In a Q&A with fans last week, Washington Nationals' Vice Chairman and Principal Owner Mark Lerner tried to explain the Nats' thinking when it comes to Jonathan Papelbon, who was involved in the much-publicized dugout altercation with NL MVP Bryce Harper last September. Papelbon was suspended by the Nationals, and dropped his appeal of a suspension from Major League Baseball over a hit-by-pitch on the Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado, with the seven games total he received (four from the Nats, three from MLB) effectively ending his season in the nation's capital.
There are rumors that the Nationals are attempting to trade Papelbon this winter, after acquiring him in a pre-deadline deal last July, but so far the veteran closer, who is owed $11M for 2016 (some of it deferred to 2017), remains on the Nationals' roster.
"Why haven’t you cut Jonathan Papelbon yet?" a fan asked Mr. Lerner. "His act was embarrassing to a Nats fan. I will not attend or watch a game until he is no longer on the roster.":
"I knew this would be the first question," Lerner said, "so let me tell you what our thinking is right now. This continues to be a tough one. The incident between Jonathan and Bryce Harper was an unfortunate and unacceptable blow-up between two very passionate players. Luckily, they put it behind them almost immediately. It was probably easier for them to do that because they know each other in a larger context: as teammates who both want to win. I know both players would love to have that unfortunate moment back. We have asked Mike Rizzo to determine what roster best puts us in a position to win a World Series. He will certainly do that based on talent, and what’s best for our clubhouse moving forward."
Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo talked about the level of interest in Papelbon this winter when he met with reporters at last week's Winter Meetings in Nashville, TN.
"I think at the stage of his career with the contract he has there has been interest in him," Rizzo said when asked how the interest this winter compared to interest in the past.
"There's been interest in several of our relief pitchers, and I can't gauge what interest he's had in the past, because he hasn't been with us in the past, but there has been interest in him."
Complicating things, potentially, as ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick noted today, is the fact that the 35-year-old reliever still has a no-trade clause which allows him to block trades to 17 major league teams:
ESPN has obtained Papelbon's no-trade list for 2015, and it includes the following 17 clubs where he can block a deal: Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays.
The remaining 12 teams that Papelbon can be traded to without his consent, according to the list: Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays.
Papelbon has also filed a grievance against the Nationals over the $284K he lost when he was suspended without pay by the Nationals, though Mike Rizzo insisted last week that it was business and nothing personal.
Still fans appear to want to see the reliever moved. Even fans who are Senators.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fan of the Nationals, told Politico today he thinks Papelbon needs to go when asked how the Nationals will come back next season:
"First of all, they need to get rid of [Jonathan] Papelbon. Getting in fights with the most valuable player in the National League strikes me as not a team-building exercise," McConnell said.
Harry Reid, of Harper's native Nevada, shared his thoughts as well, telling reporters, as quoted by the Washington Post, that he would get rid of Papelbon too.
"I'd like to get rid of him myself," Reid said. "Except he might choke me."
While fans, Senators and season ticket holders alike, are ready to move on from Papelbon, the Nationals themselves, one after another, when asked this past weekend at Nats WinterFest, said they had already moved on from the incident.
"I think actually from the day Papelbon kind of told everybody he was out of line a little bit, I think that's whenever it dropped," Tyler Moore told reporters.
"We're all men and we have a lot of pride and ego that comes into that and sometimes it's easier to let it go than holding a grudge the whole time. It was a very disappointing year last year in the way it ended up and just got kind of ugly, so we know this team and organization is built with class and has a lot more class than that and I think we can bring it back to how it should be."
Jayson Werth was asked if he thought Papelbon could come back from the way his season ended?
"I think what people don't see is all the stuff that goes on behind closed doors," Werth said.
"In that instance, I think that the cameras were on it and everybody got to see it, so I think that's kind of why it was a bigger deal.
"But those things happen. People have disagreements and arguments. We're a big group of men that have pretty much been by each other's sides for seven months. There's going to be some disagreements and fights happen, even brothers fight, so I don't think it's as big a deal as everybody thinks it is. I think it will be fine and the bottom line is we've got games to win. So, little, petty little fights and stuff like that that happen they don't last real long in our minds.
"Maybe fans and media, that's all they've got so that's all they run, but to us I think that was over not long after it happened."
Ryan Zimmerman said he wasn't really surprised something like that happened.
"Not that I would say that I would condone some of the stuff that happened, obviously," Zimmerman explained, "but I think it would have been weird if everybody was in a good mood, happy, high fiving each other, so it's just one of those things where all of us were frustrated. We were trying as hard as we could to win and we weren't winning."
"I don't think we need to fight each other all the time, which sometimes that happens, but yeah, I didn't have a problem with anything that happened."
Danny Espinosa said he didn't have a problem with what happened either.
"If you took your twenty-four other best friends and put them in a clubhouse, you guys would fight each other," he said.
"If you guys had siblings growing up, you love your siblings to death but you guys fought. It happens. It's part of it.
"The unfortunate part of that is that it happened in front of the cameras. To me, that doesn't bother me. It's part of it. If you work a regular job, you don't get along with every single person you work with. Does that mean you don't work together? No. You're going to have disagreements. Even the guys that you love, you're going to have disagreements with.
"So it doesn't bother me at all. You have the highest level of baseball player with huge egos throughout baseball -- all professional athletes are -- you have guys that have separate opinions. Now, clash those together. What are you going to get? You're going to get arguments and you're going to get fights.
"We're grown men. It happens. So I'm not worried. Actually, it doesn't bother me at all."
So... does it still bother Bryce Harper? He reportedly called Papelbon to make sure it was in the past earlier this winter and like the rest of his teammates, he said that the 2015 campaign is over.
"Last year is behind us, we're looking forward to this year," Harper said Sunday.
"Looking forward to what we're about this year. We're a totally different team, so hopefully going into this year doing what we can to win ballgames and hopefully get to where we need to be and get back to where we were a couple of years ago."
Will the Nationals trade Papelbon? Rizzo has said he's willing to keep the closer on the roster if he doesn't get any real baseball offers. Will fans stand for it?