Once supreme closer Aroldis Chapman went to the Chicago Cubs from the New York Yankees, the Washington Nationals were in a bind. They had to find an answer for the ninth inning, where Jonathan Papelbon continued to wobble and no one else on the roster seemed to be a logical fit.
Chapman’s departure, plus the second wild card again making several teams think they have a playoff chance, significantly drove up the price for the next tier of relievers. The Yankees’ Andrew Miller was the top of the lot. Kansas City Royals closer Wade Davis would probably be listed as the next best option. One report had Miller possibly costing the Nationals as much as starting pitcher Lucas Giolito, their No. 1 prospect and arguably the top prospect in baseball.
Instead of acquiring a high-end closer, Washington was frugal. It traded young, but at times erratic, Felipe Rivero and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn, who, like Rivero is a hard-throwing left-hander, for Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mark Melancon before the arrival of Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline.
“Obviously they’re doing great, and full with talent,” Melancon told reporters in Milwaukee.
Melancon comes to Washington with a 1.51 ERA, .205 batting average against this season and with a chance to be a free agent when the season ends. The right-hander has been closing games for Pittsburgh since 2013 and his 51 saves led the National League last season. The 31-year-old was named an all-star in each of the last two seasons and is expected to join the team Saturday night.
“His percentage of closing games has been high for a few years,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker told reporters after Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants. “He throws strikes. He’s very happy to come here. I talked to him on the phone, [general manager Mike Rizzo] and I. He’s very excited. He’s going to get here as soon as he can.”
Unlike Papelbon earlier this season, all of Melancon’s underlying numbers show that his success is legitimate. The percentage of hard contact against him is at its lowest point since 2011, though his fly ball percentage is up, according to Fangraphs.com.
Rivero was a force last season as a rookie when he finished with a 2.79 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He has struggled most of this season. His pre-all-star break ERA was 5.09. In nine innings since, it was better, just 2.00. He departs with a 95-mph fastball and potential. The Pirates are betting that Rivero turns into the late-inning factor the Nationals thought he would be before this season’s downturn. Rivero is only 25 years old, so that could end up being the case.
Hearn had pitched at two levels this season in Washington’s minor league system: the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and for Single-A Hagerstown. The 21 year old had a 2.79 ERA at those stops.
Now that Melancon, 32, is in place, the trick will be explaining to Papelbon, who is ninth all-time in saves, that he is no longer the closer. Papelbon worked through most of the season by surviving bumpy ninth innings which suggested his stuff was not the same as the past. The percentage of hard hits against him was at its highest since his rookie season. His walks per nine innings were at their highest since 2010. For the first time in his professional career, he went on the disabled list (right intercostal strain). He has a 4.41 ERA.
“We had a conversation with him,” Baker said. “I can’t tell you what we talked about.”
Baker said Papelbon’s lone goal “is to win.”
“That’s all he talks about is winning,” Baker said.
The manager also mentioned that Melancon said he planned to call Papelbon as soon as possible. In the past, each had taken over the closer’s job from a teammate. Melancon replaced Jason Grilli in Pittsburgh in 2013. Papelbon took Keith Foulke’s place as closer for the Boston Red Sox in 2005.
“It says a lot about his character and makeup, and that was a big reason why he was such an attractive target to us,” said Rizzo of Melancon reaching out to Papelbon. “His performance level is great but his makeup and character are a lot of the reason that we went out and got him. That tells me he’s team-first and Mark Melancon second.”
The Nationals acquired Papelbon just more than a year ago. His arrival meant Drew Storen was demoted from his closing spot. Storen was not pleased with the move since he had excellent numbers when it was made. After a fantastic start following his demotion, Storen had a poor close to the season and was traded to Toronto in the offseason. Papelbon ended up choking Bryce Harper in the dugout before the season was over. Now, he’s out of the closer’s job, in what turned out to be a lose-lose combination.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.