LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - As the Nationals looked over the market for left-handed relievers, considering both free agent and trade options, they were looking to find a certain type of player: a relatively young southpaw whose contract offered more than a year of team control and who came with a price tag that made sense for the organization.
Under those qualifications, they were able to narrow their search. It left them discussing three or four trade proposals with various teams and making an offer to one free agent starting pitcher, according to general manager Mike Rizzo.
Eventually, the Nationals found a good fit in Athletics lefty Jerry Blevins, and they finalized a trade for Blevins this afternoon that sends minor league outfielder Billy Burns - the Nats' minor league Player of the Year in 2013 - to Oakland.
"The industry knew that we were looking for a left-handed relief option, and as we filtered through the different free agent options that we had and the different trade options, we kind of focused in on this type of left-handed reliever," Rizzo said. "As we went through these meetings and kind of got a feel for what the acquisition cost for the free agent left-handers were, we decided to focus more on the trade options instead of free agent options. Narrowed it down to a couple of good, effective left-handed pitchers that we were talking about and found a good match with Oakland."
Price ended up being a big factor in this process. Javier Lopez received a three-year, $13 million deal from the Giants earlier this offseason, and the Nats weren't comfortable paying what it would have cost in order to acquire, say, a J.P. Howell or a Scott Downs, two of the top remaining free agent left-handed relievers.
"When we inquired about a lot of guys on the free agent market that fit the criteria that we were looking for, we found that we should shift our attention towards the trade market," Rizzo said.
In Blevins, the Nats get a 30-year-old lefty who is under team control for two more seasons and will probably make around $1.5 million through arbitration this year. He posted a 3.15 ERA in 60 innings (67 games) for the A's last season, is more than just a left-handed specialist, and is a quality clubhouse presence.
"I think that his career numbers show that he's successful against lefties and righties," Rizzo said. "Last year, he had a little bit of a reverse split (faring better against right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters), but we feel comfortable that he can get left-handers out and right-handers out. ... He's a three-pitch mix guy. Fastball in the 89-92 range. Big breaking ball and a changeup and can mix-and-match, change speeds, expand his breaking ball and he's a command guy."
The Nats and A's have now combined on six trades in the last two years and seven deals in a three-year span, an unusually high number. Rizzo was asked whether the reason for that is his relationship with A's general manager Billy Beane, the talent in Athletics' system or just the way the two teams match up.
"I think the relationship part between Billy and I has been a little overstated," Rizzo said. "We kind of speak the same language as far as the way we approach trades. We're both very up-front and I think fairly decisive. When we see a match, we usually go and make a deal. They scout our system extremely well, they know them very well, and they've had the players that we've been looking to acquire on a number of occasions."
To acquire Blevins, a guy that Rizzo sees as someone that Matt Williams can add to the list of Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard as mid- to late-inning guys, the Nats had to part with Burns, who has really come on strong the last couple of years. The speedster stole 74 bases in his time between high Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in 2013 and had a solid slash line (.315/.425/.383), but lacks any real power. Burns has hit just one homer in 949 professional at-bats.
"Billy Burns, you talk about a scouting success story," said Rizzo, who clearly likes Burns' skill-set and development in recent years. "This guy's a 32nd-round pick. Speed guy out of college that we drafted, signed, developed, made him a switch-hitter in the professional ranks and our development did a tremendous job on this guy. He's got game-changing speed, and as the rest of his game develops, he could become a solid player for them.
"Again, we traded from depth. We've got a lot of depth in the outfield position with the emergence of Michael Taylor and (Brian) Goodwin and (Steven) Souza. We felt that this was a position that we could dip into and get the reliever that we were looking for."