- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2016

Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has done it again – pulled off an impressive trade for a closer for the second consecutive season.

Yes, you read that right. The Jonathan Papelbon trade was an impressive deal for a number of reasons. Stop spitting out your coffee. We’ll get to that later.

Instead, let’s celebrate the general manager who pulled the deal to get a quality closer without giving up any of the perceived key pieces to the future of the Nationals organization.

In this trade deadline climate, Aroldis Chapman, a rental player who will be a free agent at the end of the season, went from the New York Yankees to the Chicago Cubs for four prospects, including the organization’s top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres. Andrew Miller, under contract through 2018, moved from the Yankees to the Cleveland Indians for four prospects, including Cleveland’s top prospects, outfielder Clint Frazier and pitcher Justus Sheffield. Rizzo managed to acquire the closer the team believed it needed without the words “top prospects” anywhere in reports about the deal.

The new Nationals closer is Mark Melancon, one of the best in baseball for the last three seasons – an eternity for closer consistency. He’s third in saves with 130 and in ERA at 1.80 for the Pittsburgh Pirates.



What did Rizzo have to give to Pittsburgh to get Melancon? Lucas Giolito? Reynaldo Lopez? The Ty Cobb of Washington, Trea Turner?

No – none of the players that the Yankees, the surplus warehouse during this trading deadline for relievers, wanted in talks for either Chapman or Miller.

Washington gave up something for Melancon – left handed reliever Felipe Rivero, who Washington got with Jose Lobaton in the 2014 deal with Tampa for prospect Nathan Karns. Rivero has promise, no doubt about that. But his loss does not damage what has been a strong foundation of player development to keep this organization competitive for years to come.

Me, I would have traded everything not tied down for Chapman, the 100 mile-per-hour throwing closer who will get batters out in October before he even leaves the bullpen to come into the game. And I wouldn’t have blamed Rizzo, who had to wait until the final days to get his two-year contract extension picked up this season by the Lerner family, if he could care less what happens to this franchise four or five years from now. Win now, take your World Series title, and open up the bidding for a five-year contract that even an unproven general manager like Al Avila got in Detroit.

But Rizzo couldn’t bring himself to do that. He couldn’t sacrifice the future of this franchise to win now for his own self-interest. It’s not in his DNA.

Will Melancon be the difference maker if the Nationals make it to the postseason? Nobody knows. Playoff baseball is random, and, you could make the case that it was the Nationals’ starting pitching – the strength of the team and its safety net for when all other parts are failing – that failed to deliver in the 2012 and 2014 postseason.

What it does do is give everyone – fans, front office and players in that Nationals clubhouse – a better feeling about the ninth inning. They haven’t felt that for some time.

Here’s a little news flash for the Drew Storen Fan Club – very few in the organization, from top to bottom, felt good about the ninth inning following 2014. No one wanted to go into the postseason last year with Storen as the closer. That’s why Papelbon became a National.

Whether it has proven to be a success is not the same as whether it was a good trade. It was.

Various reports have supported that Rizzo was handcuffed at the trading deadline last year when he was not allowed to add payroll. That left him few options, yet he was able to secure Papelbon, who is among the top 10 closers in the history of the game, has World Series experiences and was having a terrific season – 17 for 17 in saves, with a 1.59 ERA. Rizzo gave up just prospect Nick Pivetta and, this is the key, got the Phillies to pay the remainder of Papelbon’s salary for last year.

It was the only closer deal to be made, and, based on Storen’s continuing career meltdown – he was designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays after going 1-3 with a 6.21 ERA in 38 appearances and then traded to Seattle – it was a deal that had to be made. There was no confidence in Storen in the Nationals clubhouse or front office.

No one could have seen what would happen after the deal, including the Papelbon-Bryce Harper dugout fight. Lazy media reports suggested Papelbon was a clubhouse cancer, which couldn’t be further from the truth. He was a well-liked and respected teammate in Boston and Philadelphia. And in Washington. Yes, even after he went after Harper. Fans and management may have had issues with Papelbon, but not his teammates.

Now, the Papelbon era has come and gone. He is saying the right things, telling reporters, “We’re fighting for a championship. This is what it takes to achieve it. I think everyone being on the same page and playing for a common goal is what it takes.”

Whether Papelbon will be around to fight for that championship is up in the air, as Rizzo continues to put a postseason bullpen together that won’t duplicate the Storen failures of 2012 and 2014.

It’s on Melancon now to avoid that.

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