Joe Nathan | Pitcher | #36
2014 salary: $9 million
2013 statistics: 1.39 ERA, 2.26 FIP, 64.2 IP, 2 HR, 22 BB, 73 K, 3.06 BB/9, 10.16 K/9
Projected role: Closer
Putting aside for a moment that spending $20 million on a 39-year-old closer probably isn’t the best investment in the world, if Joe Nathan is his usual self, he’s probably the best closer the Tigers have had in at least two decades. (We apologize if you are a Todd Jones fanatic.) He has been consistently unbeatable for quite a while now, as the Tigers of the 2000s will tell you. Not so shockingly, he is also a major risk going forward due to his age and injury history.
First, the good news: Nathan was great last year. By WAR, it was his best season since 2006 and the fourth best of his career. While his walk rate was unsettlingly high – 3.06 is the second highest career, trailing only the 3.76 BB/9 he posted in his first season as a reliever way back in 2003 with San Francisco – he was still getting plenty of strikeouts.
Now for the bad news: it’s not hard to find red flags galore in Nathan’s 2013 profile. First, he’s probably in for some mighty natural regression. Even categories where Nathan has maintained a lower-than-average rate were startlingly low. His HR/FB rate – 7% career average – was a ridiculously low 3%. His BABIP, .253 for his career, was .224 last year. His fastball velocity was a career-low 92.2 MPH. He threw fewer fastballs than ever last season and a career-high number of sliders. Learning how to pitch with less velocity? Compensating for something? Both? No real way of knowing.
So yes, there are some warning signs, particularly ominous for a 39-year-old reliever who has Tommy John surgery to his name. There are obviously very few examples of relievers who kept pitching this well into their age 39 and 40 seasons (Mariano Rivera, a unique case, is pretty much the only one). Nathan is headed into uncharted territory. His numbers are almost certain to be worse, so be ready for it. It depends on how much worse, though; a little regression will be okay and if he can keep the ERA in the 2.50 range, the Tigers will have a fine closer, and it seems unlikely that he’ll completely lose everything in one year. That said, he’ll be worth keeping a close eye on once the real games start.