I don’t think anyone can rightly be surprised by this, following the news that former Washington Nationals reliever Jonathan Papelbon had negotiated a release from the team:
Cubs will be among teams that will take a look at Jonathan Papelbon as possible fit. He'd have to be comfortable in set-up role, of course.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) August 14, 2016
The front office is familiar with Papelbon from their Boston days, and he was considered as a trade addition last summer. Further, shortly after Papelbon’s release, other reports suggested a possible connection to the Cubs.
Papelbon, 35, certainly comes with a checkered past, including an ugly altercation with Bryce Harper in the Nationals dugout last year.
None of that matters, though, if he’s done as a pitcher. After all, the Nationals just dumped him because of a roster crunch, and the Cubs also have a very full roster.
Why did the Nationals release Papelbon? The short version is that he went through a period of command struggles, which persisted after he was relegated to middle innings duty following the team’s acquisition of Mark Melancon. The Nationals needed a roster spot, so, rather than DFA him and force him to wait 10 days to sign with another team, they simply granted him his release.
Papelbon’s overall season numbers are way down this year – 4.37 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 4.76 xFIP, 20.4% K rate, 9.2% BB rate – though that ERA/FIP/xFIP line was at 2.56/2.98/4.22 just five appearances ago. He’d long lost his elite fastball velocity, but Papelbon was still having a great deal of success until this season. It’s worth noting that he was in the 91-92mph range the past three years, but is down an additional MPH this year.
So, then, where would I stand on these rumors if you could totally separate out the non-baseball stuff? I’d probably shrug and say, “No cost addition of a guy who was very effective as recently as a few weeks ago? Given the Cubs’ bullpen situation? Sure, bring him in if it can be done on a minor league deal for now, with the potential to add him to the 40-man roster for September.”
Does the spat with Harper last year, or the Manny Machado incident, or the obscene gesture incident make me think differently? Well, I do think you have to consider it, not unlike off-the-field concerns and clubhouse chemistry would have to be considered with any in-season addition.
It doesn’t sound like Papelbon has actually had much of a problem in the clubhouse before, even with the Nationals, despite that Harper incident.
For me, in this particular instance, then, if there’s no serious potential for a clubhouse problem, I’d be open to the Cubs exploring the no-cost addition of a player like Papelbon if they believe he can still be effective out of the pen this year. Did he just completely fall apart in the past month, and there’s no coming back? Or was he going through a protracted period of command struggles that the Nationals decided they simply couldn’t wait out? Can something be tweaked to get him back to where he was earlier this year?
I guess we’ll see if there’s a serious pursuit here. With Josh Collmenter and Joe Thatcher already added on minor league deals, and with the Cubs adding Trevor Cahill back tomorrow, they’re entirely without arms to add to the bullpen that could theoretically help down the stretch.