The Washington Nationals Acquire Sean Doolittle & Ryan Madson from Oakland

After watching his bullpen implode yet another time Saturday evening, Sunday General Manager Mike Rizzo pulled the trigger on a deal with Oakland, acquiring LHP Sean Doolittle and RHP Ryan Madson for RHP Blake Treinen, LHP Jesus Luzardo and 3B Sheldon Neuse.  In related news, the Nationals placed RHP Joe Ross on the 60-day disabled list to create room on the 40-man roster for the new relievers.

Drafted by Oakland 41st overall in 2007 from the University of Virginia, the almost 31-year-old Sean Doolittle has been a key component of the Athletics’ bullpen for the past six years, posting a career 3.09 ERA and a 10.7 K/9 rate against a 1.7 BB/9 over 253 career innings.  This year Doolittle is having another solid campaign with a 3.38 ERA and 31 strikeouts against only 12 hits and 2 walks allowed in 21.1 innings pitched.  In addition, he has accumulated 3 saves this season and 36 for his career, giving him experience as a closer.

Doolittle features a mid-90s fastball and a devastating slider, along with the occasional splitter and changeup.  The biggest knock on Doolittle has been his rather extensive injury history, especially to his shoulder, which limited him to only 52.2 innings pitched in 2015 and 2016.  Furthermore, his HR/9 rate has jumped the past two seasons (1.4 HR/9 in 2016, 1.3 HR/9 this year), which is a cause for some concern.  Nonetheless, Doolittle is a devastating lefty reliever signed to a team friendly contract, earning approximately $1 million more this season, plus $4.35 million in 2018 and club options for $6 million in 2019 and $6.5 million for 2020.

Additionally, Washington receives almost 37-year-old right-handed reliever Ryan Madson, who most Nationals’ fans will remember from his days in Philadelphia.  Madson is in the midst of yet another solid season in 2017, providing Oakland with a 2.06 ERA in 39.1 innings, allowing only 25 hits and 6 walks against 39 strikeouts.  For his 12-year career, Madson has a 3.40 ERA, 1.242 WHIP, and a 7.8 K/9 ratio against only 2.6 BB/9.  In addition he has a solid 0.8 HR/9 career rate and has notched 86 total saves.  Madson utilizes a mid-90s sinker and 4-seam fastball, along with a changeup and curveball, to rarely walk hitters or allow home runs, while missing bats as well.  Signed through 2018, Madson is earning $7.667 million this season and next season.

In exchange for these two pieces, Washington was forced to part with prospects Luzardo and Neuse, along with bullpen stalwart Blake Treinen, a pitcher who began the season as the team’s closer before subpar performance caused a demotion.  After three seasons of quality numbers, Treinen has been rotten this season, posting a 5.73 ERA over 37.2 innings, allowing 48 hits and 13 walks against 32 strikeouts.  The 29-year-old Treinen is blessed with one of the best sinkers in baseball, averaging 97mph, along with a slider and the occasional changeup.  Unfortunately, his sinker has such impressive movement, it often floats outside the strike zone, giving him below-average command.  Treinen is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter and Oakland will attempt to rebuild his value in their pitcher-friendly home ballpark.

Considered a potential 1st round pick entering the spring, an unfortunate Tommy John surgery knocked Jesus Luzardo down to the 3rd Round in 2016, where Washington happily selected him.  Prior to surgery, Luzardo possessed a mature 4-pitch arsenal, highlighted by a low-90s fastball and a quality changeup.  He has recently returned to action in the Gulf Coast League, with scouts buzzing about his fastball now reaching 96-98mph, along with an improved slider.  Almost 20-years-old, Luzardo is raw and Oakland will need to be cautious developing him, but he is an intriguing lottery ticket for the Athletics.  He has both injury and development risk in his profile, but Luzardo has a potential ceiling as a #3 starter if everything comes together.

Drafted by Washington in the 2nd round, 58th overall in 2016, Sheldon Neuse has flourished in 2017 for Hagerstown, hitting .291/.349/.469 with 9 home runs.  Neuse is blessed with a plus or better arm, fringe-average speed and decent hands – this allows him to profile as an above-average future defender at the hot corner.  Offensively Neuse has attempted to shorten his swing this year to solid results, giving him the potential to be an average hitter with slightly above-average power.  There is risk involved in his profile, specifically questions on his hit tool and distance from the majors, but Neuse has the ceiling of an average to above-average 2-way third baseman.

If you wish to read more on Neuse, here is a link to my scouting report -> http://natsgm.com/2017/06/19/scouting-sheldon-neuse/

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I believe this to be a “win-win” trade for both Oakland and Washington.  The rebuilding Athletics did well to clear $12+ million in future payroll while acquiring an intriguing change of scenery reliever (Treinen), a potentially league-average third baseman (Neuse) and a lottery ticket with significant prospect helium (Luzardo).  The combination of age and injury risk with both Doolittle and Madson kept them from receiving one of Washington’s prized prospects but this still must be considered a successful return for Oakland.

On the other hand, Washington must be pleased as well, as they receive two lethal relievers both under contract through next season.  And the Nationals were not forced to part with a top prospect or significant prospect depth, leaving them in prime position to make another trade.  Without question neither pitcher is the dominant closer every team covets, and ideally Doolittle and Madson would form a lethal duo in the 7th and 8th innings ahead of a monster closer.  However, they should form a potent combination in the 8th and 9th innings based on matchups, while putting other relievers like Joe Blanton, Oliver Perez and Enny Romero in more appropriate, lower-leverage situations.

Overall Washington is taking on plenty of future payroll and injury risk with both pitchers, issues that cannot be ignored.  Nonetheless, the Nationals’ front office should be commended for significantly improving the team’s biggest weakness without mortgaging their future.  I fully expect Treinen to rebound in Oakland and I am a big fan of both Neuse and Luzardo, but this was an offer Washington could not refuse.

NatsGM Grade ->    B / B+

Jackpot Ennyone – Washington Obtains Enny Romero From Tampa Bay

Wednesday, in their most substantial effort to bolster their 2017 bullpen, the Washington Nationals announced they had agreed to obtain left-handed pitcher Enny Romero from Tampa Bay for Jeffrey Rosa.  Tampa needed to create a space on their 40-man roster to accommodate recent signing Logan Morrison, and Washington, with open spaces on their 40-man, capitalized on the opportunity to add this intriguing southpaw.

The 26-year-old Romero scuffled with Tampa last season, posting a 5.91 ERA in 45.2 innings pitched, striking out 50 hitters while allowing 42 hits and 28 walks.  Over three seasons and 80.1 major league innings, he has a 5.27 ERA with 82 strikeouts against 82 hits and 45 walks allowed.  Despite his impressive 9.6 K/9 ratio, his dreadful 5.0 BB/9 plus mediocre 42.7 GB% and 0.9 HR/9 rates explain his struggles in the big leagues.  In addition, Romero is out of minor league options, meaning he will need to make the Nationals opening day roster or risk being exposed to waivers at the conclusion of spring training.

However, there are reasons for optimism with Romero: he possesses elite fastball velocity, sitting between 96-97mph according to BrooksBaseball.net, with some natural arm-side movement.  Romero also throws an 88-91mph cutter/slider hybrid with impressive sinking action and a mid-80s curveball that has late tumbling action.  In short, Romero has one of the strongest left-handed arms in baseball and an elite repertoire for a reliever.  Finally, Romero has spent his entire career with Tampa, signing with them in 2008, making him a credible “change of scenery” candidate.

In exchange, Washington sent 21-year-old right-handed pitcher Jeffrey Rosa to Tampa Bay.  Signed as an international free agent for $10,000 in May 2015, Rosa has pitched 96.1 professional innings across two seasons for Washington, with a career 3.83 ERA and 103 strikeouts against 49 walks.  Rosa has an intriguing pitcher’s frame at 6-3 190lbs and possesses a naturally fast arm. He throws a mid-90s fastball that has reportedly reached 100mph, along with a slider and a nascent changeup.

Rosa has not been ranked on any prospect lists for Washington this offseason and did not project to make my top-30 as well.  There is extreme risk in his profile due to his age, distance from the majors and how raw his skills are, but Tampa did well to add a power arm with some potential as a future reliever to their organization.

On the surface this seems like a natural trade between the two teams, although somewhat in reverse.  Typically the team projected for the playoffs (Washington) trade players lacking options and an obvious role to a rebuilding team (Tampa) for a prospect, yet the situation is occurring in reverse.  Washington found themselves in the position of having empty spaces on the roster and wanting additional bullpen depth, while giving noted pitching guru Mike Maddux a fascinating project to tinker with this spring.  Romero will head to Spring Training competing for a spot in the bullpen against lefties Oliver Perez and Sammy Solis, along with holdover Matt Grace and several minor league free agents.

This trade reminds me of a story from a few years ago – a large group of us were on a bachelor party at a casino and at the end of the night a buddy found $10 in his back pocket.  We were walking past a roulette wheel and sure enough, he bets on 24 because that was his age and it hit.  We went from heading to bed to straight to the bar to celebrate his new wealth.  Enny Romero is that $5 bet – most of the time you bet on one number at the roulette wheel at 2am, or in this case, a hard-throwing lefty with control issues, you lose.  But on the rare occasion, everything “Comes Up Milhouse” and you hit big.

I see little middle ground on this trade, as he is unlikely to last through 2017 with the Nationals, yet I feel compelled to go against the odds and gamble something clicks in Washington for Romero.  I do not envision Rosa developing into a major league pitcher, so the risk feels relatively minimal, and the upside is obtaining a high-leverage lefty under salary control through 2021.  If we keep expectations tempered, I think Washington is wise to gamble on Maddux’s aptitude improving pitchers and Romero’s special arm.

NatsGM Grade  ->           B / B-

Danny Espinosa Takes His Talents To Anaheim

Saturday evening the Washington Nationals traded infielder Danny Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for minor league pitchers Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin.  Earlier in the day, reports surfaced Espinosa had skipped the team’s WinterFest this weekend due to his displeasure following the Adam Eaton trade.  Expected to play a reserve role in Washington, Espinosa immediately becomes the projected starter at second base for Anaheim.

Drafted in the 3rd round in 2008 from Long Beach State, Espinosa has spent his entire career with Washington, playing 779 games for the Nationals over seven seasons.  Last year the switch-hitting Espinosa batted .209/.306/.378 with 24 home runs and 9 stolen bases while acting as the starting shortstop.  For his career, Espinosa has a .226/.302/.388 batting line while playing multiple defensive positions.  An outstanding defender with a cannon-like arm, Espinosa is one of the better defensive middle infielders in baseball.  Sadly, the 29-year-old has always struggled making contact, as evidenced by his career 28.1 K%, which limits his overall value.  Espinosa is under salary arbitration for one final season and is projected to make $5.3 million in 2017.

In return Washington receives two 25-year-old right-handed pitchers, Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin.  Drafted in the 8th round in 2012 from the University of South Florida, Adams was added to Anaheim’s 40-man roster this winter after a successful 2016 spent primarily in Double-A.  Last season Adams threw 41.1 innings with a 3.05 ERA and 61 strikeouts against 24 walks and 29 hits allowed.

According to scouts, Adams possesses a lively 93-96mph fastball that touches the upper-90s along with a devastating slider.  Unfortunately Adams struggles with his location and command, as shown by his 6.4 BB/9 career ratio.  He did trim his walks allowed last season and if he cuts his walks allowed closer to 4.0 per 9, he could be an asset in a setup capacity.  He is unlikely to see major improvements at his age, but it is a low-risk gamble to bet on a change-of-scenery for an obviously talented arm.

Perhaps the better-known of the two players, McGowin was drafted in the 5th round in 2013 and was recently rated as the 20th best prospect in Anaheim’s organization.  McGowin has long impressed scouts with a quality 3-pitch arsenal, featuring a low-90s sinking fastball along with a decent slider and changeup.  However, his results have never matched his repertoire, as he has a career 4.77 ERA with a 7.7 K/9 ratio against a 9.2 H/9 and a 3.0 BB/9 ratio over 375.2 professional innings.  In addition, McGowin has struggled with various injuries throughout his career, limiting him to only 75 appearances and 67 starts in four seasons.

Due to organizational need following the departure of Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, McGowin will likely remain as a starter next season.  However, his long-term role is likely in the bullpen, which could allow his stuff to “play up” and help him stay healthy.

The bottom line on this deal is Washington understood Espinosa would not accept a bench role in 2017, so the team decided to swiftly part with the disgruntled infielder for salary relief and two depth arms.  Washington made the correct decision to trade Espinosa and showed tremendous class sending him back to the west coast.  Those are all positives, yet I am still left feeling utterly unimpressed with the players coming back to Washington.

For all his flaws, Espinosa is a tremendous defensive infielder with power and should provide Anaheim with 1.5-2.0 WAR next season for a reasonable $5.3 million salary.  Certainly I have no way of knowing what, if any, other offers were made, but this package feels underwhelming for a starting-caliber player.  I would have preferred Washington wait for more attractive offers later this winter or during spring training rather than settle for this offer.  It feels like Washington preferred a quick resolution to this situation, rather than maximizing the potential value of their asset.  I can understand the rationale behind this decision, but cannot support the conclusion the organization ultimately reached.

NatsGM Grade ->             D

Meeting Adam Eaton – Washington Acquires Adam Eaton From Chicago

After a week filled with rumors, Wednesday afternoon the Washington Nationals acquired OF Adam Eaton from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for right-handed pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning.  This trade immediately makes Eaton Washington’s centerfielder next season and shifts Trea Turner back to his natural shortstop position.

The 28-year-old Eaton was outstanding for Chicago in 2016, batting .284/.362/.428 with 14 home runs, 52 extra base hits and 14 stolen bases in 19 attempts in 157 games played.  Originally drafted by Arizona in 2010, Eaton was traded to the White Sox as part of a 3-team deal with the Diamondbacks and Angels in December 2013.  Over his three seasons in Chicago, Eaton provided the White Sox with a .290/.362/.422 batting line with 29 home runs and 47 stolen bases.  During his 5-year major league career, Eaton has a .284/.357/.414 batting line with 34 home runs and 54 stolen bases in 521 total games.

Defensively Eaton has above-average but not elite speed and a strong arm, making him profile well in the corners and fringe-average in center field.  He played the majority of last season in right field, but is expected to shift back to center field in Washington.  Eaton will make $4 million next season and is under contract through 2021, making $6 million in 2018, $8.4 million in 2019 and team options at $9.5 million for 2020 and $10.5 million for 2021.

In order to secure Eaton and team-friendly contract from Chicago, Washington was forced to part with three of their top-5 pitching prospects and top-7 prospects overall in Giolito, Lopez and Dunning.

Lucas Giolito was Washington’s 1st round selection, 16th overall, in the 2012 Draft and agreed to an over-slot bonus of $2.925 million mere moments before the signing deadline.  Almost immediately after signing, Giolito underwent Tommy John surgery, effectively costing him the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  Once returning to the mound, Giolito has steadily climbed the minor league ladder before receiving a 21.1 inning cameo in Washington late this season.

Giolito possesses an intriguing 3-pitch arsenal, consisting of a low-to-mid 90s fastball with good downward plane, a devastating low-80s curveball with excellent vertical drop and a low-80s changeup with promising sinking movement.  Listed at 6-6 255lbs, Giolito is a large man with long limbs that he uses to get good extension toward the batter.  However, his size works against his ability to repeat his delivery and causes him to struggle with his command and control of the strike zone.

Although he reached the majors in 2016, Giolito’s struggles against big league hitters proved he is still quite raw and needs additional development.  However, the 22-year-old has elite talent and the potential for three above-average pitches inside an ideal pitcher’s frame.  If he can learn to repeat his delivery and improve his command, Giolito still has the potential to be a #2 starter in the majors.  Unfortunately he seemed to regress in 2016 and figures to develop more likely into a #3 or #4 starter.

Signed for $12,000 in June 2012 as an international free agent, Reynaldo Lopez has gone from an unknown to one of the top pitching prospects in baseball in four years.  The nearly 23-year-old Lopez does not possess the prototypical pitcher’s body, standing only 6-0 185lbs, although he does have muscular legs and a well-developed upper body.  His delivery has some excess movement and he throws off a stiff front leg, but his impressive athleticism allows him to repeat his simple delivery fairly well.  Although the superficial statistics look just mediocre, Lopez was impressive in his 44 inning cameo with Washington last season, striking out 41 hitters against 47 hits and 24 walks allowed.  Lopez still struggles with his command of the strike zone, but has made solid improvement in this area in the past 12 months.

Lopez has a powerful 3-pitch repertoire, featuring a 95-98mph fastball, touching 100mph, with late life and some sink.  In addition, Lopez possesses an inconsistent but promising upper-70s curveball with sharp downward movement and a low-80s changeup he throws with good deception and arm speed.  His off-speed offerings lag behind his monster fastball, but both pitches have improved as he has climbed the organizational ladder.  His detractors are skeptical about his size and off-speed pitches, leading them to label him a future reliever.  However, his elite arm speed, excellent athleticism and development on the mound give him a chance to profile as a mid-rotation starter if he continues to improve.  While he has flaws, Lopez is a special arm and was the best pitching prospect in the organization prior to the trade.

Washington’s second 1st round pick (29th overall) last June, Dane Dunning spent most of his collegiate career at Florida as a midweek starter and multi-inning reliever on the weekends.  A lean 6-3 205lbs, Dunning possesses a solid 3-pitch repertoire, featuring a low-90s fastball with outstanding sink, an 82-84mph slider with good depth and range, along with the occasional fringy changeup.  He showed better command out of the bullpen in college, although he will be developed as a starter as a professional.  The 21-year-old Dunning shows a potential long-term “60/65” fastball due to the impressive velocity and movement, a “55” slider and possible “45” changeup – this arsenal, along with a clean delivery and solid command, allows him to profile as a future back-end starter or impact 7th or 8th inning reliever.

In a vacuum, I believe Washington did significantly better in this trade than the general consensus around baseball, who have widely questioned and panned the trade.  Washington traded three of its top five pitching prospects, which hurts the depth of the minor league system.  But, in addition to the obvious risks associated with prospects, especially pitching prospects, each of Giolito, Lopez and Dunning have major risks associated with them.

Giolito has already undergone Tommy John surgery, does not possess ideal mechanics and looked poor in his brief time in Washington.  Lopez does not have the ideal pitcher’s body and most undersized right-handed pitchers eventually end up pitching in relief.  Finally, Dunning does not have a monster ceiling typically associated with a 1st round pick and many scouts predict he is a reliever long-term.  Certainly this highlights the negatives with each pitcher, but it should remind us none of these three are a slam-dunks to be impact players.  That said I would be surprised if all three did not have productive careers.

On the other hand, for all the risks associated with the prospects traded away, Adam Eaton is quietly one of the most consistent and better outfielders in baseball.  He does not do anything spectacularly well besides his corner outfield defense, but Eaton is one of the few five tools players in the majors and is above-average offensively, defensively and on the bases.  Eaton has strong bat-to-ball skills, sneaky power especially to the pull side and has a knack for getting on-base.  He should slot in perfectly as Washington’s leadoff or #2 hitter with Turner, and they should drive opposing pitchers crazy in front of Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon.

Defensively Eaton will immediately move back to center field between Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper next season, with the likely plan to shift him to a corner when Werth’s contract is over and center field prospect Victor Robles is major league ready.  His skills, in addition to his extraordinarily team-friendly contract, make Eaton one of the more valuable players in baseball.  In short, Eaton is a perfect fit for the Washington Nationals.

However, I must briefly digress and take a bigger picture view of this trade.  Although Eaton is a tremendous addition, there was a large supply of talented and potentially available center fielders this winter, several of whom would not have been so “expensive” to acquire.  For example, free agent Dexter Fowler is still available, not to mention possible trade targets such as Andrew McCutchen, Ender Inciarte and Jarred Dyson.  So we must ask not just was this a good deal, but also was it the smartest decision overall for the franchise.  Personally, I would have preferred paying Fowler or Ian Desmond, losing my 1st round pick in 2017 but keeping these three young arms in the organization.  This fact cannot be overlooked when judging the trade as a whole.

Overall I think Washington did fairly well in this deal, as they acquired an underrated player perfect for their team on a great contract for the next five years.  Washington had to part with three talented, high ceiling prospects in order to do so, but general manager Mike Rizzo decided to part with these somewhat risky assets for a proven commodity.  An analogy would be he sold three high-risk high-reward technology stocks to buy shares of a company like IBM.  So while I can understand and appreciate that decision, I would have preferred Washington invest in another asset, also known as Dexter Fowler.  Therefore, while I am extremely excited to watch Adam Eaton daily for the next five years, I would have passed on this offer and looked for another alternative to fill the vacancy in center field.

NatsGM Grade  ->           C- / D+