SAN FRANCISCO - In his eight seasons as general manager of the Nationals, Mike Rizzo has rarely traded for a player who isn’t under club control beyond the current season.
The situation this summer, however, is quite different, and so Rizzo didn’t hesitate to go against his usual mantra in acquiring Mark Melancon to be his closer for the next two months.
“I just think that his resume and his performance level dictated that he was a guy to really go after and attack,” Rizzo said this evening after the Nationals lost 5-3 to the Giants. “Although we’ll have him for a short time this year, we thought that the situation and the deal that we had to make to acquire such an accomplished reliever was worth it.”
Melancon, 32, is a free agent at season’s end, but he has been among the most dominant relievers in baseball for four years now. Since 2013, he ranks third among all MLB relievers in ERA (1.80) and saves (130), fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.74), sixth in save percentage (90.3) and ninth in WHIP (0.93).
“The percentage of closing games has been high for a few years,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He throws strikes. He’s very happy to come here.”
Rizzo and Baker spoke to Melancon on the phone shortly after the trade with the Pirates was completed this morning and emerged feeling even better about the player they were acquiring for left-hander Felipe Rivero and minor league pitcher Taylor Hearn.
Melancon, who is expected to join the club in time for Sunday’s game, told his new manager and GM he wanted to reach out to Jonathan Papelbon and make sure he established a positive relationship with the teammate whose job he is about to take.
“It says a lot about his character and makeup,” Rizzo said. “That was a big reason why he was such an attractive target to us. His performance level is great, but his makeup and character are a lot of the reason we went and got him. That tells me he’s team first and Mark Melancon second.”
Rizzo and Baker also met in person with Papelbon prior to today’s game at AT&T Park and emerged confident the veteran reliever is on board with the trade, even though it means a reduced role for himself.
“He took it very well,” Rizzo said. “He’s all about winning. That’s what he wants to do. That’s what he told us. And he’s been a great teammate here in the clubhouse and a guy the players respect.”
Papelbon, who had essentially been stripped of his closer’s role earlier in the week after three consecutive poor outings, said he understands the Nationals’ decision.
“We’re fighting for a championship. This is what it takes to achieve it,” the 35-year-old said. “I think everyone being on the same page and playing for a common goal is what it takes.”
Papelbon said he hasn’t been told what his exact role will be moving forward, but he’s willing to do what is asked of him, even if that’s a difficult thing to accept.
“I think anybody losing their job is a hard thing to accept, period,” he said. “That’s human nature. If you lose your job, would that be a tough thing to accept? Right, exactly. I think that’s just a hard pill to swallow, no matter who you are and what job you’re in. ... I think for me, I’m just going to have to do whatever it takes to accept a new role and a new challenge for myself. I just take it that way.”
The Nationals did not want to trade away Rivero, a hard-throwing left-hander acquired along with catcher Jose Lobaton in the 2014 trade of Nathan Karns to the Rays. But that was a price Rizzo was willing to pay, as opposed to some of the organization’s top prospects who were being sought after by other clubs shopping closers.
“He’s a young kid we’ve thought a lot of,” Rizzo said. “We thought enough of him to trade for him, and he’s kind of grown up in our system and became a big leaguer with the Nationals. He’s got a good arm and he’s going to have a great career.”