For all the conjecture and angst among Nationals fans at the moment, this much is inarguable: A Washington team with Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen is better than the Washington team that took the field in Miami on Tuesday night, clinging to a lead in the National League East while the New York Mets made improvements both in their lineup and in their own bullpen.
That’s what should matter more than anything else, feelings and emotions and psyches included. Drew Storen, of course, is the aggrieved party here, the likeable and effective closer who has spent this season doing absolutely nothing wrong. But the Nationals’ deal for Papelbon on Tuesday means they have added the piece that the fan base clamored for and the club most needed, a lockdown reliever who better equips the bullpen not only for now, but for October.
That he’ll likely pitch the ninth inning, rather than the eighth — why should that matter?
Of course it does, and how Storen handles the addition of Papelbon will be a key element in how this works out. “Everybody in the bullpen wants to be the closer,” Storen told me last year. “Who doesn’t want to be?” It’s how baseball has worked over the past generation. They didn’t play “Enter Sandman” for the Yankees’ setup guy. They played it for Mariano Rivera. That’s the order of the world.
But we also know that such thinking is being tweaked, if not completely overhauled. Whenever someone spoke of the Nationals’ bullpen to this point in the season, he or she would bring up the Kansas City Royals circa October 2014 — not by way of similarities, but by the stark differences. The chic thing to think, to say: A dominant bullpen leads to wins in playoff series, and the Nationals have won, to this point, zero (0) playoff series.
“We feel we’ve got two terrific, elite ninth-inning guys that can close out games in pressure situations,” General Manager Mike Rizzo told reporters in Miami. “. . . And I think we’ve got a bullpen that can really shut down opposing teams.”
That couldn’t be said before Tuesday. So here comes Papelbon, removed from his greatest glories — back with the 2007 Red Sox, when he recorded the final out of the World Series — but an established closer, still. In 11 seasons, he has a 2.32 ERA and 342 saves, including 17 in 17 opportunities this year. Is he infallible? No. Indeed, his last postseason appearance came in 2009, when he blew a two-run lead in the ninth against the Angels in what became the Red Sox’s elimination game.
So Papelbon is a piece, not a savior. Is this impending demotion completely fair to Storen? Of course not. Storen’s narrative here is part of Nationals’ lore, part of the pain that is necessary to make a baseball town a baseball town — a strike away from retiring Yadier Molina, then David Freese and the Cardinals to end the 2012 National League Division Series, then Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma and the rest of the misery, misery that surely resulted in the Nationals’ ownership-driven signing of veteran closer Rafael Soriano — from whom Storen took the closer’s job last September, only to give up a lead in Game 2 of the division series against the Giants.
How Storen handled that 2012 disappointment in 2013 is well known: He fell apart. But since being sent to the minors to remake himself that summer, he has made nary a misstep. His ERA in 2014-15: 1.36. The only reliever Storen’s number isn’t better than during that span: Wade Davis of the Royals.
How apt. Davis may be the best reliever in the game. He’s certainly a symbol of what Kansas City has built. In the two seasons since he went to the bullpen full time, he has a 0.78 ERA, a 0.837 WHIP and has struck out 159 hitters in 114
And you know what inning Davis pitches?
The reality, for Storen, is that there’s a financial impact to moving from the ninth to the eighth. He is making $5.7 million this year and has one more season in which he’s eligible for arbitration before free agency. Based on his performance to this point — 29 saves in 31 opportunities, a 1.73 ERA that is inflated by a three-run homer he allowed in what was a 16-1 ballgame — he will get a raise, and after 2016, he will be paid handsomely as a free agent. But in baseball’s economic system, saves matter. Closers make more than setup men.
But with the development of Davis and the Yankees’ Dellin Betances, with the fact that Royals Manager Ned Yost himself chose setup guys Darren O’Day of Baltimore and Kelvin Herrera of his own team as all-stars this summer, that could be changing. Pittsburgh’s Tony Watson, who sets up all-star Mark Melancon, was an all-star a year ago. Modern statistical analysis would preach that it’s no more difficult to get outs in the eighth than it is in the ninth, particularly if the meat of the order happens to come up then, and it’s possible that, eventually, dominant eighth-inning men — or seventh-inning men, or whatever — will be compensated similarly to closers.
Whatever the personal financial ramifications, there’s no arguing that Rizzo could have kept his bullpen intact and not faced the real risk of losing the division to the Mets, who added erstwhile Nat Tyler Clippard to their own bullpen — even as the moronic Jenrry Mejia was suspended for 162 games for another PED violation — and added veterans Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson to a flagging lineup.
With October all that matters to this team, Washington’s bullpen, before Papelbon’s arrival, included a hodgepodge of guys who haven’t yet been there (Sammy Solis and Felipe Rivero), guys who have and have struggled when they reached that month (Aaron Barrett and Storen), and those trying to claw back to where they once were (Casey Janssen, David Carpenter, Matt Thornton). Nearly four months into the season, there has been no discernible flow — until Storen in the ninth.
Now, how do those roles feel? Does it seem better to have Barrett or Janssen pitch the seventh rather than the eighth? Might Solis and Rivero, promising lefties, find more success — and therefore more confidence — getting outs in the sixth? Suddenly, guys go from being asked to do more than they can handle to being overqualified for their roles. That’s exactly the kind of tweak this bullpen needed.
There is one final question, and that is the matter of Papelbon’s attitude and influence — cancerous at worst — in the clubhouse. Reports on Tuesday indicated that the veteran would not have approved a trade to Washington had he not been assured of closing, and that, in a word, seems selfish. Yes, he had a vesting option in his contract based on finishing 100 games in 2014-15, and he needed just 14 more to get there.
But this Washington clubhouse is for big boys, and because these are likely to be the last two (or three) months this group plays together, there is only one thing that matters: winning. Rock that ship, and Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman and now even Max Scherzer will put you in your place.
Will Storen be upset about all this? Likely. No, absolutely. But let’s think about it logically, too.
“It’s not like I get a ‘C’ patch sewn on my chest,” Storen told me last year. “You’re a reliever. You have to get three outs. That’s it.”
That’s what should matter to these Nationals, with the loftiest goals in mind: getting the outs. Who gets them when does not.