John Smoltz is old, unsigned, and may be the ideal replacement for Joe Nathan
"You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt."
- Crash Davis, Bull Durham
Unless those same baseball Gods touch upon the right wing of Joe Nathan in the next two
weeks, it seems readily apparent that the Twins' closer, second all-time in franchise saves (eight behind Rick Aguilera), will be lost for the season with a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. Tommy John surgery seems likely to ensue for the 35-year-old as the club's April 5th opener in Los Angeles nears by the day.
And all we can do is offer a Nathan-like whinny, shaking our heads in collective disbelief as (the Mauer contract situation aside) the news comes amidst a wealth of off-season/Spring Training positivity for the defending Central champs.
But the organization has little time for such lament. And although searching for a replacement arm begins in our own stable, I'm thinking that a trade or signing outside the clubhouse will prove the best option for finding a replacement for Nathan. Alternatives within the Twins staff (set-up men Rauch, Guerrier, Crain, Neshek, and Liriano) have been well-bandied about locally for a few days now, so I won't use this space to review in-house options.
While the first outside name to find the replacement conversation has been Blue Jays reliever Jason Frasor, allow me to jump right to another choice: Mr. John Smoltz. After earning certain membership to Cooperstown with 20 oft-luminary seasons in Atlanta, the now 42-year-old Smoltz signed with the Red Sox last offseason post the fifth surgery of his career. And he stunk . . .
After working out for the Sox and being described as a "physical freak" by pitching coach
John Farrell, Smoltz signed a base, $5.5 million, one-year deal to start for the Boston, but was eventually released in late-summer after posting an embarrassing 2-5 mark with an 8.32 ERA in eight starts. Within a week, Smoltz signed with the Cardinals, and offered a more respectable 4.32 ERA to couple with a 1-3 record in his seven N.L. starts. In the 'Cards NLDS loss to L.A., Smoltz gave up a run in two innings of relief in the series-ending, Game 3 loss.
Employing that last appearance as segue, a Smoltz return to his relief duties of 2001-04 may prove just the fit the Twins need in their search for a new closer. Yes, given Smoltz' age and recent history -- there are a lot of "maybes" in that "may," but Smoltz is the only dude in MLB history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves. He remains unsigned and all reports have him staying in game shape and interested in a continuation of his career. Earlier this week, Ken Rosenthal at FOXSports reported that the Cardinals maintain an interest in Smoltz, but don't have a place for him at present. The Rosenthal post also noted that Smoltz "prefers to start, but is open to relieving."
Beyond that update, the most recent news connected to Smoltz came via late-February reports that the Republican Party had an interest in courting Smoltz to run for Congress and fill the House seat soon to be opened with the retirement of Representative John Linder (R-Ga.). While the pitcher has done some work in the political shadows, he quickly denied any interest in such a pursuit.
Although a starter the bulk of his career, Smoltz was a closing stud for the Braves during his three full seasons in that role. Perhaps ironically, he shifted to closing duties post undergoing Tommy John in 2000. From 2002-04, Smoltz recorded 144 saves and blew just 13 -- in all three seasons, he converted at least 90 percent of his chances. His 55 saves in '02 remain an N.L. record (tied the ensuing year by Eric Gagne).
Considering the afore-noted $5.5 million that he signed for with Boston last season (his lowest annual earnings since 1995) and the measured (at best) results achieved with both the BoSox and 'Cards, it's conceivable that the Twins could get Smoltz at a lesser cost.
The Twins would seem an alluring option for the graybeard, given that he'd essentially be
moving into a ready-made position for a highly-competitive team. In addition, the opportunity to cut the ribbon on a new ballpark has to stroke the medulla oblongata of any big leaguer, regardless of age, experience, or credentials. Of added note: Smoltz, if you didn't know, is a ridiculously talented golfer with a course in his backyard, a 63 to his credit and five lifetime holes-in-one. With the nation's fifth most courses per capita, Minnesota may seem like a readily attractive place for him to spend a summer.
But of course this doesn't come down to the links. It's about the Twins taking these two weeks (or less) to quickly analyze this awful development. Does Smoltz -- an eight-time All-Star and 1996 Cy winner -- have anything left in the tank? If we don't find out, another team will eventually. But for a Championship caliber ballclub like the Twins, a team can only survive for so long with talented mid-inning ponies closing games. A horse, even if it's an old one, is needed for the final frame.
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