Jul 29, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
Take the names and reputations out of the equation and consider for a moment the basic facts of what happened yesterday: The Nationals acquired one of baseball’s best closers of the last decade, a 6-time All-Star and World Series champion in the midst of a dominant season, giving up only a second-tier prospect while convincing the trading club to pick up nearly all of his salary for the rest of this season and convincing said player to accept a $2 million pay cut for next season.
Shouldn’t everybody be doing cartwheels down South Capitol Street right now?
Perhaps some people are, but it sure seems like the vast majority are wholly upset by the trade Mike Rizzo consummated Tuesday afternoon with the Phillies. Why? Because of the names and reputations of the affected parties, which are impossible to ignore.
The Nationals didn’t merely do everything outlined in the earlier paragraph. They traded for Jonathan Papelbon. And bumped Drew Storen from the closer’s role for the second time in three years.
And that’s what left so many people so uneasy Tuesday as details of this deal slowly trickled out before becoming official around nightfall. They’re uncomfortable with Papelbon’s reputation (whether that’s warranted or not) and they’re uncomfortable with the idea of Storen losing his job yet again despite not having done anything to merit a demotion.
In a purely baseball sense, this is a brilliant move by Rizzo. He identified his club’s biggest need (an inconsistent and inexperienced bullpen) and proceeded to acquire a big-name reliever who immediately makes that unit better than it was 24 hours ago. Now the Nationals have not only an All-Star-caliber closer but an All-Star-caliber setup man as well, a formula that typically pays big dividends come October.
Trouble is, you can never truly evaluate these things from a baseball sense and nothing but a baseball sense. There are human beings involved, and so it’s never as simple as it appears on paper.
How will this trade be received within the Nationals’ clubhouse? And more importantly, will that translate in any way to what happens on the field?
Which is why the key to this entire transaction has little to do with the guy who was acquired, the guy who was dealt away or the money involved. No, the key to this transaction is the guy already on the roster who now must find a way to swallow his pride, accept a lower-profile role and keep being as effective as he has been all along.
Papelbon is going to be just fine. He’s an excellent closer with a rock-solid track record for pitching the ninth inning in big games, owner of an 88.6 percent career save conversion rate that ranks sixth-best among anyone with at least 200 saves. He managed to go a perfect 17-for-17 in save opportunities with a horrid Phillies club the last four months. There’s no reason he can’t continue to pitch that way now with a contending Nationals club.
The real question is how Storen handles all of this. The point has been made before, but it needs to be made again now: He arguably has been the best reliever in baseball over the last two calendar years. Since returning from his brief demotion to Class AAA Syracuse in the summer of 2013, he owns a 1.37 ERA. That’s the best mark of any MLB reliever who has pitched at least 50 innings. (Papelbon, for what it’s worth, ranks 24th on that list with a still-impressive 2.07 ERA.)
Storen worked really hard to recapture that form after his well-known blown save in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS and subsequent disaster of a half-season following the Nationals’ signing of Rafael Soriano. He did not handle that situation well, not even close, and it took quite awhile for him to get past it.
Now, the Nats are asking him to do it all over again. And this time, after four months of pure brilliance pitching the ninth inning, with 29 saves in 31 opportunities, a 1.73 ERA and a 44-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
It’s impossible for Storen to view this trade as anything but a vote of no confidence from his bosses in his ability to close out games in October. There’s no debating his ability to close out games from April through September. October, however, has been a different story. Not that there’s a particularly large sample of work, but Storen’s postseason resume includes one save in three chances, three clean innings to begin the 2012 NLDS but three shaky innings since.
Rizzo and the Nationals certainly have the right to be concerned about that. But if they were that deeply concerned about it, they also had the right to trade Storen at any time over the last three years. Instead, they twice have chosen to make bold, unexpected acquisitions that suggest their faith in their homegrown closer is something far less than complete.
It’s easy to say that Storen — or anyone placed into this scenario — just needs to suck it up and go pitch well, no matter his official role. And in some respects, yes, that’s exactly what he needs to do.
But again, these aren’t robots taking the field every night. They’re not statlines, either. They’re human beings. They have human emotions. And if they can’t channel those emotions into positive performances on the mound under immense pressure, nothing else matters.
Storen’s remarks to reporters after last night’s loss in Miami certainly suggested he’s not 100 percent on-board with the Papelbon trade. And there certainly must be a part of the 27-year-old that at this point would prefer to move on and pitch the ninth inning for someone who does convey full confidence in him.
But that’s not going to happen, at least not until this season is over. The Nationals acquired Papelbon not because they needed to swap closers, but because they needed more quality relievers.
They now have two of the best in the game taking up space in the same bullpen. How the guy who just saw his role reduced for the second time in three years handles all of this will determine whether Rizzo’s latest bold maneuver was a stroke of genius or the impetus for disaster.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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