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Washington Nationals trade target: Jonathan Papelbon

We'll continue our look at some possible relief targets that the Nats may be tied to over the next week with Jonathan Papelbon. Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports both tweeted on Friday night that the Nats and Phillies have had discussions about the Philadelphia closer.

The Nats were linked to Jonathan Papelbon by some national writers again Friday night. Will they seriously pursue him? Would Papelbon block the deal?
The Nats were linked to Jonathan Papelbon by some national writers again Friday night. Will they seriously pursue him? Would Papelbon block the deal?
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Since the non-waiver trade deadline is next Friday, we're going to continue to look at some of the Nats potential trade targets over the next week. As I noted in the comment section yesterday, I'm certainly not going to like all of the possible trade options equally. We'll keep rolling through relievers to start, since the prevailing notion seems to be that the Nats are after relief help more than anything else. The Nats need help offensively as well, but the buzz is that they feel like they're going to be adding four bats the rest of the way when Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman get healthy. Let's start linking to the other relievers that we've already looked at....

This morning, we'll look at a player who many Nats fans may find difficult to root for. Jonathan Papelbon has been the closer for the rival Phillies for the past four seasons. On top of that, he has a reputation for having a bit of an abrasive personality. Of course, the Nationals aren't looking for a PR man. They're looking for a quality relief pitcher that can help them win ballgames the rest of the way. Jonathan Papelbon fits that bill.

In some ways, Papelbon hasn't been as dominant the past few years in Philadelphia as he was earlier in his career. Once upon a time, he had a string of six straight seasons where his strikeout rate was higher than 10 K/9. Over the past three years, his strikeout rate has dipped to 8.58 K/9. Still, he's maintained his effectiveness. Papelbon hasn't finished with an ERA over 3.00 since 2010. His ERA since the beginning of the 2014 season is 1.89. His WHIP in that same span is 0.93. As a pitcher, he would provide a significant upgrade to the Nationals bullpen.

The Nats have been one of many teams tied to Papelbon at various times this season. The Phillies don't seem to be having a lot of luck moving him, as Jayson Stark reported earlier this week that three of his suitors (Blue Jays, Cubs, Dodgers) were no longer actively pursuing him. This may have helped fuel some more speculation that the Nats and Phillies were discussing him again. Both Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports posted tweets linking Papelbon to the Nationals Friday night.

Why could the Nationals use him?

Papelbon has been one of the best relievers in the game for about a decade. Since debuting in 2005, Papelbon has a 2.32 career ERA and 2.69 FIP. Since the start of the 2010 season (since that's where we started with Chapman and Kimbrel), Papelbon has the 45th best ERA among qualifying relievers (2.71). He has the 21st best FIP (2.74). His 10.12 K/9 ranks 46th. His 8.9 fWAR ranks sixth.

Like the other elder statesman that we looked at (Francisco Rodriguez), Papelbon, 34, has lost a tick on his fastball. At his peak, Papelbon's fastball averaged about 95 MPH. His velocity has gradually declined each season since 2011, and his fastball has sat at about 91 MPH this season. He's sacrificed velocity for a little more movement and has mixed in his other two pitches (a slider and a splitter) more effectively than he did earlier in his career.

He's notched 341 career saves in 385 opportunities, and can clearly handle pitching in late inning leverage spots. Whether he'll accept pitching in leverage spots if he's not closing is something that we'll devote a full segment to. Papelbon has been insistent that he won't accept a trade to a team that won't use him as their closer. While that's both frustrating and kind of ridiculous, it makes sense given his contract status.

How would the Nationals use him?

Ideally, Papelbon would be a setup man if the Nats acquired him. Depending upon your metric of choice, there's a case to be made that Papelbon has been nearly (possibly more) effective than Drew Storen has this season. Papelbon does have a slightly better ERA (1.63 vs. 1.73) and WHIP (0.98 vs. 1.02) than Storen. The underlying numbers say that Storen has been better. Storen has struck out nearly two more batters per nine innings and hasn't been as fortunate as Papelbon has with the BABIP. It's difficult to picture Storen not remaining the primary closer for the Nats unless they go all out for a pitcher like Chapman or Kimbrel.

As is the case with every reliever we'll be talking about, adding Papelbon would be about the rest of the bullpen, not Drew Storen. Doing a better job of bridging the gap between the starters and Storen is what the Nats are trying to improve at the deadline. Papelbon would solidify the setup role, freeing up the current setup men to be used earlier in ballgames and strengthening the bullpen overall.

Will he accept a trade if he's dealt to a team that won't use him as a closer? Should he?

As fans, many of us hear that Papelbon has said he won't accept a deal to a team where he won't close and immediately think that he's a... hmmm... donkey. Papelbon has an excellent reason for taking this stance, though. Baseball is a business. It's how he makes his living, and he wants to maximize his earnings.

Papelbon is in the final year of his current deal. However, he does have a $13 million vesting option that kicks in if he finishes either 55 games this season or 100 games between 2014 and 2015. Regardless of where Papelbon ends up, he's unlikely to finish 55 games this season. After notching a save on Friday night, Papelbon has now finished 34 games in 2015. There's that two year figure as well, though. Papelbon has now finished 86 games since the start of the 2014 season, which leaves him just fourteen games away from having his option vest. As good as he's been this year (and last year), a 34-year-old closer like Papelbon doesn't seem likely to even sniff a deal that's equal to a one year $13 million deal this offseason.

That's where it could get weird, though. Among the teams that are strong enough contenders to be considered buyers at the deadline, very few (if any) of them would be pushing too hard to acquire Papelbon to become their closer. He'd almost certainly upgrade the Cubs situation in the ninth inning, but they've reportedly stopped pursuing him. Maybe the Blue Jays would make a push for him? Their primary closer lately has been 20-year-old rookie Roberto Osuna (who has been terrific). Of course, the Jays were also on that list of three teams that Stark said are no longer actively pursuing Papelbon. The Astros would be the only other contender whose closing situation he would almost certainly upgrade, but they've seemed pretty happy with Luke Gregerson.

Papelbon's best chance to have his $13 million option vest is probably to not be traded. Of course, with new president Pat Gillick now running the show in Philadelphia, it's impossible to see him allowing Papelbon's $13 million option to vest. The Phillies are at least three or four years away from building a contender, so carrying a $13 million closer on the payroll for next season makes absolutely no sense. If Philadelphia isn't able to deal him and removes Papelbon from the closer role without a dropoff in performance, I would think that Papelbon and the MLBPA would have a pretty good case to file a grievance. Still, it's doubtful that this is anything that would be settled quickly enough to help Papelbon.

If he wants to complain about how losing has gotten to him in Philadelphia, Papelbon should probably accept that no team is likely to allow his $13 million option for 2016 to vest... including his current team. He should accept a trade to a contending team and pitch well for them down the stretch. He'll still get paid fairly handsomely in the offseason, even if it probably won't match that $13 million option.

Does he have any weaknesses?

The primary weaknesses would be off the field issues. His insistence that he won't accept a deal to a team that won't let him close is more than just a hurdle that could prevent a deal. He could get pouty and allow pitching in a setup role to affect his performance on the field. The positive counterpoint to this argument is that if his option doesn't vest, he'll be pitching to get a new contract in the offseason. His reputation, deserved or not, as something of a malcontent doesn't help him much either. Then again, he could go a long way to cure that perception of him in his contract year if he steps into the Nats clubhouse and ends up being a good fit.

As for his on-field performance, there aren't really any major red flags. His velocity has gradually dipped in recent years, but that happens with age. He's found ways to maintain his effectiveness despite the diminished velocity, so it's nothing to really be concerned about with a two month rental.

What's his contract status?

We discussed the option above. Papelbon would essentially be a rental if the Nats acquire him unless they (foolishly) allow his option to vest. He's making $13 million this season, so he's due a little over $4 million the rest of the way. The Phillies are reportedly willing to eat most (all?) of that remaining money he's owed this season.

What will the Phillies be looking for?

Not much, to be honest. Papelbon has publicly stated that he wants off the Phillies. The Phillies have made it known for a year now that they want him off the books. If they eat the remainder of his contract for this season, they'll expect something slightly better than a lottery ticket, probably, but not much. It probably wouldn't take more than a fringy C prospect or a relief prospect. Remember, reports are that most of the other teams that were said to be interested in are reportedly backing off.

What should the Nats offer?

See above. If Papelbon changes his stance and is willing to accept a trade to a Nats team that he won't close for, the Nats shouldn't have to give up much. Papelbon may end up being the cheapest possible option.

Aroldis Chapman watch update

A day after the Reds reportedly had two club officials scouting Auburn Doubledays pitcher Erick Fedde, they were said to have people at the Potomac Nationals game last night. It's anyone's guess who they were there to scout. The P-Nats didn't have any real name brand players on the hill, as Phillips Valdez started for Potomac. I'll throw my guess out there. Since the Reds are reportedly interested in some young outfield depth, maybe they were there to have a look at Rafael Bautista? Evaluators have differing opinions on Bautista, who John Sickels ranked as the Nats twelfth best prospect this preseason. He's a burner who doesn't look like he'll develop much power, but could be a complementary piece in a deal if the Reds are pursuing Fedde. Here's what Sickels had to say about him in January....

12) Rafael Bautista, OF, Grade C+: Age 21, hit .290/.341/.382 with 69 steals in 487 at-batsin Low-A. Very fast, athletic but lacks big power potential and needs more polish on defense, often projected as a fourth outfielder. Something of a strange case, normally scouts drool over athletic speed players like this. He’s not too old for his levels but is often overlooked.

Will the Nats trade for Jonathan Papelbon?

I think this may come down to whether or not Papelbon will block a trade to the Nats. There's reported interest on both sides. There's strong on-field performance and the potential to make an impact on the Nats bullpen the rest of this season. There's (likely) a relatively low pricetag attached to him both financially (assuming Philly foots the bill) and in terms of the cost in personnel it would take to acquire him. He still wouldn't be my top choice, but I think there's a decent chance the Nats end up trading for him.