The Papelbon Trade Explained

The Nats made a big deadline deal and we're here to break it down accurately and answer some of the most pressing questions.

Yesterday the Nats acquired Jonathan Papelbon for AA pitcher Nick Pivetta and installed him as their new closer. Since Papelbon has been in MLB forever and has been closing for the rival Phillies for a few years now I’ll assume you all know who he is and what he can do, likely around a top 5 closer in MLB right now. So let’s move on and copy Vox and do an explainer on the deal.

1. The Nats really need bullpen help

This is something I think everyone can agree on: the Nats bullpen (outside of a few bright spots) has been awful this season. Here’s a quick breakdown of the pen over the last four seasons by my three favorite stats for measuring bullpens WPA, RE24 and WPA/LI, since these three take into account the situation in which the relievers made their appearances and handle the small sample sizes better.

Two of those seasons the Nats won 96 and 98 games, those are not the seasons when their bullpen underperformed (2015 of course hasn’t finished yet).

The Nationals for their part have seen the problem all season long; 18 different players have made a relief pitching appearance for the Nationals. One of those guys was Clint Robinson, so that’s 17 pitchers, eight of them rookies. The last three seasons the Nats have used 12, 15 and 14 different relievers, so they’ve never used this many relievers during the time they’ve been a good team.

The Nats needed bullpen help and clearly couldn’t find it in their minor league system, hence the need for a sure fix that wouldn’t just be thrown in the pile of guys to test out.

2. He cost a lot less than Chapman or Kimbrel

Papelbon only cost the Nationals mid-level at best prospect Nick Pivetta, while the Phillies chipped in some money and Papelbon took a discount on his 2016 salary. Here’s what our prospect guru Sean Hogan has to say about Pivetta:

“Nick Pivetta, despite already reaching AA at the age of 22, is still a bit of a project. He throws fairly hard (generally 91-94 mph, touching 96) and mixes in three secondary options in his slider, curve, and changeup that show potential but are inconsistent. For a guy with decent stuff, he doesn't pile up the strikeouts (career 6.8 K/9), and he's had occasional struggles with the longball (career 0.8 HR/9) and walks (career 3.0 BB/9). Command both is and isn't an issue for the 6'5" Canadian righty, as he locates the ball well horizontally, but leaves the ball up at times (resulting in the aforementioned home runs). There are a lot of righthanded pitchers in the Nats organization with more upside, and while he can develop into more than just a prospect, he probably ends up as a middle reliever or back of the rotation starter.”

As a known prospect hater Pivetta is a guy I don’t think about letting go twice. Someone who struggles to crack an organizational top 10 isn’t a guy I’m going to count on. This is a prospect that was made to be traded in a deal like this.

It’s also far away from the price the Nationals would’ve had to pay for a slightly more talented reliever like Kimbrel or Chapman. It might also be less than a less talented reliever like Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler or Joaquin Benoit, or at least about the same. In simpler terms, this was the best the Nats could get when considering value over cost and a team with World Series aspirations should be maxing out on that at the deadline.

3. This isn’t about Drew Storen

As much as people want to make this some referendum on Drew Storen it isn’t. The Nats and everyone else know Storen is an excellent reliever and one of the best in baseball, but the rest of the pen needs some help and the best way to help is to add another great arm. Mike Rizzo said he talked to Storen before the trade even went down, likely to tell him the same thing. Storen isn’t the target of this trade, he’s an unfortunate casualty and I think any educated evaluator recognizes that.

The only real cited downside for Storen is that he would lose money in arbitration, but that seems like a specious claim considering the recent example of Tyler Clippard. Clippard was eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2012 and got $1.65 million before garnering 32 saves and getting a raise to $4 million his second year. Despite getting just one more save in the following two seasons, Clippard’s salary rose to $5.9 million and then $8.3 million making him the ninth highest relief pitcher in baseball. Storen is at $5.7 million in his third year and added 29 saves this year, he’ll probably line right up with Clippard and get top-10 level money. His financial future is fine.

It is certainly disappointing to move from closer to set up guy, but some of the best relievers in baseball right now like Kansas City’s Wade Davis, New York’s Dellin Betances and the aforementioned Clippard and Benoit aren’t closers. The Nats needed pen help to have their best chance at a World Series and Storen should hopefully be able to put his ego aside to help the team win.

4. Improving the top of the pen improves the bottom of the pen too

This point goes hand in hand with the previous one. It’s a pretty simple concept that many have seemingly failed to grasp, if Papelbon slots in at the top that moves all of the other relievers down a level. So now you have an elite Storen pitching the eighth, a great combo of Janssen and Thorton in the seventh, Carpenter and Rivero to handle early and trailing innings and Roark to do a little bit of everything.

By improving at the top the Nats have killed two birds with one stone. No more relying on Aaron Barrett or Blake Treinen to pitch important (or any) innings. Not to forget that many relievers can be acquired in post-deadline August deals, like Thornton was last year. By giving up such a pittance for Papelbon, the Nats freed themselves up to add on again in August if one of the above is looking like a liability leading up to the stretch run.

But why not just add at the bottom, you ask? Because relievers who pitch at the bottom of the pen are much more unstable and a lot harder to count on, as the Nationals have already learned this year. The Nats have plenty of guys battling it out to take one of the last two spots in the pen, they really don’t need to throw in more guys into that problem, they need to reduce the number of spots they have.

5. Maybe he’s a jerk, but I’m not ready to commit to that

This is the hardest argument against Papelbon to dispute because it’s pure personal opinion. I’m not a moralizer and I can’t tell you how to feel about a person. I also admit that Papelbon hasn’t made it easy for people to like him.

But I will say this: many fans of other teams hate Bryce Harper because he’s a jerk. And many Nats fans were dead set in their belief that Yunel Escobar was a malcontent that would ruin the clubhouse, but now love him. I don’t think it’s fair to judge a guy when you don’t know them and while we still barely know the guys who are on the Nats, it has still helped to see what guys do when they’re here.

I hope you can give the guy a chance and I hope that we can separate the fan perspective from the team. While I want to root for good guys, I won’t say that Rizzo made a bad baseball deal for getting a supposed jerk. And don’t forget, winning can cure a lot of ills. Many will likely be cheering for Papelbon if he’s waving to the crowd on Independence Avenue in late October.


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