After being outbid for Aroldis Chapman, the Washington Nationals made a different kind of splash into the closer market on Saturday. Mark Melancon goes to Washington in exchange for Nats reliever Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn.
Melancon is, arguably, one of the best closers in the National League. He was last year’s Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year and the 31-year-old has 30 saves in 33 opportunities with a 1.51 ERA this season. Among qualified relievers, that's second best in the NL this year and ranks eighth in all of baseball among qualified relievers since the start of 2014. Rivero has been a solid late innings option for Washington, but has fallen into a little slump since the end of June that bumped his ERA up to its current 4.53. That's probably a little deceptive, however, as his FIP remains 3.26. Between the SAL and the GCL, Hearn has a 2.79 ERA in 29 innings this season. He ranked 25th on Baseball America's post-2015 Nationals list, so it's likely neither side expects him to be a huge factor.
The Nationals benefit now, as their current closer, Jonathan Papelbon, has struggled. Since last September he hasn't endeared himself to the fan base and this season he’s posted a 4.41 ERA and has blown three saves in 22 opportunities. After acquiring Melancon, the Nationals will almost certainly boot Papelbon from the closer’s role. That sound you hear across the District? A sigh of relief. Take a look at their 2016 stats side-by-side:
Melancon’s ERA is 2.90 runs lower than Papelbon’s, and he’s appeared in ten more games. With nine additional innings, he’s allowed four fewer hits and seven fewer runs. Melancon’s WHIP is more than half a run lower and he has allowed nine fewer earned runs. Papelbon probably won't be quite this bad the rest of the way, but his performance so far hasn't inspired much confidence. As the Nationals lead the NL East by five games, this will only add to one of the league's strongest bullpens. Entering the day on Saturday, no NL team had a better ERA (3.05) from their relief core than the Nationals. However, both Melancon and Papelbon are signed only through the end of 2016, leaving a lot of uncertainty in the late innings for Washington beyond this year. This is absolutely a move designed to solidify the pen in 2016 by pushing Papelbon into a less important role.
So just how important is the closer's role for the 2016 Nationals? It's very important given where the Nationals are in the standings and the current performance of their 9th inning man. The Nationals have a middle of the pack offense (97 wRC+) and their run prevention in the 9th inning has been a worrisome 4.27 RA9. This isn't the kind of team that hands a lot of 9-2 leads to their bullpen. Having someone of Melancon's caliber to pick up late and close innings, of which there are likely to be a decent number, should help the team considerably. The Nationals are trying to make a deep playoff run and improving their ability to hold leads makes plenty of sense given that it's one of their current weaknesses.
The Pirates will move forward this season by shifting Tony Watson to the 9th inning and Neftali Feliz to the 8th (2.66 and 2.97 ERAs respectively). They are nine games out in the NL Central and three games back in the NL wild card. A trade like this will cost them a bit it terms of playoff odds, but there's a decent chance they were going to miss the postseason with Melancon and now they have an interesting relief arm locked up for additional years.
The team intends to contend this year, but playing for the next several years makes sense as they’ve locked up a solid future lineup in McCutchen, Harrison, Cervelli, Marte, Kang, and Polanco through 2018. Felipe Rivero’s now under team control through 2021. The Nationals traded five years of one bullpen arm for two months of another. Given the potential of Rivero’s changeup, if he figures out how to retire left-handed batters and the Nationals don’t go deep in the post season this year, this trade could be heavily in the Pirates’ favor. Right now, given the state of the Nats bullpen in late innings, this trade makes sense on both ends. Getting Melancon provides the Nationals with an upgrade that should serve them well in tight games down the stretch and in October when relievers have a larger impact, but the Pirates small hit in 2016 offers them a chance to strengthen their pen for several seasons.
Audrey Stark is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.