You’ve got to hand it to Mike Rizzo.
The Pirates sure did.
The Washington Nationals acquired the closer they needed — Mark Melancon — in exchange for lefty relievers Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn on Saturday. What’s remarkable here isn’t what Rizzo had to give up to get one of the most reliable closers in the game, but what he didn’t.
As in, any of the Nats top 25 prospects.
Before we get going too far: yes, Rivero is a dynamic young left-handed reliever. He’s got great stuff and is controllable for several more years. He’s got an electric fastball and with the Pirates track record of turning lefties into dominant pitchers he could be a real weapon for them in the future.
And yes: Melancon is a free agent at the end of the season, so this technically is one of those "rental" deals that Rizzo likes to avoid.
And yes: Hearn is a low-A lottery ticket that touches 100 mph and a player the Pirates already drafted once so you know they like him anyway.
However: you’ve got to give to get, and the Nats landed the biggest piece they were missing — a reliable, veteran closer, which makes the rest of the bullpen pieces fall back into place.
Jonathan Papelbon was supposed to be that guy when Rizzo acquired him one year and two days ago — the Nats big trade deadline acquisition last year. It didn’t work. As in, at all.
Many, including yours truly, wrote at the time about Papelbon’s diminished skills and lack of charm (for lack of a better word). But nobody could have foreseen how things played out.
First, the trade ruined whatever was left of Drew Storen and the Nats were forced to trade him. Next, Papelbon choked the team’s MVP in the dugout on national television. He finished the season suspended. All the while, his diminished skills were evident to anyone who was looking.
This year has been no better. He’s been erratic, with his control — the only thing that was keeping him in the Majors — finally eroding as well. It came to a head in the past week, with him allowing eight earned runs in his last three outings — with his fastball in the upper 80s and not low 90s as it was at the start of the season.
Now, Rizzo has made his deal to correct the problem. Melancon is one of the most reliable closers in the game, with a save percentage right up there with Aroldis Chapman and anyone else you’d want to compare him too. He’s 30 of 33 this year and was 51 of 53 last year. He doesn’t have Chapman’s gaudy strikeout numbers (8.2 K/9 this year and career), but also hardly walks anyone (1.9 BB/9 this year, 2.1 career).
He’s also hard to hit — he hasn’t allowed more than 6.7 H/9 in three years and almost never allows a home run. He is what you want at the end of your bullpen.
And the best part? The Nats didn’t have to trade Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Trea Turner, Victor Robles, Erick Fedde or anyone else on the top prospects list.
This also allows Rizzo, if he so chooses, to use one of those pieces to acquire a bat — preferably an outfielder or first baseman — to help out down the stretch.
Finally, although Melancon is a free agent at the end of the season, now that he’s in the fold it’s totally plausible that Rizzo could sign him — at a better deal — before he hits the market.
All in all, this was a huge win for the Nats. Yes, it’s hard to see a controllable talent like Rivero go away, but the Nats’ need for a reliable arm at the back of the bullpen this season outweighed the future benefits of the lefty.
This is a veteran team built for the postseason, and they finally have the last big piece that they’ve been missing.
And they didn’t have to give up the farm.