Where do the Twins go from here?

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - You could almost hear a collective groan this morning, from Minneapolis all the way down to Fort Myers, as the news began to circulate that Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan could be lost for the season because of a torn ligament in his pitching elbow.

Outside of someone named Joe Mauer, Nathan is probably the most irreplaceable player on the Minnesota roster. Quite frankly, you can make the argument that Nathan is the more vital piece to the Twins' puzzle than the reigning American League Most Valuable Player.

The bad news started for the Twins over the weekend, when Nathan experienced tightness in his elbow after facing just one batter in an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox.

Joe Nathan is probably the most irreplaceable player on the Minnesota roster.
He then left Florida and traveled back to Minnesota for tests, which revealed the tear. The team is going to get a second opinion, but once swelling in the elbow subsides, Nathan, in all likelihood, will have to undergo dreaded Tommy John surgery.

So where do the Twins go from here? With Nathan in the mix they were a heavy favorite to once again win the AL Central. Now, not so much.

I mean, how exactly do you replace a guy who in the last five years has saved more games than any other closer in baseball? It is impossible, you can't, especially if you are the Twins.

There are closers out there for the taking. Cleveland's Kerry Wood and Cincinnati's Francisco Cordero ring a bell right off the bat. The problem there, of course, is that while the Twins could probably pull off a deal, they are paying Nathan $11.25 million this season.

Can you really see them shelling out an additional $10+ million for the closer position? It is not going to happen.

San Diego's Heath Bell could also probably be had. He only makes about $4 million this season, but the Twins would have to unload the farm for him.

There is an intriguing option out there for Ron Gardenhire, and he does not have to look very far to find it. That option is lefty Francisco Liriano, who by all accounts has looked about as good this past winter as at any time since undergoing his own Tommy John surgery following the 2006 season.

Down in the Dominican, Liriano was throwing his fastball in the mid-90s along with a "filthy" slider. Minnesota had high hopes for him finally living up to that world of potential he flashed in the 2006 campaign, when he went 12-3 and drew comparisons to Johan Santana.

Quite simply, the Twins were counting on him being their ace this season.

I had already pegged Liriano as the key to the Twins' season before I heard the awful news on Nathan. Now, it is even more apparent that he will make or break the Twins this season. If they decide to keep him in rotation, there is an even bigger need for him to be an ace. And if they move him to the pen, well, all this worrying today could be rendered moot.

Of course, I am not sure that Liriano can handle it from a physical standpoint. It has been over three years since his own surgery, and unlike other pitchers who have had it, he has never really been the same.

Actually, he has regressed.

If he is physically up to the task, though, he is the Twins' best option from an in-house standpoint. But then again, if they move him, could Minnesota get by with a rotation of Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing?

That is not great, but it is not awful either. The Twins were a favorite to win the division even before people knew what they were going to get from Liriano. Not having him in the rotation may not hurt them, simply because he was such an unknown.

Early on, it would be a struggle for Liriano to go on back-to-back nights, but the Twins do have a former closer on their roster in right-hander Jon Rauch, who saved 17 games for the Washington Nationals in 2008. Rauch is the perfect guy to ease Liriano into an everyday role.

While it sounds easy enough to convert Liriano, Minnesota may not want to mess with him any further, especially on such short notice. We are just under a month away from the start of the season. I am not sure they can get his arm into that kind of shape just yet. He would need a little extra conditioning in Fort Myers.

But like I said, Rauch should be able to hold down the fort until Liriano is ready.

I know it is more important to have a dominating ace than a closer, but Liriano hasn't come close to being the pitcher he was before the surgery. Who knows if he ever will be again? I say make the move now.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
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