I don’t remember who made this observation–Boswell probably–but the Lerners run their team like they run their business. They treat players like they treat real estate. Developers acquire undeveloped property and hold on to it until it has reached its full potential. For better or worse, the Nationals top prospects will almost always stay put.
This is a great source of frustration for some Nats fans, who watch offseasons and trade deadlines come and go without a “big” move. Instead of netting Yoenis Cespedes last year, the Nats let him go to a rival. Instead of trading for Aroldis Chapman last offseason (and this year), he went to more aggressive teams willing to part with their elite prospects. For better or worse, the Nats won’t mortgage their future, just like a real estate developer won’t sell an empty parcel of land.
This is why rumors of Andrew Miller and Chapman coming to the Nats were never realistic. The market was too hot. The price was too high. Since their cost would have been at least one of the Nats top prospects–Giolito, Lopez, Robles, or Turner–they were never coming here.
Therefore, Rizzo sniffed around until he found the best reliever he could find without liquidating his non-liquid assets. And he found a good one. Mark Melancon is a former journeyman reliever who quietly turned into one of the best closers in baseball. An All-Star three out of the past four seasons, he’s put up ERAs of 1.39, 1.90, 2.23, and 1.51 in that time. He features a devastating cutter that’s thrown hard and is difficult to hit. He’s a shut down reliever and exactly what the Nationals need right now.
Felipe Rivero and Single-A prospect (and 2015 5th round pick) Taylor Hearn go to Pittsburgh in return. I like Rivero, probably more than most, and I’m sad to see him go. He’s had some rough outings this year, and there’s no way the Nats could have depended on him down the stretch, but I see his appeal to the Pirates. He’s under team control for five more seasons, and he has the raw stuff to become an elite closer himself. Nats fans saw glimpses of that this year and last. He’s got talent.
But the price here is more than right. When you consider the Yankees expected more than top prospect Lucas Giolito to get Andrew Miller, this Melancon trade looks like a steal. Hearn isn’t even a Top 20 prospect in the Nats system. The Nats got what they wanted–a man to lock down the 9th inning–and they didn’t even dent their farm system. Mike Rizzo probably danced in celebration after completing this trade. Given the closer market, it’s really hard to imagine him doing better.
The bigger question from this trade is Jonathan Papelbon, last season’s deadline deal rent-a-closer, who quickly became a nightmare. Papelbon demanded the closer role before agreeing to a trade to DC last year. Melancon will displace him, starting tomorrow. Drew Storen couldn’t handle a demotion out of the closers role last season–both mentally and physically. I won’t even venture a guess how Papelbon will respond. And no, I don’t think the Nats cut him outright. They’ll try to make it work.
Finally, I want to point out this trade follows a typical Rizzo pattern of seeing secondary trade pieces becoming major assets down the road. Rivero, if you remember, came to the Nats in the Nate Karns-Jose Lobaton trade back in 2014. He was one of the two minor leaguers who where, at the time, footnotes to the trade. Now, two and a half years later, he headlines a major deadline deal for an elite closer. This isn’t the first time Rizzo has done this. Ian Krol was literally the “player to be named later” in the 2012 Mike Morse trade, and become a key piece in the 2014 Doug Fister trade that helped win the NL East that season. For all his faults, Rizzo is a pretty good scout. His best trait might be bringing in relatively unheralded talent with the capability to mature and become valuable assets.
You may have wanted Chapman or Miller. You’re getting Melancon instead, and you’re getting him cheap. I won’t complain.