Maybe the dust has settled some on the Nationals’ complicated trade with the Phillies for Jonathan Papelbon, though it likely hasn’t. The addition of Papelbon caused a lot of ripples within the organization, from Drew Storen to the rest of the bullpen to the future. Colleague Barry Svrluga captured the Storen-Papelbon dynamic well, but we’ll explore some left-over implications of what happened and what is to come:
>>> The Nationals were interested in other closers: They liked and asked about San Diego’s Craig Kimbrel. They liked and worked hard to get Aroldis Chapman, according to a person familiar with the situation. Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the Nationals and Phillies even had conversations with the Nationals about Papelbon “even a couple months back.” The Nationals entered the season with Storen as closer and backed him publicly, but they had been exploring upgrades for some time.
There’s no faulting the Nationals for that. The bullpen needed to be addressed. They have used 17 relievers this season. The loss of Tyler Clippard has been felt and worsened by the loss of Craig Stammen. The bullpen’s overall numbers are solid, but they are 42-7 when leading after six innings, slightly worse than league average. Casey Janssen is rounding into form but that took time and a shoulder injury. Matt Thornton is good but is 38 and can’t pitch as often as others. There were limitations to the bullpen.
So as the Nationals looked around at relievers, they looked at set-up men. They tried for a Clippard reunion but the Mets won out. But really, what would be a more significant upgrade to the Nationals bullpen? While a set-up man may ruffle fewer feathers, closers are normally better pitchers.
The Nationals found the price of Chapman and Kimbrel too high; the Reds and Padres wanted two of the Nationals’ best prospects. Papelbon comes at a little cost this season and with the loss of a mid-level prospect. The Nationals take on big money next season, when they have more payroll flexibility, and also spread it out to 2017.
A lost point in all of this: the Nationals protected what they hope is their future (Trea Turner, Lucas Giolito, Joe Ross, etc.) while adding a very good reliever at a cheaper cost. The Nationals have chosen not to add significant payroll during the season and General Manager Mike Rizzo has done well creatively working around that and keeping the future intact.
>>> The domino effect on the bullpen: Rizzo and Manager Matt Williams said Storen will primarily get set-up duties but will also handle ninth-inning duties on occasion when Papelbon isn’t available. Although closers come with more notoriety and more money (fault the system, if you will), sometimes the biggest match-ups of the game happen in the seventh or eighth innings. Storen will still get chances to pitch with the game on the line, even in the postseason if the Nationals reach it.
This is the catch-22 of the modern bullpen. Roles are useful for players during the 162-game season. It allows players to prepare mentally and physically for innings and matchups everyday. But in a way, roles aren’t beneficial. The heart of the order coming up in a one-run game in the eighth? Maybe use the “closer” there instead of in the ninth when the bottom of the order will be up. Locking players into hard-fast roles and then changing them later is what causes friction, especially when future salary and pride are involved.
But by adding Papelbon to the fold, Williams has more capable options to cover the same number of innings. It strengthens not only the eighth and ninth innings, but sixth and seventh innings. Now good pitchers — Janssen and Thornton — are pitching earlier in the game, limiting the inconsistencies of Aaron Barrett and Tanner Roark. At times this season, close deficits have turned into blowouts when struggling relievers enter. Now, the bullpen will keep the Nationals in the game more often.
>>> How will Papelbon fit in the clubhouse? This, perhaps, is the most interesting question of all. Storen is a well-liked teammate. He has grown up with his teammates, going through the minors with them and maturing in the majors. Storen is understandably unhappy that, despite doing nothing wrong this season, was pushed out of his closer’s role. The Nationals felt an outside pitcher was better. Teammates will empathize.
But the goal is to win a World Series, and the window is now with this group. Papelbon helps. And if he doesn’t, the tide will turn on him. He faces as much pressure on his new team as Storen does in keeping his high production going while dealing with the disappointment of a new role.
There’s no mistaking six-time all-star Papelbon’s ability: a 1.57 ERA, perfect in 17 saves chances and a .211 opponents average this season; 342 career saves (12th in major league history); first among active relievers with 727 strikeouts and one hit per inning pitched; the fifth reliever in history to record at least 25 saves in nine straight seasons; he’s notched the final out of the season (the 2007 World Series with the Red Sox); he has learned to thrive with a 91-mph fastball at 34 years old. But Papelbon, a fiery personality, arrives with a history of antics, strong comments and, at times, strange behavior.
He was suspended seven games last season for an obscene gesture toward fans and a confrontation with an umpire. He begged to be traded for some time. He questioned the Phillies’ direction. In 2009 with Boston, he openly vented about the addition of Billy Wagner as a set-up man.
The addition of Papelbon is an interesting step for the Nationals. On one hand, Papelbon pitched well enough to earn his current contract and all of its quirks, such as a no-trade clause and the $13 million option for 2016. And he forcefully used that leverage: dictating the terms of his landing spot with demands of blocking a trade to one of his chosen 17 teams if he didn’t remain the closer. Even though it may rub fans the wrong way, Papelbon contractually had the right to do that and he can’t be faulted for wanting to keep his job and getting paid in 2016. But it took unusual arrangements — negotiating a salary change in his contract, guaranteeing he would remain closer — to pull it off.
Yunel Escobar, also known for his past baggage, hasn’t publicly ruffled any feathers since joining the Nationals and has blended in in his own way. The Nationals clubhouse polices itself. So we’ll see what happens.
>>> Are the Nationals done? Rizzo’s own words: “You’re never done. We’re never done. The 31st is one deadline, there’ll be the next deadline after that. We’ve done deals before the 31st, after the 31st, but we’re never finished, we’re never satisfied. If we can upgrade the club for 2015 and and beyond, we’ll look for any way shape or form to do so.”
In other words: the Nationals may still look to tweak the bench. Anthony Rendon returned last week, and Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman came back on Tuesday. They all had injuries to overcome, but now must deal with the after-effects of missing so much time, getting back into in-season everyday shape and, in some cases, old slumps. Denard Span is still weeks away from returning.
The Nationals could perhaps still benefit from a versatile left-handed outfielder to add balance and depth. The Nationals could further protect themselves from any issues with Werth and Span. Michael A. Taylor is an excellent defender and has shown signs of improvement at the plate but isn’t an ideal leadoff hitter. Escobar and Rendon can fill that for now.
The Nationals had interest in veteran jack-of-all-trades Ben Zobrist, who went to the Royals for a top prospect. But the Nationals could still scour the market for a bargain complimentary player. Rizzo and Williams know Milwaukee’s Gerardo Parra, who can lead off and is a strong defense, and like him, but he is also a popular deadline target of other teams.
The Nationals don’t necessarily have to do anything more now. They believe in the track records of Werth and Zimmerman. They have a bit of time to see the lineup, except for Span, work all together now. They can always add a player after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Last season, for example, they added Matt Thornton on a waiver claim in August.