- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 4, 2016

OXON HILL, Md. — General managers began filtering into the glass-heavy Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on Sunday afternoon. They were able to use the day to settle into their suites and move one step closer to launching baseball’s annual business bazaar, the winter meetings.

Baseball’s decision-makers will be assembled at National Harbor for the next three days. Commissioner Rob Manfred is in town. Team executives, players looking for jobs and profit-seeking agents will cross paths to collaborate on moves that could determine next season’s pennant winners.

In the run-up to the meetings, no team in baseball has been connected to more drastic maneuvers than the Washington Nationals. They are linked to three prominent names — Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale and Mark Melancon — two months after another first-round elimination in the playoffs. Each would have massive influence on the framework of the team. They would also come at a steep cost.

Melancon stabilized the Washington bullpen after being acquired July 30 for reliever Felipe Rivero and minor league pitcher Taylor Hearn. Jonathan Papelbon had turned the closer’s spot into a stomach-churning spectacle whenever he entered the game. Melancon curbed the tumult with his difficult-to-hit cut fastball. In 30 appearances, Melancon’s ERA was 1.82. He allowed just a .224 on-base percentage. Melancon worked quietly with elite effectiveness.

His easy-going demeanor was a fit in the Nationals’ clubhouse, where he took over for the bombastic Papelbon. Each were embraced for their personal traits. Those traits were just distinctly different, as were their results on the mound.

The success with Washington was not a blip for Melancon. From 2013-16, his ERA was 1.80, his WHIP 0.91, his strikeout-to-walk ratio almost 6-1.

Those numbers — and the Nationals’ limited internal options to fill the closer’s role — make Melancon a premium offseason target for Washington. Being a free agent makes him the same for multiple other teams. And, paying a hefty price, such as $15 million annually, for his position, would be a departure for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.

Since Rizzo took over in 2009, here is the list of names that have at least 10 saves for the Nationals: Mike MacDougal (20), Matt Capps (26), Drew Storen (43, 29, 11), Tyler Clippard (32), Rafael Soriano (43, 32), Papelbon (19), Melancon (17). Almost annually, the closer is someone new and inexpensive. Clippard topped out at $5.87 million when he played for the Nationals. Storen at $5.7 million. The only comparable expenditure to Melancon came when Rizzo signed Soriano for two years at $14 million annually, with a chunk of the money deferred. Melancon, 31, is likely seeking a four-year contract, not two.

Closer options on the roster are limited. Shawn Kelley could be a choice, if what drove him off the mound in his final appearance does not become a problem, which the Nationals have said it is not. Kelley had no feeling in multiple fingers after throwing a pitch in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, forcing him to leave the game. He has had ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery (Tommy John surgery) twice. Outside of Kelley, there are minimal internal options.

Landing McCutchen could realign the Nationals’ lineup and positioning. The 30-year-old McCutchen would likely play center field, where he won a Gold Glove in 2012. That could move Trea Turner to shortstop and Danny Espinosa to a utility role. McCutchen could also be placed in the middle of the lineup to split Washington’s two prime left-handed bats, Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper. McCutchen’s presence would fill the hole created by Wilson Ramos’ departure. Ramos was a first-time All-Star last season following his best year at the plate.

However, McCutchen is coming off the worst season of his stellar career. He hit just .256 last season for the Pirates, the only organization he has played for since being selected 11th overall by Pittsburgh in 2005. For three consecutive seasons, his OPS declined. He dipped all the way to .766 last season. He struck out a career-high 143 times. His slugging percentage dropped to .430. He also compiled a negative defensive WAR of -2.6.

Prior, McCutchen was one of the game’s best players. From his first full season in 2010 until 2015, McCutchen hit .299, averaged 30 home runs and put together an .890 OPS. He stole 22 bases each season, a part of his game that is almost gone now. McCutchen stole six bases last season and was thrown out seven times. His evaporating speed was also pointed at as a possible reason for his defensive decline.

He is under contract for two seasons, costing $14.2 million and $14.5 million, respectively, before becoming a free agent. The Pirates would expect multiple high-end prospects in return. They are reportedly eyeing 19-year-old outfielder Victor Robles as a starting point for the trade.

Bringing Sale to Washington is the biggest challenge in the group. Pittsburgh is turning over its roster, making McCutchen available. Melancon is a matter of contract terms in a place he felt welcomed and had success. Sale, on the other hand, has three reasonably priced years remaining on his contract. He is a five-time All-Star who has been a top-five finisher in American League Cy Young Award voting in each of the last four seasons. Being left-handed is the topper for a Washington rotation that could use a more reliable left-handed option than Gio Gonzalez. He would be part of a rotation featuring two-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark. That would arguably be the best group in the league when healthy. Which is why the cost would be so high, even when drawing from a deep Nationals farm system.


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