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Updated: January 31st, 2011 12:39am
Nathan has spoken with Capps, says goal 'is to be the closer'

Nathan has spoken with Capps, says goal 'is to be the closer'

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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With the departures of free agents Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch, the Minnesota Twins will enter spring training with several bullpen slots up for grabs.

If all goes according to plan, Joe Nathan -- in the final stages of his recovery from 2010 Tommy John surgery -- will fill one of those slots.

But will he return to his role as anchor of the bullpen?

"My goal is to be the closer," Nathan said Sunday in an interview with 1500 ESPN. "That's what I've strived for from day one, is to get back to where I was before the surgery and hopefully get stronger."

Nathan, who missed the entire 2010 season after tearing ligaments in his elbow during spring training, said he has had conversations with current closer Matt Capps about their potential roles.

Capps posted a 2.00 ERA with 21 strikeouts and 16 saves in 27 innings after being acquired via trade from the Washington Nationals in late July.

"I don't think (saves) are going to be as important to me," Nathan said. "It is the almighty 'S' at the end of the game, but this year I think, probably, having coming back from this, but also knowing what our main goal is, and we want to get back to the playoffs.

"We want to win. Whatever it takes. And if I need to take a day and let him go pick one up, that's fine. Our conversations were great about that -- that it didn't matter how we get to it, we just want that 'W' at the end of the day.

"And both of us had some success in this game, and we're fortunate that we're on the same club and we're going to be able to finish some games out."

Nathan said he has spoken with other pitchers who have gone through the Tommy John surgery process as well -- most notably starter Tim Hudson and closer Billy Wagner.

Wagner likely provides the closest comparison -- he was 37 at the time of surgery, and Nathan was 36 -- and certainly the most optimistic case.

Wagner returned to action just 11 months after surgery, and in his first full season back last year he posted a 1.43 ERA with 104 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings.

"Billy Wagner was big before I even talked to him," Nathan said, "just knowing he's been through the process. He had the same doctor as I did, he was older than I was... He had a lot of similarities. Obviously the same role, and it was nice to see a guy like that... Obviously he's a hard worker."

Nathan added, referring to the potential length of his career, "Before (the surgery) I didn't know how many more years there were. But now that I've had this I feel like this is something that could let me go for another five, six, seven more years."

Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on February 17. And needless to say, Nathan's ability -- or lack thereof, perhaps -- to return to his old, dominant ways is one of the biggest X-factors heading into the season.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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