The end was under way Friday night when Jonathan Papelbon hugged Jayson Werth in the back of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse. A long delay before manager Dusty Baker arrived for his postgame press conference hinted something notable was in the works. It turned out a discussion about how to facilitate Papelbon’s departure had begun, so it was time for goodbyes.
Saturday afternoon, Papelbon was released by the Nationals. The 35-year-old swashbuckling right-hander had lost the zip on his pitches and job as closer. He leaves the Nationals after 381 days on the roster, which included a public choking of his teammate and the National League’s unanimous MVP, Bryce Harper, a mea culpa press conference to start spring training and diminished results on the mound.
“I think there’s been some rocky moments, but all in all he’s completed about 84 percent of his save chances he’s had here,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He does it his way. He was a guy that gave us everything he had every time out.”
Papelbon was released outright Saturday afternoon to make room for that day’s starting pitcher, young Reynaldo Lopez. The Ric Flair doll that sat in the upper cubby of his locker was gone, as were all of Papelbon’s preferred sleeveless shirts. By releasing him instead of designating him for assignment, the Nationals provide Papelbon a swifter chance to find his next job. He would have to wait 10 days were he send out on assignment. Instead, Papelbon is free to move on immediately.
“There wasn’t a real fit anymore,” Baker said.
Papelbon was acquired last summer for minor league pitcher Nick Pivetta. If Rizzo repeated one distinct phrase to justify the the move, it was that Papelbon had closed out a World Series. He will leave the Nationals without having thrown a pitch in the playoffs.
Papelbon arrived at spring training this season in full character. He engaged with Gio Gonzalez, who became a quick and unlikely friend. Papelbon turned up the volume on the clubhouse stereo to shatter the sleepy morning vibe in Viera. He jokingly left a fruit bowl in the middle of the clubhouse for Baker, who would later cite Papelbon among the team’s leaders.
Early in spring training when he sat down in a makeshift press conference to talk about choking Harper, and the team suspension that followed, Papelbon was clear about two things: He would answer any questions in this setting. And, he would not answer them again. It’s the kind of tumult the Nationals hoped to avoid when bringing in a swelling personality who had been suspended seven games by MLB for an obscene gesture the season before.
The recent change in roles made the past two weeks quiet for one of baseball’s most boisterous figures. Mark Melancon was acquired July 30 to replace Papelbon as the team’s closer, just as Papelbon was traded for almost a year to the day prior to take over for Drew Storen. Papelbon pitched just 2 ⅓ innings since the trade, mopping up in decided games and quietly existing in the clubhouse. Cameras showed him leaning back on a bench in the bullpen to take in the sun during a recent ninth inning.
The Nationals did not need a fifth starter after the trade for Melancon until Saturday, forcing them to determine a roster move. Rizzo said the plans about the move began then.
His ERA rose each of the first four months of the season, forcing the first-place Nationals to find an alternative before the trade deadline. Washington had pursued Aroldis Chapman in the offseason before a domestic assault allegation against the hard-throwing left-hander made it back off. Chapman was signed by the New York Yankees, then traded to the Chicago Cubs before the non-waiver trade deadline for a bevy of high-end prospects. The Nationals paid a much lower price in prospects for Melancon.
“When you miss your spots and you don’t have blow away swing-and-miss stuff like Pap hasn’t had the past couple years, you have to be very pinpoint and he wasn’t,” Rizzo said.
Baker and teammates Max Scherzer and Shawn Kelley insisted that Papelbon was a model teammate before and after the trade for Melancon. Baker said Papelbon’s parting words to the team were that he wanted them to win the World Series.
“He’s not a distraction whatsoever,” Scherzer said. “He comes in to play every single day, he works his absolute tail off and he competes on the mound for us. All that stuff, last year … just media circus. We were 100 percent behind him. We understood all his intentions. He was great for our team. He was great for everybody in this clubhouse. To sit here and say he’s a bad teammate or anything like that, it’s garbage to me.”
At his close in Washington, Papelbon was deposed as opposed to the replacement for the in-house closer for the first time in his career. Two weeks later, he was sent into an uncertain baseball future with just 26 saves in his pocket from a year-long stop in Washington which ended as a failed experiment.
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