Stephen Strasburg is still on the disabled list and Bryce Harper is still hitting .212, but the Washington Nationals got better Monday. (Even on a day when they technically split with the Yankees, though the first game was a resumption of a suspended one.) The Nats remain 3½ games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, but they have the closer they’ve lacked … oh, forever.
The Nats plied Kelvin Herrera from the Royals for three prospects, only one of whom ranked among Washington’s top 10. Herrera was the seventh-inning man in the bullpen that carried Kansas City to the 2014 World Series, the eighth-inning guy on the 2015 champions and – with Greg Holland and Wade Davis now elsewhere – has become one of the best ninth-inning workers anywhere.
That’s a big deal for any contender. It’s a bigger deal for Washington, which hasn’t gotten over its own Leyritz Moment. In the climactic Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, the Nats led the Cardinals – who’d beaten the Braves in the Infield Fly wild card abomination – 6-0. They lost 9-7. Closer Drew Storen surrendered four runs in the top of the ninth. The 98-win Nats went home for the winter.
Over the years, they’ve tried to find a lockdown guy. They acquired Jonathan Papelbon, whose D.C. stint is mostly remembered for his dugout choke hold on Harper. They’ve tried Rafael Soriano and Mark Melancon and Sean Doolittle, but fans of #Natitude will tell you that the chief reason this team has taken the East four times in six years without winning a playoff series is because the bullpen has never held up its end.
Herrera could change that. You’ll recall the impact of in-season acquisition Alejandro Pena on the 1991 pennant chase; without him, the Braves don’t catch the Dodgers. What makes this Nats’ move doubly adroit – credit where it’s due – is that Herrera is the sort of closer the Braves could use. Their bullpen hasn’t been statistically awful, but it’s still the weakest part of their team.
A month ago, Herrera was identified in this space as someone who should be a person of interest to Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ general manager. It’s unknown whether the Braves had any discussions with the Royals. It is known that Herrera has just been hired by the Braves’ most serious pursuer, which didn’t have to destroy its farm system to land him.
Apart from the failed experiment with Jose Bautista, Anthopoulos has made no real move once the season began, and the bulk of his offseason work was to sift through the bargain bin. (Though shipping Matt Kemp to the Dodgers for Brandon McCarthy/Charlie Culberson has helped both sides.) It’s mid-June now, and it’s clear the Braves didn’t just catch a hot start. They’ve been a good team since Opening Day. They have – sorry to repeat myself – a real chance.
A team with a real chance assumes its GM will do his part to push his club into October. We’re still a month and a half from the trade deadline, but Mike Rizzo didn’t wait until July. He bought his Nats the best closer apt to be on the market, a closer who might have been gone by the Fourth of July.
This isn’t to say Anthopoulos should make a panic buy just to prove he’s doing something – the Braves’ thirst to match the Dodgers’ 1983 acquisition of Rick Honeycutt begat Len-Barker-for-Brett-Butler-and-Brook Jacoby, still a franchise lowlight – but this GM will need to do his bit soon. There’s a division to be won, a wild card game to be avoided. And the Nationals, for all their issues, just found their closer.