We’ve reached that time of year once again: the day when Mike Rizzo trades several intriguing prospects for bullpen relief. After earlier acquiring Daniel Hudson from the Blue Jays, the Nationals acquired Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland from the Mariners in exchange for Aaron Fletcher, Elvis Alvarado, and Taylor Guilbeau. The Nats hope Elías and Strickland, who won’t be free agents until 2022, will be a stabilizing force in the middle of their bullpen for years to come, or at the very least a cromulent bridge to the stars of the pen.
As seems to happen every year, the Nationals came into 2019 with a plan to fix the bullpen. They signed Trevor Rosenthal and traded for Kyle Barraclough in the offseason, both interesting arms with velocity to spare and control issues. They also signed Tony Sipp just before the start of the season, promoted Tanner Rainey, who they acquired from the Reds in a Tanner swap with Tanner Roark, and signed Jonny Venters when the Braves released him in May. It’s clear, in other words, that they knew they had a bullpen problem and attempted to fix it.
As Nationals fans already know, they didn’t fix it. The Nationals bullpen has been among the worst in the majors this year. They’ve compiled a collective 5.99 ERA, last in baseball, and an equally horrific 5.07 xFIP (though their FIP is slightly better, at 4.80). As bad as that 5.99 ERA sounds, though, their results have been even worse than that due to poor timing. The bullpen has been worth -7.98 WPA, meaning they’ve cost the team a staggering eight wins on the year. Eight wins is the difference between fighting for a Wild Card spot, where the Nats find themselves now, and having the second-best record in the NL.
It’s safe to say that the team has a clear objective, but the way they’re addressing it differs from past years. They’ve previously traded middle relievers with years of team control left for dominant closers, sending Felipe Vázquez to the Pirates for Mark Melancon and Blake Treinen plus prospects to the A’s for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Those trades came back to bite the team — Vázquez and Treinen have since been among the most effective relievers in baseball, while Melancon and Madson left in free agency.
This time, the front office has prioritized quantity over quality, acquiring a smorgasbord of relievers they hope will shore up the gaping hole the team currently has in middle relief. Of the two relievers acquired from the Mariners, Elías looks to be the more interesting. After a 2018, when he rode a microscopic 1.5% HR/FB rate to a sterling 2.65 ERA (3.08 FIP), he’s scuffled this year, with a 4.4 ERA and 4.67 FIP. Elías’s profile is unlike almost any other reliever in baseball. He’s a fly ball pitcher who has historically done a decent job of suppressing hard contact. He hasn’t backed that contact suppression up with strikeouts, though. In his eye-popping 2018, he struck out only 16.2% of batters he faced, far below average in today’s game. This year, he’s up to 22.2%, with a career-high 11.7% swinging strike rate that makes the punchout uptick look real.
Elías throws an interesting mix of pitches for a one-inning reliever, likely a byproduct of his time as a starter. He throws a mid-90s four-seam fastball more than half the time, and backs it up with a hard, mid-80s changeup, a slow, mid-70s curveball, and the occasional two-seam fastball. The curveball, in particular, is a delight. He’s capable of spotting it high in the zone, as he did here in making Matt Chapman question his very sanity:
Elías will slide into middle-inning relief work with the Nationals, though he won’t likely be a left-handed specialist. Though platoon splits are slow to stabilize, they’re more predictive for pitchers, and Elías owns a career negative split, allowing a higher wOBA against lefties than righties. Tony Sipp is still available for LOOGY assignments, though, which means that if Dave Martinez can resist the urge to limit Elías to left-handed batters, he should be a strong contributor to the bullpen going forward.
Hunter Strickland faces a dicier future with the Nationals. He signed with the Mariners after a rough 2018 in San Francisco and got hurt almost immediately. He went on the 60-day IL in March and has only pitched in a single game since returning. His velocity has held up, however, and he’s switched to throwing more than 50% sliders in a limited sample size this year. Making that slider work as a primary pitch might be his best route to success — it’s a horizontally-sweeping out pitch that has induced whiffs nearly 40% of the time in his career, which makes him interesting in a Chaz Roe sort of way.
Even with his changed pitch mix, Strickland currently profiles at the fringes of the Nationals roster, and depending on how he returns to form from his lat injury, he is at risk of falling off the roster entirely before season’s end. If the Nationals can get something like 2015-2017 era Hunter Strickland, a 3 ERA, 3 FIP reliever who can handle high-leverage innings in a pinch, he’d be a wonderful find. If he doesn’t regain that form, he might join the rapidly expanding list of formerly good relievers who suffered through a rough, short stint in the nation’s capital this year.
In exchange for these two relievers, the Mariners received three prospects, each interesting in their own way. Per Eric Longenhagen, the three pitchers are all fliers, each with a carrying tool and several question marks. Aaron Fletcher is a sinker/slider lefty putting up impressive numbers in limited relief innings in High-A and Double-A this year. He’s striking out nearly a third of the batters he faces and getting piles of groundballs. His fastball, which sits 90-92 and touches 94, doesn’t overpower hitters, but his deceptive delivery makes his arsenal play up.
Elvis Alvarado is still a mystery. He’s a converted outfielder who was occasionally breaking 100 mph in extended spring training this year. His slider flashes plus movement, but his consistency could still use work — not unreasonable for a 20-year-old with only 28.2 competitive innings in his big league career. If he works out, he could be a dynamic reliever, but it’s all an arm strength bet at this point.
Taylor Guilbeau is the only one of the three prospects on THE BOARD. He’s a flamethrowing lefty with a hittable fastball, touching 97 at times but without much movement or deception. He went unselected in last year’s Rule 5 draft, though he was excellent in 35 innings at Double-A this year before being promoted, so he might have been selected if left unprotected again this year. He’s another arm strength bet, though one closer to the majors than Alvarado. At 26, he’ll likely either be a major-league reliever or fall off the prospect radar within the next year or two.
Overall, this feels like a reasonable trade for the Nationals, who find themselves in the thick of the playoff conversation despite a balky bullpen. The pitchers they acquired will stick around for a few years if they’re good, and they mostly gave up lottery tickets in exchange. If Elías can pair his contact suppression from last year with his swing-and-miss stuff from this year, he could be a solid setup man for Sean Doolittle, and Strickland is a nice bonus arm. The Mariners also did well — they don’t have much use for two relievers as they rebuild, and if one of the three prospects they acquired pans out, the future Mariners will be much stronger for this trade.
Ben is a contributor to Fangraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.