This will be a relatively short, bittersweet post. During his first appearance in spring training against an opposing team, Twins ace closer Joe Nathan tore a ligament in his elbow. He most likely will be unavailable for the entire season as a result. Considering his age (35, one of my most-ignored speed limits), this could be as catastrophic an injury as they come.
Since 2004, when Nathan broke in with the Twins, nobody has more saves in baseball than Joe: 246. Since 2004, when the Twins have taken a save-situation lead into the 9th inning, Joe Nathan has preserved that lead 91% of the time. Only Mariano Rivera (the greatest closer thus far in the history of baseball) has been more reliable. The save is a flawed statistic (i.e. it's quite easy to maintain a 3-run lead in the 9th inning), but you can't argue against his consistency or sheer accumulation of saves. Plus, he's a good dude.
(For this next paragraph, I owe a debt of gratitude to Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Joe Christensen as well as Baseball Prospectus. Thanks, everybody.)
I mentioned that has Joe nailed down the save 91% of the time since 2004. The home team that takes a save-situation lead into the 9th inning has won 87% of the time, and the average away team has won 86% of the time. Simple math dictates: Nathan has made the Twins about 5% better in the 9th inning than they otherwise would've been. Since 2004, the Twins have entered the 9th inning in a save situation 271 times, and Joe Nathan has been golden 246 times. With a league-average closer, the Twins notch 234 (statistically, 234.4) saves. How many of those games do they end up winning in extra innings? Not many. Also, the impact on the rest of the bullpen is harder to measure, but losing Nathan puts more pressure on everybody else, and so you end up giving up a run here and a run there in games in which you otherwise wouldn't. Putting it all together, I'd say that this loss costs the Twins about two games every year that they rely on a league-average closer.
Naturally, there is something to be said for the consistency and reliability of a Joe Nathan closing out your 9th inning. And naturally, twelve wins over six seasons is nothing to scoff at. Consider this alternate history (by Harry Turtledove): If the Twins lose two more games than they did in 2006, they lose the AL Central to Detroit by one game. If the Twins lose two more games in 2007 and/or 2009, the White Sox and Tigers win the division outright each year, respectively. Also, the South wins the Civil War*. Ouch... but at least there's no Florida Marlins.
So let's not kid ourselves: a lights-out closer can give you an legitimate edge over your rivals. And knowing that your uber-reliable closer has got the 9th inning locked down, year-in and year-out, can't be quantified. PLUS HE IS A GOOD DUDE! I can't stress that enough. This injury sucks.
But the sky is not falling. The missiles haven't been launched. And the Twins season is far from over. The Twins will have to take a deep breath, figure out their best option, and move forward. I am confident that this 2010 team is the best Twins team in years, even - and it pains me to say it - without Joe Nathan.
*Apologies here to anybody unfamiliar with the alternate-history novelist Harry Turtledove. He wrote a series of books set in a parallel universe in which the South won the Civil War. At one point, Louis Armstrong and his band escape to the North in a jeep, machine guns blazing. Good stuff.