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Nats minor league awards at the break

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Nats minor league awards at the break

Syracuse Chiefs (44-46, 9th in International League)Best Hitter: OF Corey Brown (.296 BA, 19 HR, 52 RBI, 11 SB)
Best Pitcher: LHP Zach Duke (10-3, 3.68 ERA, 102.2 IP)Biggest Surprise: LHP John Lannan (6-8, 4.60 ERA, 1.52 WHIP)

The Nationals acquired Brown along with Henry Rodriguez in a late 2010 trade that sent Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics. In his second season in the Nats organization, Brown has thrived and leads the Chiefs in homers, RBI, walks, total bases, and stolen bases.

Duke was signed to a minor league deal back in March and has put together a strong first half to 2012. Duke leads the Chiefs rotation with ten wins and is tied with Yunesky Maya for the best ERA among starters.

Lannan falls in the bad surprise category as his first half struggles were not anticipated by many. He was thought before the season to be the fifth starter on the big league club and hasnt maintained his trade value in Triple-A. The second half of the year will be important for his future with the club.

Harrisburg Senators (48-41, 4th in Eastern League)Best Hitter: OF Chris Rahl (.299 BA, 10 HR, 41 RBI, 20 SB)Best Pitcher: LHP Danny Rosenbaum (7-6, 3.38 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 114.1 IP)Biggest Surprise: OF Destin Hood (.223 BA, 2 HR, 28 RBI)

Rahl, a William & Mary product, has been the teams best position player with a team-leading ten home runs and 49 runs and 20 stolen bases which ranks third on the squad. Rosenbaum has fallen off of late with a 6.27 ERA in June and a poor start to July, but overall he has had one of the best 2012s of any Nats pitching prospects.

Hood also comes in as an unfortunate surprise as the former second round pick looked poised for big things in 2012. He hit 83 RBI in 2011 and had a .809 OPS, but this year his production has fallen off dramatically. Some consider him as one of the teams best prospects, but unless he turns thing around this season he may lose that distinction.

Potomac Nationals (41-49, 6th in Carolina League)Best Hitter: C David Freitas (.286 BA, 5 HR, 39 RBI, 34 BB)Best Pitcher: RHP Neil Holland (4-1, 1.66 ERA, .189 BAA)Biggest Surprise: LHP Robbie Ray (3-5, 4.87 ERA, 27 BB, 64.2 IP)

Freitas has been the best overall hitter in a Senators lineup that has struggled for the most part in 2012. The 23-year-old catcher ranks third in homers, second in RBI, and second in walks. Holland, a relief pitcher, has been a bright spot late in games with the teams starting rotation having an off year across the board. His 1.66 ERA is the lowest on the team and he also has a 0.87 WHIP to boast.

The Senators have also not had any huge good surprises this season which leaves Ray as its biggest unseen development. Ray was stellar in 2011 with a 3.13 ERA in 20 starts at Single-A Hagerstown. This year, however, the 20-year-old has had a rough start and hasnt shown the potential and promise everyone thought he had realized last season.

Hagerstown Suns (56-33, 2nd in South Atlantic League)Best Hitter: 3B Matthew Skole (.280 BA, 21 HR, 73 RBI, 79 BB, .987 OPS)Best Pitcher: RHP Alex Meyer (6-4, 3.32 ERA, 98 SO, 84.0 IP)Biggest Surprise: OF Steven Souza, Jr. (.284 BA, 15 HR, 63 RBI, .901 OPS)

Skole has developed from a 2011 5th round pick out of Georgia Tech into perhaps the best hitter at the low-A minor league level. He leads all South Atlantic League hitters in homers, RBI, walks, and ranks second in OPS. The 22-year-old has to see a promotion soon as he has three home runs already in just seven games in July.

Meyer has come around quickly after being drafted 23rd overall by the Nationals in 2011. The 22-year-old flame-thrower has the starting rotations best ERA and is striking out batters at a rate of 10.5 per nine innings. He should see time in Double-A soon and could develop into a top-shelf prospect.

Souza, Jr. gets the nod as biggest surprise only because Skole and Meyer have already been mentioned. Still, his first half of the season has been spectacular and a huge leap for the former third round pick. He played last year at Potomac and since his demotion has raised his batting average over .55 points and already has more homers and RBI than the year before. He should get another shot at High-A ball soon unless the Nats see Double-A as his logical next step.

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Lopez struggles, Nats' bullpen cracks late in loss to Giants

Lopez struggles, Nats' bullpen cracks late in loss to Giants

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Saturday evening at AT&T Park.

How it happened: Mark Melancon can't join the Nationals soon enough.

On the same day the Nats pulled off a big trade for an upgrade at closer, it was their bullpen that failed them. Yusmeiro Petit allowed the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly to Joe Panik in the bottom of the seventh inning. Panik killed the Nats in the 2014 NL Division Series and on Saturday he was the hero in a 5-3 Giants win.

The trouble, though, didn't stop there. After Petit left, Blake Treinen walked Trevor Brown with the bases loaded to score another run. That gave the Giants the comfort of a two-run lead. The Nats' bullpen had made things interesting in the first two games of their series at San Francisco and they finally cracked in the third matchup.

Rookie Reynaldo Lopez allowed the Giants' first three runs and only lasted four innings. Giants starter Jake Peavy also had a short day with three runs given up in four innings of work. 

Anthony Rendon launched a two-run homer in the third inning. Danny Espinosa landed an RBI double in the fourth. Trea Turner went 2-for-4 with a steal. Ryan Zimmerman continued to heat up with a single and a run. Jayson Werth extended his streak of reaching base end to 33 games on a bloop single in the eighth inning.

The Nats, though, went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Three of those at-bats came in the first inning after Turner led off with a single, then stole to reach second. The Nats could not move him from there.

What it means: The Nationals had their three-game winning streak snapped with the loss and fell to 2-1 against the Giants this season. They sit 61-43 on the year.

Lopez struggles again: Lopez has all the tools to be a very good MLB pitcher, whether that's as a starter or a reliever, but through two outings he has not had much luck. In his debut against the Dodgers it was basehits that killed him. On Saturday, he couldn't command the strike zone and ended up with five walks in addition to four hits.

Lopez was better in his second start than he was in his debut, but still found trouble getting batters out. He escaped a major jam in the second inning when Eduardo Nunez popped out with the bases loaded. Lopez was not as fortunate in the bottom of the fourth when Nunez doubled with the bases juiced to score two runs. The other run off Lopez was on an Angel Pagan groundout in the same inning.

Joe Ross made another rehab start with Triple-A Syracuse on Saturday. If he is not ready to return to the Nats' rotation in five days, it will be interesting to see if they go back to Lopez or give Lucas Giolito another shot.

Caught stealing: The Nats had two runners caught stealing by Buster Posey. One was Ben Revere in the fifth inning with Hunter Strickland on the mound. The other was in the seventh with Sergio Romo pitching. Harper's was a tough one, as he led off the frame with a walk with the Nats looking to come back from a two-run deficit. The Nats right fielder had no chance against Posey, who easily threw him out on the attempt. Werth then singled two at-bats later, leaving the Nats only to wonder what could have been.

Rendon hits No. 13: Rendon has been the Nats' best hitter this month not named Daniel or Wilson, and the third baseman kept it going on Saturday with another big game. Rendon's homer was his 13th of the season and his sixth of July. Over his last 11 games, Rendon is 14-for-42 (.300) with four homers, eight RBI and six runs scored.

Up next: The Nats and Giants close out their series with another 4:05 p.m. start on Sunday. Gio Gonzalez (6-8, 4.44) will look to keep his positive momentum going opposite Matt Cain (2-6, 5.95).

[RELATED: After Melancon trade, what do Nats do with Papelbon?]

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With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

For the Nationals to bring in Jonathan Papelbon last July in a trade with the Phillies, he had to first waive the no-trade clause in his contract. He accepted the move to leave Philadelphia with the understanding he would be the closer in Washington. Drew Storen was moved to the eighth inning and, for a variety of reasons, the trade blew up in the Nationals' faces.

Now they have done the same to Papelbon. They traded for All-Star closer Mark Melancon on Saturday in order to solidify the ninth inning and Papelbon has been replaced.

The question now becomes not only what the Nats do with their embattled reliever, but also how he reacts. As evidenced by his comments last July right after he was traded to the Nationals, being a closer means a lot to him:

''For me I'm getting up there on the all-time closing list and that's important to me. When Theo (Epstein) had me as a young kid in Boston and he wanted to start to me and I said, `No, I'm a closer, that's what I want to be, and that's who I am.' This is what I envisioned. I envisioned chasing Mariano. I've told Mariano that at many All-Star games, `I'm coming after you.' So that's part of it," Papelbon said.

''Ego may be a part of it or whatever you want to say, but for me it's a path that I started 11 years ago and now I'm trying to do everything I can to continue that and win championships as a closer."

Until Papelbon speaks on the subject himself, there's no reason to believe he won't accept the demotion. And truthfully, there are plenty of reasons why he shouldn't have a problem with it.

For one, it is just for a few months. He is an impending free agent and will be able to seek a closer role with another team. If Papelbon turns his season around and becomes an effective setup man or seventh inning guy, he could be paid handsomely this winter.

Papelbon does also kind of owe the Nationals one, doesn't he? For all they put up with last year with the Bryce Harper incident and the suspension and contract grievance that followed, the Nationals have treated Papelbon much better than many teams would if presented the same circumstances. They brought him back this season as a reclamation project and until Saturday had shown plenty of patience with his actions both on and off the field.

Exactly how they will use Papelbon is unclear. Whether the Nats trust Papelbon more than other options like Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Sammy Solis is hard to tell. And whatever their plans are, the Nats may not outline them publicly, as manager Dusty Baker has been reluctant to discuss specific bullpen roles this season. 

A Papelbon-Melancon combination doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the potential is there for a lethal eighth and ninth inning duo, if they choose to go that route. Both would bring experience and toughness to the pennant race and beyond.

Papelbon still provides value and the Nats can very much still use him. What they do and how he feels about it, though, are real questions at this point.

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

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Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

The Nationals addressed their most pressing need in a big way on Saturday and they didn't have to give up one of their top prospects to make it happen.

The Nats acquired All-Star closer Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates for lefty reliever Felipe Rivero and prospect Taylor Hearn, CSN Mid-Atlantic has confirmed. FOX Sports was first to break the news.

Melancon, 31, joins the Nationals for the remainder of this season as an upcoming free agent. The right-hander holds a 1.51 ERA and has 30 saves in 33 chances. 

Melancon has been an excellent closer for years with a 1.80 ERA and 130 saves since he joined the Pirates before the 2013 season. Three times during that stretch he made the NL All-Star team and he finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2015.

Melancon will close for the Nationals, which begs the question of what to do with Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon joined the Nats last summer with the understanding he would be their closer and has spoken before about his quest to challenge Mariano Rivera's all-time saves record. Regardless of how Papelbon reacts, the Nationals have found a better option for the ninth inning in Melancon.

Melancon has three years of postseason experience, as well. He has appeared in six playoff games with four earned runs across 5 2/3 total innings allowed.

Rivero, 25, leaves for the Pirates with a 4.53 ERA in 47 appearances this season. He is under team control through 2021. Rivero throws 100 miles per hour and has flashed potential through his two years in Washington, but remains a raw talent.

Hearn was a fifth round pick out of Oklahoma Baptist in 2015. He posted a 3.18 ERA in eight games at Single-A Hagerstown this season.

Both Rivero and Hearn are intriguing young pitchers, but overall this trade looks like a steal for the Nationals, especially considering what the Cubs gave up for Aroldis Chapman and what the Yankees have reportedly been asking for with Andrew Miller.

The Nats did not have to part with any of their top prospects to land Melancon, who leaves a Pirates team that is only three games out of a playoff spot. That last detail could be something to keep in mind down the stretch of this season.

Why did the Pirates let Melancon go? It is not often you see a team in their position trade their lockdown closer and strengthen another team in their league at the same time. It's a strange decision, but the Nats will take it.

[RELATED: Scherzer, Werth shine in Nats' thrilling win at Giants]

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