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No more moves for Nationals, who stay quiet on deadline day

GM Mike Rizzo and the Nationals chose to stand pat on deadline day, seemingly content with the deal the made for Mark Melancon on Saturday afternoon. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals did not play a major part in this year’s trade-deadline scramble, choosing to take their new closer and run down the stretch with a veteran lineup they believe has not yet produced as much as it can and will. While the Mets added Jay Bruce and left-handed pitcher Jon Niese, and the Marlins sent back one of the starters they hoped would boost them into contention, the Nationals did not make a single deal Monday. They emerge from the deadline with all of their top prospects, a new closer, and a few lingering questions: Can their offense produce enough? Will their bullpen, as constituted, withstand a pennant race?

Nationals acquire closer Mark Melancon from the Pirates

Those answers will come in time, but the Nationals did fill their most immediate mid-summer need by acquiring closer Mark Melancon from the Pirates on Saturday afternoon in exchange for Felipe Rivero and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn. Melancon has more saves than anyone in baseball since he took over as Pittsburgh’s full-time closer in 2013. He is a free agent after this season, and is not in the same elite tier as Aroldis Chapman or even Royals closer Wade Davis might have been.

But the asking price on Chapman was too high for the Nationals, and Davis or left-hander Andrew Miller would have required even more. Davis landed on the disabled list a few hours after the Nationals traded for Melancon. The Nationals got an all-star closer, with no baggage, without touching any of their best prospects. In the bloated (or more accurately, morbidly obese) market for relievers, in which the Giants gave up their top pitching and catching prospects to get a setup man from the Brewers, in which the Cubs gave up their best prospect and four other players for Chapman, in which the Indians gave up a player some consider to have a Mike Trout-like future for Andrew Miller, and so on … the Nationals gave up far less to get a similarly effective, if less heralded, closer.

“There’s always some tweaking that you’d like to be done, but you have to weigh the cost,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “So you have to weigh, do you sacrifice the future for now? And sometimes you do…We convened and couldn’t tear up our whole organization for the now because you have to think about the future of the organization as well as the present.”

But what about the rest of the bullpen? The ninth inning has not been the only trouble spot for the Nationals in the last week, and the other NL division leaders added proven pieces to their bullpens Monday.

Well, the Nationals now have Melancon for the ninth, and some combination of Shawn Kelley, Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez, Blake Treinen and Jonathan Papelbon to get them there. Perhaps they will add a reliever through a waiver deal. The Nationals claimed Matt Thornton that way in 2014, and he did not allow a run the rest of the season.

The more immediate question seems to be how the Nationals will utilize Papelbon, who has struggled lately and has not had to pitch an inning other than the ninth since his rookie season. The Nationals also have internal options to bolster their relief corps. Rosters expand in a month, and people familiar with the Nationals’ thinking believe they would be willing to put Reynaldo Lopez in the bullpen in September. Joe Ross pitched in that role last season. Koda Glover, who threw two impressive big league innings during his short major league stint, will also likely get a chance — and could, perhaps, be the closer of the future, though he has struggled somewhat since returning to Syracuse. It is worth noting that, despite their recent struggles, the Nationals’ bullpen has the third-best ERA in baseball this season and the fourth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Jonathan Papelbon says he’s on board with Nationals’ trade for Mark Melancon

Apply the same theory of relativity to the Nationals’ lineup, which is tied for the fifth-most home runs in baseball and the sixth-highest Wins Above Replacement — though their batting average and more advanced metrics place their offense in the middle of the major league pack when it comes to offensive production. The Nationals’ offense has not been awful, but it could be better. With options like Bruce, Josh Reddick and others available in deadline deals, the organization decided to stick with the pieces already in place.

Trea Turner has shown himself to be a capable leadoff man, and Ben Revere is due for a breakout. Turner’s impressive week already lifted the Nationals from the least productive leadoff-spot producers in the big leagues to the second-least productive. Barring any waiver deals, they seem willing to put their faith in Turner — or perhaps a Revere revival — for better production moving forward.

Any deal for a big middle-of-the-order bat would probably have required moving either Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth from a corner outfield spot. Werth has emerged as an above-average National League producer, a key and recently consistent on-base cog in a lineup characterized by inconsistency for much of this season. Harper, meanwhile, is hitting 45 points below his career average, looking completely lost in the worst slump of his career. He has given the Nationals one good month. The Nationals are in first place anyway.

If they can find a way to extricate Harper from these struggles down the stretch, he could prove a better addition to this lineup than any deadline acquisition would have been. The same, on a lesser level, holds true for Ryan Zimmerman. He, too, has hit far below his career average this season and showed few signs of progression to his norm. Perhaps he will not get hot down the stretch. Perhaps he will. In choosing not to make a deal for a bat Monday, the Nationals showed a commitment to their future, and to the prospects they hope will keep them in contention for many deadline days to come. They also showed a commitment to their present, to Harper and Zimmerman and the rest, who have carried them at times before, and who they hope will rediscover themselves in time to do so again.

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