WASHINGTON — The Nationals had several needs heading into the trade deadline.
Those needs varied depending on who you asked, but with Jonathan Papelbon struggling, the consensus was a need to upgrade at closer. Washington successfully filled that need by trading for Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mark Melancon on Saturday.
The Nationals shipped off talented but raw reliever Felipe Rivero and 21-year-old prospect Taylor Hearn in exchange for their new ninth-inning man. Rivero had the highest ERA of all regular Nationals pitchers this season — starters and relievers — and he’d hit more batters than every other member of the bullpen combined. Hearn was still in Single-A ball and several years away from being pro-ready. Washington used a fifth-round draft pick on Hearn in 2015, the fourth time he’d been drafted, after Pittsburgh originally drafted him in 2012.
Washington’s other needs included additional bullpen help and, perhaps more importantly, more help on offense. Where that offensive help would fit in was a murky issue, however.
The Nationals weren’t going to replace Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy or Wilson Ramos. That leaves first base, shortstop, left field and center field. Danny Espinosa has been a pleasant surprise at the plate from the shortstop position; even though he’s hitting just .225, he’s hit 18 home runs and stolen seven bases while providing elite defense. Jayson Werth started the year poorly, but he’s in the midst of a career-best 34-game on-base streak.
That left center field, where Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor have mostly struggled at the plate this season, and first base, where Ryan Zimmerman has managed just a .222/.284/.394 line while missing more than 20 games before the deadline.
Zimmerman is perhaps the team’s biggest fan favorite, he’s a strong defensive player and it’s difficult to say how replacing him in the starting lineup would impact team chemistry. Trea Turner has played some center field recently, and while he’s adjusting to the position, he’s managed a .318/.357/.485 line with three doubles, four triples and eight stolen bases in just 17 games.
The Nationals could have added a bench bat, but they did not. That, and a lack of additional relievers, was the main gripe for critics of what the Nationals did at the trade deadline.
But many analysts think Washington did enough to set itself up for success in the postseason.
Carlos Peña told The Sports Junkies Tuesday morning that the acquisition of Melancon is being underrated.
“They went and got a proven closer. The thing is with this is it goes slightly under the radar in many ways, just because Melancon isn’t one of these guys that’s gonna be flashy. But he has been performing, year after year, for the longest of times. So you got very steady, not only on the mound but this guy’s got nerves of steel. So I think this is a great pickup. It’s not going to be as exciting as [Aroldis] Chapman, but don’t be fooled by that, that’s what I’m trying to tell you, because this kid gets it done. A true professional. So I believe that the Nats got that much better.”
Peña actually thinks the Nationals did the right thing by not acquiring any additional players after Melancon, saying sometimes teams get too excited by the deadline and trade for players they can’t fit anywhere. This is precisely what the Nationals’ concern was, and considering how many potentially MLB-ready players Washington has in the minor leagues, there doesn’t seem to be much room for additional players. That is, if Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker believe the veterans will put it together at the plate and the prospects are indeed ready to contribute.
“You have to pick your pieces wisely, and I think the Nationals have done that,” Peña said.
Jim Bowden, former Nationals GM and current ESPN MLB analyst, put his former team in the “Winners” section of his deadline breakdown, saying Rizzo did a good job in obtaining Melancon without giving up any of the team’s top prospects.
David Schoenfield, also of ESPN, graded the deal between the Nationals and the Pirates, as well as many of the other deadline deals. He gives the Nationals an A-minus, calling Melancon “maybe the most underrated [closer] in the game,” and the Pirates a B.
Grant Brisbee of SB Nation listed the Nationals in the Winners section of his trade deadline breakdown, saying they paid a high price for Melancon, but it was worth it for the chance to win now.
“Felipe Rivero has nasty, raw stuff and five years of team control left, so that’s a fair return in another world for a closer. But because this is the Year of the Very Expensive Reliever, they had to include a quality Class-A prospect, too. Stings for a rental, but this is a team whose last postseason memories involved blown saves and nuclear disappointment.”
Other analysts, including Dayn Perry of CBS Sports, didn’t include the Nationals in their Winners section, but they also didn’t list them as Losers.
All in all, most seem to think the Nationals made a strong deal to acquire Melancon, though there is some disagreement about whether or not they did enough to have legitimate World Series aspirations.