Nathan's makeup gives Texas bullpen anchor
Out to recapture elite status, closer eases Washington's fears
ARLINGTON -- In the past, Rangers manager Ron Washington always expressed deep reservations about moving Neftali Feliz into the rotation. That was especially true last spring, when the club was seriously discussing the possibility.Washington was nervous about not being covered in the ninth inning, and he made it clear he didn't want Feliz going anywhere. It took a four-time All-Star to ease the manager's concerns. Joe Nathan is taking over as the Texas closer next year, allowing Feliz to move to the rotation. The Rangers have addressed the manager's fears with a 37-year-old right-hander with 261 career saves, a 2.38 ERA and a .189 opponents' batting average that ranks second-lowest among active relievers. In a six-year period from 2004-09 as the Twins' closer, Nathan was one of the elite relievers in the game. The Rangers also believe he has the experience, the makeup and the mental toughness to handle the position -- that's why they signed him to a two-year, $14.5 million contract with a $9 million option for 2014 and introduced him during a Tuesday morning press conference at Rangers Ballpark. "Obviously, we have high expectations after going to the World Series the last couple of years," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. "The bar has been raised as far as the type of person we want to bring in, and Joe is way above that bar. He is a successful closer with big-time makeup and all the accolades. "But the most exciting thing about him is the makeup and the presence he brings. We felt if we moved Neftali to the rotation, we wanted to have a big-time presence to the back of the bullpen, and we felt we accomplished that." Nathan, who was 2-1 with 14 saves and a 4.84 ERA for the Twins last year, just needs to show that he can be the reliever he was before missing all of the 2010 season following Tommy John surgery.
"It's pretty obvious that I have been able to admire this squad from the other side of the field over the past few years," Nathan said. "This club is a perfect fit for myself and my family. Getting to the postseason and the World Series is huge, and knowing the success that they have had was a huge factor."Nathan, who was introduced on his birthday, underwent the elbow surgery on March 26, 2010, and missed the entire season. He was on Minnesota's Opening Day roster this past season, but had a 7.63 ERA in his first 17 games before being placed on the disabled list on May 29 with a strained flexor tendon. He was activated at the end of June and had a 3.91 ERA after the All-Star break, holding opponents to a .207 batting average. He was also 11-for-11 in save opportunities. "I really felt when I came off the disabled list in June, that was a huge turning point for me," Nathan said. "It seemed like every month I got better, with the way I was feeling and the way I was finishing pitches. My breaking ball got sharper and I felt my command came back. "Guys who have been through this told me 18 months was the key. That was the beginning of the offseason for me. I feel if I can get through the offseason with a good workout, I expect to feel even better in Spring Training." As the Twins' closer from 2004-09, Nathan was outstanding. He had 246 saves over six years, the most in the Major Leagues during that stretch. He had a 1.87 ERA, the second-lowest mark among relievers with 250 appearances, and opponents hit a mere .182 off him, the lowest for any reliever in that stretch. His 8.58 baserunners per nine innings was also the lowest in the Majors, and his 11.14 strikeouts per nine innings was fifth-best. Simply put, Nathan ranked as one of the best closers in the game, combining a fastball that was clocked at 93-97 mph with an outstanding slider. Washington said one of the most impressive things about Nathan is his ability to use multiple pitches as a closer. Feliz relied mainly on his fastball. "At no time with Joe can you say, 'Sit on this or sit on that,'" Washington said. "Whatever he feels he has to do to get it done, he does that. That's impressive. With Joe, you didn't really know." The velocity on the fastball is still there, but Nathan didn't have the swing-and-miss stuff last season that made him so effective before the surgery. Nathan's fastball was clocked at an average of 92.3 mph in 2011. He was at 93.5 mph in 2009, the year before he had the surgery. However, opponents swung and missed at 28.1 percent of his fastballs in '09 as opposed to 12.8 percent of them last year. In 2009, he had opposing hitters swinging and missing at 45.7 percent of his sliders. That was at 39.8 percent this year. That's why Nathan averaged fewer than a strikeout per inning for the first time since 2000, when he was with the Giants and still trying to conquer his control problems and find a second pitch to go with his fastball. "The first couple of months were a struggle," Nathan said. "I wasn't finishing my pitches, I didn't have the bite on my breaking ball and I wasn't trusting my fastball. But as the season went on, I definitely got more comfortable with it." He also developed a better curveball, throwing it far more than he had been in the past. "It was one of my better pitches," Nathan said. "I was able to command it better on both sides of the plate, rather than throwing it in a general area." The Rangers scouted Nathan late in the season and liked what they saw. At that point, they were already discussing the possibility of Feliz becoming a starter in 2012 and Nathan was one of the candidates they were strongly considering. Nathan heads a bullpen that will also include right-handed setup relievers Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mark Lowe. Middle reliever Yoshinori Tateyama and Scott Feldman also return, though Feldman is also considered a rotation option. Texas still needs left-handed relief and is likely to re-sign Darren Oliver. More additions are possible. "We're still focused on the bullpen," Daniels said. But the big one was getting the closer and, from 2004-09, there were few -- if any -- who were better than Nathan. Spring Training will be the first clue how close he can get to that level again.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.