On Tuesday afternoon, the Chicago Cubs made a relatively surprising transaction, signing former All-Star reliever Joe Nathan to a Major League deal.
That is to say, the surprise was not simply the acquisition of Nathan – who is himself a perfectly fine, low risk signing – but rather the guaranteed Major League contract.
Yes, Nathan was immediately put on the Cubs 60-day disabled list, so he does not currently occupy a spot on the 40-man roster, but his ability to secure a Major League contract with the Cubs indicates a sincere belief in his ability to return, and also a belief that he could contribute as soon as in the second half of this season after he has fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery he had a little over a year ago.
So, what do we know about Joe Nathan?
Let’s start with some broad strokes. Nathan, 41, was a very good reliever with the San Francisco Giants, Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers and, most recently, the Detroit Tigers over a seventeen year career that began in 1999. Nathan was an All-Star in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013. And in addition, he received down the ballot AL Cy Young (5th) and AL MVP awards in 2006 … again, as a reliever. Here are some other interesting facts:
- Highest save% in MLB History (SV/SVO)
- 2nd most saves in AL History (374)
- 3rd most seasons with at least 35 saves (9)
- T-3rd most seasons with at least 40 saves (4)
So, if you don’t remember him and/or are not getting the picture, he was an absolutely dominant closer for quite a long time (even if that was a while ago now).
In 2013, Nathan was worth 2.3 fWAR across 64.2 innings pitched. He finished that season with a 1.39 ERA (2.26 FIP) and an impressive 29.2% strike outrate. However, that was the beginning of the end (well, we’ll see about that), because in 2014, he wasn’t very good. That year, Nathan’s last full season, he pitched to a 4.81 ERA (3.94 FIP) due to, among many things, a stark drop in his K-rate (down to 20.9%) and a significant rise in his walk rate (11.2%).
Then, on April 8, 2015, Nathan was placed on the disabled list with a strained right elbow. He eventually underwent Tommy John surgery, which ended his season (and, given his age and the fact that it was his second TJS, many assumed his career).
Which brings us back to Tuesday. The Cubs signed Nathan to a Major League deal for a prorated portion of the MLB minimum (so it’s about a $350,000 minimum commitment), together with performance incentives that could add another $2.4 million, and a team option for 2017 (Jon Heyman). Based on performance, that option can become a mutual option (Heyman). Nathan will continue rehabbing within the Cubs organization as he looks to make his comeback sometime in the second half of the season.
Nathan is primarily a four-seamer/slider pitcher, but he does work a two-seamer and a curveball relatively often. Commanding four pitches is likely what allowed him to continue find success as a reliever so late into his career. As for velocity, Nathan used to sit in the 93-95 MPH range, but was closer to 91-92 MPH from 2013-2014 (remember, he was still really great in 2013). But now that he’s had the second Tommy John surgery of his career (the first one was in 2010), I’m not quite sure how much he has left in the tank. Suffice it to say, the Cubs wouldn’t have bothered signing him at all (let alone to a Major League deal) if they didn’t feel he might legitimately help out in the second half of 2016.
But if you’re thinking the Cubs bullpen feels full, just read that sentence again in July and see if you feel the same way. Assuming there are absolutely no injuries (which isn’t likely) relievers are notoriously fickle. Having a guy like Nathan can be a great, cheap, effective way to supplement the bullpen in the second half of the season without having to rely on the trade market. And because he’s not even taking up a spot on the 40-man roster while on the 60-day DL, there was essentially nothing lost (besides the prorated portion of a MLB minimum contract).
Is it the sexiest signing? No. Will it be the Cubs’ only addition to the bullpen? Probably not. Are these exactly the types of moves the Cubs front office has consistently made within their bullpen and rotation over the past three years while assembling one of the best pitching staffs in baseball over that stretch? Absolutely. At the very least, it will be fun to see if he can give it one more whirl, while helping the Cubs as they attempt to accomplish something special.