Jul 28, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
There were moments over the last month or two, and especially in the last day or two, when the notion of Tyler Clippard returning to Washington sure sounded plausible.
The Nationals’ most-glaring need as Friday’s trade deadline approaches is for experienced bullpen help, preferably a guy who could help bridge the gap between the club’s starters and closer Drew Storen. And who better to fill that role than the guy who did it so well from 2009-2014, the guy who made two All-Star teams and became a favorite of both teammates and fans alike during his tenure?
So when word started circulating Monday that the Mets, and not the Nationals, were closing in on a deal with the A’s to acquire Clippard, tensions in D.C. began to rise. And when that trade became official early Monday evening, with New York sending Class A right-hander Casey Meisner to Oakland in exchange for Clippard, that “oof!” you heard throughout town was the sound of Nats fans taking a collective punch to the gut.
Not only is Clippard not coming back to Washington. He’s going to be pitching for the club that currently sits 2 games back in the NL East, trying to make a legitimate push for the postseason.
Which leaves the Nationals where, exactly? Truth be told, not in a much different place than they resided Monday morning.
Look, the re-acquisition of Clippard would have been a wonderful story. The ovation he would have received upon emerging from the right-field bullpen at Nationals Park next week would’ve rivaled just about any we’ve seen in a decade of baseball in the District. But that doesn’t mean it would’ve been the best move the Nats could make.
It’s easy to forget there’s a reason — actually, several reasons — Mike Rizzo traded Clippard in the first place. He was entering his free agency year. He was going to be making significant money via arbitration in 2015 ($8.3 million, as it turned out). The Nats weren’t likely to re-sign him to a long-term deal after the season. And there were some concerns within the organization his best days were behind him.
That last point has come true to an extent. Clippard hasn’t enjoyed a great season. He has still been very good. But not as good as he has been over the last five years. His strikeout rate is down (from 10.3 per nine innings with the Nats to 8.8 with the A’s) while his walk rate is up (from 2.9 per nine innings last season to 4.9 this season).
So, maybe the Nationals weren’t quite as high on Clippard as everyone hoped they’d be. Regardless, this doesn’t change the fact Washington still finds itself in need of bullpen help.
Where does Rizzo turn? Well, there appear to be two lines of thinking here…
1. Go get specifically what this bullpen lacks: Another reliable setup man. Clippard wasn’t the only one available. There’s still the Padres’ Joaquin Benoit, the Diamondbacks’ Brad Ziegler and the Rays’ Brad Boxberger, among others.
2. Go really big and get one of the elite closers currently being shopped around: Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel or Jonathan Papelbon.
The latter may sound strange on first glance, because the Nationals don’t need a closer. They already have one of the majors’ most-effective ninth-inning guys in Storen. But if you’re trying to improve a bullpen, what better way than to acquire one of the best relievers in baseball? We’ve seen Rizzo make these kind of moves before, adding Max Scherzer to a rotation that didn’t appear to need him at the time, adding Rafael Soriano to a bullpen that already was well-stocked in late-inning options.
So there would be more than some logic in the pursuit of Chapman, Kimbrel or Papelbon, some of that attributed to the simple fact each is under contract beyond this season (and we know how much Rizzo prefers to acquire players under control for multiple years).
The question becomes how much the Nationals are willing to give up for one of those closers. And rest assured, the price tag isn’t cheap. The Padres reportedly wanted Trea Turner back as part of a package for Kimbrel. Not gonna happen. The Reds want a whole lot for Chapman, and rightfully so. Papelbon, meanwhile, has a no-trade clause and made it clear he’d only accept a deal to a club that will let him pitch the ninth inning.
So there are no shortage of obstacles to overcome if the Nationals are going to pull off a blockbuster of that magnitude. Which still makes the addition of a setup man the more plausible scenario.
Either way, the clock is starting to run out. Trades are happening all across baseball right now, from Clippard to the Mets, Johnny Cueto to the Royals and Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays.
The Nats have 82 hours to figure out whether they want to join that party or not.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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