MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are trying to catch lightning in a bottle with Joe Nathan, the former All-Star closer still recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Cubs finalized a major-league contract with Nathan on Tuesday, putting him on the 60-day disabled list and potentially adding another weapon to manager Joe Maddon’s late-game arsenal. But that’s only if Nathan can get healthy for the second half of this season – at the age of 41 – after a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow 13 months ago.
The Cubs are placing a small bet on their pitching infrastructure, which has helped a Triple-A pitcher become a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a Rule 5 pick turn into an elite closer (Hector Rondon). Scrap-heap deals (Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, etc.) became part of the formula for a 97-win team last season.
That outweighs the unpredictability with Nathan, who faced only one hitter last season with the Detroit Tigers and could have moved onto the next phase of his life after earning more than $85 million during his career.
“We got a guy with legitimate numbers on the back of his baseball card who is still hungry,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said before a 4-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “With the history that we’ve had the last couple years – being able to get guys and get more out of them – I think it’s a good fit.
“We just got to make sure that we put him in the right position and get him acclimated to see what happens. You never know, we might have another ace in the hole here.”
Nathan earned six All-Star selections between 2004 and 2013 with the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers. He’s pitched for six playoff teams. He ranks eighth all-time with 377 career saves.
This type of low-risk gamble paid off for the Cubs last season when the Seattle Mariners designated Fernando Rodney for assignment in late August. Rodney put up a 0.75 ERA in 14 appearances and used that platform to get $2 million guaranteed and a closer’s job with the San Diego Padres.
It didn’t work out last season with Rafael Soriano, another one of Maddon’s former closers with the Tampa Bay Rays. Soriano made six appearances (6.35 ERA), got released by September and announced his retirement in the middle of spring training.
It’s obvious where president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will be trying to upgrade a team with World Series expectations.
“It’s always about pitching depth,” Maddon said. “It’s always a good strategy.”
Nathan will work out at the team’s Arizona complex and earn the prorated major-league minimum (roughly $350,000). The deal also includes $2.4 million in incentives, according to MLB Network insider Jon Heyman, with a team option for next season that can become a mutual option based on performance.
“You can never have enough (pitching),” Bosio said. “That’s the way we got to be – and every other club’s got to be. When you got a guy sitting with 300 saves out there, I’m not going to say it’s a no-brainer, because I’m sure there were some questions that had to be answered on our end.
“But with Theo and Jed and (all our) scouts, (they) probably saw enough there to say: ‘Hey, it’s worth it.’ I don’t really think it’s a flyer. I think it’s more of a great opportunity for both parties.
“This guy’s presence alone can really help us. And I’m interested to see what he’s got left in the tank.”