Blake Treinen sat at a table in the club level at Nationals Park, his name emblazoned beneath the All-Star Game logo behind him, his smile wide as he spoke to familiar faces about his first career selection for the Midsummer Classic.
Only 20 feet to Treinen’s left sat Wilson Ramos, also smiling widely as he discussed his second All-Star appearance, though disappointed a recent hamstring strain will prevent him from playing but nonetheless thrilled to be here.
One hour earlier, Felipe Vázquez sat in the same seat as Treinen, a member of the National League All-Star squad for the first time, just like his former Nationals teammates, appreciating the fact this was happening here of all places.
“It’s crazy,” said Vázquez, whose last name was Rivero when he pitched for the Nationals in 2015-16. “It feels just amazing what we became the last couple years.”
When the Nationals traded Vázquez to the Pirates in 2016, they knew they might be dealing a future closer away. But they did so because they needed a closer for the remainder of that season: Mark Melancon.
One summer later, the Nationals traded Treinen (along with prospects Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse) to the Athletics because they again needed a closer for the remainder of that season: Sean Doolittle, acquired along with setup man Ryan Madson.
Melancon, Doolittle and Madson all proceeded to pitch well for the Nats and fill important holes in their bullpen. But the emergences of Vázquez in Pittsburgh and Treinen in Oakland into All-Star closers themselves - not to mention the development of Luzardo into a pitcher good enough to start Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game - serves as a reminder that trades aren’t always one-sided steals.
“I think the cool thing is that both organizations, through the trade, got pieces that they needed for the present or the future,” Treinen said. “And I’m just honored that I could be a part of it.”
Ramos wasn’t traded. A free agent at the end of the 2016 season who wasn’t going to be ready to return from ACL surgery until mid-2017, Ramos signed a two-year deal with the Rays and has since re-established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball, voted by fans as the American League starter for this game.
An All-Star for the Nationals in 2016, Ramos feels some extra validation with this selection.
“This one is more valuable for me, because I’m coming back from the knee injury,” he said. “That makes me feel strong mentally, because I’m showing everybody in baseball what I can do. I can still play this game. ... Right now, everybody can look my name as one of the better players in baseball.”
While Vázquez and Treinen are set to pitch for their new clubs for several years to come, Ramos knows his time with Tampa Bay could be coming to an end soon. He was all but certain to be traded - perhaps back to Washington - before the end of this month until he suffered his hamstring injury over the weekend. Now, he may have to wait until he heals to be part of a waiver trade in August, or perhaps even finish out the season with the Rays and then become a free agent again.
For these two days, Ramos is simply trying to enjoy himself and not think about his health or his potential employers for the final two months of the season.
“It was a sad moment in the beginning when I pulled my hamstring a little bit. I was just thinking it was very sad in the hotel, just thinking about it,” he said. “But now I’m here. I’m going to enjoy this time with all my friends. You see my face. I have a big smile on my face. Nothing’s better than this moment.”
Ramos’ former Nationals teammates and first-time All-Stars concur. Vázquez and Treinen are simply thrilled to be here, not to mention reflective about the meandering paths that brought them back to Washington for this event.
The Nationals knew they had a potential future closer in Vázquez, a left-hander with an upper 90s fastball. But he wasn’t ready for that role in 2016, and with a bona fide closer a necessity for that club after Jonathan Papelbon flamed out, general manager Mike Rizzo decided he needed to be willing to deal Vázquez to Pittsburgh in order to acquire Melancon (who went on to convert 17 of 18 save opportunities with a 1.82 ERA before signing a four-year deal with the Giants that winter).
In Pittsburgh, Vázquez had an opportunity to work his way into the closer’s role. He excelled in 2017, posting a 1.67 ERA and 21 saves, though he didn’t earn an All-Star nod. He has been more erratic this season (3.05 ERA, 23 saves in 27 opportunities) but was selected as the Pirates’ lone representative.
What’s the difference for the lefty since he pitched for the Nats?
“We were young, and there was a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “They say you do not have that many years in the league that you’re just trying to prove yourself. And then as long you get more mature, you know what you’re capable of, and you just go out and do your job.”
Treinen, likewise, was viewed favorably within a Nationals organization that gave him the closer’s job on the final day of spring training 2017. But the leash was short, and after giving up runs in four of his first eight appearances, he was demoted to a setup role. By July, with his ERA approaching 6.00 and Doolittle and Madson available, Treinen was part of the package sent to Oakland.
“They gave me an opportunity to be the closer, and I didn’t do the best job with it,” he said. “And I can’t blame them for taking me out of the role, because it’s a team that wanted to win now and try to gain momentum, because D.C. has some high expectations for the talent that they have. There’s a lot of good arms in that bullpen that were ready to close, also. So if one guy wasn’t doing it, try something else.”
Upon arriving in Oakland, Treinen was given an opportunity to ascend to the ninth-inning role in a lower-pressure situation. He went on to post a 2.13 ERA in 35 games last season, and now this year has been one of the AL’s best closers with a 0.94 ERA and 24 saves in 27 attempts.
The difference for Treinen from D.C. to Oakland?
“Having a fresh start and having a team that said: ‘Hey, you’re our guy. Who cares if you fail right away? You’re going to be our guy,’ ” he said. “I really appreciated that. A lot of people don’t even get an opportunity to close, and the fact I’ve had two, I’m very grateful.”