No team will go into the 2017 season with more pressure to win than the Washington Nationals. Bryce Harper is two years from free agency and other core players like Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy are in their primes right now. The Nationals have made the postseason three times in the past five years and they've lost in the NLDS all three times.
At the moment, the club does not have a clearly defined closer. Shawn Kelley is the front-runner for the job and he was really good last season, really really good, but he has never been a full-time closer. On Tuesday, the Nationals brought in some veteran depth by signing Joe Nathan to a minor-league contract, the club announced. Here are the financial terms:
joe nathan gets $1.25m on nats minors deal. gives them another closing option.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 31, 2017
if Nathan hits his incentives, he could go north of $3M. #nats— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 31, 2017
Nathan, now 42, threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings for the Cubs and Giants last season. He missed just about the entire 2015 season with his second Tommy John surgery. Given the fact he was already 40 years old and had made tens of millions of dollars in his career, no one would have blamed Nathan for calling it quits at that point. Instead, he keeps pitching. Admirable.
The question is will Nathan actually figure into Washington's ninth-inning mix? I would never rule it out. Veteran closers have a way of finding themselves in the ninth inning even after their skills decline. This is a minor-league contract, so the Nationals are bringing Nathan to camp to see how he throws, and if they're impressed, they can add him to the 40-man roster.
Teams sign players to minor-league deals every year around this time, including former stars like Nathan, so this isn't an out-of-nowhere move. It's business as usual. It just so happens the Nationals are without a clearly defined closer and Nathan is an ex-closer. It's easy to connect the dots, but Washington is going to have to see something good from Nathan before handing him a roster spot.