Despite adding experience to a depleted bullpen, Nationals may not be done dealing,
There’s more than one way to build a bullpen. In the case of the Washington Nationals, any arrangement was better than what they had.
Manager Dusty Baker’s pleas for relief help were finally answered Sunday – a day after the Nationals threatened to squander a 10-0 lead in the last two innings – when they obtained Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the Oakland Athletics for Blake Treinen and two minor-leaguers.
At this stage in their careers neither of Washington’s new acquisitions qualifies as a shut-down closer, but they both have closing experience and together form a formidable pair in matchup situations.
Baker will take them, quite happily. Heck, he might go pick them up at the airport himself.
The Nationals knew they were taking a chance going into the season without a proven closer after losing Mark Melancon in free agency. They went hard after Kenley Jansen but failed to land him despite outbidding the Los Angeles Dodgers, who still lured him back.
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The defending National League East champs started the season experimenting with Treinen as their closer, and that soon went awry. Koda Glover showed promise but got hurt, and for the most part the bullpen has been an unmitigated disaster, yielding the worst ERA (5.34), opponents’ batting average (.280) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.825) in the majors. Its 14 blown saves are tied for the third-highest total in the league.
Only the Nationals’ commanding lead in their watered-down division, built on a potent offense and a sturdy rotation, has made the bullpen woes semi-palatable. But they couldn’t go into October with such a glaring weakness, especially after reaching the postseason in three of the last five years and getting bounced out in the first round each time.
Washington had long been rumored to be pursuing Chicago White Sox closer David Robertson, who could be had for the right price, but the clubs couldn’t agree on what that price was. The Nationals were loath to give up any of their top four prospects – outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto, pitcher Erick Fedde and shortstop Carter Kieboom – and in dealing the A’s they didn’t have to.
Class A infielder Sheldon Neuse and rookie league lefty Jesus Luzardo, who were sent to Oakland along with Treinen, were ranked by MLB.com as Washington’s sixth- and 10th-best prospects.
Keeping their leading minor-league talent at hand enhances the Nationals’ options if they decide to pursue further help. Chances are they’re not done dealing.
Even if they are, the Nationals have significantly boosted the bullpen with two seasoned late-inning relievers who complement each other well and free up the likes of Enny Romero and Matt Albers to pitch in less-pressurized situations.
Madson, 36, went 30-for-37 in save opportunities last season, then excelled in a setup role this year, putting up a 2.06 ERA and 0.788 WHIP while striking out 39 in 39 1/3 innings. He has been especially tough on right-handed hitters, holding them to a .177 batting average and .479 OPS.
The left-handed Doolittle, 30, is murder on lefty hitters, who are 0-for-23 with 12 strikeouts against him this season. Overall, he has a 3.38 ERA but an 0.656 WHIP and has struck out 31 while walking only two. The main concern with Doolittle is a history of shoulder woes that have sidelined him for extended stretches, including this year.
Madson and Doolittle are both under contract at least through next season, when they will earn a combined total of nearly $12 million. Though not a huge figure, that’s money the A’s would just as soon apportion elsewhere as they remake a club that appears headed for a third last-place finish in a row.
Oakland has been promoting its best prospects and continues to add young pieces as part of a revamping that will likely include the departure of All-Star first baseman Yonder Alonso, infielder Jed Lowrie and possibly staff ace Sonny Gray, all available to contenders seeking an upgrade.
The Nationals fit that definition, and may remain in search mode even after Sunday’s move.
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