Twins to 'mix and match' for closer job

Updated: March 29, 2010, 2:46 AM ET
Associated Press

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's looking more and more like just one Minnesota Twin will not be enough to take Joe Nathan's place.

Manager Ron Gardenhire said on Sunday that, barring a trade this week, the Twins will start the regular season with a closer-by-committee approach.

"If we decide to go with one guy as we go along, we'll go with one guy," Gardenhire said before the Twins played the Boston Red Sox on Sunday. "But we're going to start out and we're going to look at a lot of different people and we'll see what happens. We've got about three or four different guys we can go to."

The plan right now is for relievers Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares to all get time in the ninth inning early in the season depending on matchups and performance.

That means that starter Francisco Liriano likely will not be considered for closer. Currently in a competition with Brian Duensing for the final spot in the rotation, Liriano was viewed as an option because of his overpowering slider and good fastball. The left-hander has said that he prefers to be a starter, and at least for now, that is how the Twins see him as well.

It's the first time in Gardenhire's nine seasons as a manager that he will not have a regular closer to start the season. Before Nathan came on in 2004, Gardenhire had the reliable Eddie Guardado.

"It's definitely a different season," he said. "It's going to be an experience trying to mix and match as best we can. I've got some capable arms that we're going to rely on."

Nathan returned to Twins camp on Sunday, two days after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. The Twins' new outdoor ballpark in Minnesota has the facilities that will allow him to start his rehab in the Twin Cities rather than having to stay in Fort Myers, so he will be around to help everyone with the adjustment.

"Our strength is how deep we are," Nathan said. "You take one guy out of it and we're still a good bullpen."

That depth will be tested like never before. Nathan has saved more games than any other closer since 2004 and is a valued leader in the clubhouse. On a pitching staff that takes pride in its versatility, Nathan's is the one role that will be toughest to fill.

Before Gardenhire announced the committee plan, Nathan said it would be important for the new closer to dedicate himself fully to the job.

"If you're going to be doing this, you've got to jump in with two feet and go in all the way," Nathan said. "Don't think one day you're going to be doing this and the next day maybe I'll be doing something else. It's something they've got to be ready for. If they're going to do it, do it all the way."

They won't have that luxury early in the season.

Nathan's injury has caused considerable concern for fans of a team that was expected to contend for another AL Central division title and push the Yankees, Red Sox and other heavy hitters for the American League pennant. The Twins have explored bringing in a more established closer through a trade, but Nathan cautions about putting too much emphasis on one inning.

"Treat each inning as it is. Just three outs," he told his fellow relievers. "Try not to treat it any differently than they had before."

Nathan won't travel with the team during the season, but he will be in the ballpark for home games, something he said "will be nice mentally for me."

And for the Twins.

"Having him around will be wonderful," Gardenhire said.

Pat Neshek knows what Nathan is going through. He is pitching this spring for the first time since May 2008. The reliever had surgery on his right elbow and spent all of 2009 in Fort Myers while recovering.

"It was great to be around the team, but if you can't compete, I felt kind of uncomfortable there for a while," Neshek said.

There are going to be tough days, for sure.

"It's not going to be fun for him," Gardenhire said. "He wants to be pitching. It's very tough for him now and it's going to be tougher for him this summer when the games are being played."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press