WASHINGTON – Before Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper in the dugout – becoming a billboard for the dysfunctional Washington Nationals last September – Jon Lester lobbied for the Cubs to acquire the All-Star closer/WWE-style villain at the trade deadline.
If all that bad blood is in the past, Washington is now dealing with a new crisis, putting Papelbon on the disabled list with an intercostal strain before Tuesday’s game against the Cubs at Nationals Park.
With the Philadelphia Phillies looking to unload a toxic asset last summer, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein asked Lester for his thoughts on Papelbon, how that might work for manager Joe Maddon and what the response would be in the clubhouse.
Once again, the Cubs were going back to their Boston Red Sox connections. Lester and Papelbon had been key pieces to the 2007 World Series team that put a second championship on Epstein’s potential Hall of Fame resume.
What this means now for the best team in baseball: The Cubs believe they have created a strong culture that can absorb players with baggage and smooth over awkward situations and ego clashes. Epstein’s front office will canvass a cross-section of sources for information (so don’t read too much into every out-of-context whisper punched into Twitter). And you can never have enough pitching or too many backup plans, because Papelbon saved 365 games before going on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
“Pap’s a good dude,” Lester said. “A lot of the stuff that has kind of followed him around is maybe a little misconstrued. He’s obviously a strong personality. He’ll definitely tell you what’s on his mind, which I love. We get our asses powdered enough – I don’t need my teammates to do it.
“I love Pap. I thought he would have been a good fit. Joe and ‘Boz’ (pitching coach Chris Bosio) and all of us would have really helped him fit in here. I think the fan base would have been really good for him.
“Theo asked me about him. And then maybe like a week later I hadn’t heard anything, so I went (to Theo) and (said): ‘Hey, man, I think this would be great,’ and vouched for (it again).”
The Cubs tried to trade for Papelbon, but didn’t have the financial muscle to compete with the Nationals, who couldn’t placate displaced homegrown closer Drew Storen or live up to the World Series expectations, which got manager Matt Williams fired and ultimately led to Dusty Baker’s return to the dugout.
Papelbon agreed to rework his 2016 option, getting it guaranteed at $11 million instead of $13 million, with $3 million reportedly deferred to 2017 and the Phillies kicking in $4.5 million to cover the rest of his 2015 salary.
The Cubs had less than $5 million to play with last summer, and actually got swept by the last-place Phillies, waking up only five games over .500 on July 27 and facing a double-digit deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.
The Cubs wound up making smaller deals for their rotation (Dan Haren) and bullpen (Tommy Hunter) on July 31 before catching fire in August, finishing with 97 victories and winning two playoff rounds.
“It’s been documented that last year we weren’t expected to be where we were at,” Lester said. “So I think financially it kind of surprised everybody. And people kept asking us: ‘If they don’t get anybody, are you guys OK?’ It (was always): ‘Yeah, we’ll be fine.’
“Would we like maybe a little help here and there? Yeah, absolutely, but I didn’t really think that was the time to (mortgage the future). Obviously, now it’s easy to look back and say they made the right move as far as not selling the farm and not wasting a bunch of money.
“Theo and those guys are so good. They’re so prepared and they do (so much) homework and background on a lot of things that we (don’t think about). As a player and as a competitor, you’re like: ‘Just get him. I don’t care what his shoulder looks like – just get him – we’ll figure the rest out.’
“Whereas they sit back and (think): ‘We’re not trading two of our (young) guys for a half-a-year rental that we don’t need right now.’”
This is what Lester wanted when he signed that six-year, $155 megadeal after the 2014 season, deciding to anchor the rotation for a last-place team and dreaming about starting playoff games at Wrigley Field.
“That’s a cool part about being here,” Lester said. “In Boston, even though I had a little bit of time over there, I was still third or fourth on the totem pole as far as guys that were asked about things and kind of included in situations. So that was something that I also talked to Theo about when I was recruited by him – I want to be involved more. I don’t care if you listen to me or not, but I would like a phone call or I would like a text.
“He does such a good job with communicating, whether it be situations like (Papelbon) or something going on in the clubhouse or something on the field. There’s definitely no disconnect between players and the front office.”