A Nathan Mourns…

Everybody knows about Joe Nathan, the man with the most saves in baseball the last six years, who has a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. The problem right now, for me, is that I’m preparing updated projections for the Patton Software and there is no way to know whether Nathan is out for two months or two years. You see, the odds of Nathan getting back onto a field after rehabbing from surgery are real long, so the first medical approach is to wait a couple/few weeks, try to strengthen the supporting muscles, and see if he can pitch through it.

Not many do, but if he can, then he might get a few months of the season in and have some value this year. If he can’t, he has no value this year at all, and no value next year either. So, what should I do with his projection? And what should I do with the interesting set of relievers in the Twins’ bullpen, any of whom might actually be able to do the job if given the chance?

Let’s call what I do “pussyfootin’,” because it’s a lot like the gait of Violet, the cat that just walked over my keyboard and curled up on the back of my desk and didn’t knock over a thing (and only introduced a few typos along the way). I’m careful, thoughtful, and when I’m clear I leap. And, like Woody Allen, I always usually (yeah, right) land on my feet.

In the new set of projections I cut Nathan’s projection in half, to 35 innings pitched, and I bump his ERA and WHIP up just a bit, then cut his bid price down to $10, which I don’t think I’d pay if I was drafting tonight, but I do think someone else would bid $11 if I did. $10 isn’t likely to be the bid price in two weeks, when we’re supposed to know more, but it does reflect the market now. I don’t think you want Nathan, but you don’t want someone else to get him too cheaply. There is too much we don’t know.

My first impulse after Nathan’s injury was to bump up Jon Rauch’s projection, giving him most of the saves, but while I still think he has to be the favorite to win the job, because he did some time in the past as a closer in Washington, he’s not a lock. I made him $9 at first, because he can earn that as a middle reliever even if he doesn’t get the job, but I’ve now knocked him down to $7 because, well, there are too many alternatives to assume that he will get the job, and too many questions about his work last year to be confident he’ll hold the job if it is given to him.

Matt Guerrier is usually cited as next in line after Rauch, but even though he was a closer in college and has been an excellent middle reliever–other than in 2008–he doesn’t profile as a closer. He doesn’t blow guys away, in other words. I’ve bumped him up to $4 (he earned $15 in 2009) and allocated him some of the saves sliced from Nathan’s line. I think that’s safe, even though he doesn’t have closer upside.

The guy everybody likes for the job, talentwise, is Pat Neshek, who missed most of the last two years following a 2008 breakdown that led to TJ surgery. He’s healthy now, but still working his way back. He’s got an interesting sidearmed delivery that is deceptive and brings lots of movement. Historically, he hasn’t had much of a platoon split. The issue is whether he is really back. Chances are the Twins aren’t going to throw him into the fire immediately, so I give him a few of the saves and a bid of a couple dollars in the new version. You have to be aware of him, but he’s still a long shot at this point.

The other closer-quality pitcher on the Twins’ staff is Jose Mijares, who is the only lefty in the Twins’ pen right now. Even if that situation persists he could get some saves, but he won’t get a lot of saves. I added a couple of saves to his projection, but kept him as a $1 bid. He won’t go for more until the Twins add a lefty to their pen.

Saves are a tricky business. Any pitcher going good can get saves, but we can see with our own eyes that not everyone is able to keep going good when the pressure rises. There are some who say that Mijares is a choker, but his Leverage Index (see baseball-reference.com) shows that he performed best in the toughest situations last year. Until we’ve seen a big enough sample, it’s impossible to really judge a pitcher’s readiness for the role, but easy to understand why guys in high leverage jobs lose their jobs before they can prove that they are victims of the random thing.

Projecting player performance is a tricky business. The talent evaluation part is fairly straight forward, but projecting playing time is usually the difference between a good and bad projection. While pussyfootin’, I try to split the difference, to balance the expression of talent with the possibility of opportunity. Those of us drafting next week are going to have to make catlike choices when it comes to selecting the Twins’ closer. My adjusted bid prices are an attempt to equalize the odds of success vs. price for each player.

Ps. There was speculation today that the Twins might move Francisco Liriano to the pen, maybe even the closer spot, given their situation. This isn’t an obvious move, but if Liriano is struggling as a starter it seems like a natural next step. That, of course, screws all the values above, all of which will be updated next time no matter what happens.