His arrival sent incumbent closer Drew Storen into a spiral of ineffectiveness, his most notable moment in uniform was an attempt to choke National League MVP-in-waiting Bryce Harper, and now he’s drawn his release as his team streaks towards the postseason. Jonathan Papelbon’s tenure with the Nationals is over, and while he’s likely to resurface with another team, his days as a closer may be done, too.
The 35-year-old Papelbon’s fall from closing for the NL East leaders was a swift one. Through July 23, he had converted 19 of 21 save opportunities, pitching to a 2.56 ERA and 2.98 FIP with 8.2 strikeouts per nine despite an average fastball velocity that slipped to 91.7 mph, 0.4 below last year, according to Brooks Baseball. To that point, he had thrown seven straight scoreless outings with 10 strikeouts since returning from a three-week absence due to a strained right intercostal muscle. Over his next five appearances, however, Papelbon was rocked for nine runs and allowed 14 out of 24 batters to reach base; in the first three of those, he failed to finish the job in the ninth inning before being pulled. His struggles pushed his ERA to 4.37; during his 54-week tenure in Washington, he had a 3.86 mark, with a 4.16 FIP and a dip to 7.2 strikeouts per nine.
On July 30, general manager Mike Rizzo traded two players to the Pirates for closer Mark Melancon, who immediately supplanted Papelbon as closer and has converted his first three save chances with the Nationals. Papelbon pitched just twice after that deal, on Aug. 1 and 6. The team planned to designate him for assignment to make room for rookie Reynaldo Lopez, who started on Saturday, but because that process could have taken as many as 10 days to complete, Papelbon requested his immediate release, and Rizzo granted his wish. The Nationals will be on the hook for the remainder of his $11 million salary minus a portion of the prorated minimum if another team picks him up.
Even with Papelbon’s recent slide and reputation for disruptive behavior, he’s a low-cost move for any contender with bullpen issues, particularly with a bit of rest and a mechanical tweak or two. Here are five that stand out, listed alphabetically.
Trevor Rosenthal began the season as closer but stunk on ice, losing the job to Seung-hwan Oh in late June and landing on the disabled list in late July due to inflammation in his shoulder and his frightful ERA and walk rate (5.13 and 7.3 per nine, respectively). He recently received an injection of platelet-rich plasma but won’t be back until the end of this month at the earliest. Righty Jonathan Broxton has been lit up for a 6.92 ERA since June 29 in high-leverage duty and is now carrying a 4.53 ERA and 4.26 FIP for the season, and lefty setup man Kevin Siegrist is dealing with a dead arm. Suffice it to say that St. Louis could use another setup option if it's to hold onto the second wild-card spot.
In the run-up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Chicago overhauled its bullpen considerably by acquiring closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees and adding lefty Mike Montgomery and righty Joe Smith as well. But last week, the Cubs lost setup man Pedro Strop to a torn meniscus in his left knee; he underwent surgery last Thursday and will miss four-to-six weeks. What’s more, the sidearming Smith has allowed three homers in 3 1/3 innings since being acquired and has yielded a .294/.371/.424 line to righties this season after smothering them for most of his career. Righty Justin Grimm (4.26 ERA) has been nothing to write home about despite whiffing 10.2 per nine. Righties Smith, rookie Carl Edwards Jr. and displaced closer Hector Rondon were responsible for surrendering late-inning leads to the Cardinals on Saturday and Sunday.
A reunion with Theo Epstein, who was Boston’s GM when the Red Sox drafted Papelbon in 2003, makes sense. Former teammate Jon Lester is among those who has endorsed the move, telling ESPN, “I don’t have anything but good things to say about him as a clubhouse presence, a clubhouse personality, a closer, a pitcher, a teammate—all the above.”
Miami's playoff hopes took a pair of hits this weekend with the losses of Giancarlo Stanton for the season and Adam Conley for at least the next 15 days due to tendinitis in his right middle finger. Even before that, the team was dealing with the absence of closer A.J. Ramos, who went on the disabled list retroactive to Aug. 6 due to a hairline fracture near the knuckle of his right middle finger. Fernando Rodney, who has converted all three save chances since Ramos hit the DL, nonetheless has a 5.31 ERA and 5.06 FIP in 20 1/3 innings since being acquired from the Padres. Righties Kyle Barraclough and David Phelps have pitched well in higher-leverage duty (though Phelps has been shifted into the rotation thanks to injuries there), so Papelbon wouldn’t necessarily be needed as a setup man, just as a depth piece.
Though their .580 winning percentage is the AL’s second-highest, the Rangers own the league’s worst bullpen ERA, FIP (both 4.75) and strikeout rate (7.0 per nine). Closer Sam Dyson has pitched to a 2.53 ERA, saving 26 out of 29 opportunities, and Texas just acquired Jeremy Jeffress from the Brewers in the Jonathan Lucroy trade, but neither misses many bats. While setup men Tony Barnette, Matt Bush and Jake Diekman have pitched well, some additional depth would certainly be welcome.
Papelbon pitched for the Red Sox from 2005 to '11, earning All-Star honors four times and helping them win the 2007 World Series, and he could be a fit with his original team. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who wasn’t part of the organization during Papelbon’s run, called the situation “worth looking into.”
Since the All-Star break, the Red Sox bullpen has a 3.89 ERA, 13th in the AL, and a 4.02 FIP. Closer Craig Kimbrel is still trying to return to form after missing 25 days due to surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Junichi Tazawa recently returned from a bout of shoulder impingement and has a 3.89 ERA after being lit up for a total of four runs and three homers while retiring just four batters in back-to-back outings last week. Koji Uehara, who has pitched to a 4.50 ERA, is on the disabled list with a strained pectoral muscle and only recently returned to throwing; if he returns, it won’t be until sometime in September. Carson Smith is out for the year due to Tommy John surgery, and lefty Fernando Abad has been hit hard since being acquired at the trade deadline. Papelbon wouldn’t need to recapture his past glory to provide a boost here.