One of the more tumultuous tenures in Washington Nationals history ended Saturday afternoon when the Nationals released Jonathan Papelbon, just more than a year after acquiring the former closer last season from the Philadelphia Phillies in a controversial deadline deal.
Papelbon, 35, was moved out of the closer’s role when the Nationals acquired Mark Melancon at the trade deadline — the first time he was not a closer since taking over full-time duties for the Red Sox more than a decade ago. Dusty Baker used him twice since that deal, both times in mop-up duty, but never found a consistent role for him. As such, when Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff saw a roster move looming to activate a fifth starter, they began to consider which of their eight relievers would go to make room.
“We went with what we felt was our best 25 players, which was our best seven bullpen players, and unfortunately the business of baseball is you have to cut a really good veteran, a really good player, a really good teammate like Jonathan Papelbon,” Rizzo said.
Baker and Rizzo spoke to Papelbon after Friday night’s game, and Rizzo explained to Papelbon they would be designating him for assignment to make room for Reynaldo Lopez, Saturday’s starter. At that time, Papelbon and his camp asked if the veteran could be released instead: Designating a player for assignment gives a team 10 days to pass the player through waivers, after which time a player must be returned to the roster, traded, sent to the minors, or released outright. The Nationals granted Papelbon’s wishes and released him instead, a process that requires them to pay the remainder of the $11 million they owed him this season.
“Pap was professional. He’s never run from anything. He’s faced the music whether it was good or bad. He it handled like a pro,” Baker said. “But this is what we kind of expected from Pap, even though it was tough letting him go. He was a great teammate. He was popular with his teammates. They knew that he had their back and they had his. So we wish Pap the best. He wished us the best. Wanted us to win it. That was his parting words. He was a big part of what we had accomplished already.”
Papelbon’s rapid descent into bullpen irrelevance mirrored his last few outings as closer, the ones that solidified the Nationals’ determination to pursue another option. He began the season adequately, navigating a base runner and blown save here and there, enough to warrant worry that he was not missing enough bats to anchor the bullpen when it mattered most. He showed some signs of fraying when he landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career with a strained intercostal muscle.
Though he came back stronger and with higher fastball velocity, Papelbon was scuffling by late July. He struggled so much in three straight outings the week before the trade deadline that Baker removed him in the middle of an inning against the Giants in San Francisco.
“His command was something that he relied upon the last three or four years of his career so far,” Rizzo said. “He was just missing his spots. When you miss your spots and you don’t have blow-away, swing-and-miss stuff like Pap hasn’t had the last couple years, you have to be very pinpoint, and he wasn’t.”
The Nationals acquired Melancon soon after, and Papelbon pitched twice more — both times in mop-up situations, both times with the same life on his fastball he’d had as a closer but none of the same life on the mound or in the clubhouse. His voice used to carry from the dining area through the clubhouse; his music would blare from the speakers. Over the past week or so, Papelbon was hardly heard. Papelbon used to wait until the late innings to move to the bullpen, a routine developed over 11 seasons as a closer. Last week, cameras caught him relaxing in the bullpen, seemingly sunning himself. But Rizzo, Baker and his teammates insisted that Papelbon’s work ethic and commitment levels did not change.
“I think he handled it like a professional, like he’s done everything else here,” Rizzo said. “He never wavered in the clubhouse. He never wavered in his commitment to the team. Every time he went out there, he pitched to the best of his ability.”
The Nationals acquired Papelbon from the Phillies at last year’s trade deadline for right-hander Nick Pivetta, a mid-range prospect who is seventh in the Class AA Eastern League in ERA. Papelbon had a no-trade clause at the time, one he agreed to waive in exchange for a deal through the 2016 season and promises of the closer’s job. His last two appearances with Washington came in games that were long out of hand, circumstances under which he had not previously been expected to pitch.
“It’s always going to be tough for somebody, but he couldn’t have handled it any better, and I truly mean that,” Max Scherzer said. “He’s a true professional in that regard. Look, he was struggling and we made a trade for a great closer. He completely was going to suck it up and accept his role to be a part of this team, do whatever he can to help fight for us and try to win, and ultimately win a World Series.
“He was 100 percent committed to that goal. There was no crying about it, there was no whining about it, there were no demands about it. He just wanted to be a part of this team. Unfortunately, some things went sideways and some other way, but when you talk about a veteran guy in this clubhouse and what he can do for us, he’s going to be missed.”
Papelbon’s Nationals career will include 26 saves in 31 chances, an 84 percent ratio not too far from what he maintained in Boston (88 percent) or Philadelphia (89 percent). But because he supplanted longtime National Drew Storen in the closer’s role, and came with a reputation, he was never fully embraced in D.C. — at least judging by nightly reactions of Nationals Park crowds. The tension around the acquisition grew when he put his hands around Bryce Harper’s throat on Fan Appreciation Day last September. He seemed uncertain to return after that incident, for which the Nationals suspended him into the offseason. Instead, they solidified his hold on the closer’s job by trading away Storen. Papelbon apologized for the incident, but later admitted that sometimes “perception is reality,” and that “there’s no magic formula to win over fans.”
“There’s been some rocky moments, but all in all, he’s completed about 84 percent of the save chances he’s had here,” Rizzo said. “He’s done it his way, and he’s a guy who gave us everything he had, every time out.”