WASHINGTON -- Ding, ding, ding, three in a row came.
The Nationals acquired needed bullpen reinforcements Wednesday before the Major League Baseball trade deadline arrived, bringing in three relief pitchers and acquiring modest improvements for modest costs. The big move didn’t occur.
Right-hander Daniel Hudson arrived from Toronto for minor-leaguer Kyle Johnston. Left-hander Roenis Elias came next from the Seattle Mariners for minor-league pitchers Elvis Alvarado and Taylor Guibeau. Then a name familiar to all Nationals fans: Hunter Strickland. He, too, came from Seattle.
Once the clock ticked past 4 p.m., the Nationals knew they at least addressed their greatest need. Washington entered play Wednesday with the league’s worst bullpen ERA, a success-stifling 5.99. Even trying-to-lose Baltimore was better at 5.90. The Nationals hunted for any possible solution during the season. They brought in veteran relievers who failed, like Dan Jennings. They eventually signed and summoned veteran relievers who have been solid, like Fernando Rodney. But, what remained clear is the group was not enough on its own.
The three new arms have moderate ceilings. Elias began his career as a starter, then went to the bullpen before becoming a closer-out-of-necessity this season when Strickland was injured. Hudson’s FIP (fielding-independent pitching) suggests his ERA is not telling the full story about his pitching. Strickland just returned from the 60-day injured list. He did not pitch in the majors from March 30 to July 28 because of a right lat strain. And there’s more than the injury to consider when assessing his arrival.
Strickland became famous in Washington for his beaning of, then brawl with, Bryce Harper. Hitting Harper three years after he hit two postseason home runs against him provided Strickland with a special level of local infamy. He will be part of the Nationals’ clubhouse now. No. 34 remains available.
This risk is similar to the one Mike Rizzo took when he brought Jonathan Papelbon to Washington. Papelbon, of course, had his own run-in with Harper by choking him atop the dugout steps. Then, surprisingly, Papelbon was back the next season. No section of the team has been more volatile -- on the field and off -- in Rizzo’s Washington tenure. And no section of the team is in need of annual help the way the bullpen is.
Not coming to the team was any high-end option. San Francisco closer Will Smith was a supposed consideration, as was Detroit closer Shane Greene. The Tigers reportedly asked Washington for its top prospect -- Carter Kieboom -- in exchange for Greene, who ascended from decent to dominant this season and has an arbitration season remaining. Kieboom was deemed too much. But Detroit’s ask for a prominent haul did not discourage the team Washington is chasing. Atlanta was reportedly ready to deal with Detroit in order to obtain Greene and with San Francisco to acquire Mark Melancon.
So, the contender ahead landed the bigger names while the Nationals were fighting two issues: their shallow minor-league talent pool and ownership’s directive to remain under the Competitive Balance Tax.
Javy Guerra and Michael Blazek were both designated for assignment to make room on the roster. Davey Martinez had to deliver the news.
“You build relationships with these guys.,” Martinez said. “For me, that’s one of the toughest things about this job having to tell somebody we made a trade and we’re going to have to let you go. They understand the business. They understand why they’re here. If Rizzo feels like we can upgrade, obviously we’re going to do that.”
Rizzo felt that way Wednesday. How much better the bullpen will be remains to be seen.
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