Jonathan Papelbon was not an experiment of any kind
Everyone keeps referring to the trade that brought Jonathan Papelbon to Washington last year as an “experiment.”
I don’t know what the hell they are talking about.
You give up nothing a little-known prospect named Nick Pivetta for a six-time All-Star closer who had 342 career saves including World Series championship saves in Boston. You acquired a closer who was having a standout year in Philadelphia, with a 1.59 ERA and 17 saves and the all-time franchise saves mark. You got a closer who you didn’t have to pay a dime to the rest of the 2015 season and, although pricey at $13 million ($1 million less than Washington was paying Rafael Soriano the year before), you had him under contract through 2016.
This closer was replacing the closer, Drew Storen, who had blown two of the biggest postseason moments in Washington Nationals history. A closer who, upon being replaced, maturely responded by breaking his finger after slamming his locker following a September loss to the New York Mets.
Compare that to Papelbon’s response upon being told he was being replaced by Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mark Melancon a few weeks ago. His biggest crime was getting a tan in the bullpen. And, contrary to what critics want to report, Papelbon didn’t ask to be released until he was told by the Nationals he was going to be designated for assignment.
Now who is the bad teammate here?
You brought in Papelbon, who in his first 16 postseason appearances, did not give up one run, to replace Storen, who, after being traded this winter by Washington to the Toronto Blue Jays, found a DFA in his locker a lot quicker than Papelbon had. Storen was cut by Toronto after going 1-3 with a 6.21 ERA in 38 appearances. He was then traded to the Seattle Mariners, where he has continued to struggle, giving up four runs in seven innings of relief.
In baseball cities, a closer who blows two postseason moments like Storen did gets run out of town.
Yet there are some Nationals fans who believe Storen was some sort of victim.
The Papelbon trade was an experiment all right whether or not you could possibly, if this team had managed to make the postseason in 2015, send out a closer in save situations that would have forced his teammates to cover their eyes and get on their knees and pray. Because you would have to search long and hard for someone, from the front office to the clubhouse, who wanted to see Storen with the ball in the ninth inning of another playoff game.
Now that would have been an experiment.
This notion that it was some sort of experiment, I guess, is based somehow on “clubhouse chemistry” and, of course, the idea that many lazy or offended brethren of mine have put forth that Papelbon was some sort of “clubhouse cancer.”
He wasn’t even a benign growth.
The truth, however it may disappoint the Papelbon critics, was that he was a well-liked and respected teammate wherever he played. I talked to former teammates in Boston and Philadelphia where he served as a mentor to the young Phillies pitchers and all said that he was a great teammate, not just a good one.
And in the short time he had been in Washington last season even after he choked MVP Bryce Harper in the infamous dugout scene at the end of the year Papelbon was considered a good clubhouse presence by his Nationals teammates.
Or, as one National privately told me after the choking incident, “You don’t hear a lot of players here complaining about him, do you? He is respected in the clubhouse.”
You heard teammates and manager Dusty Baker echo those comments upon the news Saturday of Papelbon’s release.
“He was a great teammate,” Baker told reporters. “He was popular with his teammates. We wish Pap the best and he wished us the best. He wanted us to win (the World Series). Those were his parting words.”
Max Scherzer spoke for his teammates about the level of respect for Papelbon in their clubhouse.
“He’s not a distraction whatsoever,” Scherzer said. “He comes in to play every single day, he works his absolute tail off and he competes on the mound for us. All that stuff, last year ... just media circus. We were 100 percent behind him. We understood all his intentions. He was great for our team. He was great for everybody in this clubhouse. To sit here and say he’s a bad teammate or anything like that, it’s garbage to me.”
So this “experiment” that failed because it upset clubhouse chemistry “garbage.”
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo traded for Papelbon because he knew he couldn’t go into another postseason with Storen and look his players in the clubhouse in the eye. He had been trying to upgrade the closer role since the 2014 Storen failure. That winter he tried to trade for Craig Kimbrel, but the Atlanta Braves did not want to deal the ace closer within the division. Kimbrel, now with the Boston Red Sox, was traded by the Braves to San Diego in April 2015.
But he was handcuffed by ownership, who had given orders at the trading deadline last July not to add payroll. That he managed to pull off a deal under those restrictions for a reliever with Papelbon’s credentials was hardly a failure. It may not have worked, but that doesn’t mean it was some sort of failed experiment at least not until he choked Bryce Harper.
It was over after that. A fan base that was predisposed to hating him because of his reputation, his obnoxious style, and replacing their fallen hero, Storen, now saw Papelbon as public enemy number one. They had every right to, given he attacked their favorite player.
But those same fans would have held a parade down South Capitol Street for Aroldis Chapman, the closer who was suspended for 30 games this season after allegedly choking his girlfriend and firing eight shots in the garage of his Davie, Florida, home this winter, if he had come to Washington during the trade deadline.
He didn’t. Mark Melancon did. Maybe he can be the one who finally buries the legacy of Storen.