The Nationals took swift action Monday to address Jonathan Papelbon’s short-term future with the organization, suspending the volatile closer for the remainder of the season after his dugout attack on Bryce Harper the previous afternoon.
The organization’s long-term plan for Papelbon, though, remains quite murky.
Papelbon is under contract for another season; that was among the biggest selling points to acquire him from the Phillies in July, in general manager Mike Rizzo’s mind. The fact Papelbon was willing to rework his deal, reducing his 2016 salary from $14 million to $11 million (with $3 million of that salary deferred to 2017), helped matters, as well.
But given the images of Sunday’s incident, of Papelbon putting a choke hold on Harper and slamming him into the dugout bench and rear wall, it’s difficult to imagine him showing up in Viera next spring and rejoining the club.
The Nationals wouldn’t address the issue publicly on Monday.
“He’s under contract,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to evaluate every moving part that we have after the season, and we’ll make all those decisions once the final out is made in 2015.”
Rizzo did suggest Papelbon (who isn’t accompanying the Nationals on their final road trip to Atlanta and New York) would be meeting with club officials shortly after the season ends next week. What that meeting might entail is unclear, but it is clear the organization won’t simply put the matter to rest and proceed as though it never happened in the first place.
The Nationals can’t simply try to deal Papelbon to another organization this winter. In addition to his damaged reputation — not to mention the fact he surrendered nine runs over his final 8 2/3 innings this month, suffering two losses and blowing two save opportunities — the no-trade clause that was part of his original contract with the Phillies still applies. He would have the right to veto another deal.
Which probably leaves the Nationals with only two options: 1) Release Papelbon and eat the $11 million he is owed, or 2) Keep him and hope things somehow get better next season.
That, of course, requires everyone to believe this was a one-time incident and not part of a larger, systemic problem. Rizzo was asked Monday if he believes that.
“I do,” the GM said. “Papelbon has fit in nicely in the clubhouse and in the bullpen. I think this was an isolated incident and that Jonathan will learn from it. I think he will react differently the next time.”
Then there’s this simple question: Can Papelbon and Harper co-exist on the same team in 2016? And would retaining him have any negative effect on Harper’s potential interest in signing a long-term deal to remain in Washington beyond the three more years he’s under team control?
“If Pap’s gonna help us win a World Series next year, that’s what I need,” Harper said. “That’s what this whole clubhouse needs, and they need me to do the same thing. We need to be in the lineup every single day and we can’t be fighting or anything like that. That’s just part of it. As much as I need him, he needs me. I attribute that to us being a family in here and doing the things we need to do to win World Series. And he’s part of that.
“I think, being able to go into next year and do the things we need to do, we’ll worry about next year. But if he’s gonna be our closer, he’s gotta do what he can to help this team win. And the same thing with me. I gotta go in every single day to help this team win, and that’s every single guy in this clubhouse. It takes 25 guys, and not just one.”