Drew Storen’s 8th-inning dominance shows why Papelbon deal had to be made


From the moment the Washington Nationals acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Philadelphia Phillies, it became abundantly clear that several things had to happen for the deal to work out well for the Nationals.

For starters, Papelbon had to succeed as the team’s closer. He had to do it without tearing apart the bullpen chemistry or that of the entire Nationals clubhouse, and he had to make the team better than it was before they acquired him. But for the deal to be considered a success for the Nationals, something else had to happen, and it had nothing to do with Papelbon. For the Nationals, the biggest wildcard in this deal was former closer Drew Storen.

As we know, Storen lost his job as the Nationals’ closer when Papelbon made pitching the ninth a prerequisite for any deal sending him to Washington. It’s not the first time Storen has lost the closer’s job, but it’s definitely the most painful for him because, this time around, he had done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

Prior to the trade, Storen was having the best season of his career. The right-hander had already recorded 29 saves while boasting a 1.73 ERA—a number that would be significantly lower had it not been for one, meaningless outing in which he gave up three runs in a non-save situation earlier this season.

Indeed, Storen was having one of the best seasons of any closer in the game and—had he continued to pitch the ninth inning for the remainder of the season—he likely would’ve ended the year with well over 40 saves.

Unfortunately for Storen, his peers weren’t getting the job done nearly as well as he was. As the team approached the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, the one glaring need the Nationals had was the bullpen, which had been inconsistent all season long.

So, general manager Mike Rizzo addressed the problem by trading for Papelbon. And while the deal has probably been criticized more than any trade Rizzo has made during his tenure as general manager, it had to be made to strengthen the ‘pen as a whole. After all, what’s the point of having an elite closer if the rest of the bullpen isn’t good enough to get the game to him?

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Of course, the deal was lousy for Storen. He had done nothing to deserve a demotion and ultimately had to pay the consequences for the incompetence of some of his fellow relievers. At the end of the day, however, the trade made the Nationals’ bullpen better. But for the deal to work out how Rizzo and the Nationals wanted it to, Storen had to overcome the disappointment of losing the closer’s role and continue to be the dominant reliever he’d been all season long for the Nationals. And although it’s been less than a week since his demotion, that’s exactly what he’s done so far.

In the four innings he’s pitched since losing the closer’s role, Storen has retired all 12 batters he’s faced. The right-hander hasn’t allowed a hit or a run, but the most impressive part of his game has been his command. Not only has Storen not walked a batter, but of the 35 pitches he’s thrown in that span, only three have been called balls. Three.

Since he lost the closer’s role, Storen has seen his ERA drop to 1.56 and his opponent’s batting average drop to .194. Now, none of this is to say that the switch turned Storen’s season around. As I said earlier, Storen was already having a fantastic year as the closer and has been roughly as dominant as he’s been in the last week for most of the season.

But what Storen’s recent numbers demonstrate is that the unfair and seemingly unavoidable demotion didn’t affect his game. In fact, it seems to have lit a fire under him that has led the right-hander to a level of greatness on the mound that we’ve never seen from him. As the Nationals’ eighth-inning guy, Storen is scorching hot and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. And while some may argue that Storen’s recent dominance just further proves that he belongs in the ninth inning, it actually only demonstrates why the trade for Papelbon had to be made and how much the success of that trade depended on Storen’s reaction on the field.

As I said earlier and as many others have pointed out, the Nationals weren’t looking for a closer when they acquired Papelbon. They didn’t need one. What they did need, however, was to improve the bullpen as a whole. And by acquiring Papelbon, the Nationals now have one of the best closers in baseball pitching the eighth inning and another one pitching the ninth.

Fans will undoubtedly continue to criticize the deal, but it gives the Nationals an asset that few teams in baseball can claim to have. As many have pointed out since the deal was made, the Nationals didn’t just acquire a great closer in Papelbon—they also acquired a great setup man in Storen.

This is why the deal had to be made, and this is why its success depends on Storen just as much as it depends on Papelbon. Storen could’ve reacted in several ways to the trade; he could’ve let his obvious and understandable frustration affect him on the mound; it could’ve ruined his confidence and caused him to struggle to the point that manager Matt Williams wouldn’t have been able to count on him for the eighth inning, let alone the ninth. That, of course, would’ve been the worst case scenario for the Nationals since it would’ve defeated the point of trading for Papelbon in the first place.

But, so far, that has not been the case. Storen has been lights out since the demotion has hasn’t allowed whatever his feelings are about the trade to affect his performance on the mound. Storen may very well finish the season as the best reliever in the National League and pace Papelbon in almost every relevant statistical category except, maybe, saves. If that’s the case, you might say that the Nationals will regret having demoted Storen midway through a career-year. But if you ask me, I think that’s exactly how Rizzo and the Nationals wanted it.

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