The Washington Nationals traded for Jonathan Papelbon on July 28. They already had a good closer, Drew Storen. Storen arguably could have been an All-Star, but his spot was taken by Papelbon, who served as the Philadelphia Phillies’ mercy representative in the Midsummer Classic. When Storen made his final appearance as the Nationals’ designated closer on July 29, he had a 1.69 ERA and had not allowed a single run in the month of July. He had been nearly flawless the entire season, with only two blown saves in 31 opportunities. Minus the three runs he allowed in mop-up duty to the Tampa Bay Rays on June 16, Storen would have had a sub-1.00 ERA at the time Papelbon entered the picture.
Storen was having a good season, and he was not pleased that Papelbon would be assuming the closer’s role, something that was guaranteed to him as a condition of accepting a trade from Philadelphia to Washington. Storen and Papelbon, however, said all of the right things. Storen accepted his demotion and all seemed fine. The Nationals had a two-game lead as the trade deadline passed and two of the best relievers in the National League to record the final six outs of every win.
How did that play out?
Not according to plan. The Nationals are now seven games behind the New York Mets, swept in their home park with Storen playing a starring role in each of the losses. I’m no sports psychologist (although I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night), but Storen is a broken man, utterly defeated on the mound and incapable of effectively locating his slider. Yoenis Cespedes taking Storen deep last night to give the Mets a 4-2 lead was about as far from shocking as a go-ahead home run can be. Since August 6, Storen’s ERA has climbed from 1.52 all the way to 3.44. He’s taken the loss twice, and blown the lead twice more in games where he was not the pitcher of record. Two nights ago, as the Nationals blew a 7-1 lead, Storen walked three batters and allowed a hit while using 22 pitches to record just one out. Of those 22 pitches, only seven were strikes.
In hindsight, it’s very easy to say that the Nationals should have stuck with Storen as their closer and added a good middle reliever like Tyler Clippard. Storen had done nothing to warrant losing his job, and the Nationals got greedy, or so goes the conventional wisdom. However, when you have an opportunity to add one of the best postseason closers in recent history, you pull the trigger on that deal every time, especially when all it costs you is a middling minor league pitcher. It’s not as if Storen has been lights-out in the postseason for his career. Papelbon has. The addition of Papelbon should have made the bullpen in Washington stronger, giving them perhaps the best one-two punch in the league.
That’s not how it worked out, and now the trade for Papelbon looks like subtraction by addition. That does not mean it was the wrong move. Predicting Storen’s epic collapse would have been impossible. At the end of the day, though his confidence may have been shaken by the “demotion,” it remains his job to take the mound and get outs no matter the inning. Had Storen been able to do that, there would be no further discussion of the trade, and the Nationals could very well be the team holding a lead in the NL East.