LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Filling the need that had become their top priority at the winter meetings, the Washington Nationals acquired left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins from frequent trade partner Oakland for speedy, switch-hitting outfielder Billy Burns, their reigning minor league player of the year.
The Nationals sought a left-hander for their bullpen after the lack of one at the start of last season led to unsettled roles and left them vulnerable to the confluence of left-handed hitting threats in the National League East. After sifting through a half-dozen free agent options and three or four trade targets, the Nationals landed on Blevins, a 6-foot-6 30-year-old who posted a 3.15 ERA and 52 strikeouts over 60 innings last season.
“We kind of focused in on this type of left-handed reliever,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “As we went through these meetings and kind of got a feel for what the acquisition cost for the free agents were, we decided to focus more in on the trade options instead of free agent options. We narrowed it down to a couple of good, effective, left-handed pitchers that we were talking about and found a good match with Oakland.”
When Blevins learned of the trade Wednesday afternoon, “your initial reaction is a little bit of shock,” Blevins said. But then he considered his destination. He would play for a contender and back in the Eastern time zone, where his family in Ohio wouldn’t have to stay up so late to watch him.
He would reunite with former A’s teammate Gio Gonzalez, who texted him, “you’re going to love it here.” He would also play again with college teammate Craig Stammen. The only Dayton Flyers in the majors now play for the same team.
“When I found out where I was going, it was really exciting,” Blevins said. “I texted with Craig. I’m really excited to play baseball together again. It’s been a while.”
Rizzo called Blevins and told him he viewed him as the Nationals’ primary lefty out of the bullpen. Blevins actually had more success last season against right-handed hitters; lefties hit .253 against him, and right-handed batters managed only a .189 average. In his career, though, Blevins has held lefties to a .224 average. Blevins attributed the spike in dominance against right-handed batters to an improved change-up and command of pitches over the inside corner.
“Blevins is gonna be a guy we can count on to get the really good left-handed hitters in our division out, that can pitch a full inning for you, that can be a bridge to get to the back end of our bullpen guys,” Rizzo said.
Blevins can be used as a left-handed specialist, and he can also pitch across multiple innings. Last year he recorded at least four outs in 14 appearances. In 18 appearances, he recorded one or zero outs.
“I like to keep myself versatile,” Blevins said. “I prefer to pitch more and pitch more often, like anybody would. Whatever is best for the team, that’s most important.”
The Nationals had been in touch with almost every free agent reliever available, including Scott Downs, Eric O’Flaherty, J.P. Howell and Boone Logan. But the Nationals found their asking prices to be higher than they were willing to pay.
They already had devoted more than $24 million to their bullpen, with $14 million to closer Rafael Soriano, along with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, who will combine to make roughly $10 million in arbitration next year. Blevins figures to earn roughly $1.5 million in arbitration this winter, and he will remain under the Nationals’ contractual control through 2015.
In Burns, the Nationals lose an excellent defensive outfielder who stole 74 bases last year at Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg. After the Nationals drafted him in the 32nd round out of Mercer in 2011, he learned how to switch hit at the request of Nationals officials. His speed and increasing ability to make contact from the left side of the plate allowed him to post a .425 on-base percentage in 2013.
“Our development did a terrific job on this guy,” Rizzo said. “He’s got game-changing speed. And as the rest of his game progresses, he could become a solid player for them.”
The Nationals believe Burns will contribute in the majors, and Oakland will bring him to major league spring training and likely start him at Class AA. Two outside evaluators were not as high on him. They believe Burns will have trouble making an impact with his bat, with one comparing him to light-hitting, quicksilver outfielder Tony Campana. His production, especially his on-base percentage, suggests Burns could have a bigger impact.
The Nationals could afford to part with Burns, Rizzo said, because of their strong minor league outfield depth, which includes Brian Goodwin, Steven Souza and Michael Taylor. “We felt that this was a position that we could afford to dip into and get the reliever we were looking for,” Rizzo said.
Over the past year, the Nationals had tried to pry another lefty reliever, Sean Doolittle, away from the A’s. But Oakland rebuffed them each time. At the winter meetings, the Nationals did not bother asking about Doolittle, who has five more seasons of contractual control before hitting free agency and posted a 3.13 ERA last year. “We recognized that he was a guy that wasn’t going to move,” Rizzo said.
It should not be a surprise that the Nationals and A’s managed to find a match. Since the end of the 2010 season, the Nationals and A’s have made seven trades, the biggest of which sent Gonzalez to Washington in December 2011 for four prospects.
The acquisition of Blevins gives the Nationals a bullpen they feel comfortable with. Having traded for an overqualified fourth starter (Doug Fister) and a solid fourth outfielder (Nate McLouth), the Nationals have fulfilled their three primary objectives. They could still add one more bench player and will try again to sign Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to contract extensions.
“We think that we have kinda accomplished what we set out to do when the season ended in ’13,” Rizzo said. “We had an offseason plan in place, and we’ve accomplished the things that we have set out to. We feel good about that.”