The Jon Daniels-helmed Rangers have always seemed to demonstrate a certain flair for the unexpected and the dramatic during the hottest periods for trade/free agent activity, and that particular M.O. appears to be on display yet again this evening, as the Rangers have squeezed the trigger on their first significant transaction of the 2011-12 hot stove season.
According to multiple sources (including MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan), the Rangers have agreed to terms on a two-year, $14.5 million deal with free agent Joe Nathan, and have informed Neftali Feliz that he will be transitioning over to the starting rotation to begin the 2012 regular season. Per Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, the deal includes a third-year option; the value of the buyout on that third-year option -- which is presumably a team option -- is included in the $14.5 million figure, though a detailed breakdown of the financial terms is not immediately available. *
What a 37-year-old Nathan is at this point and what he was during his prime are, of course, not going to be the same thing; if we're going to take the rear-view mirror approach, though, then the facts support the perception that Nathan, from 2004-09, enjoyed one of the greatest runs of any closer in baseball history. During that six-year window, Nathan compiled 246 saves over a total of 418.2 innings while posting a 1.87 ERA (237 ERA+) and 2.40 FIP (58 ERA-), and delivered wipeout peripherals across the board (11.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9). After Mariano Rivera, the best overall relief pitcher in baseball during that period was Nathan ... and the separation between the two was minimal.
Now, though? Now, you have Nathan coming off a recovery-oriented 2011 season that followed a Tommy John surgery-scuttled 2010 season -- a 2011 season that comprised a month-long disabled list stint of its own, as Nathan was shut down by elbow inflammation from late May to late June. That, in and of itself, is a troubling spate of recent health problems for a pitcher who's going to be playing out the second year of his deal at the age of 38 ... but, on a brighter note, Nathan did muster this pitching line from June 25th onward, or the three-month window that immediately followed his lone disabled list stint and extended all the way through the end of the regular season:
29.1 IP, 3.38 ERA, .193/.239/.367, 28 K, 5 BB, 4 HR
That, I think, is encouraging, as is the fact that his velocity trended back upwards into pre-injury territory after that disabled list stint -- but we're still not talking about a large quantity of good innings pitched over the last two seasons, which does lead one to believe that the Rangers' scouting information on Nathan supplied a good portion of the confidence necessary to make a commitment of this magnitude. The fact that Nathan was as good as they come during the mid-aughts is an attractive resume point, but paying out the nose for past performance with no reasonable assurance of quality future performance is a hallmark of poorly run organizations. The modern-day Rangers are not poorly run.
For what it's worth, ESPN.com's Keith Law recently shared these remarks on Nathan as part of his top free agents series (in which Nathan was ranked as the 42nd-best free agent in this 2011-12 class): "Nathan missed all of 2010 after Tommy John surgery, and he wasn't 100 percent in 2011, as his breaking stuff wasn't sharp and he was down just more than a full mile an hour on his fastball. His control was intact, but reduced command and velocity meant hitters squared up his stuff more easily. However, he could regain the lost velocity or rediscover his command. Buyers here have a solid baseline performance with several ways he could get better."
At this particular moment in time, I don't know that I'm a fan of this deal. I don't know that I dislike it either, though. I realize analytical ambivalence isn't very sexy at this time of the year, but that really is just about where I am at this point. If Nathan pitches more like his second-half-of-2011 self going forward and manages to avert much in the way of injury/age-related decline over the next couple of years, this should end up working out okay. You're not going to get 2004-09 Joe Nathan, but you might be able to squeeze out 130-140 regular-season innings of fairly nice quality in a high-leverage role, and that has value. You also get to keep your superior setup man, Mike Adams, in an even higher-leverage seventh- to eighth-inning role, which imparts some additional value to Texas.
And, of course, you also get to move Neftali Feliz to the starting rotation without fear for the controversy that might ensue if Feliz struggled in the rotation and the Rangers couldn't find a dependable in-house closer. That scenario could theoretically still develop, but it seems fairly clear at this point that the Rangers are going to sink or swim with Nathan holding down the ninth inning, and that it would take failure on an enormous scale for Nathan to find himself unseated from that role after finding himself the target of such a hefty financial commitment.
I think the greatest concern on my end is that throwing $6-7 million per year at a veteran closer may not be the most efficient way of utilizing the Rangers' available money, and that committing that sort of money could materially handicap the Rangers as they try to go about signing one of the market's big-name free agents. That, I think, is a reasonable concern ... but it may also be a completely unfounded concern, because it's impossible to not harbor a great deal of implicit trust for the front office -- and its thought processes -- after watching it assemble back-to-back league champions, and it's very difficult to conceive a scenario where the Rangers would allow the Nathan expenditure to hinder their ability to follow through on some of their more ambituous off-season plans.
I'm excited, wary, and curious all at the same time. I suppose that means that all is just as it should be.
[* Update: Per T.R. Sullivan, Nathan's deal will pay him $7 million over each of the next two seasons, and includes a 2014 team option worth $9 million with a $500,000 buyout.]