The Washington Nationals have had a weird season. They had a nasty run of injuries — Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg all missed significant time. That’s pretty rough.
Ian Desmond stayed healthy, but he has declined from a good big league shortstop to replacement level in one year — he has a .273 on-base percentage, still strikes out like crazy, and by the stats and the eye-test he has been playing below average defense. Huge problem.
On the other hand, Bryce Harper has emerged into the superstar that everyone anticipated — he’s your top MVP candidate at the moment — and Max Scherzer has mostly been a star as the Nationals ace, and Drew Storen, after an emotional few years, had settled beautifully into the closer’s role. Put it all together and it certainly wasn’t ideal, The Nationals have been massive underachievers no matter how you look at it.
But it still seemed like they would be good enough. On July 22nd, Storen closed the door on the Mets by striking out the side in a 4-3 victory. That was his 29th save and it gave the Nationals a three-game lead in the National League East.
And then Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made what I believe is the dumbest trade of the season, one of the dumbest in recent memory. He traded a Class AA pitcher for 34-year-old closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Why is the move dumb? Well, first, there’s the obvious baseball stuff: The Nationals already had a fantastic closer. Getting Papelbon has meant shifting a hurt and angry Storen to the eighth inning, where for the first two weeks he has been terrible. Papelbon is a brash and traditional closer, in the fullest sense of those words, which means he has made it clear you only use him when you are leading by one to three runs going into the ninth inning. That schedule has meant he has thrown exactly four innings for the Nationals in the last two-plus weeks. The trade shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a closer — especially a closer like Papelbon — brings to the team.
Put it this way: A few years ago, one of the game’s great baseball executives told me after a similarly ill-fated closer trade: “If you think you’re a closer away from being a contender, you might want to reevaluate.”
But, more than the baseball incoherence here, there’s the horrible smell of a trade like this. Drew Storen is one of the most popular guys on the Washington Nationals. He’s a homegrown talent, and he has been through everything with this organization. He emerged just as the Nationals become a power. He had that heartbreaking postseason performance against the Cardinals in 2012 and he obviously carried the scars into the next season when he really struggled. He worked his way back in 2014, pitched brilliantly all season, only to blow a save in the ninth inning against the Giants and pitch a shaky ninth inning later. One more time, he had to fight his way back.
Then, this year, he was the closer from the start, and he owned it, and this was one of the few good things happening for the Nationals. On June 22, after he blew away the Mets, the league had hit one homer against him all year, he had a 44-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his ERA was 1.73. Storen wasn’t just a baseball story, he was an uplifting human story about overcoming, the kind of story that carries throughout the clubhouse and the city.
And to ignore all that and trade for a mercenary closer with two months left in the season? That’s the sort of small-time and cold-hearted thing the greedy executive in a terrible baseball movie does. You can see the movie exchange between the earnest manager and the heartless GM.
Manager: “But Drew’s our guy! He’s grown up with this organization.”
GM: “Can’t chance it. He’s blown games for us. We’ve got to get a proven guy.”
Manager: “I think this will break Drew’s heart.”
GM: “I’m not in the hearts game, buddy. I’m in the winning game.”
I recently did a quick video where I mention that there’s still a lot of season left and I predict that the Blue Jays will indeed overpower the Yankees the rest of the way but the Nationals still have too much talent to lose to the Mets. I just don’t trust the Mets to score enough runs.
Since I did the video, the Mets have taken a 4 1/2 game lead and the Nationals look completely lost. The overall point I was making remains — there’s still a long way to go in this season, and I do believe the Nationals have more talent than the Mets. As I said in the video, if the baseball season is a marathon we still have seven or eight miles to go.
But as I watch that Nationals team bumble around even as they finally get healthy, I can’t get it out of my head that Mike Rizzo — a guy who I think has done a nice job overall — really blew it with that Papelbon deal. The Mets play with a beautiful sense of purpose. The Nationals slog like the bloated and overpaid team they’ve become.