CINCINNATI - Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had been chatting with his A’s counterpart, Billy Beane, over the past couple of weeks. Their conversations began centered around a single relief pitcher to help stabilize the Nats’ bumbling bullpen.
But when both righty Ryan Madson and lefty Sean Doolittle became available, Rizzo couldn’t pass up the opportunity to add a pair of pitchers who have worked high-leverage innings, closed games, and are capable of getting both right- and left-handed hitters out.
“The conversations that we had with Oakland for a couple of weeks, it kind of focused in on one of the relievers and then, in the later moments a day or so ago, it morphed into a bigger deal when we expanded the deal to add both of the Oakland relievers,” Rizzo explained. “It probably came together pretty quick.”
That’s the genesis of this afternoon’s trade that sent righty reliever Blake Treinen, 29, and two prospects - Rookie-league lefty Jesus Luzardo, 19, and low Single-A third baseman Sheldon Neuse, 22 - to the A’s for the two relievers. The Nationals assume all of the salary in the deal - about $4.5 million this season and $12 million in 2018 - but get two veterans who have both prospered despite histories with arm injuries.
“It’s nice to have guys who have done it before, guys who have pitched in big games and pitched in playoff games . ... That had a lot to do with it,” Rizzo said. “I think the ability and the stuff was important to us. They performed great throughout their careers, they performed really well this year. One’s left-handed, one’s right-handed. That gives us a little bit more balance in the bullpen. They’re both capable of getting out both lefty and right-handed hitters. So they’re very versatile, no egos, they’re capable of pitching in the eighth or ninth inning, they’ve both done it. We’re really happy with the acquisition.”
Two guys who have previously closed games will allow Dusty Baker to set up his bullpen - if he names one of the new arrivals as his new closer. Baker said he hadn’t decided that yet, and Rizzo suggested that putting one guy in the ninth inning will make it easier for the Nationals to assign specific roles in the bullpen, instead of mixing and matching on an almost daily basis depending on who’s fit and rested.
“I think that Dusty will stabilize the bullpen and set on one guy and kind of get a little rhythm back there and get guys comfortable in their roles,” Rizzo said.
Madson, 36, and Doolittle will be welcome additions to a bullpen that entered play Sunday with the worst ERA in the major leagues at 5.34. Seven different pitchers have recorded saves for the Nats, but none of the three guys who competed for the closer’s role in spring training - righties Treinen, Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley - have found any sustained success. Treinen lost the gig after only a few weeks, and both Kelley (back and neck) and Glover (back) are on the disabled list.
“We needed some help,” Baker said. “We got two quality guys and both of them have been closers at some point in time. They got what they wanted - some young players and Treinen - and I hate to give up Treinen, but you have to give up something to get something. So we got two proven major leaguers. Both of them have been closers to shore up the back end of our bullpen so, hopefully, everybody can settle back into their roles and everybody can relax.”
So who closes?
“I’m not sure,” Baker said. “I got to talk to Bob Melvin. Like I said, both of them have closed. And both of them have had some arm problems in the past. So it could be both of them. We’ll see.”
It was no surprise that Rizzo moved swiftly to solve his relief issues, not waiting until there were only a few decent players left while their current teams tried to extract maximum returns in any trade. And Rizzo didn’t have to give up any of his top prospects to make the trade.
In the end, ownership’s willingness to assume salary and extended control helped tilt the balance. Madson, who is earning $7.5 million this season, is under team control through next season at $7.5 million, and Doolittle is on a five-year, $10.5 million extension that runs through 2018 with two club options.
“That’s always important for us,” Rizzo said. “Last year, we did a rental deal with (Mark) Melancon that worked out great for us. He was terrific. But it’s often nice, if at all possible, to get guys who will be with you for a while. It makes the sting of trading off prospects a little easier to handle. But it’s good to know that these guys will be around us for a while.”
When healthy, both Doolittle and Madson are capable of working a lot. Doolittle is tough on left-handers - he’s yet to allow a hit to 23 southpaw batters this season - and is a groundball machine. Madson doesn’t walk many, misses bats and rarely gives up home runs.
Neither Rizzo nor Baker was sure whether Doolittle and Madson would meet the club in Cincinnati tomorrow for the finale of a four-game series, or in Anaheim on Tuesday. Rizzo said the club was looking into travel arrangements, but that “both of them, they’re extremely excited about getting in the mix and pitching for a playoff contender.”
The trade drew positive reviews in the clubhouse after a 14-4 victory over the Reds.
“It’s always nice to add quality players, and those guys are really good players,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “I think they’re going to help our bullpen. It’s unfortunate to see Blake go. Such a great part of this team and he’s thrown he ball really well for us in the time that you’ve been here. But like anything else, you don’t get anything free in this game, so we had to give up a really quality piece in order to get two quality pieces.”
Said winning pitcher Tanner Roark: “We’re going to (welcome) Madson and Doolittle and work them in very well. They’ve both got electric stuff, so we’re excited.”
The Nats’ major need addressed, Rizzo said he would pay close attention to any opportunities to better his ballclub. The nonwaiver trade deadline is July 31; after that, any players who are moved must pass through waivers, making deals more difficult because other teams can make a waiver claim to block a trade.
“I think we’ve done what we came to do at the trade deadline,” Rizzo said. “That’s not to say that we’re going to stop scouting. As we’ve shown in the past, if there’s an opportunity to improve the ballclub, we’ll certainly continue to be aggressive and try to help us out any way we can.”