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After year of missed opportunities, Nationals finally find relief in Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson

The club’s search for relievers has been a complicated one, with many factors working against them since last fall.

Washington Nationals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Our long Nationals nightmare is over.

Washington, after spending the better part of a year looking for bullpen upgrades, finally added two legitimate, dependable relievers on Sunday afternoon, acquiring Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson for righty Blake Treinen and prospects Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse in a trade with Oakland on Sunday.

The names Doolittle and Madson aren’t as sexy as the names Miller and Chapman from a deadline ago or Jansen and Melancon from last winter. But the Nats, recognizing that the burning hole on their roster was both costing them games and frustrating their top performers, needed to make an early strike and did so Sunday. They accomplished the daunting task of making the first move in the relief market this summer, setting the tone for other clubs (and there’s a lot of them) with similar needs.

It’s easy to criticize general manager Mike Rizzo for not making a move sooner, but he’s suffered from a combination of really bad luck and a reluctant-to-add-payroll ownership that’s not the easiest to please. Here’s a quick look back at the Nats’ attempts to secure high-end relief help since Melancon became a free agent after last season:

  • Melancon, the Nationals’ top target at the beginning of the winter meetings, spurned Washington to sign a then-record deal with the Giants.
  • Pivoting from Melancon, the Nationals made the largest contract offer (5 years, $85 million) of any club to Jansen, only to have him take a lesser offer (5 years, $80 million) to return to the Dodgers.
  • Washington came close to a deal for White Sox closer David Robertson late in the offseason, with lefty Luzardo and third baseman Drew Ward set to go to Chicago. The deal got hung up on money, with the sides not being able to agree on how to split up the $25 million remaining on Robertson’s contract. According to the Washington Post, ownership balked at taking on Robertson’s deal.
  • Washington reportedly had an agreement with All-Star closer Greg Holland, only to have ownership, once again, scuttle the deal due to financial concerns. Holland signed with Colorado and has been one of the best relievers in baseball this year.

So that’s two free agents who chose other options over strong offers from the Nationals and two almost-done deals scuttled by ownership at the last minute. Not exactly ideal for a club that had made two emergency trades (for Jonathan Papelbon and Melancon) at consecutive deadlines.

The trade market this summer was also unkind to the Nats, who were linked to the RoyalsKelvin Herrera, the Blue JaysRoberto Osuna, the RaysAlex Colome and the Giants’ Mark Melancon (all unavailable), the OriolesZach Britton (an impossible move to make, considering the testy MASN-caused relationship between the Nats and O’s), the PhilliesPat Neshek, the MarlinsDavid Phelps and A.J. Ramos and the MetsAddison Reed (division rivals) and the PadresBrad Hand, the RedsRaisel Iglesias and the TigersJustin Wilson (both of whom have massive price tags). With all of those options seemingly off the table, Rizzo turned to frequent trade partner Billy Beane, with whom he has completed 11 trades since taking over the Nationals in 2009.

Beane had a perfect mix of factors going in his favor in talks with the Nats, having not just one, but two available veteran relievers with closing experience who were both controllable past this season and not all that expensive. Madson is under contract through the end of next year for about $11 million while Doolittle will earn $5.7 million over the next two years before club options ($6 million in 2019 and $6.5 million in 2020) kick in. All told, that’s a commitment of under $17 million over the next two years, something the Lerners are even fine with approving.

With Bryce Harper potentially leaving for free agency after 2018, the Nationals know their window to win may not be open for much longer. The team’s strong 55-36 record is extremely impressive considering the league’s worst bullpen (5.34 ERA and -0.9 WAR) has been working against it the entire time, showing just how powerful the club’s lineup and rotation is, when healthy.

So while some will be less than impressed with the haul of Doolittle and Madson, who have a combined four saves this season, it’s important to remember that they may have been the best options that were realistically attainable. Doolittle is death on lefties, who are 0-for-23 against him with 12 strikeouts this year, and Madson has proven himself in a variety of roles throughout his career.

The fact that Washington was able to keep its four top prospects (Victor Robles, Erick Fedde, Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom) and still get two years of control over two effective relievers is impressive, and may just be the move that finally gets the Nats past that cursed divisional round. Considering all the factors working against them in their long search for relief help, they did just fine.