The Nationals, in their ongoing search for a new closer, have signed the man who ranks eighth all-time with 377 saves. Whether Joe Nathan, at 42, still has enough left in his twice-reconstructed elbow to save another major league game remains to be seen, but the club is willing to take a low-risk chance on him.
In signing both Nathan and veteran right-hander Matt Albers to minor league contracts with invitations to big league camp, the Nationals have added a pair of experienced bullpen candidates to a relief corps lacking an experienced closer and lacking in overall depth.
There’s no guarantee either Nathan or Albers will make the opening day roster. Each will have to prove himself this spring as non-roster invitees. But the Nats will give both pitchers a fair chance to join a bullpen that for now features right-handers Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Koda Glover, plus lefties Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez.
Nathan certainly has the kind of pedigree the Nationals were looking for in a proven late-inning reliever. In addition to his 377 saves, his 89.1 percent conversion rate is highest in major league history among all pitchers with at least 300 saves, barely edging out future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera.
The problem: Nathan has only one big league save since 2014. In two seasons since, he has pitched only 6 2/3 total innings, with the second Tommy John surgery of his career sandwiched in the middle.
Nathan’s second major elbow procedure came early in 2015, at 40, and could have prompted him to retire. The right-hander, though, insisted all along he intended to return. And he did make it back last season, pitching two scoreless innings for the Cubs in July and 4 1/3 scoreless innings for the Giants in September. His fastball velocity, which averaged 94 mph in 2012 with the Tigers, fell to 91.3 mph post-surgery.
“No doubts ever crept in,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in September. “I was still highly motivated to not just get back, but try to win a championship.”
Nathan will join a pair of fellow two-time Tommy John surgery relievers in the Nationals clubhouse this spring in Kelley (who may be the frontrunner to assume the closer’s job) and lefty Tim Collins (also signed to a minor league deal).
Albers, at the other end of the spectrum, has never saved a major league game despite 452 career appearances with six different organizations. The 34-year-old struggled in 58 games with the White Sox last season, racking up a 6.31 ERA and 1.675 WHIP. But the Nationals are hoping for a bounce back to his strong performance the previous four years, when he posted a combined 2.32 ERA and 1.178 WHIP.
A 225-pound Texas native, Albers owns a career 4.38 ERA with the Astros, Orioles, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Indians and White Sox.