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Hello, Old Friend: Cubs Activate Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

The Chicago Cubs welcomed a career superstar back to Major League Baseball Sunday (July 24th) with the activation of relief pitcher Joe Nathan. Out of league action since April 2015, Nathan had only recorded one-third of an inning for the Detroit Tigers last season when he injured his elbow. The Cubs signed him as a free agent on May 17, 2016, placing a long-odds bet on the big right hander’s recovery from ulnar collateral ligament repair (a/k/a “Tommy John“) surgery, the second such procedure Nathan has endured. Adam Warren, a middle reliever whose best role may be back-end starter, was optioned to Triple-A Iowa to make room on the active roster.

Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer have a penchant for veteran players that have something left to contribute and simultaneously provide leadership to the North Siders’ young roster. In this they have tried to cover all the player roles, including the bullpen.

Last year Chicago made a late-season move to acquire then 38 year-old Fernando Rodney, who performed well for the Cubs after he had lost his closer role with the Seattle Mariners. Rodney turned free agent, signed with the San Diego Padres and made the National League All Star Team this year shortly after a trade to the Miami Marlins. The Cubs had success with Rodney after their signing of veteran Rafael Soriano as free agent did not work out.

The 41 year-old Nathan is trying to make an improbable, late career comeback. Considering his age and injury history, he figures to be a three-month “rental” at best for the first-place Cubs in their bid for the club’s first National League pennant since 1945.

The Cubs during Epstein’s tenure (2012-present) have so far resisted the urge to sign or trade for an “elite” closer. The organization tends to deal in the once-dominant and up-and-comer markets where bullpen help is concerned. Former Rule Five draft pick Hector Rondon is the incumbent closer; former Baltimore Orioles righty Pedro Strop, acquired with Jake Arrieta in 2013, is the top set-up man. (Update: The Cubs traded with the Yankees for elite closer Aroldis Chapman on July 25th).

Relief pitchers are the “blue collar” workers of baseball. Managers call on them when something is either broken or on the brink. Much is expected of them, and they seem to model the goat horns as often as they wear the laurels. (This perception applies to the Cubs this season; while the bullpen has given up a share of leads and tie games, it is mostly a sputtering offense that explains Chicago’s mediocre 23-23 record since June 1st). For all their trouble, relievers – except those in the elite company of a Craig Kimbrel or a Jonathan Papelbon, or Nathan in his prime with the Minnesota Twins – are compensated less than starters and position players.

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joe Nathan throws against the Kansas City Royals in the ninth inning of an MLB American League baseball game in Detroit Wednesday, April 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joe Nathan throws against the Kansas City Royals in the ninth inning of an MLB American League baseball game in Detroit Wednesday, April 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Nathan has 377 career saves in a 15-season career that began with the San Francisco Giants in 1999. Pitching for the Giants, Twins (for nearly half of his career), Texas Rangers, and Detroit Tigers, he has fanned 967 in 917 MLB innings. He has an outstanding ERA+ career mark of 150 (ERA+ indexes Earned Run Average to league average; 100 = league average).

Joe Nathan has little left to prove with six All Star selections, and he has made post-season appearances with each of his previous employers. One wonders if the personal challenge to overcome injury and age are what drives him, or is it that elusive championship? He has a chance to end his decorated but injury-marred career on a high note as the Cubs push toward a playoff spot, if not a pennant or a ring.

Tim is a lifelong baseball (especially Cubs) fan, member of SABR, and player of Out of the Park Baseball. Recently he caught the genealogy bug and is researching his family history. He is originally from Chicago, but now lives in Columbia, MO, with his wife, two daughters, and two dogs.

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