Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo must be a paper guy.
He’s trusting that Jonathan Papelbon’s addition will cover the Nationals’ bullpen deficiencies, but not rock the clubhouse or cut out Drew Storen’s heart.
Dealing with paper – the way a team looks when viewed as a list of names and statistics – is easy.
But that doesn’t factor messy emotions such as anger, envy and fear into the equation, which can add measures of volatility to a GM’s handiwork. Moves that harm a popular player’s standing, cause the clubhouse to take sides or upset the mix of personalities can shred the best-laid plan like a pair of sharp scissors.
That’s the risk Rizzo took in trading for Papelbon and giving him Storen’s job as closer.
It’s a risk worth taking.
Storen has a right to be upset, to feel betrayed and undermined. Give him a day or two to get over it. Then it’s time to live out the words Rizzo spoke after the trade was announced.
“That news is difficult to take,” Rizzo told reporters in Miami Tuesday night. “He took it like a pro, and he’s gonna be professional in the clubhouse and on the mound.”
The last time he was demoted, in 2013, Storen’s professionalism was unquestionable. But his performance stunk. Still reeling from losing the closer job to Rafael Soriano after blowing the lead in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series, Storen had a 5.95 ERA when he was sent to the minors in July.
He has been rock-solid ever since, reclaiming the job from Soriano last September … only to relinquish another postseason lead the following month.
So no matter how good Storen looks during the regular season, trepidation arrives when the calendar flips to October. He brought that on himself and has to live with it until he kills it.
Whether he gets a chance to vanquish his demons in a Nats uniform is uncertain. Papelbon is signed through 2016 and Storen hits free agency after that season. Judging by his initial comments, Storen might not want to stick around until and probably doesn’t feel great about potentially being here long term.
“I’m aware of the move and I’ve talked to Mike about it,” he told reporters. “I’ve talked to my agent about it. We’ve had some ongoing discussions. Until those have progressed, I’m just going to leave it at that. No comment for now.”
He was the Nats’ best reliever this season (29-for-31 on save attempts with a 1.73 ERA) and still might retain that distinction, even with Pap on board. But Storen is no longer the closer, instead shifted to a setup role that should make the bullpen stronger.
Great starters and a great closer can be wasted if there’s an unstable bridge between them. Guys at the end of the bullpen get the glory, but not without gutsy outings from fellow relievers in the seventh and eighth innings. Those outs can be as stressful as the final three.
Having an elite-level closer for the eighth and another for the ninth makes the game that much shorter, a winning formula dating back to at least 1996, when Mariano Rivera was setting up John Wetteland for the Yankees. More recently, the AL champion Kansas City Royals have used Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland to put a padlock on the last two innings.
You can argue that Papelbon was selfish in insisting that he remain a closer as a condition of accepting a trade. You might think he’d be content to play for a contender instead of the woebegone Phillies, owners of baseball’s worst record.
But his resume gave him leverage over Storen. Papelbon is 12th on the all-time saves list (342) and third among active pitchers. His postseason ERA is 1.00 (compared to Storen’s 8.44) and he recorded important outs – including the last one – during Boston’s World Series title in 2007.
Aside from the ego stroke of remaining a closer, Papelbon had a financial interest as well. He needed to finish just 14 more games this season to trigger a $13 million option for 2016. Rizzo guaranteed the option at a slight discount, presumably making Pap “the man” next year, too.
“Papelbon is our ninth-inning pitcher,” Rizzo told reporters. “Drew will pitch the ninth inning at times when Papelbon is not available.”
Our head says the team is better with Papelbon in the pen, regardless of who pitches when.
Our heart feels for Storen, who has been virtually lights-out the past two seasons.
Paper wins for now.
But it needs to do likewise come October.