SAN FRANCISCO >> The Washington Nationals found a reliable pitcher for the ninth inning, acquiring All-Star closer Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday.
Washington sent reliever Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn to the Pirates for Melancon, who supplants struggling Jonathan Papelbon as Washington's closer. Melancon is expected to join the Nationals on Sunday for their series finale at San Francisco.
A 31-year-old right-hander, Melancon has converted 30 of 33 saves with a 1.51 ERA this season and joins his fifth organization in eight years. He is making $9.65 million and is eligible for free agency after the World Series.
Once considered a possible successor to Mariano Rivera when he broke into the majors with the New York Yankees in 2009, Melancon said during the All-Star break he knew a trade was possible, given his contract status.
The move comes as the Pirates find themselves on the fringe of the wild-card race. While general manager Neal Huntington stressed the team remains committed to reaching the playoffs for a fourth straight season, the opportunity to deal Melancon — who led the majors with 51 saves in 2015 and had 33 in '14 — for two young arms with friendly long-term contracts was too good to pass up.
Rivera is under team control through 2021 and hit 100 mph on the radar gun regularly during an extended relief appearance against the Pirates this month. If Melancon left as a free agent, Pittsburgh would have receive a high draft pick as compensation.
"We knew full well that holding Mark Melancon would have been a good return, but at the end of the day we felt this was a better return for us," Huntington said.
This was the well-traveled Melancon's fourth season in Pittsburgh after he also pitched for Houston, Boston and the Yankees.
He will move his family once more — his wife and three kids.
"That kind of is what makes things a lot bigger deal just because you've got five times the bodies," he said during the All-Star break. "It's not just me, it's about four other people along with me."
Papelbon is 2-4 with a 4.41 ERA and has allowed eight runs and seven hits in his past three outing. Manager Dusty Baker wouldn't say earlier Saturday whether Papelbon still was his closer. Baker pulled Papelbon from a game Thursday in the ninth inning.
Rivero, a 25-year-old lefty, is 0-3 with a 4.53 ERA this season. Hearn is a 21-year-old lefty who was the Nationals' fifth-round pick in the 2015 amateur draft.
The Pirates will plug the 25-year-old Rivera into a seventh-inning role, with Neftali Feliz working the eighth and Tony Watson in the ninth. Watson was an All-Star in 2014 in a set-up role and will take over a position where Pittsburgh has enjoyed plenty of success during its rise from mediocrity. Each of its previous three closers: Melanon, Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan, made the All-Star team wearing black-and-gold.
Huntington hinted the team may try to take the money it will save by not paying the remaining portion of Melancon's contract and use it before Monday's trade deadline. The Pirates need help in the starting rotation, which has been forced to turn to rookies Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow quickly as established players Jeff Locke, John Niese and Juan Nicasio faltered.
Also Saturday, Washington recalled right-handed pitcher Reynaldo Lopez from Triple-A Syracuse.