Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/22/11

Obviously it is the horse talking.

News broke Monday night that the Texas Rangers signed once-great, maybe even possibly still-great, reliever Joe Nathan to a 2-year contract for $7M a year, plus a $9M option.

FUN FACT: Over the last two years, Joe Nathan and I have the exact same WAR — we both have been worth precisely 0.0 wins! Which makes us ask: Why did the Rangers choose Nathan?

The best relievers in baseball last year included some sort of lineup such as this:

Name FIP WAR Salary
Craig Kimbrel 1.52 3.2 $0.4 Jonathan Papelbon 1.53 3.0 $12.0 Sean Marshall 1.86 2.8 $1.6 David Robertson 1.84 2.8 $0.5 Mariano Rivera 2.19 2.4 $15.0 Sergio Romo 0.96 2.2 $0.5

The astute reader’s eyes will notice four of the six best relievers in 2011 earned less than $2M, while a pair of other, very recognizable names earned over $10M.

We could say a lot about this small sample of elite relievers, but perhaps the most true thing we could say is that this group helps represent the volatility of relievers. Sean Marshall of the Chicago Cubs is the only twirler making a repeat showing in the top six — why, in 2010, names like Brian Wilson and Carlos Marmol adorned the list. In 2009, Mariano Rivera makes a second appearance, but none others.

Which is to say: Good one year, gone the next. In an efficient market, the highest paid relievers, we should expect, would be the best ones. Instead, year after toiling year, we see disproportionately large contracts handed to relatively feh relievers — or worse, once-great relievers who suddenly asplode. One could say this is the case with Joe Nathan, but that would be an over-glossing of the issues.

Consider: Nathan was Shaft-awesome from 2003 through 2009.

In 2010, he has Tommy John surgery, though. Fast forward a year, and he’s back pitching with the Minnesota Twins, with relatively (relatively, mind you, relatively) terrible results.

The biggest culprit? His fastball. As Dan Wade points out, Nathan’s fastball lost some notable zip:

His speed pops up a little bit after a mid-season trip to the DL, but then slumps back down in his final few appearances.

And not only did his fastball lose some booyah!, it also lost a little horizontal movement:

Slower, straighter fastballs pretty much universally equal worse results. So it is no surprise Nathan’s four and two-seamers went from about 2.00 wFB/C to -1.15. And it also makes sense — given how his sliders and curves seemed to have maintained their velocities and gained a little horizontal movement — that they should remain effective as they indeed did.

So by handing Nathan $7M per year, the Rangers are making the bet that he can fix his fastball and produce 1.5 WAR per year for the next two years at least. In his prime, Nathan was consistently worth 2.0 to 3.0 wins in any given season, so a return to form actually makes Nathan a bargain.

But that does not change the fact that Nathan is coming off a major injury. Nor does it change the fact that the reliever market is hardly settled. There is the yet-fully-signed Ryan Madson floating about somewhere, spending his time being six years younger than Nathan. Also, the Cubs have declared available the aforecharted Sean Marshall — though at likely pretty price of prospects.

A quick gander at the free agent leaderboards shows there are many recognizable and capable relievers on the free agent boat right now. Part of me suspects the Rangers were willing to pay an extra premium for a pitcher with closing experience. Ask the Tampa Bay Rays and Kyle “12-Walks” Farnsworth if closing experience is worth a salt.

Then again, if Nathan can regain his former majesty — and if I am to place any sort of a bet on a pitching coach this winter, I would place my coins on Mike Maddux — then the Rangers could end up with one of the game’s most elite closers. Oh, and another epic starting pitcher.

As a direct result of the Nathan signing, the Rangers informed Neftali Feliz he would be a starter in 2012. Feliz was mostly a starter whilst zipping through the minors, so he should have little problem transitioning to that role — and he should be at least 2.0 wins more valuable. If we choose to think this way — and I prefer not to — then we could say the signing of Nathan, having pushed an elite 24-year-old pitcher into the rotation, has already met its 1.5 win obligation and exceeded it by 0.5.

In truth though, the Rangers could have probably rolled the dice with a number of other relievers (LaTroy Hawkins, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Qualls) signed them for a combined $7M or $8M, thrown them against the proverbial wall, and seen if one of them could stick as closer. Or, better yet, they could have made Mike Adams their closer — I mean, where will four seasons with an ERA under 2.50 get you if not to a closer role?

Ultimately, it is hard for me to rag on this signing. Yeah, I would have assembled the bullpen a different way, and yeah, I am skeptical of Nathan’s ability to recover his former glory, but the Rangers are presently rich in purse and moreover — being ever on the cusp of another World Series run — can and must afford to pay premiums for high-grade relief talent.

By signing Nathan instead of falling prey to a Francisco Cordero and paying name-brand prices for Walmart production, the Rangers have elected the middle road — paying nearly name-brand prices for, like, Target production, but possibly Trader Joe’s (but also possibly eBay seller from Shenzhen, China, production).

The world may raise a brow at the fact a recently-dramatically-injured reliever is the third reliever signed this off-season, but I will leave my brow tepidly still for now.

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