Handling of Drew Storen tells us much more about the Nationals

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Mike Rizzo sending Drew Storen down to AAA Syracuse was the right move for the Nationals and the struggling reliever. (Post Sports Live)
Mike Wise
July 30, 2013

When I wrote what the treatment of Drew Storen means to the Washington Nationals’ catch-the-Braves-or-bust season three weeks ago, that other relievers were taken aback at the Rafael Soriano signing, the responses in my inbox fell into two camps: “It’s pro sports: Perform or lose your job!” and “That’s what the Nats get for treating him that way.”

Then Tyler Clippard crystallized the matter when he spoke his mind after his former roommate’s minor-league demotion Friday, saying “You basically send a guy a message this offseason for having one bad game — that he’s not the guy for the job.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Let’s be clear: Storen’s teammates weren’t giving him a pass for an earned run average that has been climbing faster than mortgage-interest rates the past two months. Rather, they were simply watching how their company treats a fellow employee.

The thought was if the Nationals can toy with the confidence of a nasty closer who had 43 saves the last time he was healthy for an entire season, they can pretty much mess with anyone’s head when it comes to their inherent value to the organization.

I’m not saying Natstown is divided between the tree-lined, manicured lots of Scott Boras’s clients and the wrong side of the tracks. That’s horrendous oversimplification. Because while Soriano, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon are Boras guys — and aren’t going anywhere for a while — so too is demoted Danny Espinosa, who might not make it back to Washington unless he’s put on a playoff roster.

But it is hard to hear “family” when the actions of the franchise are all business, especially when even your direct supervisors don’t always feel appreciated.

Remember Jim Riggleman, who quit in the middle of 2011 because the team refused to discuss extending his contract? Yeah? How valued do you think the guy who replaced him now feels? Davey Johnson went from being Obi-Wan of the dugout, the gut-feel sage pushing 70 and all the right buttons a year ago to . . . 2013’s raspy-voiced codger on his way out, who mishandled the bullpen, flapped his gums about his players’ injuries and whose hitting coach just got axed. Oh, he last won something really big three decades ago.

Davey has made a truckload of mistakes this season, many of which he’ll admit, but he’s now managing in an environment in which he is certain ownership can’t wait to see him leave, whether that’s distorted reality or not.

On it goes, the question of who and what really matters to the Nationals.

Although resisting Adam LaRoche’s pleas for a third year in a new deal, the stare-down this offseason almost cost them the most important veteran in their clubhouse.

Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann have been approached about extending their deals, but the club probably should have done more to meet their demands, given that their value is only increasing. You’d think they’ll both be taken care of before their current deals expire, but who knows?

This isn’t on General Manager Mike Rizzo; he’s doing only what’s been taught to him from above, what’s been done to him. After principal owner Mark Lerner said in April that talks of a multiyear deal for Rizzo were underway, it turned out they weren’t. Instead, the club picked up the option in Rizzo’s original deal, as if he were a double-A outfielder who might make it to the show in 2016. Instead of rewarding one of the most diligent, smartest guys in the game, the Lerners kept him under their thumb at a discount rate.

When Rizzo is free to explore the open market — the club has an additional option year in 2015 — why wouldn’t he? And trust me: If and when he does, that will be a hell of a bigger loss than Alfonso Soriano.

Taken on its own, the fervor over Storen’s demotion is only about a popular player and his polarizing performance. One side sees a 25-year-old who got his chance and then had to face the harsh realities of the major leagues. The other side sees a nice kid and promising young talent who was psychologically pulled apart until he finally broke.

But I see the handling of Storen as still something larger: a window into a culture of doing business, one the franchise might have to re-think at some point before it goes beyond their clubhouse.

The mishandling of Storen — from Davey’s blame after Game 5 to Boras selling Ted Lerner on the need to pony up $28 million for Soriano — ensured that last season’s Game 5 disappointment reverberated well into this season. If that’s not clear now, well, a refresher course in team dynamics and clubhouse chemistry might be needed.

It’s not the only reason why the Nats’ season is on the ledge next week when the Braves come to town. But it mattered, much more than just sending a shaken right-handed reliever back to the minors.

Karma’s a pitch, ain’t it?

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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