The Washington Nationals are reportedly shopping reliever Drew Storen and would be willing to keep Jonathan Papelbon as their closer instead. Here’s why that would be a mistake.
One of the biggest questions for the Washington Nationals heading into the offseason was the back end of the bullpen — specifically, the ninth inning. Much like the team itself, the ninth inning was grossly inconsistent for the Nationals in 2015, and the failure of the back end of the ‘pen was one of the many reasons the team failed to reach the postseason.
Drew Storen — who entered 2015 with the closer’s role firmly under his grasp — dominated in the first half of 2015 and was one of the best closers in the game during that span. At the non-waiver trade deadline, general manager Mike Rizzo made the controversial decision of acquiring Jonathan Papelbon from the Philadelphia Phillies — and it all went downhill from there.
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Papelbon, of course, took the ninth inning role from Storen, who subsequently forgot how to pitch, thus further propelling the Nationals into a second-half nightmare that made their dreams of another NL East title all but vanish by mid-August.
Indeed, Storen’s confidence plummeted after his demotion to the eighth inning role and he struggled mightily in the second half. He posted a dismal 8.49 ERA in 11 2/3 innings in August. In September, he pitched just five innings (with a somewhat improved 5.40 ERA) before breaking his hand after smashing it on a locker in frustration, bringing a painful and embarrassing end to a rough season. The trade, from Storen’s perspective, was a calamity. But it wasn’t pretty for Papelbon either.
Papelbon was solid in the ninth inning for the Nationals, but he wasn’t great. The veteran right-hander posted a 3.05 ERA and recorded seven saves in nine opportunities. While those are good numbers, Papelbon was anything but good for the Nationals, and his pitching wasn’t the problem.
The problem was that Papelbon choked his teammate, who happened to be the best player in the game last season. In one of the most embarrassing moments in team history, Papelbon let his emotions get the best of him during a heated argument in the dugout with Bryce Harper late in the season. After the two exchanged words, Papelbon lunged at Harper and grabbed his neck, creating an ugly picture that will forever define the 2015 season for the Nationals.
Papelbon was suspended without pay for the remainder of the season. Instead of turning the page on what was likely the ugliest moment of his career, he made the situation worse by filing a grievance against the Nationals for withholding his pay during his suspension.
The Nationals owe Papelbon $11 million next season, but he shouldn’t ever play another game in a Nationals uniform. The dugout skirmish not only ruined Papelbon’s image in the minds of Nationals fans, but it also symbolizes everything that went wrong for the Nationals in 2015.
Papelbon’s behavior has no place in baseball, and it certainly has no place on a team that is trying desperately to shake off 2015 as a fluke and return to its winning ways in 2016. And yet, it appears that the Nationals are willing to keep Papelbon on as the closer.
In a column yesterday discussing the latest Hot Stove news and rumors, Fox Sports insider Jon Paul Morosi reported that the Nationals are looking to trade Storen, with Papelbon likely remaining as the closer.
Here’s what Morosi had to say about the Nationals’ desire to trade Storen:
"“With Jonathan Papelbon projected to open the season as the Washington Nationals’ closer, the team is still trying to trade the man he displaced from the role, Drew Storen…the Nationals don’t appear to have room for Storen’s salary or arm in their 2016 bullpen, after adding Shawn Kelley, Trevor Gott, Yusmeiro Petit and left-hander Oliver Perez this winter.”"
It’s important to point out that Storen is not a great to be the Nationals’ closer right now. His performance in the second half of last season doesn’t exactly scream “promotion”, and his disastrous appearances in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs are still fresh on everybody’s mind. Furthermore, he’s set to hit free agency next winter and would be a costly part of the ‘pen for the Nationals in 2016.
Trading Storen makes perfect sense for the Nationals, or at least it did a few weeks ago when the team had other options for the closer’s role. When the Nationals were pursuing Aroldis Chapman, trading Storen made sense. When the Nationals were after Darren O’Day early in the offseason, trading Storen made sense. But all of those options only made sense because the Nationals would’ve been bringing in a new closer, which meant that Papelbon would’ve been on his way out as well.
As Ricky Keeler wrote here yesterday, the market for closers is all but inexistent right now and unless the team can pull off a surprising trade for someone like the Yankees’ Andrew Miller, the team is likely stuck with in-house options for the ninth inning role.
Now that the Nationals are virtually out of options for the closer’s role, it makes no sense to trade Storen. For the reasons stated above (and below), the Nationals simply cannot allow Papelbon to be the closer next season, and that’s exactly what would happen if they trade Storen and leave Papelbon on the roster for next season. Papelbon’s brief stint with the Nationals was a disaster, and choking the NL MVP — no matter how many times the two players have said they’ve moved on — will always be on his shoulders.
Part of the reason the Nationals floundered in 2015 was that team was full of distractions. Distractions with the manager, distractions with front office decisions, and distractions with the bullpen. That can’t happen next season — not if the Nationals want to win. The team needs to move on. They made a major step in the right direction by dismissing Matt Williams and bringing in Dusty Baker, but the team still has baggage from 2015 and Papelbon’s name is written all over it.
The beginning of a new year is a time to close the book on the previous one and look towards the future. For Rizzo and the Nationals, that means accepting the fact that the Papelbon trade was a disaster, and that nobody benefits from keeping him on the team. Trade him. If he can’t be traded, cut him.
Storen is not as accomplished as Papelbon, and his disastrous playoff appearances are concerning. Given how the front office has treated Storen over the past several years (see: Soriano, Rafael and Papelbon, Jonathan), he might not even want to pitch for the Nationals next season. But as of right now, he’s on the team, and he’s the best option the Nationals have.
The Nationals may yet find an answer for the ninth inning, and it may very well be someone other than Storen. In any event, the answer simply cannot be Papelbon.