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Nathan’s status highlights Papelbon’s importance

03.09.10 at 8:28 am ET
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UPDATE: According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Twins received news on Tuesday that Joe Nathan has a significant tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and could end up missing the entire 2010 season if he undergoes Tommy John surgery.

They share a city in spring training, and they have shared dominance in the regular season.

Statistically speaking, since Jonathan Papelbon moved into the role of the closer at the start of the 2006 season, there has been Papelbon and Joe Nathan, and then there has been everyone else. Consider some of these numbers for the Red Sox and Twins closers from the past four years:

Papelbon: 264 innings, 1.74 ERA, 151 saves, 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings, .190/.243/.284/.527 opponents’ line

Nathan: 276.1 innings, 1.73 ERA, 159 saves, 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, .180/.241/.285/.526 opponents’ line

(For context, here’s the list of the 20 pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs and at least 200 innings pitched since the start of the 2006 season.)

Nathan’s extraordinary performance helps to explain why the Twins’ universe will be waiting breathlessly for the results of the MRI on the 35-year-old closer. The right-hander, who underwent surgery to remove a couple of bone spurs and to clean up some loose bodies in his right elbow this offseason, left the mound after feeling what he described as tightness and aching in that same elbow in an exhibition game on Saturday. Nathan was flown to Minnesota for the exam, the results of which — according to several reports — are expected to be known on Tuesday.

On Friday — one day before Nathan’s injury in his first game of the spring — Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire considered the impact of his closer on his club.

“Without Nathan, our bullpen is really in trouble. It has been and it will be if we don’€™t have Nathan. We’€™ve really struggled. Not saying somebody can’€™t step in, but without Nathan, we’€™d be in trouble,” said Gardenhire. “He’€™s been the horse. And he is the horse. So if we protect him enough, he’€™s really good.”

On Tuesday, the Twins will find out whether they need to contemplate life without Nathan. It is a scenario that the team would love to avoid.

Of course, that sort of discussion bears at least some notice for the Papelbon Watch. Because he has not signed a long-term deal, and instead has signed a series of record-setting one-year deals to pitch for the Sox, there has been significant attention devoted to whether Papelbon might stay in Boston beyond his eligibility for free agency and what the team might do if he leaves.

There is, of course, a belief in some corners of the baseball world that closers are an entirely replaceable commodity. There is evidence to support such a claim.

After future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman left the Padres for the Brewers last offseason, Heath Bell stepped up to save 42 games and record a 2.71 ERA. Papelbon made Keith Foulke on afterthought; ditto Nathan and Eddie Guardado.

Now, if Nathan is hurt for any period of time, perhaps the Twins can find someone else to assume his ninth-inning role. Perhaps if Papelbon leaves, the Red Sox could find someone to make the transition seamless.

But those sorts of experiments are uneasy ones. For a manager who has become accustomed to life with one of the game’s best closers, the idea of seeking alternatives is unpalatable.

“Talk to the teams that don’€™t have them,” Gardenhire said on Friday. “I’€™ll tell you they’€™re the ones who are watching games in October, in late October, if they don’€™t have somebody who can finish up.”

Read More: Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon,
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