Tigers Sign Joe Nathan to Bolster the Pen

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

A day after the biggest mistake of his Tigers tenure, Dave Dombrowski went out and signed that “proven closer” he’s been looking for since the dawn of time. Joe Nathan will join the Tigers for 2 years and (about) $20 million.

While the notion of a “proven closer” is nonsense and the use of a save-situation only relief ace is silly, Joe Nathan is a good reliever and having good relievers on your team is important. And aside from missing all of 2010 and some of 2011, Nathan has been an extremely durable relief pitcher for many years. Nathan is 39, but has been an excellent reliever in every season since 2003 except for the two injury affected ones mentioned above.

He threw more than 60 innings per season from ’03-’09 and ’12-’13 and was below 2.0 fWAR in only two of those nine seasons. Nathan is a great reliever across the board and looks healthy enough to continue for another year or two. Relievers are fragile, but the risk right now is based on health rather than forgetting how to get batters out.

Nathan will settle the angst many feel about the 9th inning, even if that angst is silly. You don’t need closer experience to succeed in the 9th inning and the entire idea of a 9th inning specialist is wrongheaded, but having Nathan on the team makes the Tigers better. If Ausmus came out today and told us he was going to use Nathan as a relief ace in high leverage situations, this would be a great deal. In the absence of this, it’s a good one. 

You’re probably paying Nathan a little more that he’s worth, but the market for free agent relievers is crazy and paying a little extra for the best free agent at the position is fine if you’re the Tigers. The Tigers need to upgrade their bullpen and Nathan is simply a slightly better version of Benoit for a slightly higher price tag. It’s a step up, but there’s more work left to be done, especially now that Smyly will be in the rotation for good. This doesn’t solve any problems from 2013, it just keeps them from getting worse.

The offseason picture for the Tigers is confusing, but this deal was easy to see coming. The Tigers have wanted a closer for a long time, and they finally found one on the market. It’s unclear how much of this move was predicated on the Fielder and Fister trades or if it would have happened anyway. Dombrowski got high marks for the Fielder deal and terrible marks for the Fister swap. The Nathan deal works, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the overall strategy. If the Tigers are planning to go all in for 2014, the Fister trade makes no sense. If they’re reloading for the future, the Nathan trade makes no sense. Time will tell, but for now, the goals and motivations are unclear. The Tigers are paying Joe Nathan more money than they would have paid Doug Fister in 2014 and probably about what they would have paid him in 2015. There really isn’t a way to make sense of that no matter how hard you try.

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4 responses

  1. I’m still concerned about the overall bullpen. Who’s the going to fit where? Nathan makes sense on the back end but the Tigers don’t have a good set-up guy left. I would love to see Al-Al or Rondon step up. I think some teams, and the Tigers have done this lately, get hung up signing big names to compete. When other teams like the Rays, Cardinals, Athletics, and Pirates do a much better job grooming younger “unproven” players or squeezing a few good years out of players that everybody else wrote off. Is this a product of the front office or manager talents or just getting lucky with some players? Baseball is fun!

    1. Agree on both counts. Nathan is a good reliever, but the Tigers are down two very good relievers in Benoit and Smyly so far. This doesn’t make the pen better, it helps keep it from getting worse.

      And I would advocate for the bullpen strategy you’re talking about. Buying bullpen pedigree isn’t a good idea, and teams that routinely have good bullpens are teams that cycle through guys and take chances on rookies or risks. I think some teams haven’t caught on, but also, it’s a lot easier to answer post game questions if the reliever who lost the game is proven, because it doesn’t look like the managers fault when a proven guy fails.

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