There may be no more complex question facing the Nationals this winter than this: What do they do with Jonathan Papelbon?
Mike Rizzo acquired the veteran closer at the trade deadline not only because the general manager thought he could help his team down the stretch but because he was signed for another season. The Nationals even managed to get Papelbon to agree to reduce his 2016 salary from $14 million to $11 million in exchange for the club picking up his option right away. (Papelbon also agreed to defer $3 million of that salary until 2017.)
In a vacuum, it made great sense. In reality, it created a major headache.
Papelbon's actions during the second-to-last week of the season — intentionally throwing at Manny Machado in what he thought was evidence of him standing up for his teammates, then instigating a dugout tussle with Bryce Harper in which he wound up choking the soon-to-be league MVP — left his future with the Nationals very much in doubt.
Papelbon sat out the season's final week, accepting MLB's 3-game suspension for the Machado incident, then getting suspended by the Nationals for the final four games in punishment for the Harper fight. But that was merely a temporary solution from the club's standpoint. It did nothing to address Papelbon's status for 2016.
Consensus opinion at the time said the Nationals had no choice but to either trade or release Papelbon over the winter. Rizzo, though, suggested this week that the controversial closer — along with embittered former closer Drew Storen — might actually be retained.
"As of today, they're both in the bullpen" next season, Rizzo told the Washington Post and MLB.com at the GM Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. "They're both good relief pitchers. Unless someone makes us a real baseball offer, they will be."
Rizzo also complimented Harper for calling Papelbon after the season to make amends and say he was ready to move forward as teammates. Which indeed is a nice gesture and show of maturity and leadership on Harper's part.
But it doesn't address the real issue facing the Nationals right now. Papelbon's biggest detractors aren't his teammates. They're Nationals fans.
Local fan reaction to the dugout tussle could not have been more lopsided in favor of Harper and against Papelbon. While some observers outside D.C. suggested Papelbon was in the right to get on Harper's case for not busting down the line on a routine fly ball, those who watch the Nationals on a regular basis almost uniformly disagreed. (The Nats' front office and coaching staff, by the way, concurred that Harper had done nothing wrong in jogging down the base line.)
Many fans already were leery of Papelbon at the time of the trade, a product both of his reputation as a less-than-ideal teammate and of the domino effect his acquisition had on Storen. The dugout brawl only cemented those opinions and left plenty in the fan base claiming they wouldn't continue rooting for this team if Papelbon was brought back in 2016.
That, of course, is hyperbole and heat-of-the-moment bluster. But neither should it be given zero credence. Fans may not abandon the Nationals altogether, but you better believe they'll let their opinion be known any and every time Papelbon takes the mound wearing a curly W cap.
Can you imagine the response from a sellout crowd at Nationals Park if and when Papelbon jogs out from the dugout during the home opener introductions? When he saunters in from the bullpen for his save opportunity? There's a decent chance he'd still be booed after recording the final out of a game.
Professional sports fans are a forgiving lot by nature. And perhaps over time Papelbon could win back the masses with quality performances on the mound and admirable conduct off it. But that's far from a sure thing. There is going to be a sizable portion of this fan base that never forgives the right-hander for what he did, fair or unfair.
All of this, of course, leaves Rizzo in a tough spot. Everybody in baseball knows the situation, leaving Papelbon's trade value as low as it'll ever get. (The same applies in some ways to Storen, though there could be slightly more interest in him from other clubs.)
The smart baseball move probably is to keep Papelbon. Never sell low.
Trouble is, this is far from a baseball-only decision. This is a public relations decision.
And if the Nationals ultimately choose to bring back Papelbon in 2016, they might well find themselves up against a PR nightmare.
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