The Nationals' move for Jonathan Papelbon fortifies their bullpen, while the Phillies clear out a distraction to focus on rebuilding.
The flurry of trades continues. In a 24-hour span that's already featured the Troy Tulowitzki-Jose Reyes shocker and the Royals’ acquisition of Ben Zobrist, the Nationals and Phillies have completed a swap that sends closer Jonathan Papelbon to Washington in exchange for Double A pitching prospect Nick Pivetta. The Phillies also sent $4.5 million cash to cover the remainder of Papelbon's salary, while the Nationals have effectively restructured his 2016 contract in exchange for waiving his no-trade clause. The move clears out an obvious distraction from a Phillies team focused on rebuilding and fortifies the bullpen of a contender whose bridge from the starters to closer Drew Storen has been somewhat shaky.
The 34-year-old Papelbon has pitched exceptionally well this year, the final guaranteed one of a four-year, $50 million deal he signed with Philadelphia in November 2011. He has converted all 17 of his save opportunities, his 1.59 ERA is his lowest mark since '06, and his rate of 9.1 strikeouts per nine is his highest since '12. He's been particularly durable, saving at least 29 games and throwing at least 58 1/3 innings in each of the past nine seasons, posting a 2.35 ERA, 2.58 FIP and 10.4 strikeouts per nine in that span and earning All-Star honors six times, including '12 and this year with the Phillies.
Amid the Phillies' belated decision to rebuild, Papelbon had more or less worn out his welcome in the City of Brotherly Love. He began agitating for a trade more than a year ago, calling his desire to pitch for a contending team “a no-brainer.” He then drew a seven-game suspension last September for a crotch-grabbing gesture directed at booing Citizens Bank Park fans that was followed by his making contact with umpire Joe West after he was ejected, an incident whose indelible image was re-purposed by one tabloid reporting the trade. In an only slightly more family-friendly response during the media day prior to this year's All-Star Game, he declared that the Phillies needed to “either you-know-what or get off the pot” with regards to moving him. Obnoxious, perhaps, but with the demise of the Phillies as a contending team having long been clear, his frustration at having not been traded already is at least understandable.
Complicating matters in trading Papelbon, however, was a contract paying him $13 million this year, with a $13 million vesting option that was to go into effect if he finished at least 100 games over the 2014–15 span (he's at 86 now). Additionally, a partial no-trade clause allowed him to block deals to 17 teams. The Cubs and Blue Jays made runs at acquiring him last month, but neither could close the deal. The Nationals, Phillies and Papelbon worked together to pull it off; according to The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, the Phillies are basically covering the remainder of Papelbon’s '15 salary, and the pitcher waived his existing '16 option, then agreed to a new contract worth $11 million for next year with $3 million of that deferred until '17. According to Fox Sports's Ken Rosenthal, such a move passes muster with the players' union because he exchanged one benefit (salary) for another (the guarantee).
Via Rosenthal, the Nationals also agreed that Papelbon would take over closing duties with his new team. That part of the move has to feel like déjà vu all over again for the 27-year-old Storen, who is in the midst of a strong season himself and by some measures even stronger than the man who's replacing him. Entering Tuesday, he was 29 for 31 in save opportunities, boasting a 1.73 ERA, 1.91 FIP and a career-best 10.9 strikeouts per nine in 36 1/3 innings.
A 2009 first-round pick by the Nationals out of Stanford, Storen saved 43 games for them in 2011, but he missed the first half of '12 after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow. He didn't regain the closer's job from Tyler Clippard until late September of that year and blew the save in the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series against the Cardinals, turning a two-run–ninth-inning advantage into a two-run deficit. Against both Yadier Molina and David Freese, Storen was one strike away from closing out the series, but he walked both, opening the door for a four-run rally. The Nationals were eliminated, and that winter, general manager Mike Rizzo signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal. Soriano saved 75 games in that span, but he pitched so badly in the second half that Storen reclaimed closer duties in early September 2014; he finished the year with a 1.12 ERA, 2.71 FIP and 11 saves in 56 1/3 innings.
Papelbon is the one with the longer resumé, however, one that includes 27 postseason innings with a 1.00 ERA and series-clinching saves for the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS and World Series. Who can forget his infamous celebratory river dances? His arrival deepens the bullpen considerably by pushing Storen back into a setup role alongside lefty Matt Thornton, allowing manager Matt Williams to take some of the pressure off righties Aaron Barrett and Casey Janssen. The 27-year-old Barrett has whiffed a team-high 11.2 per nine, but thanks in part to a .344 batting average on balls in play, his ERA is roughly twice as high as his FIP (4.21 and 2.13, respectively), and he recently missed a month with a biceps strain. The 33-year-old Janssen has extensive experience as a closer himself, but he spent the first quarter of the season on the disabled list due to shoulder inflammation and has struck out just 6.3 batters per nine in his 21 1/3 innings since returning, though he’s been effective overall (2.95 ERA, 2.69 FIP).
As a unit, the Nationals' bullpen ranks seventh in the league in ERA (3.39), and fifth in both FIP (3.29) and strikeout rate (8.5 per nine). The team entered Tuesday with a 52–45 record, good enough for a two-game lead in the NL East but still short of the expectations that they would run away from the pack given the strength of their rotation.
According to Svrugla, “Pap was backup.” The Nationals touched base with the Padres on Craig Kimbrel and the Reds on Aroldis Chapman, but the price was too high—two prospects from among a group that included shortstop Trea Turner, pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Joe Ross and rookie outfielder Michael Taylor, who’s been pressed into regular duty with the Nationals due to the injuries of Jayson Werth and Denard Span.
As for the Phillies, owners of the majors’ worst record at 37–63, 24-year-old Ken Giles will take over closing duties. A seventh-round 2011 pick who made his major league debut last June, Giles has posted a 1.85 ERA with 11.1 strikeouts per nine in 43 2/3 innings this year, though his walk rate has nearly doubled, from 2.2 per nine last year to 4.1 per nine. He placed fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2014 after putting up a 1.18 ERA in 45 2/3 frames.
The 22-year-old Pivetta, the prospect heading to the Phillies in the deal, is a British Columbia native who was was the Nationals' fourth-round pick out of New Mexico Junior College back in 2013 and their 10th best prospect coming into the season according to Baseball America and 12th according to ESPN. He began the year at Class A Potomac, where he posted a 2.29 ERA with 7.5 strikeouts per nine in 86 1/3 innings. Recently promoted to Double A Harrisburg, he's been roughed up for a 7.20 ERA in three starts, but scouts love his 6'5", 220-pound frame and the downward plane on his mid-90s fastball, though his future success depends upon his ability to maintain his arm slot. Back in the spring, FanGraphs's Kiley McDaniel had this to say about him:
He sits 92–94 and hits 96 mph with a slider that’s slurvy but above average at times, along with a curveball and changeup that are fringy. Pivetta has a durable workhorse frame and low miles on his arm as a Canadian that’s become a legit prospect in the last couple years. He’s a control over command guy that has a chance to stick as a back-end starter if he can be more consistent…
Recent prospect rankings had Pivetta behind Giolito, Ross, Lopez and A.J. Cole among Nationals' pitchers, marking him as the type of piece appropriate for such a deal, particularly since he wasn't likely to help the big club this year, whereas Ross and Cole have both made starts for the team.
Given the number of injuries the Nationals have had to contend with, this probably isn’t their last move before the July 31 deadline, and likewise for the Phillies, who could trade Cole Hamels in the coming days. Still, this looks like a reasonable deal for both sides, one that strengthens the pitching of a contender while setting a downtrodden team further on its way to rebuilding.