Papelbon Is Exactly What The Nationals Need

In a trade deadline flurry that was as consequential as any I can remember, the Washington Nationals’ acquisition of closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies almost slid under the radar. But I think this has the potential to be one of the most significant by the time all is said and done.

It’s more about intangibles than tangibles. Papelbon doesn’t fill an obvious void on an otherwise outstanding team, the way Johnny Cueto did for the Royals or David Price does for the Blue Jays. The Nationals, after all, had an outstanding closer in Drew Storen, with 29 saves and a 1.64 ERA. They have pretty good bullpen depth.

In fact, if you look at the team overall, you would conclude that the bigger need was another bat to provide some support from Bryce Harper, the one-man wrecking crew who is the frontrunner for National League MVP, but needs help. Someone like Gerardo Parra from the Brewers, who could have stepped into left field, where Jayson Werth has been a disaster. Parra instead went to the other end of the Beltway, acquired by the Orioles.

So what’s the big deal about the Papelbon acquisition? Even allowing his 1.55 ERA, can’t you say that this is a case of quality being added to an area where its return is going to be weakest?

Yes, you can, if you were looking at this purely on paper. But if we were looking at this purely on paper, the Nationals would have won a postseason series, maybe even a World Series by now. Papelbon brings something else this team badly needs and it’s a big dose of postseason toughness.

Washington joins the Los Angeles Dodgers as really good regular season teams, akin to the Denver Broncos or what the Pittsburgh Penguins used to be. The Nationals and Dodgers both were ousted last October by teams with postseason toughness, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. Papelbon doesn’t change that by himself, but he sure helps, and he does it at the game’s most critical part.

The Nationals have been an underachieving team so far in 2015. They opened as the betting favorite to win the World Series, but instead have the sixth-best record in the National League. Fortunately for them, they’re still two games ahead of the New York Mets in the NL East and we’ve seen over and over that October success is more about putting it together at the right time. There’s plenty of opportunity to turn that around.

Injuries have been a part of the problem and that’s starting to turn around. Anthony Rendon returned at second base, and joins Yunel Escobar and Harper as players who get on base consistently. Denard Span is expected to return in centerfield and he’ll provide further help. Stephen Strasburg is on a rehab assignment after an oblique injury that led him to struggle prior to going on the DL.

The offense ranks sixth in the National League in runs scored, which is enough to win. The starting pitching has to improve, at least by the standards of a World Series team. They also rank sixth in the league in ERA. Max Scherzer is having a great year with 11 wins a 2.22 ERA. Jordan Zimmerman’s 3.36 ERA is analogous to the team performance overall—it’s fine, but he’s capable of more. The same goes for Gio Gonzalez at 3.75, and Doug Fister has to pick it up.

October is often a time when players with a track record that have been modestly below expectations, find their natural level again. I would fully expect that this rotation, with a healthy Strasburg, is more than capable of giving the Nats the starting pitching they need to win the World Series.

Now we come to the bullpen. Storen has been at the heart of Washington’s recent postseason failures. He has an 8.44 ERA in the playoffs. Papelbon has a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox from back in 2007 and I believe he should have been Series MVP that year (Mike Lowell won it instead). Papelbon pitched well in October again in 2008. That’s been a while, but Papelbon’s been away from the postseason stage for a while. I see no reason to think he’s lost it.

The estimation of the Nationals in Las Vegas has slipped modestly since the start of the year, and they now trail the Cardinals & Dodgers in the National League, and the Royals overall, in the esteem of the betting markets. But, priced at 9-1 to win it all, Vegas still has Washington as the fourth-best team in all of baseball. Papelbon’s playoff moxie is exactly what they need and gives them a chance to finally be more than a great team on paper and in the regular season.