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Nationals bolster bullpen at trade deadline, but division-leading Braves load up, too

Daniel Hudson is one of three relievers picked up by the Nationals in time for Wednesday's MLB trade deadline. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

While the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves battled through the late innings Wednesday afternoon, a much bigger competition was happening off the field.

Major League Baseball was closing in on its 4 p.m. trade deadline. Both the Nationals and Braves, wrestling atop the National League East, needed bullpen help. So the Nationals, in a span of 40 minutes, dealt for Daniel Hudson from the Toronto Blue Jays and Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland from the Seattle Mariners. And the Braves, having added Chris Martin from the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night, got Shane Greene from the Detroit Tigers and Mark Melancon from the San Francisco Giants.

That totaled six new relievers in 24 hours between the two clubs. The Braves took the contest and series, winning the finale, 5-4, in 10 innings, restoring a 6½-game lead over Washington in the division. Now the next two months, and a pennant race, will decide who wins the arms race.

“It was a busy, productive day for us. I think we’ve upgraded our bullpen,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said once the deadline passed. “These aren’t the sexiest names in the trade market, but we think we got good quality, reliable guys with some moxie and some experience.”

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Because Hudson, Elías or Strickland were not among the high-profile relievers available — not Greene, not Ken Giles of the Blue Jays, not Will Smith of the San Francisco Giants — the Nationals didn’t have to run an already thin system dry. They sent Class A pitcher Kyle Johnston to Toronto for Hudson. They dealt two minor league arms, lefty Taylor Guilbeau and righty Elvis Alvarado, for Elías. They used left-handed pitcher Aaron Fletcher to net Strickland, and they didn’t have to touch any of their top 20 prospects to improve.

But that raises the question of how the Nationals’ deadline moves stacked up to those made by the Braves, who they are directly chasing in the division, and who made the biggest bullpen splash before time ran out. Washington was interested in Greene, if a bit wary of his standout season, and had discussions with the Tigers into Wednesday. But Detroit never stopped asking for top prospect Carter Kieboom, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, and Washington was not willing to trade him.

The Braves, on the other hand, parted with three of their top 30 prospects to get Greene, Melancon and Martin, all of whom have closing experience. Greene, a righty, has a 1.18 ERA and 22 saves this season. Martin, a hard-throwing righty, has been dominant. The Braves will take on the $18 million still owed to Melancon, according to reports, and add him to a bullpen that had been relying on the shaky Luke Jackson to finish games.

Rizzo was operating on a significantly tighter budget, with Washington planning all season to stay beneath the $206 million competitive balance tax threshold. That left about $5 million to spend at the deadline, based on loose payroll projections, and Rizzo said that the team is still under it after the three deals.

The Nationals also didn’t need a closer, as the Braves did, because Sean Doolittle is set in that role. Instead, Washington got three relievers who can slide into high-leverage situations, possibly spell Doolittle if needed and present a few conundrums that Rizzo immediately addressed. The left-handed Elías has allowed lefties to hit .353 against him this season. Rizzo noted that his career splits are much more encouraging. Strickland has missed almost all of this season with a strained right lat muscle and has made just one appearance since returning from the 60-day injured list. But Rizzo is confident Strickland is healthy and will be a good fit in the clubhouse.

Strickland has a history with the Nationals, from when he and Bryce Harper scuffled in front of the mound in San Francisco. Harper chucked his helmet at Strickland, rather unsuccessfully, after Strickland hit him with a pitch in May 2017. But Harper is no longer with Washington, time can heal wounds, and Rizzo endorsed Strickland as a pitcher with passion and experience when the game is on the line. The 30-year-old has the highest upside of the three acquisitions and is under team control through 2021.

“Love the attitude, the chip on his shoulder,” Rizzo said of Strickland. “He’s a tough guy that brings it. You love him or you hate him, and he’s a National now.”

The Nationals will also get two additional arbitration years with Elías, something Rizzo looks for when scouring the trade market. Hudson, 32, will be a free agent after this season. To make room for the relievers ahead of a nine-game road swing through Phoenix, San Francisco and New York, the Nationals needed to make a handful of corresponding moves. They wasted no time clearing the three necessary 40-man roster spots, moving reliever Jonny Venters to the 60-day IL with a left shoulder strain and designating relievers Javy Guerra and Michael Blazek for assignment.

That leaves one more spot on the 25-man roster to create, if Hudson, Elías and Strickland all join the team before a 9:40 p.m. matchup with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday. The Nationals could option starter Erick Fedde back to the minors — if they believe Max Scherzer is on track for an Aug. 5 return — or consider DFA’ing Matt Grace or Tony Sipp.

Adding Elías gives them four left-handed relievers (including Doolittle) if both Grace and Sipp stick around. That could be an inefficient use of space, but both pitchers were on the team flight to Phoenix on Wednesday evening. Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey still have minor league options, meaning they could be sent down without consequence, but they have developed into high-leverage righties in front of Doolittle. If Hudson and Strickland can replace them there, Suero and Rainey profile well as solid middle relievers in a better bullpen.

Then it becomes a matter of how that bullpen stacks up against the Braves, in the seven remaining matchups between the two clubs, and in the other 47 games that will decide the Nationals’ fate.

“The biggest thing is the message that it sends from the front office to the guys in here in this clubhouse,” Doolittle said Wednesday. “That they got our backs and they’re going to try to give us a little bit extra pieces to keep this momentum going and help us down the stretch run.”

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