Thoughts on the Storen demotion and the Clippard comments

I was asked a number of times on Twitter last night what my thoughts are on both the Nationals’ decision to option Drew Storen to Triple-A Syracuse, as well as Tyler Clippard’s critical comments about the way the Nats have managed Storen dating back to this offseason.

There’s no way I could express those thoughts on Twitter in just 140 characters (that might take a couple of dozen tweets), but I certainly can do so here in a much more in-depth way. So let’s dive right in.

First of all, if we’re looking strictly at the roster move on its own here, I think it makes complete sense.

Storen has looked lost on the mound lately. He’d allowed either a run or an inherited runner to score in each of his last four outings and saw his ERA jump more than a full point to 5.95 in that time. Yes, Storen pitched with the flu and a 102-degree fever (according to his dad) yesterday, so I give him a pass for allowing three runs over 2/3 of an inning. The guy was legitimately sick, per multiple sources with knowledge of Storen’s health.

But the issues went far beyond that. Storen has been charged with at least one run or allowed an inherited runner to score in 18 of his 47 outings (38 percent) this season, and he was charged with multiple runs in nine of those games. He struggled mightily holding runners, and with his slow times to the plate, he was seeing opposing baserunners try and swipe bags with increasing frequency.

Storen started messing with his mechanics lately, going with a higher leg kick yesterday, but his issues were more than just on the physical side. Davey Johnson has been saying for weeks that Storen has been overthinking things on the mound. Catcher Wilson Ramos said he felt like Storen was losing confidence and saw things begin to spiral a bit once something would start to go wrong.

Going down to the minors will allow Storen to tinker with his mechanics and try and get back on track mentally in much less stressful environments with many fewer eyes on him. And that’s a good thing. The Nationals can move Ryan Mattheus into Storen’s seventh/eighth-inning set-up role and be just fine for now. The move itself was needed on multiple fronts.

As for Clippard’s comments, there are a number of different layers here.

First of all, I appreciate Clippard standing up for his friend and teammate and sharing his thoughts with such candor, and I don’t just say that as a reporter. In this day and age, where generic quotes and clichés are tossed around every single day to avoid conflict and controversy, Clippard said what he felt (not that that’s abnormal for him) and took a firm - yet fair - stance on things.

Drew Storen NLDS-blown-save.jpgThat said, while I agree with parts of Clippard’s take on the situation, I don’t agree with all of it. Personally, I don’t think the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano this offseason because of Storen’s blown save in Game 5 of the National League Division Series last year. I think what happened was general manager Mike Rizzo felt he had a team that was a legitimate World Series contender, he had money to spend and he wanted to give Johnson the most talented roster possible to work with.

On paper, the move would strengthen the bullpen as a whole, Rizzo thought, because it would put Storen and Clippard - two guys who have proven they can be effective closers - in the seventh- and eighth-inning roles. Things obviously didn’t work out that way.

Storen didn’t take well to the new role, either because he couldn’t handle the uncertainty of when he’d be pitching (as Johnson suggests was the case) or possibly because his confidence was shaken by the Soriano signing. Storen is a very smart, analytical guy and is very much a thinking man’s pitcher, and sometimes that can backfire on him when he starts getting in his own head too much. He might be affected by off-the-field stuff more than your average hurler in that regard.

It was tough enough for Storen to have to deal with the mental repercussions from the blown save in Game 5 of the NLDS. Having the Soriano signing thrown into the mix, might have created more questions and uncertainty in Storen’s mind about his future and how the Nationals felt about him.

Of course, Clippard was also used as the closer last season and he was also surprised to see the Nats go out and sign Soriano this offseason. He hasn’t let the signing or a change in role affect him negatively and has posted a 1.77 ERA this season. But he and Storen are very different pitchers in a lot of respects.

I don’t think the Nationals were trying to jerk Storen around or send him a message with the signing of a new, more established closer. But I also think it’s silly to believe that they aren’t culpable here at all. They had to know that making this move threatened to disrupt things in a negative way both on and off the field, and they went ahead and made the move anyway.

A signing like that can throw off a number of things within a team: clubhouse dynamics, team chemistry, morale, etc. It can lead some players to believe that management won’t support them when they hit a rough patch. And that’s not a good look for a front office to have.

Storen deserved to be sent down from a performance perspective and he needs to get back on track both physically and mentally. He’s talented enough that he shouldn’t need to be down in the minors long. But while I don’t think the Nats were wrong to look to improve their roster by signing Soriano this offseason, I agree with Clippard that the move didn’t send a great message to Storen.

And that might be a major reason why we’re talking today about a guy who saved 43 games two years ago being sent down to Triple-A.

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