Nats restock 'pen with Hudson, Elias, Strickland

GM Rizzo on moves: 'We're all in it for the long haul'

July 31st, 2019

WASHINGTON -- For months, the Nationals have had a glaring hole in their bullpen. Even as they turned around their season from the brink of disaster -- rebounding from a 19-31 start to begin Wednesday in command of the top Wild Card slot in the National League -- they did so in spite of a relief group that began the day carrying a 5.99 ERA, the highest in the Majors.

So, the Nationals entered Wednesday hoping to add one, or possibly two relievers to their 'pen. Well, general manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo pulled off two trades to overhaul the Nats' relief corps prior to the Trade Deadline, adding right-hander from the Blue Jays, as well as left-hander and right-hander from the Mariners.

All three players are upgrades to a bullpen in dire need of help bridging the gap from an excellent starting pitching staff to closer , and all three have closing experience, which Rizzo values.

“These aren’t the sexiest names in the trade market,” Rizzo said, “but we think we got good quality, reliable guys with some moxie and some experience.”

Hudson, 32, is a rental, signed just through the end of this season, but he is having one of his best seasons. In 45 games with Toronto, he has posted a 3.00 ERA with nine strikeouts per nine innings, a 4.21 FIP and a fastball averaging 96.0 mph. He’s been even better in his last 21 games, pitching to a 1.85 ERA with 27 strikeouts without surrendering a homer. Hudson has also stranded 21-of-22 inherited runners this season, useful for a Nationals team whose relievers own the worst strand rate in the Majors, holding just 65.2 percent of inherited runners.

The Nationals also wanted relievers with years of control remaining on their contract, and Elías cannot become a free agent until 2022. He’s appeared in 44 games for Seattle this season and posted a 4.40 ERA with 14 saves, which was tied for 10th in the American League at the time of the trade, and 45 strikeouts. In his career, Elías owns nearly even splits against righties (.720 OPS) and lefties (.718), but lefties have been significantly better this season (.990 OPS) than righties (.579), a fact that did not concern Rizzo much.

And then there is Strickland, most famous around D.C. for instigating a brawl with then-National Bryce Harper in 2017, after holding a grudge on a home run hit in the 2014 National League Division Series. Strickland has two more seasons of arbitration eligibility after this year, but has spent most of the year on the injured list with a right lat strain he suffered in the fourth game of the year. He did make a recent appearance for Seattle, returning on Sunday to toss a scoreless inning against the Tigers, and after scouting him, Rizzo and the Nats feel confident Strickland is healthy.

“We've improved our baseball team with three really good relief pitchers, two of them that we control for the long haul,” Rizzo said. “And it shows the guys in that room that we appreciate how we've been playing, and we see you, we believe it, and we're all in it for the long haul.”

The Nationals made these additions while operating on a budget. Even with the additions, Washington will remain under the competitive balance tax, according to Rizzo, as the club continues to refuse to go beyond that threshold for what would be a third straight year. And the Nats did not have to surrender any of their most valued prospects.

The highest-rated player they relinquished was left-hander Taylor Guilbeau, their No.15 prospect as rated by MLB Pipeline, who along with right-hander Elvis Alvarado will be heading to Seattle in exchange for Elias. Left-hander Aaron Fletcher, the Nats No. 21 prospect, was the exchange for Strickland, and right-hander Kyle Johnston, their 27th rated prospect by MLB Pipeline, will head to the Blue Jays in return for Hudson.

The prices for relievers were still “exorbitant” according to Rizzo until hours before Wednesday’s deadline, which Rizzo said prevented him from jumping the market to make a deal for relief help earlier. In the end, the Nats added three solid relievers to a bullpen that’s been short on them all year. Javy Guerra and Michael Blazek were designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster, with Jonny Venters being transferred to the 60-day injured list to clear space on the 25-man, but the Nats will need to create one more spot before Friday.

“We got guys who have accumulated a lot of saves in the past,” Rizzo said. “We got a couple controllable relievers for not only this year, but the foreseeable future, and the player return was something that was acceptable to us. We feel good about what we did today. We feel like we upgraded ourselves and improved ourselves. And we are excited to take this road trip and really step on the gas and get things rolling.”