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Washington Nationals Rumors: Nats making progress with Phillies on Jonathan Papelbon

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Will the Washington Nationals acquire Jonathan Papelbon and make him their closer? Can they convince him to take on an eighth-inning role by taking his salary for 2016 out of the equation? What is Mike Rizzo thinking?

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Though it wasn't received well by everyone in the clubhouse, or by some in the fan base, Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo explained the decision to sign veteran closer Rafael Soriano to a free agent deal in the winter of 2013, in spite of the presence of set-up man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen in the Nats' bullpen, as a move designed to strengthen a strength. A crowded bullpen was not seen as a problem.

"One of them is going to close out the seventh," Rizzo said, in explaining how the relievers would be used, "one will close out the eighth and one will finish the game in the ninth and we feel pretty good about that."

"One of them is going to close out the seventh, one will close out the eighth and one will finish the game in the ninth and we feel pretty good about that." -Mike Rizzo on adding Rafael Soriano to the bullpen before 2013 season

Rizzo was also clear at the time that the decision to sign Soriano was not a reaction to Storen's struggles in Game 5 of the NLDS the previous October.

"By no means [was] the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season," he said.

"[Storen] is a young closer that was thrust into the closer's role as a very young man and a very young major leaguer.

"We feel that we benefit having [Soriano] on the club not only by pitching the ninth inning, but also by mentoring a good young potential closer in Drew Storen."

In spite of his intentions, however, as Tyler Clippard later explained when Storen struggled in his new role, and was demoted to Triple-A Syracuse, the move sent a message to the players.

"You basically send a guy a message this offseason, for having one bad game, that he's not the guy for the job," Clippard told reporters, including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore.

"He's only human. I mean, it's going to get to anybody. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling, and you turn the page on him and you send him down.

It’s not necessarily turning the page on him, because I think he needs to regroup and get out of this environment and take a deep breath and re-gather himself. I just think it’s been handled very poorly."

Soriano, after struggling in the first half of the 2013 campaign and coming on strong the last two months that year, was lights-out in the first-half of the 2014 season before he too struggled and was eventually supplanted in the closer's role by a resurgent Storen, who came back strong from Triple-A and has been solid since.

Through 38 games and 36 ⅓ innings pitched this season, the 27-year-old right-hander has 29 saves, two blown saves, a 1.73 ERA, a 1.91 FIP, nine walks (2.23 BB/9) and 44 Ks (10.90 K/9).

If you're looking for a weakness, Storen has struggled against left-handed hitters, who have put up a combined .299/.341/.316 line against him, as opposed to right-handed hitters' .089/.177/.161 line.

It's impossible not to think about the Soriano signing and what it would mean to the Nationals, however, with rumors of progress being made on a deal for Philadelphia Phillies' closer Jonathan Papelbon.

There have also been reports about discussions with the Cincinnati Reds about left-hander Aroldis Chapman and the San Diego Padres about right-hander Craig Kimbrel.

As CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman put it on Monday, in discussing the rumors of the Nats talks with the Padres, the Nationals, "already have a fine closer in Drew Storen, so it'll be interesting to see how willing they might be to move Storen to a set-up role."

In discussing the reports tying the Nationals to Papelbon this weekend, ESPN.com's Jayson Stark wrote that a source he quoted in the story told him that "he'd be "shocked" if the Phillies end up dealing their closer [Jonathan Papelbon] to the Nationals."

While noting reports by FOXSports.com's Jon Morosi and Ken Rosenthal which said the Nats and Phillies had talked, Stark wrote that his sources tell him that, "those talks have gone nowhere":

"... in part because Papelbon would balk at being traded to any team that would want him as a set-up man or co-closer, and in part because the Nationals don't appear to view him as a significant upgrade over current closer Drew Storen. Washington would also likely want the Phillies to pick up much of Papelbon's salary."

Stark did, however, go on to say that, "Clubs that have spoken with the Nationals say they're trying to do 'something big' if they make a move at all." He mentioned the rumors that the Nationals had spoken to the Reds and Padres about Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, but added that, "it's unclear if they can ultimately match up with either team."

According to several reports this afternoon though, the Nationals and Phillies are said to have made progress on a trade for Papelbon:

CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury quotes a source who says, "Papelbon will be traded." He does note, however that, Papelbon has been clear that he will block a trade to any team not planning to use him as a closer and, "Washington is one of the teams that Papelbon can block on his no-trade list."

MLB.com's Bill Ladson quoted a source who told him the talks are "serious" and a source told him that in order to alleviate the concerns about Papelbon's concerns about closing, and having the $13M option for next season vest if he finishes 55 games this season or (100 in '14-'15), the Nationals, "may be willing to take on most of Papelbon's salary this year as well as his $13 million option for 2016."

Papelbon finished 52 games last season and he's finished 34 this season, so he's 14 "finished" games away from guaranteeing that option vests.

So far this season, as the Phillies' closer, he's put up a 1.59 ERA, a 2.94 FIP, eight walks (1.82 BB/9), 40 Ks (9.08 K/9) a .269/.338/.388 line vs left-handed hitters and a .159/.212/.275 vs right-handed hitters in 39 ⅔ innings pitched, while going 17 for 17 in save situations.

If the money wasn't an issue, would he accept an eighth-inning role? How would Storen react to a new role this time if a deal gets done?

We might find out soon: