Nationals Play Scrabble, Probably Lose

One of the recurring themes over the last year has been the high price the market is putting on relief pitchers. Ken Giles and Craig Kimbrel brought back monster returns in trades last winter, while even decent middle relievers were getting two or three year deals as free agents. At last month’s trade deadline, Aroldis Chapman got the Yankees a terrific haul. It’s clearly a good time to be selling relief pitching.

And today, it looks like those rising prices have trickled down to mediocre lefty specialists, as the Nationals gave up a legitimately interesting prospect for a five week rental of Mark Rzepczynski. The guy nicknamed Scrabble is a useful situational reliever, having held lefties to a .270 wOBA in his career — don’t put any stock on his 2016 reverse split, which is all BABIP driven — but he’s useless against righties (.351 career wOBA allowed) so he’s effectively a one out guy.

Of course, the Nationals already have exactly this kind of pitcher in Oliver Perez, who they signed for $7 million over two years last winter. Perez hasn’t been as good as they hoped this year, and has been particularly bad lately, getting torched for a .473 wOBA in August. But he’s still held lefties to a .316 wOBA this year after keeping them to just a .230 wOBA last year, and is at .306 for his career; you’d have to really overreact to five bad innings in August to think that the Nationals needed to give up real value to improve their lefty specialist for the playoffs.

For the right to marginally upgrade their LOOGY, a guy who might face four or five batters in an entire playoff series, the Nationals surrendered a 21 year old currently running a 131 wRC+ in high-A ball. Max Schrock isn’t an elite prospect or anything, but he’s been a fixture on Carson’s Fringe Five all year, based on his strong contact rates and at least a little bit of power. As a diminutive second baseman, it’s easy to look at Schrock as a limited upside guy, but with Jose Altuve on the verge of getting AL MVP votes, we should remember that the idea of firm upside ceilings are much less concrete than is often thought.

Schrock’s more likely future is as a bench bat, but even if he’s just Alberto Callaspo 2.0, giving that up for a marginal gain in lefty specialists seems weird.

So why did the Nationals do this? Well, the deal was announced as Rzepczynski and cash for Schrock, so presumably, Oakland is paying some of the remaining ~$800K or so left on his contract this season. But according to sources in the game, Rzepczynski actually cleared waivers before this trade was completed, so the Nationals could have simply had him for just a the waiver fee, and kept a legitimately interesting prospect in their system.

So, effectively, the Nationals just sold a decent prospect for some cash savings in order to bolster the least important part of their bullpen. I know the value of relievers is going up, but deals like this still seem silly to me. Maybe Scrabble will get a big out or two in October and it will seem worth the long-term cost, but Rzepczynski seems like the kind of guy the Nationals should have gotten for next to nothing. When the market is inflating reliever prices to the point you have to give up a legitimately interesting 21 year old for a five week rental of a LOOGY, maybe it’s just time to stop paying market prices for relievers and go with what you already have.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

This wasn’t about a marginal upgrade over Perez – this was about having literally any other LHP option in the bullpen. They traded Rivero because Solis was doing a similar thing – now Solis is hurt (again) with no clear timeline for coming back. They just traded for Sean Burnett, too, but while he’s a nice story, he’s also two TJs in and currently at AAA. They need the ability to match up against LHBs every night over the next couple of months, and that wasn’t something they possessed in their organization. Schrock is a fun and interesting prospect, but the present value of being able to effectively pitch to lefties in key spots is probably a lot higher than whatever discounted future value he might deliver in 2019.

6 years ago
Reply to  jaykaydee

but the question is, was it worth giving up a guaranteed future MVP?

6 years ago
Reply to  Bip

And this, “Rzepczynski actually cleared waivers before this trade was completed, so the Nationals could have simply had him for just the waiver fee”

So they sold Oakland a future MVP for < $800k.