Two weeks ago, our very own Zach Spedden wrote about some internal options the Nationals might have if they wanted to replace Jonathan Papelbon in the closer’s role. Many Nats fans got their wish in a perverse way when Papelbon went on the DL on June 14th, pushing every other reliever into a slightly more demanding role to compensate. Since then, the relief corps has proven alarmingly thin. Regardless of whether or not the Nationals choose to replace Papelbon in the ninth inning, acquiring a reliever for any role seems like it could be the team’s top priority by the August 1 trade deadline.
The first complication with this exercise is considering which teams are going to sell. The standings can change quite a bit in a month and a half, and quite a few teams are close enough to a Wild Card berth to keep hope alive for now. So instead of speculating on losing streaks, I will focus on two pitchers to whom the Nationals have been connected frequently: Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.
Both Chapman and Miller are unusual cases, though for very different reasons. Miller only recently became a reliever, but is now 31 and has a 1.87 ERA since the start of 2014, along with a stupefying 15.1 K/9 and stingy 2.3 BB/9. He is under contract for two more years at $9M each after 2016, so he could be the long-term answer at closer the Nationals have sought since the franchise moved from Montreal. But given his ability and contract, he will fetch a hefty price in any deal.
The New York Post’s Joel Sherman notes that the Nats are not likely to move über-prospects Lucas Giolito, Trea Turner, and Victor Robles, though he wonders if Miller is attractive enough to land one, perhaps when paired with speedy center fielder Brett Gardner. But the Nationals reportedly considered the trio untouchable at last year’s trade deadline, and Robles has since raised his stock even higher, while Turner and Giolito have held steady as two of baseball’s best prospects who figure into major league plans very soon. It’s quite hard to see any of the three going anywhere. That would leave flamethrowing righty Reynaldo Lopez, who has struck out 45 and walked three over 23 2/3 innings in his last four full starts, and 2014 first rounder Erick Fedde, who has 48 strikeouts and 12 walks in 49 innings at High A this season, as the top trade chips. They may not be enough to nab Miller, but they could intrigue the Yankees for Chapman.
Though Chapman, famed for touching 103 miles per hour, has been just as successful as Miller recently, he will come at a much lower price for two reasons: he is a free agent at the end of the season, and — much more importantly — he was questioned in a domestic violence incident in the offseason after allegedly choking his girlfriend and shooting a gun in his garage, which resulted in a 30-game suspension. General manager Mike Rizzo has long sought after Chapman, and Dusty Baker, who managed him in Cincinnati, publicly defended him this offseason.
Discussing what it means to acquire a player punished for domestic violence requires an article much longer and more thoughtful than this one. I could not possibly do it justice without dedicating an entire post to it, so I will minimize the role of my opinion and hew towards what I think the Nationals might do.
Chapman got off light for a terrible act, though even a heavy punishment from MLB would not have redeemed him in the eyes of many. Adding Chapman would alienate and rightfully anger many fans, but the same was true of keeping Papelbon last offseason. Rizzo backed off his pursuit of Chapman last offseason after the allegations against the closer became public but said their interest was on hold only “until we find out how things happened,” which does not sound like a categorical condemnation of his actions. Rizzo has shown that he is unafraid to make a move that will upset fans, but Papelbon’s actions are child’s play compared to Chapman’s. The Nationals’ interest in Chapman will depend almost entirely on how Rizzo weighs his crime, and that is a question only the GM can answer.