WASHINGTON — Many saw the Nationals trading for closer Mark Melancon as an opening for the next Jonathan Papelbon blowup.
If telling Drew Storen he had lost the closer’s job — again — was tough, then informing the guy who publicly choked out Bryce Harper of a similar demotion would require the diplomacy of Winston Churchill. Or so the prevailing thought went.
But by all accounts — including Papelbon’s own — Papelbon handled the news appropriately.
“Anybody losing their job is a hard thing to accept, period. That’s human nature. If you lose your job, would that be a tough thing to accept?” Papelbon said of the trade, according to Chelsea Janes of The Post. “Right. Exactly. That’s just a hard pill to swallow, no matter what job you’re in. … For me, I’m just going to have to do whatever it takes to accept a new role and a new challenge for myself.”
Melancon, upon learning he had been traded to Washington, picked up the phone. He needed to call Papelbon, just as Papelbon needed to call Storen one year ago.
It’s not the first time these relievers have faced this predicament, after all.
“Pap’s great. I’ve known Pap a little while,” Melancon told 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier. “He understands what’s going on. He wants to win as much as anybody and there’s no bad blood by any means. It’s, ‘Let’s go out and get a World Series ring.’
Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo broke the news to Papelbon, as he’d done for Storen last July. The deposed closer — who ranks ninth all-time in career saves (368) and figured to be chasing Mariano Rivera’s 652 — took the news like a true professional, Rizzo insists.
“He’s a pro’s pro,” Rizzo told Cliff Floyd and Casey Stern on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio. “He’s in the Hall of Fame-caliber type of reliever. His names are up there with the best and the brightest of all time. So this guy’s an accomplished guy; he’s won a World Series and he’s had an illustrious career. The respect factor for this type of guy is important.”
“We certainly had a conversation with him about the possibilities of what was going to happen when we acquired Mark,” he said. “We sat Pap down and explained to him what’s happening, what’s going to happen, what we see down the road and he took the news like the professional that he is.
“He’s an extreme competitor and he’s a guy that said, ‘I just want a ring. I just want to win and if this helps us win, I’m all for it.’ Mark and Pap had a conversation before Mark even arrived in the clubhouse via text and telephone, and when they got there they had a conversation, too. Pap took it in the right spirit, in the right vein, and he’s here to contribute to us to go as far as we can go and to win games. That’s what I expected from him, ultra competitor — as you know, guys — but a guy that wants to win and is going to put team first and that’s what he did.”
Stern offered up the notion the narrative surrounding Papelbon, that he’s a hothead with a tendency to disrupt clubhouse chemistry, may be a misnomer to the point it’s nearly wholly inaccurate.
“I think people probably think what you’re saying is lip service,” Stern told Rizzo. “I know it’s not, in terms of the kind of guy that he is. He’s got some tendencies to maybe kind of go off the reservation at times — I’m sure he’d even admit that — but how much do you think he’s misread nationally? Because I think a lot of the rhetoric was, ‘Oh no. This is going to be even worse than the situation last year with Drew Storen. There’s no way Papelbon will accept this.’ How much do you think it’s different internally from what you hear all the time people saying about Papelbon?”
“Well, he’s a great teammate,” Rizzo said. “We did the research when we acquired him from Philly. I talked to his teammates in Boston, his teammates in Philly — they didn’t have a negative thing to say about him.”
“He gives up his time, his experiences to the young relievers,” he continued. “He’s done a great job with our young relievers in the bullpen. He did the same thing in Philly with [Ken] Giles and couple other guys there. So he’s a great teammate.
“The perception of him that he was a cancer in the clubhouse could not have been further from the truth. His teammates love him. He’s a leader. He commands the respect of the room. He’s been a calming, reassuring force in our clubhouse since we acquired him.”
The Nationals initially sought to acquire flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, but were ultimately priced out by the Cubs, who were willing to part with top shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres, big league reliever Adam Warren, as well as two other highly regarded prospects.
Rizzo was asked if, when he saw what Chicago was willing to give up for Chapman, he thought maybe it wouldn’t be possible to acquire a closer before the trade deadline due to rising costs for relief pitchers.
“For elite talent, you have to pay elite prices,” Rizzo said. “You know, supply and demand. In this market, the supply for these elite ninth-inning guys was a short supply and so the teams that are in contention that need it are going to pay dearly. And you’ve got one of the best GMs in baseball with Brian Cashman who’s going to make the best deal for his organization, so you have to have multiple plans, multiple irons in the fire.”
“When we shifted our attention from Chapman to some other players in that caliber,” he said, “we immediately went to Mark and found Pittsburgh was a place that we were in the same level of prospect return. We found ourselves a good deal on Mark Melancon and they got themselves two good left-handed arms. I thought it was a win-win on both sides.”
The Nationals, in the end, parted with promising lefty reliever Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn, a fifth-round pick by Washington in 2015 who — at 6-foot-5 with a plus-fastball from the left side — could very well reach the big league level.
What they got in return was Melancon, a proven 31-year-old closer capable of pitching under high-leverage duress. That’s an upgrade over Papelbon, who now amicably seeks his next role in Washington’s bullpen.