The deal is the latest in an unprecedented process of unofficial surrender, and it removes the current closer from a bullpen that has struggled without one. Madson had just returned from the disabled list this week after dealing with lumbar irritation, and the Nationals placed him on waivers shortly after his return, the first moment at which he was eligible.
General Manager Mike Rizzo didn’t address the deal, which took Manager Dave Martinez by surprise.
“I got up this morning, started watching Milwaukee video, doing my daily routine,” Martinez said. “Got a phone call saying, ‘We’re going to make a deal.’ It was Ryan.”
Any player who is not on a team’s roster by Sept. 1 is not eligible to play for that team in the postseason, which means Friday was the last day for contenders to consummate deals geared toward October. As a result, it is the last day the sputtering Nationals can sell their more expensive free-agents-to-be. Both Gio Gonzalez and Matt Wieters, for example, have cleared waivers and are eligible to be traded. They traded Gonzalez to the Brewers just before gametime.
But Madson, once healthy, seemed almost certain to go. Relievers with World Series experience are prized by those hoping to play in such a setting, and as maddening as some of Madson’s recent appearances have been — most memorably, that fateful night in Chicago when he surrendered a walk-off grand slam to David Bote — he is still throwing in the high 90s with a devastating arsenal when he is healthy. The Dodgers will be the 38-year-old’s fifth team. He pitched to a 4.08 ERA in 69 appearances with the Nationals since they acquired him from Oakland just before last year’s trade deadline.
“It was a huge jolt to my career coming here,” Madson said. “Coming into a playoff push, it revitalized me — kind of showed myself what I can do. My stuff got so much better. I really appreciated him bringing me over here. I told Riz, thanks for bringing me over here.”
Madson and Rizzo shared a handshake and some laughs in the clubhouse before the game, a jovial conversation that reflected their mutual respect. Madson said he was “treated like baseball royalty” during his time with the Nationals. Rizzo assured Madson he would see him down the line. Other partings with veteran relievers have not been so pleasant.
The deal follows the somewhat surprising trades of Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and Matt Adams to the Cardinals, both of which the team refused to call salary dumps but amounted to exactly that. The Nationals are 7 1/2 games back in the National League East and wild-card standings as they open a series with the Brewers on Friday night. Subtracting one more player seems unlikely to dislodge them from their season-long perch around .500.
But shedding salary to get themselves under the luxury tax threshold could help them save money to spend on potential free agent deals this offseason, as well as sweeten the compensation should Bryce Harper leave in free agency. Luxury tax teams receive a later compensatory pick than teams that are under the threshold. But people familiar with their situation, though they caution that their tax standing is dependent on many still-moving parts, said they do not expect these deals to drop the team below the tax threshold. If that is true, their overages, the only part on which they will be taxed, should not be substantial.
Even if they do not drop below that threshold, the trades of Murphy (which saved them around $4 million) and Adams (just under $1 million) and the deal that sent Brandon Kintzler to Chicago ($6 million between now and the end of 2019) have saved them more than $12 million in salary — or roughly the amount they paid Gonzalez for the past few seasons. Though they also traded Shawn Kelley, they did not shed all of what was left of his salary of $5.5 million.
But they are saving a substantial amount of money, which Rizzo indicated would be put back into the roster this winter. The Nationals will need to revamp their bullpen and their starting rotation, decide what to do with Harper, find a catcher and a second baseman and potentially rebuild their bench. In the meantime, they will have to patch together their bullpen again.
Kelvin Herrera is out for the season with a torn Lisfranc tendon in his foot. Sean Doolittle threw 15 pitches in a simulated game Friday, and he and his manager said it went well. He is planning to throw another Sunday or Monday, by which time he would probably not have the option of pitching in a rehab game because the minor league seasons end at the beginning of the month.
Greg Holland, Koda Glover and Justin Miller will probably carry pivotal late-game innings until (and even after) his return, meaning this bullpen — once built to withstand the rigors of October — is now going to lack much of its intended punch in September.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (67-67)
MILWAUKEE BREWERS (75-60)