(12:50 p.m.: This post has been updated.)
With their acquisition of catcher Derek Norris last week, the Nationals’ offseason list of roster priorities dwindled to two heading into baseball’s winter meetings: closer and center field. While the free agent market is devoid of top-flight center fielders, it features three premier closers and the Nationals have had their sights set on retaining Mark Melancon, the oldest and cheapest of the trio.
But Melancon was still too pricey as reports circulated Sunday that he had multiple four-year contract offers worth $60 million-plus. The Nationals formally offered Melancon a four-year deal, but it was for less than $60 million, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, leaving them short in the race for his services. The Giants reportedly agreed to a four-year, $62 million deal with Melancon on Monday afternoon.
Fellow free agent closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen are projected to command more money than Melancon, but a four-year, $62 million contract would still break the record for the most money ever given to a closer, topping the $50 million the Phillies allotted Jonathan Papelbon in 2011. Melancon would also tie Mariano Rivera for the average annual value record of $15 million for ninth-inning specialists.
Melancon, who turns 32 in March, isn’t the conventional elite closer. His fastball sits in the low 90s and he doesn’t strike batters out at a high rate. But he’s been one of the best at his job since becoming a closer in 2013 because he induces weak contact with his cutter and doesn’t walk batters. Since 2013, Melancon ranks third in ERA (1.80), fourth in walks per nine innings (1.4), and 30th in hard-hit rate (24.7 percent) among 222 relievers.
He joined the Nationals from the Pirates in July to replace Papelbon in exchange for left-hander Felipe Rivero and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn with a 1.51 ERA and 30 saves in 31 chances. He tallied a 1.82 ERA and 18 saves in 19 chances with Washington, steadying a wobbly bullpen while fitting in seamlessly with teammates.
The combination — and the lower price — rendered him a target for the Nationals, who have been fishing for continuity at closer since becoming a National League contender. But they’ll need to find their answer elsewhere, either through free agency or trade. Free agents with closer experience include Greg Holland, Neftali Feliz, Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo. The Marlins’ A.J. Ramos, a 30-year-old who compiled 40 saves and a 2.81 ERA last season, and Alex Colome of the Rays are reportedly available via trade. Colome, who turns 28 on New Year’s Eve, had 37 saves and a 1.91 ERA in 2016.