FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If the Twins had made a short list of irreplaceable players at the start of Spring Training, closer Joe Nathan would have been right near the top.
The league leader in saves (246) since the start of the 2004 season, Nathan had completed 91 percent of his save chances with a 1.87 ERA during his six seasons in Minnesota. He was coming off a club record 47-save season in '09, and there is no question that the Twins had become accustomed to relying on the 35-year-old closer to slam the door at the end of the games.
But now the Twins face the challenge of defending their American League Central title in 2010 without their All-Star closer.
Nathan underwent season-ending Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow last week and his loss is a significant blow to a club with high expectations for the upcoming season. So the Twins have been left to figure out how to fill the void and to compete without him.
"It's a tough loss because Nathan is your closer, and normally your bullpen is as good as that guy at the end," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Now, we have to find somebody to step in there and do a job. Not replace him, but do a good job for us and get some outs."
The Twins entered the final week of spring having not yet determined who will be their closer, as Gardenhire said the club will start the year with a closer-by-committee. The club was exploring trade possibilities as well as evaluating its internal options.
"You can't replace a guy like that," outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "But the game is not going to stop for us. Nobody is going to have pity on us and nobody is going to feel sorry for us. As a team, we can't have pity on ourselves and we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We've got to continue to plug away and hopefully a guy, or guys, can go in and finish games off."
It's not the first time that the Twins have had to figure a way to weather a significant loss. The club completed its improbable comeback for an AL Central title last year without first baseman Justin Morneau, who was sidelined for the final four weeks with a stress fracture in his back. They were without catcher Joe Mauer for the first month of the '09 season due to a lower back injury and even with Cuddyer sidelined by a deluge of injuries for the majority of the 2008 season, the club managed to force a division tiebreaker with the White Sox.
"This is something different because it's a full season," Morneau said. "We've dealt with missing guys for a month or two months or whatever and other guys have come in and stepped up. The same thing is going to have to happen now."
The Twins may be without their All-Star closer, but there are many reasons they cited for being optimistic about their chances to compete in 2010.
Minnesota's lineup is improved from last season when its 817 runs scored ranked fifth in the Majors. The additions of shortstop J.J. Hardy and veteran slugger Jim Thome have provided the club with even more power threats along with adding a guy who gets on base from the No. 2 spot of the order in second baseman Orlando Hudson.
"To me, I think we've got the deepest team we've had in years," said Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, who spent the early part of this spring as a special instructor in big league camp. "So it's exciting to look at this ballclub. If our pitching is OK, we'll do all right because we're going to score a lot of runs."
If the spring is any indicator, the Twins have good reason for their high hopes for the rotation. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey aren't a group that's necessarily intimidating to hitters, but they've proven to be solid, particularly this spring. And Francisco Liriano, if he doesn't fill the closer role, looks to be on his way back to form and could provide a potential ace to the rotation.
Having recently signed Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension, the biggest question mark surrounding the Twins as they approach Opening Day is now just centered on whether they can find a way to overcome the loss of Nathan.
The Twins felt their bullpen was set up perfectly with Nathan. They had a group of strong right-handed setup options in Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain with an ideal left-handed specialist in Jose Mijares, who held lefties to a .155 batting average in 2009.
But now the club might need to shift some roles within the bullpen, and see whether one, or possibly two, of those guys can help take over the ninth inning.
"There have been a lot of pressure situations to get to Joe, and we've had guys fill them such as Matty, Rauch, Mijares and Jesse," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "We have guys that have been in pressure situations. They haven't gotten the saves, but we pretty much trust them all."
Whomever the Twins choose to try to fill Nathan's role, the players have made one thing clear: The club must not panic early if it takes some time for a new closer to get adjusted to the role.
"Whoever gets named the closer, we can't lose faith in them if something happens early and they are not comfortable in that role and they end up blowing a couple saves," Morneau said. "It might happen and we just can't lose faith in them. We have to stick with them and give them a chance to settle into that role, to get comfortable and get confident. We can't lose faith in each other.
"It's reality now that we won't have Joe there. But we're still excited about this season. We still believe we can win ballgames and that we can win this division."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.