Editor's Note: Our final installment of the Surprise position outlook is upon us. We end things with, of course, the closer.
Today's position: Closer
While there are plenty of questions about how exactly the bullpen will line up until the ninth inning, there's no doubt who will come in to get those final big three outs. Joe Nathan answered any lingering questions about his health and ability to get batters out consistently with his performance in 2012.
Nathan, now 38, was 3-5 with a 2.80 ERA and 37 saves. He converted all but three of his save opportunities and had a streak of 31 straight conversions from April 15 to Sept. 12.
He had a 1.86 ERA (11 earned runs in 53 1/3 innings) with nine walks and 65 strikeouts in 54 games during that streak. Nathan managed to get one of his saves on just one pitch, inducing a ground ball double play on April 24 vs. the Yankees.
Nathan also became the first pitcher with a blown save and a save on the same day, when he blew Game 1 of a doubleheader with the Angels before nailing down the final three outs in a Rangers win that night (Sept. 30). The win clinched a playoff berth for the Rangers.
Do you remember Nathan’s first week on the job? He gave up four earned runs in his first four innings (four appearances) before putting up a 0.36 ERA in his next 26 appearances.
In other words: After that first week, he was as automatic as they come for most of the season. Nathan experienced some fatigue late in the year and has talked this offseason about making sure he gets stronger and does what he needs to do to keep himself in great shape to last a full season.
Nathan was on the disabled list in 2011 with a right flexor muscle strain, a little more than a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But he returned and pitched well enough down the stretch to get a two-year deal with a club option for a third year from the Rangers. It certainly appears to be a good investment.
Nathan's velocity on his fastball has returned (and even gone up a tick at times). He has a slider that he can locate well and a curveball with some bite. Add it up and Nathan was an All-Star in 2012 and one of the top closers in the game. So that's not a position that has the Rangers concerned heading into spring. The key is that Nathan stays healthy and gets ready for the season.
One thing to remember from last year is that Nathan actually struggled for much of the spring. He gave up hits in minor league games and wasn't consistently getting outs. But he wasn't concerned. And after a rough first week in which he blew one save and let a tie game get away, Nathan settled down and was terrific.
Yes, he's now 38 years old. But with the surgery and how he responded last season, Nathan is confident that he'll stay effective and productive. He can use last season as solid evidence to support that. He heads into 2013 as one of the top closers in the game.