4:54pm: Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports tweets that if the trade is completed, part of the agreement is that Papelbon will close for the Nationals, and he will be signed for the 2016 season. Presumably, that means that the Nationals will guarantee his 2016 option up front.
4:17pm: The Phillies and Nationals are “at the finish line” and “jumping through [the] final hoop” on the trade, reports Jim Bowden of ESPN and MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (Twitter links). The Nationals will send a Double-A pitcher to the Phillies in exchange for Papelbon. It’s unclear if any other pieces are involved or if the Phillies are including any cash in the deal.
3:42pm: Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com tweets that Papelbon does still have a locker in the Phillies’ clubhouse, though he has not arrived yet.
3:05pm: The Nationals are nearing a deal to acquire closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies, Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports on Twitter. Earlier today, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported that there was a deal in the works, but both Jim Bowden and Jayson Stark of ESPN reported that there were hurdles to be cleared before a deal was struck. It would seem, based on Svrluga’s report, that those hurdles have been addressed or are nearly cleared.
Among the roadblocks that needed to be resolved were Papelbon’s no-trade clause, his $13MM vesting option for the 2016 season and his adamant desire to remain a closer upon a trade to a new team.
The Nationals, of course, have Drew Storen pitching exceptionally well in the ninth inning this season, but if and when a deal is finalized, he seems likely to slide back to the eighth inning, returning to a setup role which he has handled with aplomb in the past. This season, Storen has saved 29 games and worked to a 1.73 ERA, averaging 10.9 strikeouts and just 2.2 walks per nine innings pitched.
A need for a late-inning reliever, then, might not appear to be a strong one for the Nationals, but the rest of the bullpen has been suspect. When subtracting Storen’s 36 1/3 dominant innings, the Nationals’ other relievers have combined to post a considerably less dominant 3.68 ERA.
Papelbon will unquestionably deepen the team’s bullpen, though he may not necessarily be an improvement over Storen in the ninth inning. However, if he does inherit the ninth, he’ll allow Nationals manager Matt Williams more flexibility when using Storen. Williams has deployed Storen, his best reliever, in the eighth inning just once this season, and he’s never used him for more than three outs. Whether or not Storen will be available in multi-inning (or at least four- and five-out situations) remains to be seen, but the Nats will now have a pair of relievers with sub-2.00 ERAs to close out the final two innings of the game.
For all the talk about Papelbon’s diminished velocity, he remains an elite reliever. He’s pitched to a 1.87 ERA dating back to Opening Day 2014, averaging 8.7 K/9 against 2.0 BB/9 in 106 innings of relief. Though he’s now averaging just over 91 mph on his heater, Papelbon has improved his control and become a significantly more ground-ball-oriented pitcher. His 51.9 percent ground-ball rate is the highest of his career and comes in a full 13 percent above his career mark of 38.9 percent. The result of his new approach on the hill has been a 1.59 ERA that would represent the second-best mark of his career and his best since 2006, were the season to end today.
Papelbon is earning $13MM in 2015, and about $4.9MM of that sum remains through season’s end. He’s already finished 34 games in 2015, leaving him 21 games shy of reaching the 55 games finished that are required for his $13MM option for the 2016 season to automatically vest — a highly attainable goal. While the option has long been considered a detriment to his trade value and may very well still be, the value of that option is hardly unreasonable in light of his recent excellence. In fact, Papelbon would almost certainly be in position to receive a much more sizable commitment on the free agent market were he to hit the open market at season’s end.