Perhaps the most succinct way to describe Jonathan Papelbon’s time with the Washington Nationals is that it was never meant to be. On Saturday, reports surfaced that the Nationals informed Papelbon of their plans to designate him for assignment, leading him to ask for his release instead. In a sense, any outcome that leads to Papelbon’s departure is not a hard a decision, given the circumstances faced by both team and player.
Starting with Papelbon, whose acquisition last summer set off questions about his place in the Nationals’ clubhouse until the very moment of his dugout altercation with Bryce Harper. Let’s ignore that — and its subsequent fallout, including the discussion of whether Papelbon could, would, or did redeem himself as a teammate — for a moment and focus purely on his performance, an area of his DC tenure that was largely unmemorable.
When acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies, Papelbon was the closer that was supposed to bolster a fading team’s playoff chances. Walking into an already fractured clubhouse and underperforming team probably made that task impossible, but his numbers with the Nationals in 2015—which marked a drop from his early-season success—foreshadowed the problems he has faced in 2016.
Even as the Nationals rejuvenated themselves, Papelbon continued to struggle — prompting his demotion from the closer’s role to become the subject of constant rumors until it finally happened. With his velocity diminishing from his best years, Papelbon never figured out a way to adjust and often looked overmatched. And even before the Nationals turned over the closer’s role for good, it was not only clear that Papelbon was failing to deliver in key situations, but that he was not even close to being the team’s best reliever.
The Nationals are at a point now where Papelbon is no longer needed. Though still not perfect, a series of moves has allowed the bullpen to become more functional, and it is possible that the farm system could provide reinforcements. Papelbon, for his part, has to figure out a way at age 35 to become at least a serviceable reliever. Going through that adjustment with a contending team in an environment that has never proven fit for him is probably not in his best interests, and perhaps a fresh start is what he needs.
Of course, the benefit of hindsight gives us an understanding of how Papelbon and the Nationals were never meant to mesh. But that should’ve been clear from the beginning.Tags: Jonathan Papelbon, Nationals, Nats, Washington Nationals