Thoughts on the Nationals’ blockbuster bullpen trade

We knew it was coming, there wasn’t any question about that. We only didn’t know when it was coming, whether the Nationals would be able to strike a big deal to address their bullpen early in the summer or whether they would have to wait until the final flurry at the July 31 trade deadline to fix the most glaring hole on their roster.

So when it did happen Sunday, it was both surprising and completely predictable, all at the same time.

Of course Mike Rizzo and Billy Beane were going to consummate their 11th trade since 2010. And of course Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle were going to be the relievers coming from Oakland to Washington. This was no bombshell, at least not for anybody who has been paying attention.

And yet it did kind of come out of the blue, only a few hours after the esteemed Ken Rosenthal first mentioned that the Nationals were “trying to acquire” both Madson and Doolittle. That was the kind of rumor that was easy to brush aside, not because there wasn’t merit to the Nats’ interest in both relievers, but because they obviously had longstanding interest in both but didn’t appear to be on the verge of actually completing a trade.

sean-doolittle-as.jpgAnyway, it’s a done deal now. Madson and Doolittle are about to join the Nationals bullpen, whether in time for today’s series finale in Cincinnati or Tuesday’s series opener in Anaheim. And Blake Treinen, Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse are now property of the Athletics.

Pete Kerzel has been providing the firsthand accounts of the trade and subsequent reaction from Cincinnati, and he’ll have more today. I’ll be back to the grind in Anaheim to cover the West Coast portion of this nine-game road trip. But since this is obviously one of the most significant stories of the season to date, I wanted to jump in and share some thoughts now while they’re still relevant ...

The Nats didn’t get a true closer, but they got two of the best late-inning arms available
When they were in need of a closer last summer, the Nationals had no shortage of top-tier options. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Mark Melancon all were available, and the Nats wound up with Melancon.

This time around, there wasn’t that kind of closer market. David Robertson is perhaps the only real closer being shopped around, and he’s been available since December. If the Nationals really wanted Robertson, they would have had him by now.

There are, however, a whole bunch of quality setup men to be had this summer. And Madson and Doolittle were right at the top of the list.

Madson has made 644 relief appearances in his career, the owner of a 2.96 ERA in those appearances. And 35 percent of those appearances have come in what was classified as a high-leverage situation, a healthy amount. (For comparison’s sake, only 30 percent of Shawn Kelley’s career appearances have been in high-leverage spots.)

Of perhaps greater importance, Madson has appeared in 42 postseason games in his career, most notably as the primary setup man for the Phillies’ 2008 World Series championship and 2009 National League champion clubs, but also as a member of the Royals’ 2015 World Series championship ‘pen.

Madson may get beat come October, but if he does it won’t be because the moment was too big for him.

Doolittle, meanwhile, has consistently been one of the most effective left-handed relievers in the business for some time. Left-handed batters own a career .184 batting average and .213 on-base percentage against him and are 0-for-23 with 12 strikeouts against him this year. (He’s also quite effective against right-handed batters.)

Doolittle has eight postseason appearances with the A’s from 2012-14. It’s not Madson experience, but it is experience.

The only downside: Doolittle’s injury history. He has made four trips to the disabled list in the last three seasons, all for shoulder trouble. So yes, there is some risk here. The good news: He’s healthy right now, and when he’s been healthy he’s been incredibly effective.

This was both a short-term and a long-term fix
Obviously, Rizzo needed to do something to improve this year’s bullpen. But with both Madson and Doolittle already signed for 2018, the Nationals already have taken a major step toward ensuring they don’t face this same dilemma once again next season.

In giving approval to this trade, the Lerner family is taking on extra salary. Madson is owed about $3.2 million for the rest of this season and then $7.5 million next season. Doolittle is owed about $1.2 million for the rest of this season and then $4.35 million next season. The Nationals also hold a $6 million club option for 2019 and a $6.5 million option for 2020 on the lefty, with a $500,000 buyout if they decline either.

That’s not chump change, but both pitchers are worth it. And with both under contract for 2018, the Nationals won’t need to go out and spend $4 million on another Joe Blanton next winter.

The Nats didn’t give up top prospects, but they gave up a lot
Rizzo deserves credit for once again addressing a glaring hole without losing Victor Robles, Erick Fedde, Juan Soto, Carter Kieboom or another elite prospect. At the same time, this trade wasn’t a steal.

Luzardo profiles to be a front-line left-handed starter, especially now that he is pitching again following Tommy John surgery. Neuse could be a very productive infielder down the road.

And Treinen, for all the anguish he has caused Nationals fans in the last 3 1/2 months, still does have the ability to be an awfully good reliever for a long time. He was one of the best firemen in baseball last year, he was starting to look more like his old self in recent weeks and he still throws one of the hardest sinkers in the sport.

Did the Nationals ruin Treinen by thrusting him into the closer’s role on opening day and then yanking him out of that role only 2 1/2 weeks later? Perhaps. This might have been a case where a change of scenery was necessary for him to have a real shot at success again.

But watching this all play out, I can’t help but think of Joel Hanrahan, who was asked to be the closer of a terrible Nats team in 2009, lost confidence and had to be traded, then became a two-time All-Star for the Pirates before arm injuries ended his career.

Maybe it was too late for Treinen to do it in D.C. But don’t be surprised if he does it in Oakland.

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