While the Washington Nationals figured out what to do with their problem closer during the offseason, a source in contact with Jonathan Papelbon said he hoped to wind up with the Cubs, viewing that as an ideal exit strategy after choking Bryce Harper.
Papelbon’s thinking about Wrigley Field as a destination couldn’t have fundamentally changed since the Nationals released him over the weekend, because the Cubs still have a front office that gets the “Cinco Ocho” act, a laissez-faire clubhouse filled with allies and uncertainty in their bullpen.
The bigger question for Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group becomes: How much does Papelbon have left?
The Cubs know Papelbon can only get by on guts and experience at the age of 35, no longer possessing the 95-mph fastball that made him such a force with the Boston Red Sox. It says something that the Nationals – the team with the second-best record in baseball behind the Cubs – boxed him out of their bullpen and no longer saw him as a high-stakes reliever for October.
If the Cubs could rationalize Aroldis Chapman’s 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy – and still make that blockbuster trade with the New York Yankees and recover from an uncomfortable welcome-to-Chicago press conference – then they can tolerate Papelbon’s eccentric personality.
That tone-deaf attitude continued with president of business operations Crane Kenney issuing a statement through a team spokesman on Monday, saying the Cubs had “terminated our relationship with the employee responsible” for the closer’s ninth-inning soundtrack on Sunday night at Wrigley Field: The Prodigy’s “Smack My B---- Up.”
If the Cubs are going to delicately handle Tommy La Stella’s refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa – and not slam the door to return shut while the pinch-hitter/extra infielder works out at home in New Jersey – then they can make an allowance for a six-time All-Star with 368 career saves.
If the Cubs can take so many chances on change-of-scenery guys and Tommy John cases – while failing to develop their drafted pitchers – then why not see if they can catch lightning in a bottle with Papelbon, the way they did last year with Fernando Rodney?
The Cubs are supremely confident in manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Chris Bosio, believing they can handle difficult personalities, find the right matchups and maximize players’ talents. The Cubs even tried to acquire Papelbon last summer while the Philadelphia Phillies looked to dump a toxic asset, but they didn’t have the financial resources to match the Nationals.
Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting chief Jason McLeod all know Papelbon as a drafted-and-developed player for the Red Sox, watching him finish off the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series, saving a Game 4 started by Jon Lester at Coors Field. Lester lobbied Epstein before last year’s trade deadline, telling the president of baseball operations that a Papelbon experiment would work in Chicago.
“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.”
[SHOP: Get your Cubs gear here, fans!]
Lester talked up Papelbon in the middle of June, during an intense series at Nationals Park that felt like a playoff preview for the Cubs. Washington had just put Papelbon on the disabled list – for the first time in his career – with an intercostal strain. To that point, Papelbon had notched 16 saves and put up a 3.28 ERA, which ultimately wouldn’t be enough to stop the Nationals from acquiring All-Star closer Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I love Pap,” Lester said. “I thought he would have been a good fit. Joe and ‘Boz’ 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).”
While Chapman has been as good as advertised in the ninth inning, the Cubs don’t have the sturdiest bridge to get there.
Hector Rondon didn’t pitch for almost two weeks while dealing with a sore triceps – and then gave up four runs to the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday and took the loss. Pedro Strop is recovering from a surgical procedure to repair the torn meniscus in his left knee, hoping to return at some point in September.
Carl Edwards Jr. is a promising rookie the Cubs are handling with care – Maddon doesn’t want to push him hard in back-to-back appearances. Joe Smith (8.10 ERA) has been a disappointment in his first five appearances since getting traded from the Los Angeles Angels.
With a 12-game division lead heading into Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, the Cubs are in a position to throw relievers out there and see what sticks in their bullpen.
While Fenway Park would be another soft landing spot, the guess here is Papelbon would do an Irish jig if he could get inside the party room in the underground clubhouse at 1060 W. Addison St.