MIAMI - As the clock wound down to today’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, the Nationals were still in discussions with several teams over several late-inning relievers. “A lot of balls in the air,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’ve got a lot of options.”
When it came time to say yes to one of the deals on the table, the Twins’ proposal to send Brandon Kintzler to Washington in exchange for Single-A left-hander Tyler Watson sat best with Rizzo. And so it was that in the final minutes before 4 p.m. the Nationals acquired another team’s closer for the third consecutive summer.
“I think what we were looking to do is shore up the back end of the game and make the game shorter,” Rizzo said. “And I think we’ve done that here with the addition of Brandon and Ryan and Sean. We really like the look of our bullpen right now.”
The Nationals now must figure out how to line up their newly configured late-inning trio. There was no official declaration from either Rizzo or manager Dusty Baker, but a club source said Kintzler most likely will be used in front of Madson and Doolittle, perhaps pitching the ninth when the others need a night off.
“It just gives me options,” Baker said. “And as a manager, you like to have as many options, quality options, as possible.”
What had been the majors’ least effective bullpen through the season’s first half has been significantly transformed in the last two weeks. The trade for Madson and Doolittle began that process, and now with Kintzler added as well, the Nationals not only have three new late-inning options but can slide other members of their bullpen back into roles that better suit their skills and experience (such as Matt Albers, Enny Romero and Matt Grace).
That provides peace of mind for all parties involved.
“You guys probably feel more comfortable, like I have, especially in the eighth and ninth,” Baker said. “And those guys in the bullpen probably feel more comfortable, too. Because when the phone rings, they’ve got a pretty good idea who’s going to come into the game. That’s always nice.”
Kintzler had been closing for the Twins, with 28 saves in 32 opportunities this season, but he doesn’t possess typical closer “stuff.” He strikes out only 5.4 batters per nine innings, but induces weak contact with a mid-90s sinker and has walked only 11 batters while serving up only three homers in 45 1/3 innings.
“Pounds the strike zone,” Rizzo said in providing a scouting report. “Big strike-thrower. Got a good sinker. Gets a lot of ground balls. Gets a lot of weak contact.”
If anything, Kintzler’s repertoire and strengths make him an ideal candidate to take over the “fireman” role Blake Treinen held last season, summoned anywhere from the sixth to the eighth inning to try to pitch out of a jam.
“You always need a double-play guy,” Baker said. “And right now we have one in particular; we have Albers. But (Albers) can give us length, as well as a short period of time. So that gives us two guys, especially guys with experience late in ballgames, with at least 30 saves. He’s a welcome addition to our club.”
Kintzler, who turns 33 on Tuesday, is due to make roughly $1 million over the rest of the season, after which he’ll become a free agent. To acquire him, the Nationals dipped into their farm system and offered Watson to the Twins.
Watson, 20, was a 34th round pick in 2015 who in 35 appearances (33 starts) over the last two-plus seasons had a 3.40 ERA, 1.144 WHIP and 4.14-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the lower levels of the Nationals’ farm system. The left-hander was 6-4 with a 4.35 ERA in 18 games (17 starts) for Hagerstown this year.
In order to clear space on their 40-man roster for Kintzler, the Nationals designated minor league reliever Jimmy Cordero for assignment. They’ll need to clear a spot on the 25-man major league roster once Kintzler officially joins the club in Miami, perhaps Tuesday.
The Nationals’ focus on deadline day was on bolstering a bullpen that has been the club’s weakest position all season. Despite recent speculation that they might try to bolster their rotation as well, they made no such moves, counting on Stephen Strasburg to return shortly from his elbow injury and Edwin Jackson or Erick Fedde to hold down the No. 5 starter’s job through the season’s final two months.
Two high-profile starters did get moved to contenders in the final hours before the deadline, with the A’s sending Sonny Gray to the Yankees and the Rangers dealing Yu Darvish to the Dodgers. Asked if the Nationals were involved in any deadline discussions for a starting pitcher, Rizzo succinctly replied: “No, we did not.”