Nathan injury is enormous blow to Twins

Good luck trying to replace Joe Nathan.

A trade? The Twins’ payroll already is approaching $100 million. Indians closer Kerry Wood, earning $10.5 million this season, would be too pricey. The Padres’ Heath Bell, earning $4 million, would make more sense, but the Twins do not figure to jump quickly.

The team’s style usually is more deliberate. General manager Bill Smith can try to add bullpen depth toward the end of the spring, maybe pursuing Jays righty Jason Frasor, who is earning $2.65 million, or someone like Marlins righty Mike MacDougal, who is on a minor-league contract. But the Mets and Cubs also are looking for setup types, and the Twins always are reluctant to trade prospects.

The consolation for the Twins is that neither the Tigers nor White Sox figure to run away from them in the American League Central, a division that also includes two weak clubs, the Indians and Royals. Smith can wait until the July 31 non-waiver deadline, re-assess the state of his bullpen, then add someone like Bell at one-third of his current salary.

In the meantime, Smith can pull his hair out.

Only a handful of closers are indispensable — Mariano Rivera definitely, Jonathan Papelbon maybe, Jonathan Broxton soon. Nathan is almost at Rivera’s level, and the Twins lack a Joba Chamberlain, someone with the stuff and mindset to at least project as a reasonable alternative.

The Twins had enjoyed a terrific offseason, re-signing free-agent right-hander Carl Pavano, adding shortstop J.J. Hardy, second baseman Orlando Hudson and designated hitter Jim Thome. They’re likely to sign catcher Joe Mauer to a contract extension shortly. And they’re moving into a new ballpark, Target Field.

Now this.

The loss of Nathan transforms the Twins from AL Central favorites into mere contenders. Short-term, the Twins simply cannot replace Nathan, who has a “significant tear” in the ulnar collateral ligament of his pitching elbow, according to the team.

Nathan, 35, will decide within two weeks whether to undergo Tommy John surgery. Wherever this is heading, it is not good. In the unlikely event that Nathan tries to pitch with the tear, his health will be an issue all season.

With Nathan, the Twins’ bullpen ranked fourth in the American League last season with a 3.87 ERA. The return of right-hander Pat Neshek from Tommy John surgery could provide another quality arm. But manager Ron Gardenhire likely will need to mix and match in the ninth inning; it’s difficult to imagine him anointing right-hander Jon Rauch or anyone else in the Twins’ bullpen as the sole replacement for Nathan.

While the importance of identifying a closer remains a subject of debate in baseball, no one disputes the value of a closer such as Nathan. Managing a bullpen-by-committee is difficult; roles become less defined, and relievers often struggle when asked to perform in higher-leverage situations.

This is why the Twins made a four-year, $47 million commitment to Nathan in March 2008, a deal that seemed quite rich for them at the time. Nathan is in the third year of that deal, with a salary of $11.25 million. The contract, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, is insured.

Even if the Twins collected insurance on Nathan — and received a substantial part of his salary back in the claim — the money would help only so much in cushioning the blow.

The Twins need Joe Nathan.

They can’t buy another one.