An in-depth look at the Nationals’ acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon, two big returns and a victorious series at the Marlins.
Game 1: 4-1 loss on Tuesday night (July 28)
Game 2: 7-2 win on Wednesday night (July 29)
Game 3: 1-0 win on Thursday afternoon (July 30)
What I liked:
1. A major addition – The Nats on Tuesday night announced a) the acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon from Philadelphia for pitching prospect Nick Pivetta and b) that the Nats and Papelbon had agreed on a contract for 2016. Matt Williams confirmed that Papelbon would serve as the Nats’ closer with Drew Storen moving to the set-up role. Multiple reports emerged that a) the Phillies had agreed to include $4.5 million to cover Papelbon’s remaining 2015 salary and b) Papelbon had agreed to take a pay cut in 2016; instead of the original $13 million he was likely to get via a vesting option, he will instead get $11 million, $3 million of which is deferred to 2017.
The first thing to acknowledge is that getting Papelbon instantly upgraded the Nats’ bullpen. He has been a terrific reliever throughout his career and, though he is in his age-34 season, especially good the last two years. Papelbon came to the Nats this year with a 239 ERA+ (which would rank as his best for a season since 2009) and his best strikeout rate in three seasons (9.1). His velocity is down from his peak years, but this is still one of the top 10 relievers in the majors right now.
The next thing to look at is what the Nats gave up. Pivetta was a fourth-round pick of the Nats in 2013 and was rated as the club’s 10th-best prospect by Baseball America. The better closers who were available via trade, Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman and San Diego’s Craig Kimbrel, likely would have commanded far steeper prices. In fact, the Reds and Padres each wanted TWO of the Nats’ top prospects (shortstop Trea Turner; pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Joe Ross; outfielder Michael A. Taylor) according to The Washington Post. Neither Chapman nor Kimbrel was worth that kind of cost, especially when Papelbon could be had for a good-but-not-elite prospect.
Now to the Storen issue. He has been the Nats’ best reliever in 2015, during which he has done nothing to warrant being moved out of the closer role. If you want to hold his postseason failures against him, fine, but the larger sample of the regular season has told us that Storen is very good. Ideally, Papelbon would come here and serve as the set-up guy. But he had leverage thanks to the no-trade clause in his contract and the fact that the Nats needed bullpen help. Storen wasn’t happy about being moved to the set-up role, and he shouldn’t have been. But blame guys like Aaron Barrett, Blake Treinen and Tanner Roark. If they and others had been better this season, then this trade is never made.
Storen initially struggled after the Nats signed Rafael Soriano to be the new closer in 2013 but was ultimately very good in the set-up role and got back the closer’s job in 2014. It’s a small sample, yes, but Storen tossed a perfect eighth inning in each of the final two games of this series. Relievers’ obsessions with being “closers” as opposed to “set-up men” is one of my biggest pet peeves. The save is a flawed statistic. Games often are more in danger in seventh or eighth innings as opposed to ninth innings. A high-leverage situation can occur at any point. I get that closers are generally paid more than non-closers, but as we saw with the praise that Kansas City’s relieving trio got last postseason or the contract Andrew Miller got from the Yankees last offseason, people are opening their eyes to the value of non-closers.
All things considered, thumbs up on the trade.
2. Two more big returns – Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman both returned from lengthy absences in Game 1. Werth had missed 61 games due to a broken left wrist. Zimmerman had missed 49 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Their returns came off Anthony Rendon’s return on Saturday night off having missed the previous 23 games due to a left quadriceps strain.
3. Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Michael Taylor – They combined for 13 of the Nats’ 21 hits in the series.
Zimmerman went 4-for-11 with a walk, blasting a solo homer for Game 3’s only run and also providing two doubles.
Harper went 5-for-10 with two walks, blasting a three-run homer and a solo homer in Game 2. He now has reached base in 26 straight games and 45 straight road games.
Taylor went 4-for-8 with two walks, blasting a solo homer in Game 2.
4. Max Scherzer’s start in Game 3 – Scherzer, who had struggled in two of his previous four outings, was back to the Mad Max we know: seven scoreless innings, six strikeouts, just three hits, three walks and a wild pitch given up. What maybe says the most about Scherzer’s season is this: the three walks were a season high and matched his TOTAL over his previous eight starts.
5. Doug Fister’s start in Game 2 – A step in the right direction. Fister had his best start in more than a month, giving up two runs in six innings on just four hits and a walk.
6. The bullpen – Almost as one final reminder of the need for bullpen help, Sammy Solis gave up a run on two singles and an intentional walk in the bottom of the seventh of Game 1. But Nats relievers combined for 6 2/3 scoreless innings the rest of the series. Papelbon tossed a perfect ninth in Game 3 in his Nats debut.
What I didn’t like:
1. The offense overall – The Nats batted just .219 (21-for-96), including going 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Props, though, for the seven walks in Game 1.
2. Jordan Zimmermann’s start in Game 1 – Technically this was a “quality start,” but three runs in six innings translates to a 4.50 ERA, and there’s nothing “quality” about that. Zimmermann allowed eight hits and two intentional walks and was pulled after just 76 pitches.