The Nationals addressed one of their most pressing offseason needs at the winter meetings Wednesday, sending speedy outfielder prospect Billy Burns to the Oakland Athletics for left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins. As the Nationals began by sorting through all free agent and trade options, they narrowed their focus to left-handed relievers they felt could handle both left- and right-handed hitters.
Not seeing any free agents who met that criteria, the Nationals turned their attention to the trade market. According to General Manager Mike Rizzo, the Nationals sorted through as many as four trade opportunities before they settled on 30-year-old Blevins. The Nationals made one offer to a free agent left-hander, Rizzo said.
The Nationals wanted a “younger, controllable type of guy that would have more than a year and at a price point that we felt like made sense for us,” Rizzo said. And Blevins, who is expected to make $1.5 million in arbitration next season, fits that mold. By comparison, Javier Lopez, a 36-year-old left-hander whom the Nationals were interested in earlier in the winter, re-signed with the San Francisco Giants for three years and $13 million.
Rizzo said Blevins is a three-pitch reliever — a fastball that sits between 89 and 92 mph, a big breaking ball and a change-up — who can change speed well, known for his command and can get hitters to chase his curveball outside of the strike zone. Left-handed hitters actually hit Blevins better last season in Oakland, posting a .741 OPS against him compared to his .581 OPS mark against right-handers, but Rizzo said Blevins is still capable against both types of hitters. Blevins’s career splits are more fair: He’s held right-handed hitters to a .711 OPS and left-handers to a .636 OPS.
Because of that, Rizzo said the Nationals believe that Blevins can pitch full innings, facing hitters from both sides of the plate, and even get four outs if needed. “We feel good about that part,” Rizzo said. Last year, for example, 14 of Belvins’ 67 appearances were four outs or more, five of the two-inning variety.
The Nationals also had been interested in Oakland left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle, a 27-year-old hard-throwing left-hander who has five more years of team control, is younger and could be their future close. But Rizzo knew that Oakland Manager Billy Beane didn’t want to part with Doolittle so he didn’t ask. “We recognized that he was a guy that wasn’t going to move,” Rizzo said.
The Nationals had to give up an internally well-regarded prospect in Burns, a 24-year-old and a 32nd round pick in the 2011 draft, who learned how to switch hit in the minor leagues to better take advantage of his speed. Burns hit .315 this past season across Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg and stole 74 bases while being caught just seven times. He was named the Nationals minor league player of the year in 2013 and rated the fastest player in their minor leagues. But the Nationals felt that the progress of other outfield prospects allowed them to part with Burns.
“You talk about a scouting success story as a 32nd round pick,” Rizzo said. “A speed guy out of college that we drafted, signed, developed and made him a switch hitter in the professional ranks. Our development did a terrific job on this guy. He’s got game-changing speed. And as the rest of his game progresses, he could become a solid player for them. We traded from depth. We’ve got a lot of depth in the outfield position with the emergence of Michael Taylor, Goodwin and Souza, that group of guys.”
The Nationals and Athletics have made six trades in the past two years and seven in the past three years, two in the past two months.
“I think the relationship part between me and Billy is a little overstated,” Rizzo said. “We kind of speak the same language as far as the way we approach trades. We’re both very upfront and fairly decisive. When we see a match, we usually go and make a deal. They scout our system extremely well. They know them very well. They’ve had the players we’ve been looking to acquire on quite a few occasions.”
With Blevins in the fold, the Nationals’ bullpen is almost set. Rizzo didn’t make any promises but said the team is “very happy with the group we have.” The National began the offseason with goals to upgrade the rotation, bench and left-handed portion of the bullpen and have with the additions of Doug Fister, Nate McLouth and now Blevins.
“We think that we have kinda accomplished what we set out to do when the season ended in ’13,” Rizzo said. “We had an offseason plan in place and we’ve accomplished the things that we have set out to. We feel good about that.
Rizzo didn’t publicly commit to a set bullpen but said that Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen and Blevins will make up the group. Rizzo had said Tuesday that Xavier Cedeno earned the chance to be a left-handed specialist. The Nationals have several options and Rizzo said there would be competition for the remaining spots, but Ross Ohlendorf and Tanner Roark could be options for the seventh spot. Ryan Mattheus could, as well, but he’s coming off the worst season of his career after suffering a broken hand.
“We’ve got guys with options that can go to the minor leagues and there’ll be great competition in spring training to see who breaks camp,” Rizzo said.