It's been clear throughout most of the season that the Washington Nationals were going to be looking to grab a bullpen upgrade prior to the trade deadline. On Tuesday afternoon, they did just that, trading for Phillies' closer Jonathan Papelbon. Of course, acquiring Papelbon was a deal that required a few concessions from both the Nationals and Papelbon, who insisted that he would block a deal to any team that wouldn't use him as their primary closer.
This rubs a lot of Nationals fans the wrong way, and I get it. The Nats bullpen as a whole has struggled this season, but closer Drew Storen has been phenomenal. Storen ranks third in the league with 29 saves in 31 opportunities. His 1.73 ERA ranks tenth among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched. His 1.91 FIP ranks third among that same group. His career best 10.90 K/9 ranks eleventh in that group as well. His 1.2 fWAR puts him tied for fourth among NL relievers. Storen has been among the very best relievers in the game this season.
Yes... I can see why some fans are taking the acquisition of Papelbon (or, more likely, his automatic installment as the closer) as a slight to Drew Storen. While Papelbon has had an outstanding season in 2015, several metrics say that Storen has been even better. Papelbon has the better ERA, WHIP, and walk rate. Storen has a significant edge in strikeout rate and has a FIP more than a full run lower than Papelbon. The strikeout rate is largely responsible for that edge in FIP, but their BABIPs are a factor as well. Papelbon has been a little fortunate this season while Storen has been just a touch unlucky.
It certainly doesn't seem fair that a player with no tenure within the organization should immediately jump into the spot currently occupied by the incumbent closer who has arguably had a better season than the new guy has so far. Those were Papelbon's demands in order not to block the trade, though.
We may not like that Papelbon had as much control over the circumstances of his trade as he did. I'm sure that, in hindsight, the Philadelphia Phillies don't like that he was able to hold them over a barrel and limit their potential trade partners. But hey... Jonathan Papelbon and his agent fought to get no-trade protection into his deal. When the Nats began the process of trying to acquire him, they knew exactly what they were getting into.
For Drew Storen's part, I saw a lot of people last night complaining that Storen did nothing to be demoted. They're right, though I do think that the word "demotion" is a bit strong. As of yesterday, Drew Storen was making $5.7 million to get outs in big league ballgames. As of this morning, he'll be getting paid $5.7 million this season to get outs in big league ballgames. He just has to go to work a little earlier.
I understand that there's this asinine glorified statistic that relievers covet when they finish a ballgame having thrown an inning with a lead of three runs or less. Storen likely won't be accumulating many of those for the foreseeable future. In reality, throwing in the eighth (or seventh!) innings figures to create similarly high leverage spots for Storen*. Now he'll be looking to accumulate a different asinine glorified statistic called a Hold now.
*In fact, as Fangraphs' article on the trade pointed out, Storen's leverage index (1.66) when he enters the game is just slightly higher than Aaron Barrett's (1.58 after Tuesday's game).
How will this impact Storen's earning potential in arbitration?
I saw an awful lot of speculation in the comment sections at several sites (including FBB) and on twitter last night about how Storen pitching the eighth inning instead of the ninth will cost him tons of money. If what we've seen in the recent past is any indication, that's just not true. Let's just look at Storen's former teammate Tyler Clippard, who was traded to the New York Mets on Monday.
Tyler Clippard served as the Washington Nationals closer for much of 2012 while Storen was on the disabled list, but lost the job heading into the postseason after Storen proved he was healthy. Clippard never had more than one save in any single season other than 2012 prior to this season. Outside of carrying a higher strikeout ratio than Storen, Clippard's career ratios are all poorer than Drew Storen's. Here... Let's have a look:
These figures do include all of this current season. Clippard is actually in his ninth (partial) big league season, but his service time was doctored up enough so that he's still in his final arbitration year. He made just eight appearances (as a starter) in those first two seasons and came up late enough in 2009 so that the Nats were able to game an extra year of club control out of him. In his second to last arbitration year, Clippard made $5.875 million with the Nationals. While Storen had the edge in saves and all of the traditional ratios entering this season (his second to last arbitration year), Storen is making $5.7 million, or just a hair less than Clippard did in 2014.
Of course, Clippard was traded to Oakland prior to his final arbitration year this past offseason. He was expected to combine with incumbent closer Sean Doolittle to give the A's a dominant 1-2 punch in the late innings. With Doolittle expected to miss the first few weeks, there was a fairly high probability that Clippard would have to work as the closer on occasion this season. Still, his role for the upcoming season isn't something that likely would have factored into his arbitration hearing. It didn't matter, as Clippard and the A's settled on a one year, $8.3 million deal.
That's where the argument that Storen has lost money falls flat for me. Tyler Clippard didn't really have the "Closer" tag or pedigree tied to his name entering this past offseason. He had a higher career ERA and significantly higher career BB/9, HR/9, FIP, and xFIP than Storen. He had accumulated about half of the coveted saves that Storen had prior to this season (Drew has added 29). With all of those factors supposedly going against him in comparison to Storen, Clippard signed a one year deal that made him the ninth highest paid relief pitcher in baseball this season!
So long as Drew continues to pitch well, he's going to get paid handsomely this offseason ($8 million +) when arbitration time comes around. Heck, even if he doesn't continue to pitch well for the remainder of 2015, he's probably going to get over $8 million at this point. As for a potential free agent contract in 2017, any team that has watched Drew Storen pitch or is capable of looking up simple statistics can see that he's actually been quite successful as a (capital "C") Closer. There's nothing in his profile that suggests that he won't be in high demand after the 2016 season among teams looking for someone to rack up a big save total.
Acquiring Papelbon and allowing him to close does little to nothing in terms of Drew Storen's earning potential in arbitration this offseason. It does even less to his earning potential in 2017 when he'll be a free agent.
Does it suck for Drew Storen?
Yeah... It kind of does. He makes his living by competing. He doesn't only compete with the Nationals opponents, but he's worked hard and competed his entire life to get to the top of his profession. Right or wrong, the apex for a relief pitcher is being that shut down reliever in the ninth inning, not the seventh or eighth inning. The closers are the guys who get the accolades, even if they happen to face the bottom of the order with a three run lead and the setup man faces the heart of the order with a one run lead in the eighth inning of that same game.
Drew has reached that summit twice in his career now and been shoved back down the mountaintop each time. I'd question whether there was much sense in replacing him after 2012, but that's in the past. In this specific case, Storen has done nothing to warrant being removed from the closer's role. In fact, he's been one of the top relief pitchers in baseball. As a fan and someone who realizes that Drew is a competitor, it's hard not to feel bad for him.
If it was going to cause this much commotion, why Papelbon?
I don't think we really need to go into why the Nats didn't push harder to acquire the two relievers who were clearly better than Papelbon on the trade market. We'll just settle that with a tweet from Barry Svrluga:
Source: Nats touched base on Kimbrel and Chapman, but price was too high. Wanted two of Turner, Taylor, Giolito, Lopez, Ross. Pap was backup— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) July 29, 2015
Yeah... There's paying a steep price for an expensive reliever and then there's giving in to insane demands. Outside of maybe Reynaldo Lopez, giving up any one of those players for an expensive 1.5 (Chapman) or 2.5 (Kimbrel) years of even the best reliever in the game would be crazy. The Padres and Reds were both reportedly asking for two of them. The Nats stated goal is to build a consistent winner. Giving up the equivalent of two Top 50 prospects for a relief pitcher would have been a massive hindrance to that long-term goal. All of this leads us to the question that I saw several times in the comments of Patrick's story about the trade:
Why go out and get a closer like Papelbon then instead of a setup man or middle reliever like Clippard or Ziegler?
The answer here is two-fold. For one thing, Papelbon actually came really cheap in terms of personnel. We don't know exactly what Ziegler would have cost, other than the rumblings from national writers saying that Arizona would have to be blown away to move him. We don't know what K-Rod or Uehara would have cost (if either are even moved). Clippard went to the Mets for a prospect in a similar price range on Monday. Meisner isn't quite as advanced as Pivetta, but he's also two years younger and has a little more projectability.
I discussed Pivetta and Austin Voth quite a bit this week when I discussed some of the Nats potential trade targets, and I think they would likely have been targets for several of the other teams with closers on the market. They're obviously not in the top tier of the Nats prospects, but appear to be future big leaguers with six full years of club control remaining.
Of course, the question is why the Nats didn't go after a setup man or middle reliever, so perhaps it's foolish to examine what some of the (lesser) closers on the market would have cost. Steve Cishek fetched a decent relief prospect from the Cardinals over the weekend. Maybe Joaquin Benoit is out there, but the middle relief market just isn't very strong right now. As MLB continues to add more and more playoff teams to the mix, fewer and fewer teams are interested in selling at the deadline. There were eight or nine established late inning relievers on the market though, and those guys are more exciting acquisitions for a reason. That summit that we're talking about Storen having reached applies to players on other teams, too. Generally speaking, teams put their best relievers in the closer's role (again, not saying it's right). Simple logic says that the best relievers on the market are going to be more impactful on the Nats bullpen than the middle relievers that teams are willing to move.
The other reason that you go for Papelbon is because he wasn't only cheaper (probably similarly priced in a few cases), but he was better than most of the other relievers (not named Chapman or Kimbrel) on the trade market. I wouldn't be surprised if K-Rod and Ziegler fetch similar prospects in return if their teams trade them away this week... Papelbon is a considerably more accomplished and better pitcher than either of them (19.1 career WAR to K-Rod's 12.0 since 2005... Average of 1.9 WAR/season while Ziegler has had just two seasons as high as 1.0). Papelbon and Uehara would probably provide similar value, but Uehara figures to pull in a better prospect than Pivetta if the Red Sox even entertain trading him. John Axford is... well... he's just terrible.
The Nats probably got the third or fourth best relief pitcher on the market when they acquired Papelbon. They got him for about the same price as the Mets paid for the eighth or ninth best relief pitcher on the market. If you can turn a third tier prospect like Nick Pivetta into a pitcher of Papelbon's quality, you don't deal Pivetta for a lesser middle reliever or setup man. You deal him for Papelbon.
How does this help the Nats?
While "demotion" has been tossed around regarding Drew Storen, the player who really is likely to be demoted is Sammy Solis. Assuming David Carpenter comes back strong from his injury, there will be another player from the current bullpen sent down to the minors (Aaron Barrett? I know this will upset some of you but, Tanner Roark?). While I understand that a lot of the backlash is about people feeling badly for Storen, it's important to emphasize that this trade wasn't made to upgrade the ninth inning. It was made to upgrade the bullpen before the ninth inning.
In terms of value added to the Nationals bullpen, we're looking at Jonathan Papelbon vs. Sammy Solis. We're looking at the primary setup role being upgraded from a grit & moxie guy without dominant stuff like Casey Janssen to Drew Storen. We're looking at that proven veteran Janssen joining Barrett, Matt Thornton, and Felipe Rivero to form a pretty filthy four man middle relief group. Perhaps there's a slight dropoff in the ninth inning with Papelbon closing instead of Storen, but the bullpen drastically improves as a whole.
Should Drew Storen demand a trade?
This is another one that I saw a few people suggest. While Storen kind of got the shaft here, I do find it a bit ironic that the same people complaining that Papelbon put himself above the team would seem willing to give Storen a pass if he does... well, the same thing. It's hard to be optimistic about how Storen feels about the trade when we're reading things like this postgame nugget:
"Really, all I'm gonna say is that obviously I'm aware of the move," Storen said. "I've talked to (Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo) about it. I've talked to my agent. We've had some ongoing discussions. Until those have progressed, I'm just gonna leave it at that and no comment for now. But as the situation goes, I'll keep you guys posted."
It has to be a hard situation for Storen. His disappointment is something that would be difficult to express in a more subtle manner, I suppose. When the Papelbon rumors were breaking on Tuesday, I felt like it was a matter of time once Phillies beat reporter Todd Zolecki said that Papelbon's agent was talking to Rizzo. When I see a comment like this from a player, it's hard not to get a similar vibe from the quote.
I would have to imagine that, as both a courtesy and a matter of common sense given how unhappy Storen seemed with the Soriano situation, Rizzo at least brought up the pursuit of Papelbon (and all that comes with it) to Storen before finalizing the deal. While he's probably disappointed, I expect Storen will handle this like the professional he is and not let it affect his performance on the field. He's within his rights to request a trade, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Rizzo has to grant that request.
Are the Nats done dealing?
I certainly hope not. At the very least, I would like to see them add another bench bat more capable of providing an offensive spark than Tyler Moore, Clint Robinson, or Dan Uggla. Ryan Zimmerman had a strong first game back, but it's hard to ignore the fact that Plantar Fasciitis tends to linger. Jayson Werth hadn't yet hit stride before he got hit by a pitch and broke his wrist, so it's a stretch to expect him to perform at 2012-2014 levels. Adding a starting caliber player who could provide insurance at 1b/corner outfield could be vital to this team's success for the rest of 2015. Even if Zim and Werth do stay healthy and are in peak form, the Nats would still drastically improve the bench.
Rizzo was willing to go close enough to all in to possibly alienate his closer (and portions of the fanbase) by acquiring Papelbon. Don't make it a half measure... go after a bat, too.