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Camp report: Rangers get closer and starter in one deal

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With Joe Nathan (right) and Yu Darvish, the Rangers are stong on the front and back end. (US Presswire)  
With Joe Nathan (right) and Yu Darvish, the Rangers are stong on the front and back end. (US Presswire)  

Joe Nathan never figured the Rangers would call.

He was a free-agent closer for the first time in his career, finally feeling completely healthy a year and a half on from Tommy John surgery, looking for a job and wondering who would be interested.

He never figured on the Rangers.

"Because Neftali had done such a good job for them," Nathan said.

He could also have said that the Rangers don't do multiyear contracts with relief pitchers -- or didn't. Jon Daniels went through six winters as Rangers general manager without doing any of them, until he signed Nathan to a two-year, $14.75 million deal last November.

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Rangers' offense powerful, while Neftali Feliz bolsters an already strong staff. Likes and dislikes >>
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Why now? Why Nathan? And why, when the Rangers (as Nathan said) already had a closer who had saved 72 games in 81 chances over the last two seasons?

Think of it this way (because this is how the Rangers thought of it):

They weren't buying a closer. They were buying a starter.

They were determined to move Neftali Feliz into the rotation. But they knew that to do it -- and for manager Ron Washington to feel completely comfortable with it -- they were going to need an established closer.

"Last spring, we experimented with Neftali as a starter, but we weren't protected," Washington said. "So the first thing Jon did [last winter] was get some protection. And he made a great choice."

That choice was easier than you'd think, even in a winter where the market was flooded with closers. The Rangers liked Nathan so much that they had tried to trade for him last July, and again last August.

They believed he was healthy, and went to see him after the season, just to be sure.

They believed that his success at the end of last season (a 3.18 ERA and 11 saves in 12 chances over his final 30 appearances) was a sign that Nathan was improving as he put the surgery further behind him. And they thought his superior makeup was a big plus.

"We really felt that he fit what we're all about," Daniels said.

Fantasy Writer
Bust ... Elvis Andrus, SS: Elvis Andrus has been very consistent since his arrival in the majors back in 2009 as a 20-year-old. However, consistency isn't necessarily what Fantasy owners are looking for from a young hitter. Before a player reaches his peak, owners would ideally like to see growth, but Andrus hasn't provided many signs of progress. He has yet to develop much power, build on his walk rate or break the 40-steals barrier. Andrus has reduced his strikeouts, though we have yet to see it have much effect on his batting average. He is still plenty young enough to have a breakout season and because of his youth, many owners may assume it is coming this year. However, there are no signs of it occurring anytime soon, and he could wind up underperforming his draft position for many owners.
Bounce-back player ... Joe Nathan, RP: Coming back successfully from Tommy John surgery is no sure thing, and to look at Joe Nathan's stats from last season it would be easy to assume he didn't enjoy much of a triumphant return. Overall, he compiled a 4.84 ERA and a higher-than-normal 1.16 WHIP, but much of the damage was done during the first three weeks of the season. In just his first seven appearances with the Twins last year, Nathan allowed eight earned runs over 6 1/3 innings and he blew a pair of saves. The rest of the way, his ERA was a more respectable 3.76 and a 0.99 WHIP shows he mostly suffered from stranding too few baserunners. Now with the Rangers, Nathan is fully recovered from his surgery and should continue to do a solid job of keeping runners off the basepaths, as well as a better job of preventing them from scoring. Though you probably won't need to draft him early, Nathan could return to performing like a No. 1 Fantasy reliever. -- Al Melchior
Depth Chart | Rangers outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

And they were thrilled when they found out how receptive Nathan was to coming to Texas.

They remember the days when no pitcher with a choice wanted to be a Ranger, when the organization was all about offense. They had worked on changing the reputation, worked on building a team based on pitching and defense, but weren't sure how much pitchers' opinions had changed.

When they found out how much Nathan wanted them, the Rangers were thrilled.

And he did want them ... once he realized they were interested.

"Our interest here was higher than a lot of other places," Nathan said.

He loved that the Rangers have such a good team, one that has been to the World Series two years in a row. Nathan played on four playoff teams in seven seasons with the Twins, but never made it out of the first round.

"My goal is to be in the postseason, and I know these guys would do what it takes to get there," he said. "I felt confident this team would be hungry. It was a perfect fit."

The Twins showed some interest in keeping him, making what Nathan called "a respectable offer." But Nathan said that once the Rangers were involved, he directed his agent to try to make a deal with Texas.

As it turned out, the way the closer market went the rest of the winter, it was a great decision. In addition to the $14.75 million guaranteed, Nathan got bonuses that could push his base salary from $7 million to $8 million this year.

The way the market went, the Rangers realize now that they could have signed a closer for less had they waited deeper into the winter. But they don't regret moving quickly, in part because they wanted to commit to Feliz as a starter early in the winter, and in part because they believe they got the right guy to replace him at the end of games.

Is Nathan the right guy?

If his results match how he feels, the answer will certainly be yes. Remember that in a six-year run with the Twins from 2004-09, Nathan saved 246 games (the most in baseball in that span), had a 1.87 ERA (lower than Rivera's) and allowed less than one baserunner an inning.

So when Nathan says, "I feel better than I did before the surgery," he's saying he feels as good as he did when he was one of the very best closers in the game.

He came to camp enthused, and saying he weighs less than he has since he was with the Giants a decade ago.

He's 37 years old now, but after changing teams for the first time in eight years, he says, "I feel like a rookie."

He's excited, and the Rangers are excited. They don't mind that they spent more money than they ever expected to spend on a closer.

After all, remember, they were buying a starter, too.

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