closer speculation. The front-runner has to be Jon Rauch because of his mythical ‘experience in the role.’ Yes, because he closed for 40 innings in the National League, he’ll probably be the front runner to assume the mantle in Minnesota. Then again, one has to be concerned with his strikeout rate, which peaked in 2006 (8.47), recovered in 2008 (8.29) and dropped off a table last year in Arizona (6.30 overall). In general, he offers some nice strikeout ability (though not plus for a closer) and an above-average walk rate (2.89 career, 3.46 ’09 ML average).

On the other hand, there’s been some change in his mix as he’s aged, and it doesn’t seem to be good news. He’s using his fastball less every year (down to 52.8% from 67.9% in 2006) and replacing it with his curveball (up from 3.3% to 15.5% last year). The problem? His fastball has been worth 17.1 runs by linear weights over his career, His curveball? -1.3. Yeah, where is that fastball going?

Could the Twins instead turn to a man with a funky delivery that has his own blog and a penchant for juicing? What about Pat Neshek? He owns a sparkling 10.56 K/9 for his career, a decent 2.76 BB/9, and despite slight gopherball problems (1.12 HR/9 career), has a sparkling WHIP (0.96). He’s coming off TJ surgery of his own, but has pitched live ball in Spring Training (2 innings, 2 Ks and 1 hit if you must know). There is a whiff of Brad Ziegler about him, but here are his splits against lefties, from our very own splits pages: 8.59 K/9, 3.68 BB/9, 1.16 WHIP (good), 55.9% FB, 12.1% HR/FB, 1.64 HR/9, 4.70 xFIP (bad). This is all against 185 total lefty batters faced… this sample is not big enough to say definitively that he cannot handle lefties. This book is not closed. And since it is such a fun read, there’s at least one fantasy analyst that is banging the drum for Neshek to take over the closer’s role for the year.

What about Matt Guerrier? What about him? With a below-average 6.01 career K/9, and no corresponding excellent ground ball rate (45.5% career) he’s squarely third on this list. His .222 BABIP last year will surely regress and the Twins will once again have the okay guy they’ve always had. No closer here, despite last year’s seemingly excellent numbers.

One last note – the possibility that the closer comes from outside the organization is reasonably high. The Cubs inquired with the Jays about Jason Frasor, and because that team is rebuilding, it seems that maybe also Scott Downs might be available. Anthony Castrovince, the Cleveland Indians reporter for MLB.com, speculated on Twitter about Kerry Wood being moved to the Twinkies. These options may all be more palatable to a Twins team that wants to compete in their new stadium. Hey, they all have ‘experience in the role.’