The Nationals entered the trade market yesterday to add Jonathan Papelbon from the division-rival Phillies. Before moving on Papelbon, the Nationals looked into both Craig Kimbrel of the Padres and Aroldis Chapman of the Reds, Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports on Twitter. But the team moved on when it was quoted an asking price of two top young players (from among Trea Turner, Michael Taylor, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Joe Ross). It’s no surprise, then, that the team moved on to Papelbon — who was a “backup” trade target, per the report.
Here’s more on the deal:
- In exchange for Papelbon (and for keeping $4.5MM of his contract), the Phillies will get righty Nick Pivetta. Per Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs, the righty has a good arm and frame that bodes well, though he has the upside of a back-of-the-rotation starter. If he can’t reach that level, though he figures to be a middle relief piece down the line. ESPN.com’s Keith Law largely concurs in that assessment, noting that Pivetta lacks significant upside. It’s easy to see, then, how the deal made sense for both clubs: the Phillies could use a mediocre starter at the back of their rotation, while the Nationals have enough current and future options to make that a largely unnecessary luxury.
- The move generated some controversy, owing to the fact that the club reportedly promised to use Papelbon as its closer despite the presence of high-performing reliever Drew Storen. The thrice-deposed 9th-inning man declined to say much about the move, but did indicate that he and his agent are having ongoing discussions with GM Mike Rizzo. As Svrluga writes in an even-handed take on the matter, it’s clear that Storen did not deserve to be demoted out of the ninth inning. But the club also had a valid desire to bolster its late-inning relief corps, and adding Papelbon was a good piece for the team to add. As he notes, teams have increasingly recognized the value of filling high-leverage innings with quality arms, regardless of who actually takes the closer role.
- Jonah Keri of Grantland writes that the trade checks plenty of boxes for the Nats at a reasonable cost. In spite of the off-field risk involved with replacing Storen, it seems to Keri like a worthwhile gamble.
- Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports argues that the Nationals have shown a lack of confidence in replacing Storen. He says that the move might be more palatable had the club added a clearly superior pitcher, such as Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel, but suggests that bringing in a similarly effective reliever was something of a slap in the face to a player that the Nats drafted and developed.
- From my perspective, adding Papelbon says less about how the Nationals feel about Storen than it does the club’s desire to maximize the impact of a bullpen addition with a minimal expenditure of resources. As Rosenthal has observed (Twitter link), Washington seemed reluctant to add significant salary obligations to this year’s payroll at the deadline. It likely would have cost more in salary, prospects, or both, to add a different arm that could simply be slotted into a set-up role. And the team may well have ascribed some value to adding a player with Papelbon’s late-inning and big-game experience, whether or not that was tied to Storen’s own spotty track record in very limited postseason innings. It’s true that Storen did not “deserve” to lose his role, of course, and that he’ll sacrifice some earning capacity through arbitration with the lack of save opportunities. But we see such moves happen all of the time from clubs looking to save money, make upgrades, and otherwise improve their short and long-term position. While the clubhouse aspect and Storen’s feelings certainly should factor in the team’s decisionmaking, then, I’m not sure there’s a compelling fairness point to be considered.