Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nathan Signing Comes With Marginal Risk

The Texas Rangers again struck hot in the free agent market by signing Joe Nathan, the former Twins' closer to a two year $14.5 million contract. The move is not about Neftali Feliz's problems closing out Game Six of the World Series. If anything, Joe Nathan's post season record is even spottier than Feliz's. This is not about Feliz not having enough "steel" in big moments as Jon Heyman suggested in a tweet last night. Feliz is hardly the first closer to give up a series-clinching opportunity. Even the great Mariano has done that. This is more a deal about wanting Feliz to start games instead of close them. But the move is not without risk.

There is little risk for adding Joe Nathan as your closer. Last year was his first off of Tommy John surgery and Nathan struggled out of the box. But that is normal in having to build up the trust in his elbow and the strength needed to throw the ball 95 MPH. Nathan showed in the second half of last year that he was all the way back to form. His strikeout to walk ratio in the second half was at 4.40, higher than any of his salad days except for 2006 when he was nearly unhittable. Nathan's second half OPS against was .654. His fastball wasn't quite back to where it was in 2009 in either velocity or movement. But with another winter to build up his strength, he should be back to 2009 levels (although he is 37 years old).

Nathan needs to be nearly as good as he was in 2009 to earn his salary, so that's a pretty minimal risk. The risk is basically replacing C.J. Wilson, a proven commodity with Neftali Feliz, who hasn't started since he was a very young prospect in the Rangers' minor league system. The Rangers have had terrific success converting relievers to starters the last two season. C.J. Wilson made the move two years ago and has gone 31-15 since while compiling 10.5 fWAR. Then in 2011 Alexi Ogando made the switch and compiled 3.6 fWAR covering 29 starts and two relief appearances. Most importantly, Ogando maintained his velocity during the course of the season.

So the Rangers do have a track record of making this happen successfully. If they can hit the jackpot again with Feliz in the rotation in 2012, they basically trade Wilson's $20 million (if his asking price is to believed) salary for about $8 million for both Nathan and Feliz combined. If it all works out perfectly, then the Rangers won't lose too much performance and save themselves $14 million a year. Not a bad thing.

If Feliz can't make the transition successfully, then they might toast one of the best arms in their system. The Rangers sill have Scott Feldman under contract for one more season and Feldman could be more than adequate in the rotation as a Plan B. Feldman mitigates some of the risk and if it doesn't work out for Feliz, too many arms in the bullpen isn't exactly a bad thing. If Feliz can successfully make the switch, Feldman will make nice trade bait for needed pieces.

At least the Rangers are being aggressive and going after what they want. Jon Daniels did a good job of not terribly overpaying Nathan, especially with the market prices we've seen lately. The move allows him to keep from bidding against himself for Wilson's services and cushions the loss if Wilson signs elsewhere. Not a bad day's work for one of the best general managers in the business.

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