Joe Nathan plans to resume closing after coming back from Tommy John surgery

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Joe Nathan is 10 months removed from Tommy John elbow surgery and told Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he plans to pick up right where he left off as the Twins’ closer once he arrives at spring training on February 17.

Nathan saved 47 games in 2009 and has been the second-best closer in baseball since coming to Minnesota in 2004, but the Twins acquired Matt Capps from the Nationals to serve as their closer down the stretch last season and he’s under contract for 2011 at $7.1 million.

If healthy there’s little doubt that Nathan will reclaim ninth-inning duties and make Capps an overpaid setup man, but the Twins learned first-hand with Francisco Liriano that not all pitchers return from Tommy John surgery with their old stuff intact and Nathan has just now been cleared to start throwing breaking balls.

I don’t plan on being left out of any drills or held back in any way. If something else says something differently, we’ll go from there. But my mind-set right now is that I’m closing and getting ready for the season. That’s my plan. We’ll see how it goes. There’s always going to be a question mark. For the most part, things have gone well. Obviously, there are some sessions when you wish it went better. But these are the things you’ve got to do to come back. It’s tough to gauge now, but at this stage, it feels good.

Nathan’s comeback is particularly key for the Twins because they lost nearly half of last season’s relief innings with Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch all leaving as free agents and haven’t acquired a single veteran reliever to replace them this offseason. They’re counting on Nathan and Capps anchoring the bullpen while various young guys step up and claim jobs.

Rays sign lefty Ryan Merritt to a minor league deal

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The Tampa Bay Rays have signed lefty swingman Ryan Merritt to a minor league contract. Nah, it’s not a big signing but we’ll take anything today.

Merritt, who has spent his entire career in the Indians organization, spent the entire 2018 season at Triple-A Columbus. It wasn’t a bad year for him — he posted a 3.79 ERA and a 52/2 K/BB ratio in 13 starts and two relief appearances covering 71.1 innings — but the Tribe just couldn’t find a role for him at the big league level. He has shown in the past, however, that he can hack it in the bigs, having posted a 1.71 ERA in 31.2 innings with the Indians between 2016-2017.

His thing is that he simply doesn’t strike guys out at anything approaching a typical clip for a big leaguer: 3.7 per nine innings in his small sample of major league outings and 6.3 Ks per nine innings in the minors. Which, while it may not prevent him from having success at the big league level, is likely a reason for the limited number of chances he’s been given.

The Rays are probably the best place he could go, frankly. They’ve shown themselves willing to utilize guys in unique ways and are more likely than most teams to find places to spot a lefty control specialist who has shown he can both start and come out of the pen.