Last week, we opened our "What If?" series wondering what might have been had Jordan Zimmermann accepted the Nationals' long-term extension offer after the 2014 season, a decision that had long-lasting ramifications on the organization. This week, we look at a big decision the organization made the following summer that absolutely had immediate consequences for the club, and probably had long-lasting ones as well: The trade for Jonathan Papelbon.
Prepare to cringe.
As the 2015 trade deadline approached, the Nationals were in a good, but not great position. On the morning of July 28, they were 52-45, good for first place in the National League East but only two games up on the Mets, and only 1/2 game up on the Cubs for a berth in the NL wild card game.
General manager Mike Rizzo had assembled what he hoped would be a super rotation, paying Max Scherzer $210 million to lead the way ahead of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio GonzÃ¡lez and Doug Fister. Scherzer, though, was the only member of the group to thrive that season. Zimmermann, GonzÃ¡lez and Fister all regressed from their 2014 performances. Strasburg missed considerable time during the summer, first with a neck injury and then with an oblique strain.
The lineup also was good, not great. Bryce Harper was putting together an MVP season, but Anthony Rendon had missed a ton of time with a knee injury, Ian Desmond wasn't handling his contract year well. Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Denard Span all dealt with injuries, and Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa disappointed.
The club's focus at the trade deadline, though, wasn't on addressing the rotation or the lineup. It was squarely on a bullpen that had decent numbers, ranking 12th in the majors in ERA (3.39) and WHIP (1.25) but desperately needed another reliable, late-inning arm.
That arm didn't, however, need to be a closer, because Drew Storen was enjoying a dominant season in that role. The right-hander, shrugging off his October struggles from 2012 and 2014 and brief demotion to Triple-A in 2013, entered play on July 28 sporting a 1.73 ERA, 1.018 WHIP and 29 saves in 31 attempts. The Nats were 37-1 in games he pitched.
Rizzo, though, felt it wouldn't be enough to acquire a setup man. He believed he needed two dominant relievers with ninth-inning experience, and several elite closers were available. He inquired about Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, but the Padres and Reds wanted multiple top prospects in return, and Rizzo wasn't going to pay that price. So he set his sights on the third-best closer available: Papelbon, who had been a perfect 17-for-17 in save opportunities with a 1.59 ERA and 0.983 WHIP for the Phillies, and wouldn't cost as much.
At least, not in terms of prospects. The Phillies wanted pitcher Nick Pivetta, then considered the Nats' 10th best prospect. They also were willing to cover the remaining $4.5 million on Papelbon's 2015 salary. The catch: Papelbon had the right to veto the trade, and he made it known he would only agree to it if he was the closer and if the Nats picked up his 2016 option (though he did agree to knock the price down from $13 million to $11 million).
Rizzo agreed to those terms, and so it was the Nationals suddenly had a new closer heading into the season's final two months, with Storen bumped to the eighth inning.
It all sounded promising on paper, but what about the emotions of the people impacted by the trade? How would the notably, uh, intense Papelbon be welcomed into the Nats clubhouse? How would Storen (who didn't exactly deal with the addition of Rafael Soriano in 2013) handle this demotion?
Things actually started off well, with Storen pitching a perfect eighth and Papelbon pitching a perfect ninth to seal a 1-0 victory for Scherzer in Miami on July 30. But things began to turn sour a week later when Storen took the loss in back-to-back games against the Rockies and then gave up runs in his next two outings as well, his ERA skyrocketing to 3.40 in a flash. Papelbon didn't blow any saves early on, but he was far from crisp, giving up runs in three of his next four appearances.
And then there was an agonizing, three-game sweep at Citi Field that propelled the surging Mets into first place and left the Nationals chasing them the rest of the way.
You know what happened from there. The Nats lost 12 of 16, falling to 4 1/2, then eventually 6 1/2 games back in the division. A brief surge in early September got them back to within four games, setting up a huge showdown series beginning on Labor Day.
That series, though, signified the end of the road. The Nationals were swept by the Mets, giving up a late lead in all three games, with Storen and Papelbon each contributing to the final two losses. Storen was so upset with the situation that he broke his right thumb slamming the safe in his locker shut after leaving one of the games. His season came to an immediate end with 3 1/2 weeks to go.
Papelbon would remain on the active roster, but not for the entire 3 1/2 weeks. He would blow back-to-back saves in mid-September. Then he would enter with two outs in the eighth of a tied Sunday series finale against the Phillies, the Nats having officially been eliminated the night before, and record the final out of the inning. Harper led off the bottom of the eighth, hit a fly ball to shallow left field, casually trotted halfway down the baseline and turned back toward the dugout, where a furious Papelbon confronted him.
The teammate-on-teammate fight that ensued made headlines across North America, and it left everyone in a negative light. Some, though not all, questioned Harper's lack of effort. Most, though not all, believed Papelbon's actions were horribly wrong. And just about everybody agreed manager Matt Williams completely botched his handling of the situation, letting Papelbon re-take the mound for the ninth (he promptly gave up five runs) despite having just choked his teammate in the dugout moments earlier.
"He's our closer," Williams flatly said later. "In a tie game, he's in the ballgame in the ninth inning."
Williams' superiors felt punishment was deserved, though, and the following day suspended Papelbon for the season's final week. (Harper also was benched for one game.)
The Nationals limped through the finish line, winding up 83-79, seven games behind the Mets. And the morning after the season finale, Williams (the NL Manager of the Year in 2014) was fired with a year remaining on his contract.
The seeds for Williams' firing had already been planted prior to the dugout brawl, with veteran players having already lost faith in him earlier in the season. But the incident served as the final nail in his coffin, and his poor handling of it gave the front office ample justification for letting him go.
As much as some in the organization would've liked to rid themselves of Papelbon as well, that wasn't possible. Remember, Rizzo agreed to pick up his $11 million option at the time of the trade, so unless the club was willing to eat that salary, the combustible closer was going to have to return in 2016.
The Nationals had no such financial commitment to Storen, however, and that winter Rizzo traded the disgruntled reliever to the Blue Jays for outfielder Ben Revere, who proved to be a bust in his lone season in D.C.
Harper, of course, wasn't going anywhere, so he and Papelbon had to try to learn how to coexist, with new manager Dusty Baker trying to help foster a better clubhouse environment in the spring of 2016. In the end, it wasn't Papelbon's personality that ended his time with the Nats, but his performance. After he took back-to-back losses in late July, Rizzo acquired Mark Melancon at the trade deadline and made him the new closer. Within a week, Papelbon was released, never to pitch in the majors again.
So, what if the Nationals never traded for him in the first place? Would a quality setup man have been the better acquisition for the team and helped it stave off the Mets' furious charge and still win the division in 2015?
That may be too much to have asked for. That Nats team had other flaws, and that Mets team went on an unstoppable roll, no matter what drama was playing out in Washington.
But it sure would've altered the rest of Storen's career. Maybe he would've reverted to his shaky ways if thrust back into the October spotlight again, but his regular season numbers probably would've remained excellent, and the Nats wouldn't have had much reason to dump him at the end of the 2015 season.
And if the Nats had managed to hang on and reach the postseason? Maybe Williams wouldn't have been fired. Which means Baker never would've been hired.
We'll never know, of course. But when you look back through the history of the Nationals and pick out the singular moments that defined the organization both in the short and long term, it's hard to ignore the Papelbon trade and wonder what might've been had the controversial deal never gone down in the first place.