Nationals Make Inevitable Trade for Actual Good Relievers

No trade-deadline need has ever been clearer, has ever been more obvious, than the Nationals’ need to acquire some help in the bullpen. It’s been an annual concern, which means you could call the Nationals front office experienced, but the bullpen this year has been a disaster. They still have a massive lead in their division! A playoff entry is all but guaranteed. Yet the Nationals want to someday get beyond just making the playoffs. They’d like to win a damn series, and these last few months, they haven’t had good relievers.

Do you consider yourself a fan of our in-house statistics? The Nationals bullpen ranks last in baseball in WAR. Do you prefer to give more credit for events that have actually happened? The Nationals bullpen ranks last in baseball in RA9-WAR. If you’re bigger on storytelling statistics, the Nationals bullpen ranks 26th in baseball in WPA. To address the area, the Nats have swapped with the bullpen that ranks 27th in baseball in WPA. Here are the players:

Nationals get

Athletics get

On paper, this is a big double-get for the Nats. On paper, these were some of the better relievers available. Certainly, moving forward, Dusty Baker can feel better about his bullpen than he did yesterday or the day before. The risk is that things aren’t always as promising as they look on paper. The Nationals know that better than most teams.

The Nationals were always going to do something. They couldn’t not. While I don’t want to suggest the inmates are running the asylum, the clubhouse would’ve had a problem if nothing were done. Even the relievers themselves have presumably figured there was room for improvement. The bullpen was too bad for too long, far too bad for such a good team, and you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rumor linking the Nationals to David Robertson. Me, I anchored myself to that idea, and I thought the Nationals might try to expand the trade to include Tommy Kahnle or Anthony Swarzak. For all I know, that was indeed pursued, but here we have something else. At its heart, though, it’s the same. The Nationals needed a few relievers, so they grabbed a few relievers.

This is different from last year’s Mark Melancon trade, in that Madson and Doolittle remain under team control beyond October. Madson has another year after this one, worth $7.5 million. Doolittle also has another year after this one, worth $4.4 million, and that’s followed by a pair of club options, worth a combined $12.5 million. In other words, Madson could stick around for one and a half years, and Doolittle could conceivably stick around for three and a half years. The hope, then, is that the team has improved itself for a while, and here’s one hopeful image. This is a very simple plot — 2017 strikeout rates, and 2017 walk rates.

Madson is the point in red. You want your pitchers more toward the upper left. Madson’s in the right general area, and this doesn’t capture his ability to generate ground balls. Doolittle is the point in yellow. His is one of the more extreme points around. Doolittle has close to the same strikeout rate as Kenley Jansen, and he has close to the same walk rate as…Kenley Jansen. Doolittle isn’t as good as Jansen is, but he’s close enough, and they’re both position-player converts who dominate primarily with one pitch. You can think of Doolittle as being a poor man’s Jansen, or you can think of him in the mold of peak Jake McGee. The stats are there, and from the Nationals’ side, this is a trade for stats and experience.

As experience goes, Doolittle has served as a closer before, and Madson’s coming up on 100 career saves. So Baker has options now, options that don’t look like Matt Albers or Koda Glover, and one of the angles here is that the Nationals picked up not one potential closer, but two. Now twice as many things would have to go wrong before Baker would have to go to the same pitchers as he has been. There’s built-in insurance, and the Nationals might not even be finished making additions. As far as the stats, that’s our specialty.

One of my favorite quick little hacks is averaging ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-. Not one of those metrics tells the whole story alone, so I like to fold them all in. Of course it’s not perfect, but it’s substantive, and you can keep your mental league average at 100. This season, 215 different relievers have thrown at least 20 innings. By the average of those three metrics, Madson ranks 14th, at 55. He’s there with Blake Parker and Raisel Iglesias. Doolittle, meanwhile, ranks 26th, at 63, with his ERA- being the one stat more out of line. Madson looks pretty good across the board. Doolittle, by his control, looks overwhelming. This is all the on-paper stuff.

As far as Madson goes, he’s still throwing as hard as he ever did, and more recently he’s worked in a curveball with regularity, which has given him a new wrinkle, even at almost 37 years old. Doolittle is running rates like he did in 2014. That year, he allowed 38 hits over 61 games. His stuff hasn’t lost any of its edge.

Given all of that promising stuff, why did the A’s do this? Why did they shed two good pitchers under control beyond just this season? For one thing, teams in Oakland’s position often operate by the core philosophy of ABTR: Always Be Trading Relievers. You can, say, look at the Brewers, who dealt Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith, and Tyler Thornburg within a few months. They regret nothing. And then, there are issues more particular to these two guys. It’s by no means guaranteed these pitchers weren’t around their value peaks.

Madson, just last season, was not very good. He is older than most players are, and he hasn’t actually improved his strike rate. Nor has he improved his first-pitch strike rate. Madson might be over-performing. With Doolittle, the stats are terrific, but in the last two and a half seasons, he’s had four separate stints on the disabled list, with shoulder problems. Since 2015 began, he’s thrown 74 total frames, and that makes front offices nervous. Doolittle was never going to command a blockbuster price, because the perception is that he can’t be trusted. That makes him a volatile asset — in the best-case scenario, he’s in the clear, and he’ll dominate in Washington for some time. It’s maybe no less possible he becomes unavailable for even these playoffs. While every pitcher is a health risk, Doolittle is far riskier than average. The A’s probably didn’t want to sit and wait.

In return, Oakland didn’t get a classic top prospect. Treinen’s is the familiar name. Now, he is 29, and he was a disappointment earlier this season in relief, but there might be something going on. He’s under team control through 2020, and check out this rolling plot of his fastball velocities:

Lately, Treinen’s stats have improved, and so have his fastballs. Treinen was never a finesse pitcher or anything, and pitching is about more than throwing hard. Yet this is a promising development, given how Treinen’s sinker has profiled. It’s always had the potential to look like a right-handed Zach Britton sinker. Among relievers in April, Treinen’s average fastball velocity put him in the 82nd percentile. Since the start of June, he’s ranked in the 94th percentile. Treinen is also now throwing a changeup, and he could still become something real. He’s a reasonable buy-low who might be poised for a big second half.

Luzardo is the more significant of the prospects. Last year, the Nationals grabbed him in the third round, but he probably would’ve gone two rounds earlier if not for his needing Tommy John surgery. He just recently made his professional debut in the low minors, so while he’s not in the clear, the bulk of the rehab is behind him. Ken Rosenthal pointed out a comparison between Luzardo and Gio Gonzalez. Though Luzardo is still 19 and coming off injury, the thinking is he could be a pretty fast mover. He already throws three steady pitches.

Neuse was selected the round before Luzardo. Where Luzardo was a highly-thought-of prep arm, Neuse was more of a collegiate slugger, with a fairly strong arm. He’s been a good hitter, but not a great one, in A-ball, and Eric Longenhagen is of the belief he’ll always have something of a strikeout problem. It could be his future as a regular is contingent upon his playing defense well enough at third. Give him time.

Like with every trade, this is a roll of the dice. It’s more evident here than it usually is. From Oakland’s perspective, it’s a bet that Madson and Doolittle won’t accrue more value going forward. This way, they got out in front of what could be an active relief-pitcher market. They might’ve also found a good immediate asset in Treinen. From Washington’s perspective, the bullpen now looks so much better on paper. Madson seems like he should be steady, and when Doolittle is able to pitch effectively and freely, he can look untouchable. There’s a chance that, from here on out, Doolittle is absolutely overpowering. And there are three more years of control after this one. Perhaps the Nationals have solved an organizational need long-term. Perhaps they’ve gotten the boost they needed to get over the hump in 2017. Perhaps Madson is about to start feeling his age. Perhaps Doolittle is about to start feeling his shoulder. We won’t know what to think of this trade for quite some time.

We hoped you liked reading Nationals Make Inevitable Trade for Actual Good Relievers by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Jackie T.
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Jackie T.

So who closes in DC? My money is on Doolittle. He may be a lefty, but he’s got the best stuff of the bunch and can get righties out.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

I think it’s Doolittle. He’s a lefty but he would be a waste as a left handed specialist. Think his shoulder issues would lend themselves better to a fixed role as well, and after a half season of dumpster fire you have to think Baker would love to put that K rate into the ninth inning and not have to worry about closing out games anymore.

feslenraster
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feslenraster

it can be either Madson or Doolittle, both have experience.

-bharris90
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-bharris90

who should close, and who Dusty will choose to close are two completely different things unfortunately….

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
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Roger McDowell Hot Foot

OTOH, with a traditionalist manager like him, maybe the in-game strategy ends up better off if you give him two very good relievers at the back end and tell him the second-best one is the “closer.”