The Major League Baseball playoffs begin this week, and the Washington Nationals will not be participating. This is somewhat surprising considering that before the season started, it seemed inevitable that the team would win the National League East, if not the World Series. Heck, I even conceded the division to them.
When a season goes as wrong as this one did, people start looking for scapegoats. First on that list was manager Matt Williams who was fired last week. Nationals fans have also directed much of their ire at another man: Jonathan Papelbon
When the season began, Papelbon was the closer for the Philadelphia Phillies, and pretty much nobody was happy with the arrangement. When Papelbon signed with the Phillies before the 2012 season, the team was coming off five straight division titles. He expected that winning to continue, and as the team dropped out of contention, he expressed his dismay with comments like, “I didn’t come here for this.”
The team seemed just as sick of Papelbon as he was of them. They were paying him a lot of money, but having an expensive closer on a bad team isn’t a good combination. Unfortunately, that hefty salary – along with his sometimes abrasive personality – made him near impossible to trade, even though he continued to pitch well.
This year, with Papelbon’s deal nearing its end, a trade became a more realistic possibility. Especially when a certain would-be contender found itself in dire need of relief help.
As of late July, the Nationals were in first place, but with only a two game lead over the Mets, their position was far from secure. There were many reasons why the team didn’t live up to expectations, but one of the most glaring was their bullpen. Closer Drew Storen was having a good year, but all the other relievers were struggling.
The Nationals thought that if they traded for Papelbon, they would then have two solid late inning relief options. The problem was that neither Storen nor Papelbon wanted to give up the prestigious closer role.
Due to a clause in his contract, Papelbon could block any trade the Phillies tried to make. He insisted that he remain closer no matter where he was traded to, so the Nats had to agree to that before they could make a deal. They eventually promised Papelbon he would handle the ninth inning, and sent a minor league pitcher to the Phillies in exchange for his services.
The trade might have worked out well, except soon after being bumped from the closer role, Storen went into complete collapse. In 19 post-trade appearance, he gave up 16 runs, and blew three saves. After the final blown save, he punched a locker in anger, breaking his thumb, and ending his season.
I’ve never been a fan of Storen. Maybe it’s because he’s had notable failures in the two postseason series in which he’s appeared, but I just don’t feel that he’s very good. Even though he had been successful early in the season, I actually thought it was wise for the Nationals to supplant him.
Some Nats fans claim that Storen would have been fine if they left him as the closer. But if a guy isn’t mentally tough enough to handle being removed as the closer, do you really trust him in a postseason game; especially when he’s already failed in that situation before?
For his part, Papelbon pitched well after coming over. Sure, there were a couple of blown saves, and yeah, he might have tried to choke the team’s best hitter, but aside from that, he was good.
Oh, right…the choking thing.
Remember how I said that the Phillies weren’t huge fans of Papelbon’s personality? The Nationals quickly learned why.
When the Nats played the Orioles in September, Orioles slugger Manny Machado hit a home run and apparently celebrated a bit too much for Papelbon’s liking. Papelbon decided to address this by throwing at his head the next time he came up. The other Nationals players weren’t thrilled about this. Bryce Harper complained, realizing that he would likely be thrown at the following day in retaliation.
A few days later, Harper hit a routine fly ball to the outfield. Like most major leaguers, Harper didn’t run all out on the play, understanding that it was almost certain to be caught. Apparently, this lack of total hustle didn’t sit well with Papelbon who made some comments as Harper returned to the dugout. When Harper said some things back to him, Papelbon grabbed him by the throat.
Between the post-trade collapse and his attempts to choke out the one Nationals player who actually exceeded expectations this season, Nationals fans have developed a strong dislike for Papelbon. Some of them think that had the team not traded for him, the Nats would have won the division.
Blaming Papelbon for the team’s failures ignores the fact that this Nationals team had quite a few problems. Thanks to their supposedly stellar starting rotation, this team was expected to breeze into the playoffs. However, every member of the rotation disappointed to some degree – including staff Ace Max Scherzer. Scherzer had a fine enough season and even pitched two no-hitters, but during the month of August, when the team was desperate for a shutdown performance, he came up small.
The offense also deserves a share of the blame. As is their habit, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman spent a good chunk of the season on the disabled list, and didn’t play all that well when healthy. Most of the other hitters also suffered through sub par seasons. The team ranked 3rd in the National League in runs scored, but that was mostly due to Harper who delivered an MVP-caliber performance.
Fans could also blame team management for compiling a bullpen that was so bad that they needed to make a trade. The bullpen was viewed as a weakness before the season started, and they certainly lived up to that expectation. (Hey, at least someone on the team did!)
Despite all those problems, most fans still think it was mostly Papelbon’s fault. Just think how they’d feel if he hadn’t pitched well!
The bad news (as if this season wasn’t bad enough) is that the Nats likely won’t be able to improve much this offseason. A few key players are due to hit free agency, and thanks to the already high payroll commitments, it seems that at least a couple of them will depart.
But don’t worry, Nats fans, there is some good news: Papelbon is still under contract for another year, so at least you’ll have a good closer next season!