Roger Rubin of the Daily News was at The dedication ceremony for Stony Brook’s new baseball stadium yesterday culminated with big-league closer Joe Nathan throwing out a ceremonial first pitch.
It’s not a reach to envision that the next real pitch he throws will be in a Mets uniform.
“The Mets are a team on our radar for sure, but until we talk with them we can’t be sure how well we fit,” Nathan said Saturday in an exclusive interview with the Daily News. “I know what playing in New York is about and I know how passionate the fans are about the teams they like. ... I was a Met fan growing up and my friends from the area are giving me pressure to give them strong consideration.”
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson identified resolving the Jose Reyes situation and strengthening the club’s bullpen as the two top offseason priorities. With Reyes’ free agency shaping up to unfold slowly, the Mets could start addressing the relief corps first.
Nathan had a $12.5 million option with the Twins bought out for $2 million on Tuesday, making him a free agent. Though Twins GM Bill Smith said the club could try to re-sign him, the market for closers should be wide open with a number available and nearly as many openings.
After the midseason trade of Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers, the Mets gave several players a shot at the closer role but none performed consistently enough to earn the organization’s trust. In fact, the only Mets relievers that appear a certainty to be on the team for Opening Day 2012 are righthander Bobby Parnell and lefthander Tim Byrdak.
In many ways – aside from his roots in Circleville, N.Y., and his childhood rooting interest – the Mets and Nathan are potentially an excellent fit. The Mets won’t be huge spenders and the 36-year-old righthander is looking to re-establish himself as a top-tier closer after an uneven 2011 in Minnesota following 2010 Tommy John surgery. “We are prepared to go either way, with a long-term or short-term deal,” he said.
“I’ve put time in and worked my butt off to return to closing games,” Nathan added. “I’m at the spot now where I know next season will be a good season for me. I’m fully healthy.”
After saving 47 games in 2009 he missed all of 2010 with an elbow injury and made it back in less than a year to regain the closer’s role out of spring training last year. But he didn’t do well, lost the role and eventually went back on the disabled list. The second half of the season was a different story: he was 1-0 with 11 saves in 11 chances and a 3.91 ERA after the All-Star break.
“We take a scout’s approach and we’ve talked to a lot about when they saw in the second half,” said Dave Pepe, Nathan’s agent. “Joe is Joe again. He looked as sharp at the end of this season as he did in 2009 and when he’s this healthy he’s as good as any closer in the game. One big difference is that he has a much better curveball than people might be used to seeing. Before he was fully healthy and able to finish his fastball, he relied more on the curveball he used when he was a starter. Now he’s got the fastball back and the curve, too.”
It’s hard to say how the closer market will shape up. Jose Valverde’s $9 million option was picked up this week by the Tigers and the Reds are said to be considering picking up the $12 million option of Francisco Cordero. The Red Sox’ Jonathan Papelbon and Phillies’ Ryan Madsen appear in line for multi-year deals via free agency. But there also are players like Brad Lidge and Jonathan Broxton. “Some of the options may be setting the market, but maybe not,” Nathan said. Pepe added “you can’t be sure because some closers may make agreements early to have it done and other may wait to see what teams will offer as the season gets closer.”
Nathan said that while he is willing to talk to all interested parties, his close ties to New York can only help the Mets. He cared enough to donate $500,000 toward the newly named Joe Nathan Field at Stony Brook. “I like what’s good for the university and its plans,” he said. “I like what’s good for New York.”
Maybe he’s the next thing.