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PITTSBURGH – Joe Nathan simply doesn’t have the same arsenal that made him a six-time All-Star closer, launching him to eighth on the all-time list with 377 career saves. The Cubs aren’t as good as we thought they were if their season hinges on a guy who’s 41 years old and coming off a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow. 

But Nathan is still a looming X-factor as the Cubs try to rebuild their bullpen on the fly, able to be activated off the 60-day disabled list on July 16, in the middle of a showdown against the Texas Rangers coming out of the All-Star break.

“He’s not far,” manager Joe Maddon said Sunday at PNC Park. “It’s getting close.”

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Double-A Tennessee is another world compared to Wrigley Field. Nathan still has to pass the test of throwing on back-to-back days and see how his body responds. The Cubs are a conservative organization when it comes to dealing with injuries.  

With that in mind, Nathan has made it through six appearances with the Smokies, giving up two runs overall but getting hit hard on Saturday night, failing to finish the ninth inning and taking the loss against Chattanooga.

Nathan’s arm looks fluid. His fastball is hitting the 91-92 mph range. His slider/cutter doesn’t have the same bite it once did. He can still throw a curveball for a strike. His timing/finish isn’t quite locked in yet, understandable considering he hasn’t thrown in the big leagues since April 2015.   


“I’m getting a lot of solid information on him,” Maddon said. “The numbers are good, (in terms of) velocity. The break on the breaking ball was getting better. We’re relying a lot on what he is talking about, too. It’s kind of like he’s going through an actual spring training right now, with the number of appearances to get ready to come back and feel good about it. So there’s a lot of progress.”

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Nathan may not own the ninth inning anymore, but he should have enough guts and experience to get some outs, an upgrade when Justin Grimm (5.34 ERA) isn’t right and Adam Warren (5.79 ERA) hasn’t established himself yet and the Cubs are auditioning pitchers from Triple-A Iowa (Carl Edwards Jr., Spencer Patton).

Nathan working on the prorated major-league minimum (roughly $350,000) plus incentives might be a better – or more realistic – option than what’s out there on the trade market.

“We just have to define the bullpen,” Maddon said. “That’s the part, to me, that could really jettison us in a positive way in the second half – to get the bullpen back in order where guys are well and able to pitch consistently in certain spots.

“That’s probably been the most difficult part the last week or 10 days – trying to get the bullpen in order and get them out there in the right times and contribute to the wins.”