SAN FRANCISCO -- The Nationals made acquiring bullpen help their top priority prior to Monday's non-waiver Trade Deadline. They addressed that need Saturday afternoon, completing a trade for right-hander Mark Melancon from the Pirates in exchange for left-handers Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn.
The deal allowed the Nationals to acquire a closer without giving up any of the top prospects they deemed untouchable before the deadline.
"We put a lot of work into a lot of different ideas and deals -- this one made the most sense for us," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's a known commodity and he's a successful late-inning reliever and a guy we had followed for years. A good makeup guy. Battle tested and one of the elite relievers in the game."
Melancon, who is expected to join the team here Sunday, has emerged as one of game's premier relievers since the start of 2013. He owns a 1.80 ERA since then (the best in the Majors among relievers with at least 200 innings) with a 5.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio while surrendering just nine homers in 260 1/3 innings (0.31 ratio leads the Majors). This season has been just as strong for Melancon, who has 30 saves in 45 games with a 1.51 ERA while opposing hitters are hitting .205/.252/.265 against him. Among pitchers with at least 200 batted balls during the Statcast™ era (2015-present), Melancon generated the lowest exit velocity.
Washington missed out on acquiring right-hander Aroldis Chapman before he was traded to Chicago, after the Nationals were unwilling to part with their top prospects such as Lucas Giolito, Trea Turner, Reynaldo López and Victor Robles. So their focus shifted to Melancon, 31, who will become a free agent after this season. Traditionally, the Nationals have stayed away from trading for players during the season who are set to become free agents, but Rizzo made an exception in this case.
"I just think that his resume and his performance level dictated that he was a guy to really go after and attack," Rizzo said. "Although we'll have him for a short time this year, we thought that the situation and the deal that we had to make to acquire such an accomplished reliever was worth it."
Melancon has been a staple at the back end of Pittsburgh's bullpen since July 2013 when he inherited the closer's role full-time from Jason Grilli. He has recorded more saves (128) than any other pitcher in the Majors since that point and the Pirates have not lost a single game where Melancon has entered in a save situation since April 21, 2015 -- a span of 80 games.
"Those guys are crazy talented," Melancon said in Pittsburgh about the Nationals. "There's some excitement, too. Obviously I'm excited to be a part of something that looks very opportunistic. I don't know everybody there, but I do know a few guys. The guys that I do know, I like, and I like what they do on the field. I'm excited about that."
This also marks the second consecutive season the Nationals have traded for a closer before the non-waiver deadline. Their addition last season was Jonathan Papelbon, whose future with the team is uncertain. He has been a closer for nearly his entire career, but his fastball velocity is at a career low and he rarely generates swings and misses anymore. In his past three appearances, Papelbon has allowed 11 of the 15 batters he has faced to reach.
Rizzo and Baker both spoke to Papelbon once they completed the trade, a respect Rizzo felt Papelbon had earned considering his career. It's the first time since 2005 that Papelbon will have to adjust to a role other than closer.
"I think anybody losing their job is a hard thing to accept, period," Papelbon said. "I think that's just a hard pill to swallow, no matter who you are and what job you're in. ... I think for me I'm just going to have to do whatever it takes to accept a new role and a new challenge for myself. I just take it that way."
The Nationals also had to trade away Rivero, a young, hard-throwing left-hander who was under team control until 2022. Members of the organization have projected him as a potential future closer, and at times he has served as one of the club's setup men. However, Rivero, 25, has been up and down for most of this season with a 4.53 ERA and 3.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while left-hander Sammy Solís has emerged as one of the team's most reliable relievers.
Hearn, the team's No. 27 prospect as ranked by MLB Pipeline, was the Nationals' fifth-round selection in 2015 and was drafted by the Pirates in the 22nd round in 2012, although he did not sign. The 21-year-old owns a 3.18 ERA for Class A Hagerstown in 22 2/3 innings.
"There's not a lot of relievers at [Melancon's] level, so it's supply and demand," Rizzo said. "The supply for those type of guys -- there's not a lot of them. There's a lot of competition for players and you have to do a deal that makes sense for you."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Slated to pitch the ninth inning for a team with the second-best record in baseball, Melancon (1.95 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 114 saves since the outset of 2014) will remain a top-tier closer for the remainder of the season. Having struggled a great deal of late (6.92 ERA, 1.85 WHIP since June 30), veteran stopper Papelbon will likely shift into a setup role and can be dropped in all mixed leagues. Back in Pittsburgh, Tony Watson (career 2.48 ERA, 1.03 WHIP) is expected to take over ninth-inning duties and become an outstanding fantasy asset for the remainder of the season. Those in deep-mixed formats can also add Neftalí Feliz (98 career saves) on the off chance that Watson falters in the coming days.