NASHVILLE — In response to news that Jonathan Papelbon filed a grievance against his employer over docked pay relating to his September suspension, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo tried to play down the dispute Monday, calling it simply “business.”
“It’s not personal between Papelbon and the Nationals,” Rizzo said, speaking to reporters during the first day of Major League Baseball’s winter meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
Papelbon and his representatives filed the grievance against the Nationals soon after the team suspended the closer for four games without pay for fighting and grabbing the throat of star outfielder Bryce Harper in the dugout during a Sept. 27 game. Harper was held out of the next day’s game for his role in the incident, while Papelbon’s four-game suspension cost him about $284,000 of his $13 million salary for 2015.
The main argument of Papelbon’s side is that there is no precedent for a team-issued suspension over such an incident. Rizzo said the Nationals knew the day after issuing the penalty that Papelbon would file a grievance.
A grievance hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled but could occur in the spring, when most of the people involved, including Nationals players, will be in the same place at the same time.
“We’re not going to talk about the grievance process at all,” Rizzo said. “Suffice to say that Pap’s a part of this team. He’s on our roster. He’s a really good late-inning pitcher, had a great career, and we’re glad he’s on the club and can’t wait to see him closing out games again.”
Rizzo’s rosy public comments about Papelbon could be seen as a way to calm a delicate situation and preserve the reliever’s trade value. Last month, Rizzo commended Harper for making a phone call to Papelbon to put the issue behind them. Rizzo said he didn’t view the grievance as a way for Papelbon to orchestrate a way out of Washington.
“This is something that’s a business move,” Rizzo said. “The union does this routinely. It’s not our first grievance that we’ve had. Most of the time, these things are handled professionally and amicably.”
Even though the Nationals were divided internally about trading for Papelbon, his acquisition before the July 31 trade deadline — and the subsequent issues — is seen as one of the focal points of the team’s second-half slide. Some within the organization believe both Papelbon and Drew Storen could be elsewhere next season.
“They’re both highly talented, extremely competitive, very good relief pitchers,” Rizzo said, countering the notion that it may be difficult to have both relievers in the same bullpen next season. “If that’s the eighth and ninth inning guys, we’re comfortable with that.”
The relief market is thinning out as the offseason progresses. The best free agent reliever, Darren O’Day, who was also a top target for the Nationals, reportedly agreed to a four-year, $31 million deal to stay with the Baltimore Orioles. Ryan Madson struck a deal with the Oakland Athletics and Joakim Soria with the Kansas City Royals. According to reports Monday, the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to a trade with the Cincinnati Reds for all-star closer Aroldis Chapman, who has drawn the Nationals’ interest in the past, though that deal was apparently in jeopardy after reports surfaced later Monday that Chapman was involved in a domestic violence incident.
One potential option, according to a person familiar with the situation, if the Nationals part with Papelbon and Storen: New York Yankees closer Andrew Miller, who is owed $27 million over the next three years. The Yankees need infielders and starting pitchers and could part with Miller.
Papelbon would be challenging to trade for multiple reasons: He is expected to make $11 million in 2016 and has damaged relationships with the three teams he has played for. But, according to a person familiar with the situation, between six and eight teams have inquired about Papelbon.
The Nationals would conceivably have to eat a good portion of Papelbon’s salary to facilitate a deal. Rizzo acknowledged that the Nationals would be flexible if they did orchestrate a trade of Papelbon.
“There’s no rules that we have to adhere to,” he said. “We’re not running anybody out of town. . . . We don’t have to move anybody if we don’t want to. There’s no money constraints on us.”
Papelbon’s situation has another quirk: As is his right in his contract, he recently updated the list of 12 teams he would accept a trade to without blocking. But if the Nationals were to have a trade lined up, his limited no-trade provision isn’t expected to be an issue, according to a person familiar with the situation.