Papelbon’s Struggles Put Pressure on Nats Before Trade Deadline

WASHINGTON — Nationals fans haven’t been especially fond of Jonathan Papelbon for years, a result of his playing for the rival Philadelphia Phillies for years.

Many fans were less than pleased when the Nationals traded for him before last year’s trade deadline, in part because it meant fan favorite Drew Storen would be relegated to the eighth inning, but mostly because Papelbon didn’t have many fans in the D.C. area. The controversial closer has turned fans off with his actions before, but nothing drew the ire of Nationals fans like choking out the National League MVP.

Over the past year or so, calls for Papelbon to be shipped out of Washington have steadily grown in volume, and they could be reaching a crescendo after back-to-back collapses in the ninth inning that cost the Nationals a pair of games.

Papelbon, for what it’s worth, expressed nothing but supreme confidence after the second implosion in as many games.

Those outside of the game weren’t so confident following yet another meltdown.

The Nationals seemed somewhat unlikely to replace Papelbon before Sunday’s outing; since that point, he’d pitched seven straight outings without giving a run, allowing just three hits and an intentional walk in the span while striking out 10.

Over the past two games, however, Papelbon has allowed 7 runs (6 earned), 6 hits and 3 walks (1 intentional) while striking out 1 and recording just 2 outs. He was credited with a loss on Sunday and a blown save and a loss on Tuesday. His record now sits at 2-4, and his ERA (4.18) and WHIP (1.423) would both be the highest of his career for a full season.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, on his weekly call with The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan, said Wednesday that the team is still looking to upgrade at closer, but he doesn’t think the situation is as dire as Nationals fans make it out to be.

“Pap hasn’t performed like he has, like his track record dictates,” Rizzo told the Junkies. “He has an 86 percent save completion in his career, and he just hasn’t located enough and performed enough the last two games. But there’s a lot of other factors involved last night. Yeah, sure, he didn’t perform in the ninth. You can’t walk the leadoff man, but you’ve gotta make the plays behind him. There were some popup bunts that fall in the perfect spot. And you go back to the half-inning before that where we have a chance to tack on a bunch of runs, and we don’t tack ’em on, so all those things come into play in these close games. We’ve gotta perform better and execute better, and if we do that, I think we’ll continue to win.”

A quick fact-check: Papelbon actually has an 88.2 percent save rate for his career (368 of 417), per Baseball-Reference. This season, Papelbon has saved 86.3 percent of opportunities (19 of 22).

Rizzo was asked if he was disappointed that Washington couldn’t land closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees. Chapman, who the Yankees traded to the Chicago Cubs on Monday, is set to be a free agent after this season, but the Cubs had to give up four players to snag him.

“I was disappointed until I saw what the deal was. There is no way we were gonna come close to matching that deal for a two-month rental,” Rizzo said. “The Yankees did a heck of a job and they got a great deal from the Cubs, the Cubs obviously wanted him worse than we did and they got themselves one of the elite closers in the game but they gave up a king’s ransom to get him, and that’s part of their plan. They’re smart people over there and they knew what they were doing. We like the team that we have. Are we looking to upgrade? Of course. But we’re built here to sustain competitive balance and to be a really good team not only this year but going forward. I can’t justify giving away that much young talent that’s going to help us down the road for two months of a rental in a position that we could upgrade, but again, we’re one of the top bullpens in the league. The Cubs got what they wanted, the Yankees got what they wanted, we bowed out when the price got too high. The Cubs laid their chips on the table, went in and got the player that they wanted.”

Host Jason Bishop then tried to glean some information about possible future trades, asking if Rizzo was still talking to the Yankees, to no avail.

“I’m sure you’re talking about Andrew Miller,” Rizzo quickly ascertained. “I would assume the Miller deal is going to be a lot more expensive, player-wise, than the Chapman deal because of the added years of control at a very market-friendly deal, so we’ll certainly do all our due diligence to make the phone calls, and if something makes sense, like we have in the past, we’ll certainly make a deal.”

Conflicting reports have emerged about whether or not Miller is indeed available. He was originally rumored to be available along with Chapman, but reports have since come out that New York wants to retain the remaining left-handed closer.

Rizzo said he didn’t want to give up “a king’s ransom” for Chapman because he would’ve been a short-term rental. But Miller is under contract for two years after 2016 — at $9 million per year — so perhaps the Nationals would be more willing to sacrifice a big part of the future if it means upgrading a vital position now and for the next two years.

The trade deadline is Monday; the Nationals have five games until that day. They lead the Miami Marlins by 4.0 games and the New York Mets by 4.5 games. Washington’s lead is certainly tenuous, as evidenced by its late-season collapse a year ago, and whether or not a trade is made could make the difference between another collapse and a deep postseason run.

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