Detroit Tigers’ Joe Nathan: Closer or Bust?


Tigers fans hope that 2015 is finally the year Detroit gets the stars aligned out in the bullpen. The team has enough talent that optimistic fans can imagine the bullpen becoming a strength for Detroit.

But just one little mishap, and it could all go very wrong.

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The health of middle reliever Bruce Rondon is a concern as is whether or not Joba Chamberlain can return to his 2014 first-half form.

The most important piece, however, to the Tigers jigsaw puzzle bullpen is still closer Joe Nathan.

In three games this spring, Nathan is pitching like a man with a purpose, throwing three shutout innings with just two hits allowed, no walks and two strikeouts in three appearances. The 40-year-old admitted he is pitching with, shall we call it, the “eye of the tiger.”

“We have something to prove every year,” he said according to The Detroit News. “You should have that drive within yourself every year to prove yourself to yourself. But there is some extra drive when you have been doing this for so long, and there are a couple of months of not throwing so well, and people think you are done.”

That is exactly how the Tigers need Nathan to approach every single appearance, like it could be his last. Honestly, if he doesn’t pitch well, it will be.

It’s no secret that if Nathan can anchor the backend of games like Detroit hoped he would when they signed him to a two-year, with a built in third-year club option, $20 million contract before the 2014 season, the Tigers are a different team.

But if Nathan is, in fact, done and cannot improve upon his 4.81 ERA and career-high seven blown saves from last season, he will be at the end of his road in Detroit, and the Tigers entire bullpen could be shaky again.

Here’s why.

Besides Nathan in the closer role, Detroit is planning on using Joakim Soria in the setup man role with Rondon and Chamberlain as the top two middle relievers.

If Nathan falters, Soria has closed before, so yes, Detroit has another option for the ninth inning. Fans have also speculated that the 24-year-old Rondon has the stuff to be a young closer in the making.

In that situation, however, it seems highly unlikely that Nathan then moves to a middle relief or setup role. With the exception of a couple months during the 2011 season, Nathan has been a closer since 2004.

Closers, particularly ones who have been pitching ninth innings for a decade, are max-out guys stuck in routines. They know they are pitching just a single inning, most likely with the lead, and they rarely enter the game with men on base.

Furthermore, of all the bullpen pitchers, closers have one of the least taxing roles on their arms. Middle relievers can possible warm up three or four different times as situations change during the course of the game. Generally, middle relievers also have no idea what situation they might be called upon to pitch.

Quite different from closers.

At his age, Nathan will probably not be able to withstand warming up multiple times per game. That means Nathan is limited to only closing games, so if he can’t return to top form, the Tigers are either stuck with a below average closer or will have to cut bait with Nathan altogether.

In that situation, even if Detroit is lucky enough to find another closer in house, than that still means a bullpen hole somewhere else. At this point in his career, Nathan can fill only one need for the Tigers and that is closer.

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