As the Nationals prepare for spring training, one player faces a unique challenge, albeit one he brought upon himself. Jonathan Papelbon missed the final seven games of last season while serving two suspensions, one from Major League Baseball for throwing at Manny Machado and the other for fighting Bryce Harper in the dugout during a game.
Their offseason moves indicate the Nationals plan to keep Papelbon. The team overhauled the bullpen (four players out, four in) but while the Nationals entertained offers, Papelbon is not easy to trade. He is 35. He’ll earn $11 million this season. He’s rubbed people the wrong way while playing for three teams. And he isn’t the power pitcher he once was.
So how will Papelbon be received in Washington in 2016?
Performance matters. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has made this point before: With a 91-mph fastball and solid command, Papelbon posted a 3.04 ERA and went 24 for 26 in save chances. According to MLB Network, Papelbon holds the highest save percentage (81.9) in one-run games since 1990, better than Mariano Rivera. Papelbon also has strong postseason credentials.
Some Nationals players and coaches — speaking on the condition of anonymity — point out that dust-ups between teammates happen more than the public knows.
“We have arguments and fights and move on,” said a Nationals player recently. “I don’t think it’ll affect the clubhouse. I think, as a clubhouse, it’ll be fine. It’s water under the bridge. [Harper and Papelbon] don’t have to go to dinner or everything but the goal is try and win.”
But that doesn’t help fans get past the fact that a closer with a checkered past grabbed the National League MVP by the throat in the dugout the day after elimination from playoff contention — and on Fan Appreciation Day, no less.
Many Nationals players were loyal to Drew Storen — knocked out of the closer’s role by Papelbon’s arrival — and viewed Papelbon as a unique character and strong personality with a rough past. But some players were pleasantly surprised.
“He was great, just talking to him on the baseball side,” a Nationals player said. “He has so much experience. He’s a veteran player who goes about his business. … He says what he thinks. He doesn’t care. … It’s unfortunate what happened. Wrong place and wrong time. Emotions got the best of them.”
“No one has a problem with [Papelbon] in reality,” said another Nationals player. “That was a problem between the two of them. Some fans may not forget because, for them, Harper is No. 1.”
Harper, who has been with the organization since 2010, was arguably No. 1 in all of baseball last season. Fans love his play and personality as well as his apparent affection for Washington and its other professional teams. For his role in the fight, Harper was held out of the game the next day.
Rizzo has stressed that Harper and Papelbon can co-exist as teammates, even volunteering that Harper extended an olive branch to Papelbon with a phone call this offseason.
“I think that goes a long way with your teammates in your clubhouse and shows that this thing is behind us and we’re here to win and that we’re going to get along and be as one,” Rizzo said in November.
At the Nationals’ winter fan event in December, Harper didn’t address the Papelbon issue directly but insisted that “last year’s behind us.”
“Our team, we’re a family,” Harper continued. “We try to go in there every single day and do the things we can. Last year’s behind us. All of last year is behind us. We were a losing team. I know we [had more] in the win column but we still lost. We’re looking forward to this year, looking forward to what we’re about this year. We’re a totally different team. Hopefully we can go into this year doing what we can to win games and get back to where we were a couple years ago.”