The Washington Nationals filled their need for a late-inning reliever Saturday afternoon, landing Pirates closer Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero and minor league left-hander Taylor Hearn. The acquisition, which did not cost the Nationals any of their most valued prospects, addresses the biggest question facing the club as it enters the final two months of the season and is perhaps the most significant deadline acquisitions in the team’s 11-year D.C. history.
“There’s not a lot of relievers at his level, so it’s supply and demand,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The supply for those type of guys — there’s not a lot of them. There’s a lot of competition for those players, and you have to do a deal that makes sense to you.”
Melancon, 31, will close for the Nationals. He spoke to Rizzo and Nationals Manager Dusty Baker Saturday, and told reporters his next call would be to Papelbon — who will move into a role other than closer for the first time since his rookie year. The 35-year-old will do so with the ninth-most saves in baseball history, second to Francisco Rodriguez among active players. Papelbon suffered two losses in two games earlier this week, then had to be pulled in the ninth inning of Thursday’s game with two men on in a save situation.
“Anybody losing their job is a hard thing to accept, period. That’s human nature. If you lose your job, would that be a tough thing to accept?” Papelbon said. “Right. Exactly. That’s just a hard pill to swallow, no matter what job you’re in. … For me, I’m just going to have to do whatever it takes to accept a new role and a new challenge for myself.”
The Nationals hunted for relief help before Papelbon’s struggles. They engaged in what appeared to be a dogged pursuit of right-handed flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman, who was eventually dealt to the Chicago Cubs. But in recent days, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker showed signs of decreased confidence in Papelbon. He would not commit to him as their closer when asked Friday and Saturday, indicating that they were unsure. They pieced together the eighth and ninth innings without him Friday night — though of course, they required a triple play and other great escape maneuvers to do so.
“We talked to Pap,” Rizzo said. “With the success he’s had and the resume he has, he’s earned the respect that comes with being in the league and successful as long as he has. I felt that to bring him in the loop was important and to sit down and talk with him. He took it very well.”
Melancon led the National League with 51 saves last season and was an all-star in three of the last four seasons. He will be a free agent after this season, which helped keep his price down compared to other options such as Yankees left-hander Andrew Miller or Royals closer Wade Davis, both of whom would have been under team control for more than this season. Both would likely have required the Nationals give up at least one top prospect. The Pirates have not lost a game Melancon entered in a save situation since April 2015, 80 games.
Throughout this trade deadline scramble, the Nationals maintained a firm hold on top youngsters Trea Turner, Lucas Giolito, Joe Ross, Victor Robles and Reynaldo Lopez, Saturday’s starter. General Manager Mike Rizzo would not part with any of them for a pitcher on a short-term deal, which likely took them out of the running for Chapman and left many to wonder if they would be able to secure an elite reliever. They did — for a big-league reliever and and a low Class A lefty with upside. The Nationals will get cash back in the deal, according to a person familiar with the situation.
“[Rivero] is a young kid we’ve through a lot of,” Rizzo said. “We thought enough of him to trade for him, and he’s kind of grown up in our system…he’s got a good arm and he’s going to have a great career.”
The Nationals had internal concerns about Rivero’s durability. The left-hander has appeared in 96 games over the past two seasons, flashing high-90s velocity but experiencing self-admitted trouble with focus, and occasional trouble repeating his delivery. Rivero is 25, and worked his way into Baker’s set-up rotation. But the Nationals also like Sammy Solis, who has shown a mid-90s fastball and good command, and will have two left-handed relievers in the bullpen in him and Oliver Perez.
“Sammy’s been one of our really good minor league guys that have come up and performed admirably,” Rizzo said. “He throws strikes and he’s shown the propensity to get out both left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters…because of the way Sammy’s pitched and the depth we have in the minor leagues, we felt it was something that we could afford to do.”
Hearn, meanwhile, is a 21-year-old lefty with a frame — 6-foot-5, 210 pounds — that projects to get stronger as he develops. The Nationals saw Hearn as a potential starter with the stuff to relieve if that ended up being a better fit. He had a 3.18 ERA in eight games with Class A Hagerstown, with 31 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. The Nationals drafted him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft.
Melancon was the third-highest paid player on the Pirates roster, making $9.65 million this season. The Nationals can pursue a deal with him this offseason, though they may feel they have internal options, such as right-hander Koda Glover, the 23-year-old who impressed in two big league innings last week.
The Nationals added Papelbon at last year’s deadline when top closers such as Chapman and Craig Kimbrel proved too expensive. They have had a well-documented struggle to find a lasting solution for the ninth inning — particularly one that can hold up in October. Melancon has a 6.35 ERA in six postseason appearances, allowing one run in an eventual Game 3 win in the 2013 National League Division Series, and three in the eighth inning of Game 5, which his Pirates were trailing at the time. In three ninth inning playoff appearances, he has allowed one hit and no runs. Melancon has converted 30 saves and, since take over as Pirates closer in July 2013, has more saves than any other pitcher in baseball.