Nationals Acquire Elite Reliever for Relative Bargain

The Washington Nationals started with their sights on Aroldis Chapman. They’d deemed their bullpen to be in need of an upgrade, and Chapman was the most obvious candidate. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And not only did it not happen, but the return for Chapman was so high that clubs still interested in Andrew Miller could be seen as effectively priced out. From Washington, the Yankees reportedly asked for top prospect Lucas Giolito in exchange for Miller, and no matter what the tweets say, that was never going to happen.

So the Nationals had to lower their sights a bit. But they didn’t have to lower them far, because after Chapman and Miller, they might have gone out and gotten the next-best thing:

It’s a trade that makes sense for both teams, as they all should. The Pirates may not be strong current contenders, but they remain future contenders, if that makes sense. We’ve got their playoff odds at 16%, which is still very much in the race, but makes them a longshot. What the Pirates have beyond this year, though, is a strong core coupled with a handful of promising, near-ready prospects that ought to keep the club’s contention window open for years to come. They’re not going away anytime soon, but they’ve been largely done in this season by uncharacteristically poor starting pitching.

So they moved an expiring piece. Mark Melancon’s been a fixture of Pittsburgh’s recent revival, but he’s gotten expensive, and he’ll be a free agent at year’s end. Teams like the Pirates typically don’t retain relievers like Melancon when they hit the market, so they got what they could. That means Felipe Rivero, a lefty reliever who touches the high-90’s in the majors right now, and that means Taylor Hearn, a lefty (future) reliever who stands 6-foot-5 and touches the high-90’s in the minors right now. They’ve got Rivero for five more years. They’ve got complete control of Hearns. The Pirates sold, but not really. They made this year’s team slightly worse in going from Melancon from Rivero, but they’ve made future year’s teams better by adding Rivero (and Hearns) for a player who was set to be gone anyway. It’s the perfect kind of retooling move for a small-market team operating within a window of contention.

And yet, it’s hard not to view this return as relatively light, at least up against what the Yankees just received for Chapman. The Yankees got a top-25 prospect in Gleyber Torres, a fringe-100 prospect in Billy McKinney, a pitcher capable of starting with major league success under his belt in Adam Warren, and then some. Speculation around a Melancon-to-Washington trade invoked names like right-handed starter Erick Fedde, who ranked 61st in Baseball America’s midseason update. The actual return featured a pair of lefty relievers. Exciting lefty relievers, but lefty relievers nonetheless; one of whom has already had his clock started, the other of whom didn’t crack top-10 prospect lists in the Nationals’ system at the start of the season.

Of course, Chapman throws 105 and because of that, is Aroldis Chapman. Melancon isn’t that. But he’s closer than one might think! Like, for instance, since joining the Pirates in 2013, Melancon’s 1.80 ERA is the lowest among all 255 pitchers with at least 200 innings thrown. He’s been better at preventing runs than literally everyone over the last three-plus years. And while he might not do it with the sort of eye-popping stuff to which we’re accustomed from seeing of the game’s top relievers, there’s no arguing with the results:

Most Valuable Relievers, 2013-Present
Name IP K% BB% K-BB% GB% HR/9 ERA FIP WAR RA9-WAR tWAR
Aroldis Chapman 218 44.2% 10.9% 33.3% 37.8% 0.54 2.03 1.81 8.5 8.2 8.4
Dellin Betances 229 40.7% 9.0% 31.7% 48.2% 0.55 1.88 1.89 8.0 8.5 8.3
Kenley Jansen 240 37.8% 5.6% 32.2% 35.2% 0.71 2.13 1.95 8.4 8.1 8.3
Mark Melancon 260 23.8% 4.2% 19.7% 56.8% 0.31 1.80 2.27 6.9 8.7 7.8
Wade Davis 183 32.2% 8.8% 23.4% 45.3% 0.15 1.08 1.97 6.0 9.3 7.7
tWAR: 50/50 split of RA9-WAR and FIP-WAR

Again, the style is a bit different, but when we’ve talked about the Chapman’s and Jansen’s and Davis’ of the world, Melancon’s been right there all along. Here’s another way to view things, if you’re not as keen on using WAR to evaluate relievers:

Win Probability Added, all relievers, 2013-Present

  1. Mark Melancon, +11.74
  2. Tony Watson, +10.63
  3. Zach Britton, +10.55
  4. Wade Davis, +10.42
  5. Dellin Betances, +10.07

By WPA, no reliever’s been more valuable than Melancon during his time in Pittsburgh. By WAR, it’s only Chapman, Betances, and Jansen. You see the second name there on the WPA leaderboard also plays for the Pirates, so it’s not like they’re suddenly hurting for high-leverage relief options, and Watson will still be there next year, too. But the Nationals just added one of the game’s elite to an already great bullpen.

Not that there aren’t flags with Melancon. I’m hesitant to call them red flags, but they’re orange or maroon, maybe. His walk rate is still great, but it’s also the highest it’s been during his Pittsburgh tenure. The curveball’s being spotted less often at the bottom edge of the zone, and is more often winding up in the dirt, and batters are laying off:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Fewer swings against the curve explains the slight uptick in walks, and it explains the downtick in ground balls — the curve has always been Melancon’s big ground ball pitch. Melancon doesn’t possess top-shelf raw stuff, so he’s thrived by limiting walks and homers. Limiting walks and homers are predicated on elite command, and there’s some evidence that the command could be starting to slip. For now, though, the command still looks great. And those maroon flags can be the next team’s concern, anyway; the Nationals only care about the next three months.

Funny thing about the Nationals bullpen is, before the Melancon trade, they were projected for 1.8 rest-of-season WAR, and after  they’re Melancon trade, they’re projected for… 1.8 rest-of-season WAR. But what they’ve done is shift their leverage, the sort of thing that a WAR projection might struggle to grasp. Melancon is now clearly the best option in Washington’s bullpen, and he’ll receive the most important innings. Less important innings are to follow for Jonathon Papelbon, as should be the case. Shawn Kelley remains elite. It’s the kind of 1-2-3 punch we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the late innings of playoff games.

And while I’ve referred to the cost as a bargain within this post, it’s really only a bargain relative to Chapman. Really, it’s the kind of return we should expect for three-plus months of an elite reliever. The kind of return we might’ve expected, say, a week ago. The Chapman move was just an outlier, for whatever reason. Take that how you will. The Pirates retooled, as they should have. The Nationals improved their high-leverage innings for the stretch run by acquiring one of the game’s best run preventers. It looks like a win for both clubs, and yet somehow it also feels like something of a steal by Washington, based on what we’ve recently seen. Maybe the Pirates could have done better for Melancon. Or maybe the Cubs just gave up a ton for Chapman.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

28 Comments
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jdbolick
6 years ago

I agree that this looks like one of those “good for both teams” deals. While the Pirates’ return might be light on upside, it has a strong likelihood of being useful at the major league level.

LHPSU
6 years ago
Reply to  jdbolick

While Torres is nominally a top prospect, everything I’ve read about him says that he’s likely an average defensive shortstop who hits well and has moderate power – a solid regular, but not a star.

There’s a great deal of difference between a top-10 prospect and someone in the 25-30 range, and I feel that the high ranking for Torres has more to do with his relatively low risk profile than the upside. It also doesn’t change the fact that he’s still in High-A.

I don’t think the difference between the return in the two trades is much different than the difference between Chapman and Melancon.

GoldenSpikes
6 years ago
Reply to  jdbolick

I have to disagree with you JD, I don’t think this is light on upside, it just doesn’t have much floor. Rivero could end up a closer, or continue to be a random middle innings guy if he remains inconsistent. I like Hearn more than anyone, I had him #9 on my Nationals mid season list. He has huge upside, but as much as I like him anytime a kid has a screw in his elbow you have to be very worried about his ability to hold up long term. The upside is there, they could get a big return, or it could all disappear in a hurry.

LHPSU
6 years ago
Reply to  GoldenSpikes

Farnsworth, is that you?

O'Kieboomermember
6 years ago
Reply to  GoldenSpikes

Rivero is a LOOGY, not a closer. He can’t get righties out.

GoldenSpikes
6 years ago
Reply to  O'Kieboomer

Righties are hitting .182/.238/.306 this season, career.189/.246/.322. He’s also 25, he can still improve, he could easily become a closer if he can become more consistent.

LHPSU
6 years ago
Reply to  O'Kieboomer

Would it have killed you to look up Rivero’s splits before calling him a LOOGY? It’s actually lefties that he has problems getting out this season, and I’m going to bet that he won’t allow .339/.438/.475 to lefties going forward.

6 years ago
Reply to  GoldenSpikes

This year’s ERA aside, the numbers say Rivero is already more than a random middle reliever.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago
Reply to 

Eh, a hard-throwing lefty in his mid-20s with worse results than his good-not-great peripherals is pretty close to the platonic ideal of a random middle reliever.

LHPSU
6 years ago

A lefty who touches 99 while keeping his BB/9 below 3 certainly has the potential to be more.

6 years ago

Well, I’m a Pirates fan, so when I see “random middle reliever”, I think of guys like Jared Highes and Arquimedes Caminero, and Rivero is clearly better than they are. Maybe most other teams have bullpens full of guys as good as Rivero, though, I don’t know.

jdbolick
6 years ago
Reply to  GoldenSpikes

Whether or not the Pirates eventually use Rivero in the ninth doesn’t change his actual performance. He’s a good reliever who is unlikely to ever become a dominant one, while there aren’t many who believe that Hearn will be a major league starter. Two relievers, even good ones, lack upside. Two good relievers do have a lot of value to a major league team, though. The only significant upside would be if you believe that Hearn will remain a starting pitcher.