July 17, 2017
Our Long Nationals Nightmare Is Over
Let’s say you drop someone like me, a dedicated baseball fan (albeit one with an untrained scouting eye), behind home plate at a Nationals game and ask for a valuation of every player. The only caveat is that in this universe, I don’t have prior knowledge of any players. I would probably come away recognizing that Trea Turner, with his blazing speed and smooth defensive chops, was a possible star. Bryce Harper’s power, swagger, and hair would also be quickly apparent. Gio Gonzalez would look awfully unspectacular with his low-90s fastball, and Daniel Murphy probably wouldn’t set the world on fire at first glance, either.
Then there’s Treinen. The 6-foot-5 right-hander would probably pitch the seventh inning, induce a couple ground balls, strike out a batter, and allow a run or two ... but I’d leave the ballpark with him marked down as one of the best relievers on baseball. I’m not going to be hired by an MLB team anytime soon for my ability to recognize talent, but the raw stuff Treinen possesses is outrageous enough to fool most viewers.
The 29-year-old could throw a triple-digit four-seam fastball by a batter, and it would still only be his second most impressive heater. The sinker, which Treinen throws half the time, might be the nastiest looking pitch in baseball: a wicked offering that averages 97 mph, his sinker was good enough to be featured on Jeopardy!. Treinen also has a changeup that moves similarly to the sinker, but travels eight miles per hour slower, and a near-90 mph slider which breaks in the opposite direction of every other pitch, because why not?
Okay, now is probably a good time to break some bad news to you: Treinen is not, in fact, a right-handed Andrew Miller. Hell, Treinen hasn’t even been good enough to be called a reincarnate of Todd Coffey, carrying a rather unsightly 5.73 ERA in 37 2/3 innings this season. The easiest way to explain the talent/performance disparity is by looking at Treinen’s luck: he has a .380 BABIP and 67 percent strand rate.
Positive regression should help his numbers rebound, but Treinen will have to do more than simply stay the course if he wants to succeed; the most worrisome aspect of his profile is a below-average strikeout rate of 7.65 per nine innings that simply doesn’t cut it in this strikeout-heavy age, and adjusting in Oakland will be a necessity. If Treinen can improve his strikeout rate, he may be a future closer. That said, A’s fans shouldn’t expect instant results. His extreme ground-ball profile is a plus in the long run, but may lead to some ugliness right now given the Athletics' generally awful infield defense.
That, along with a middling strikeout rate, inconsistency, and a return of past platoon issues, could push Treinen into a middle reliever role. Still, Oakland can afford to let him work things out in the big-league bullpen down the stretch, and patience may yield an excellent bullpen asset. Reaching that upside isn’t going to be easy, but it’s hard not to be optimistic after watching Treinen at his best. —Ben Diamond
I had two looks at Luzardo, both in extended spring training. One was his extended spring training debut coming off of Tommy John surgery, where the pre-draft stuff was still present (and I wrote about it in a Monday Morning Ten Pack). The other was on a wet Monday, when the game was delayed roughly 30 minutes in the first inning because the mound was too muddy. The command and stuff were off, leading to lots of hard contact. It was not a good look.
Hold on, A’s fans, I have better news for you: His first pitch of his first pro game was a 98 mph fastball and the second pitch was 97. This was 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery and pumped up on adrenaline, as he sat 94-96 for the rest of the game. It was much better than the 92s that I saw in late April. The only knock on the 20-year-old lefty's fastball, when I saw him, was minimal movement.
As for breaking balls, he throws both a curveball and a slider with two distinct shapes. They project to be both major-league good and out-pitches versus lefties and righties due to his ability to command the pitches in any count. The changeup is promising, as it flashes good fade. With four projectable pitches and command, due to his fluid delivery, Luzardo has a reasonable chance to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter. —Javier Barragan
Neuse was the Nationals' second-round pick last year. After struggling a bit in short-season ball in 2016, the former Oklahoma Sooner has been raking in Low-A as a 22-year-old, hitting .291 with a .469 slugging percentage in 77 games. His hit tool should be able to translate at higher levels because of his above-average bat speed and strength present in his frame. His big body can make his stroke a little stiff at times, but Neuse has a compact swing that can cover all parts of the plate. He also will show power to all fields and has a chance to produce 20-homer pop as a major leaguer.
Defensively, Neuse has been playing regularly at shortstop for Hagerstown, in part due to Carter Kieboom’s injury. However, his body type and lack of twitchiness make him a sure bet to move to the hot corner as he climbs up the Athletics' farm system. Despite a bigger frame, Neuse does have sneaky athleticism and a plus arm that should make him a capable major-league third baseman. Overall, Neuse is a safe prospect without any glaring weaknesses in his game, but does not flash tools galore. He projects as a solid regular. —Greg Goldstein
With his main competition shipped to Washington, Casilla is now firmly entrenched as the Athletics' closer by default. Signed through the end of next season, the 36-year-old is unlikely to be traded at this point, and his newfound job security makes him a much more attractive trade target in re-draft formats.
The 29-year-old righty possesses an elite sinker, but a lackluster strikeout rate and a 5.34 DRA this season render him useless from a fantasy perspective. There’s a chance that the Athletics can salvage his career, but he’s little more than someone you can even stash in a deep dynasty league at this point. —George Bissell
Acquired LHP Sean Doolittle and RHP Ryan Madson from Oakland Athletics in exchange for RHP Blake Treinen, LHP Jesus Luzardo, and 3B-R Sheldon Neuse. [7/16]
If you’re going to improve your bullpen, I suppose there are worse ways to go about it than picking up a team’s top two relievers wholesale. For months, nearly everyone has been complaining about the sorry state of the Washington bullpen, making “drain the swamp” jokes and harping on it during podcasts. But since the NL East has been such a flaming pile of garbage, the Nationals merely had to bide their time, let their collection of closers by committee flame out, and wait for the right deal. Sunday was the time to strike, as the Nats swung a deal for two top-flight veteran arms who will immediately slot in as the best relievers for a team that sure could use them come October.
Here’s the thing about Madson: he’s the very picture of end-of-the-bullpen stability, just so long as you forget about his three-year absence from MLB beginning in 2012. This season he’s perhaps the best he’s ever been, which is no mean feat for a 36-year-old with an injury history that would make the Black Knight blush. He’s already been worked hard by the A’s with 40 appearances as the primary setup man for Santiago Casilla, but his skill surpasses the team’s closer.
Each of his pitches gets ground-ball outs, but it’s his heavy sinker and drop-off curve that tend to do the most damage; they’ve helped earn him an admirable 57 percent ground-ball rate this season. Madson's changeup is the swing-and-miss offering of the bunch, and the total package equates to a top-30 reliever this season. Perhaps most appealing to Washington is his long history of high-leverage work. His 245 career "shutdowns" rank 66th on FanGraphs’ leaderboard, making him one of the game’s most competent pitchers at changing his team’s win expectancy by five percent or more.
Doolittle doesn’t quite have Madson’s wealth of experience, but he makes for a very interesting complement to the right-hander. Where Madson is a worm-burner, the lefty is absolutely allergic to grounders. Everything that opposing batters hit is in the air, but fortunately those hits don’t come around too often. Doolittle has a history of gaudy strikeout rates since converting to the mound, but he’s taxing it to the extreme in 2017. He’s punching out nearly 40 percent of batters faced thanks to his
Then there are the walks, or rather lack thereof. The bearded one has walked fewer than a batter per nine innings this season, an improvement over his usual low mark. Yes, home runs have been and will always be his Achilles’ heel, but there aren’t many left-handed relievers with Doolittle’s combination of whiff rate and control, and his 2.09 DRA this season hints at an even better performance than his 3.38 ERA indicates.
While the Nationals need immediate bullpen help, they’ll also benefit from more than just a rental half-season from these two hurlers. Both are inked through 2018 at relatively low rates—this is funny to say because at $7.66 million, Madson was the A's highest-paid player—and Doolittle carries two team-friendly options for 2019 and 2020 if he manages to stay healthy.
With a window beyond just this season and no up-and-coming high-leverage relievers on the way, this might be a necessary move for Washington. There’s no lights-out Andrew Miller type coming in this deal, but each of these pitchers might be comparable to the performance that the team got from Mark Melancon in last year’s save-the-bullpen trade. (Though, I guess they’d probably take that one back given Felipe Rivero’s apotheosis.)
I guess we won’t have the Nationals’ bullpen to kick around anymore, unless Doolittle and Madson’s injury issues crop back up again and/or all the rest of those questionable D.C. arms fall apart. Building a bullpen sure is tough, but the Nats just made a fine crack at doing it right, which is probably why the cost was so high. —Bryan Grosnick
Given the combination of Madson’s age and lengthy injury history, it’s not impossible to forecast a scenario in which Doolittle emerges as the Nationals' next closer. It’s unlikely, but not impossible. Doolittle clearly possesses the talent to close, but he’s far more valuable to the Nationals as a weapon against left-handed batters and the go-to fireman in high-leverage situations. If an opportunity presents itself, don’t be surprised if he vultures saves in Washington.
The Nationals' bullpen remains a work in progress, but at least manager Dusty Baker now has a pair of veteran arms (with closing experience) to hand the ball to in the ninth inning. Despite being usurped by Santiago Casilla earlier this year, Madson has pitched exceptionally well in a setup role. Considering that he saved 30 games as recently as 2016, he’s the clear-cut favorite to take control of the closing gig in Washington. Simply put, Madson needs to be owned in all fantasy leagues moving forward. —George Bissell
Bryan Grosnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @bgrosnick