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Twins to go with closer-by-committee

Twins to go with closer-by-committee

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Rather than select a dedicated closer to replace Joe Nathan, the Twins will begin the season with a closer-by-committee.

"We are a committee," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Our closer role is a committee."

Gardenhire mentioned right-handers Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain and left-hander Jose Mijares as possible members of the committee. Francisco Liriano, a fifth-starter candidate who had been a reluctant candidate for the closer's job, will not be part of the group.

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"Liriano's a starter," Gardenhire said.

Ultimately, the Twins would like to name a dedicated closer from among those four -- but it may take some time.

In the interim, Gardenhire will choose his nightly closer based upon matchups, availability and trends.

"We're going to try just about anything," Gardenhire said.

The Twins found themselves in this situation when Nathan, who saved a league-high 246 games with a 1.87 ERA over the past six seasons in Minnesota, learned that he had a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Nathan spent two weeks hanging onto the slim hope that he might be able to pitch this season, before undergoing Tommy John surgery on Friday.

Nathan hopes to be ready by Opening Day 2011.

Prior to Sunday's announcement, the Twins were considering trying out Liriano in the role. But the lefty, who has started 58 of his 77 big league appearances, publicly stated that he would rather be a starting pitcher.

Though Minnesota has yet to name its fifth starter, Gardenhire did say that "Liriano's ahead of everybody."

For Gardenhire, it seems, figuring out who will start games may be easier than deciding who will finish them.

"I've never had to do it," Gardenhire said. "It's going to be an experience trying to mix and match as best we can. But I've got some capable arms that we're going to rely on."

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Since dedicated closers became a significant part of the game, rarely has a contending team gone without one. The 2003 Red Sox were the most prominent example, famously attempting to use a closer-by-committee before giving up and signing free agent Keith Foulke after the season.

The Twins, however, don't anticipate going the entire year without a dedicated closer as the Red Sox did. Instead, Gardenhire wants to test each candidate in the ninth inning before determining which of them may be the best fit.

Barring an 11th-hour trade for a closer, Minnesota will begin the year without one. But the club won't necessarily end the season that way.

"I've seen committees work," Gardenhire said. "It's not always the easiest thing in the world, but you just have to ad lib. When you lose your closer, it's a little different. That's how we're going to start, and we'll go from there."

Guerrier, 31, is coming off a career year, posting a 2.36 ERA in 79 games. Rauch, also 31, is the only candidate with significant end-game experience, closing out games for the Nationals in 2008. Mijares, 25, is the only lefty of the group, and Crain, 28, was once considered the Twins' closer of the future.

Guerrier and Mijares, in particular, are coming off sensational years, though relief pitching has always been one of the most volatile and unpredictable aspects of the game.

It is for that reason that the Twins will miss Nathan, one of the best and most consistent relievers in baseball. Since coming to Minnesota in 2004, Nathan has saved no fewer than 36 games, blown no more than six saves and posted an ERA no higher than 2.70 each year. He has appeared in four All-Star Games.

Earlier Sunday, Nathan rejoined the Twins in Fort Myers after his operation in New York, and he spoke to the difficulty of closing out games.

"You better be ready," Nathan said, with his left arm in a bandage and his right arm in a sling. "You definitely can't ease into the role. If you're going to be doing this, you've got to jump in with two feet."

When Nathan was traded to Minnesota as a setup man after the 2003 season, he wasn't sure if he would have an opportunity to close out games. But the Twins took a chance on him, and Nathan blossomed into one of the top closers in baseball.

"Even though I didn't know I was going to be a closer, I kind of had it in my mindset that this could be what I'm doing," Nathan said. "So I was going to be ready for it."

Guerrier, Mijares or Crain could be next. Or Rauch, who had one of his best years as a closer in 2008, could fill the role.

Nathan, meanwhile, will fly north with the Twins this week, before eventually working back into shape at Target Field. The Twins' state-of-the-art facilities in Minneapolis will allow him to remain with the team at home, instead of spending a summer rehabbing in Fort Myers.

"To be in Minnesota, and be able to use the facilities there and be around the team for 81 games, will be nice mentally for me," Nathan said. "Now, with the new stadium, I think it just makes all the sense in the world to be in Minnesota."

Still, it is certain to be a difficult summer for Nathan, hanging around his teammates while he is forced to the sidelines. It will help if the Twins can find a capable replacement.

Given Gardenhire's plans for a committee, that much may take a while. But Nathan has plenty of confidence in his teammates.

"I've always said all along that our strength is how deep we are," Nathan said. "You take one guy out of it, we're still a good bullpen."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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