By In Baseball

The Worst Trade of the Season

The Washington Nationals have had a weird season. They had a nasty run of injuries — Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg all missed significant time. That’s pretty rough.

Ian Desmond stayed healthy, but he has declined from a good big league shortstop to replacement level in one year — he has a .273 on-base percentage, still strikes out like crazy, and by the stats and the eye-test he has been playing below average defense. Huge problem.

On the other hand, Bryce Harper has emerged into the superstar that everyone anticipated — he’s your top MVP candidate at the moment — and Max Scherzer has mostly been a star as the Nationals ace, and Drew Storen, after an emotional few years, had settled beautifully into the closer’s role. Put it all together and it certainly wasn’t ideal, The Nationals have been massive underachievers no matter how you look at it.

But it still seemed like they would be good enough. On July 22nd, Storen closed the door on the Mets by striking out the side in a 4-3 victory. That was his 29th save and it gave the Nationals a three-game lead in the National League East.

And then Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made what I believe is the dumbest trade of the season, one of the dumbest in recent memory. He traded a Class AA pitcher for 34-year-old closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Why is the move dumb? Well, first, there’s the obvious baseball stuff: The Nationals already had a fantastic closer. Getting Papelbon has meant shifting a hurt and angry Storen to the eighth inning, where for the first two weeks he has been terrible. Papelbon is a brash and traditional closer, in the fullest sense of those words, which means he has made it clear you only use him when you are leading by one to three runs going into the ninth inning. That schedule has meant he has thrown exactly four innings for the Nationals in the last two-plus weeks. The trade shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a closer — especially a closer like Papelbon — brings to the team.

Put it this way: A few years ago, one of the game’s great baseball executives told me after a similarly ill-fated closer trade: “If you think you’re a closer away from being a contender, you might want to reevaluate.”

But, more than the baseball incoherence here, there’s the horrible smell of a trade like this. Drew Storen is one of the most popular guys on the Washington Nationals. He’s a homegrown talent, and he has been through everything with this organization. He emerged just as the Nationals become a power. He had that heartbreaking postseason performance against the Cardinals in 2012 and he obviously carried the scars into the next season when he really struggled. He worked his way back in 2014, pitched brilliantly all season, only to blow a save in the ninth inning against the Giants and pitch a shaky ninth inning later. One more time, he had to fight his way back.

Then, this year, he was the closer from the start, and he owned it, and this was one of the few good things happening for the Nationals. On June 22, after he blew away the Mets, the league had hit one homer against him all year, he had a 44-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his ERA was 1.73. Storen wasn’t just a baseball story, he was an uplifting human story about overcoming, the kind of story that carries throughout the clubhouse and the city.

And to ignore all that and trade for a mercenary closer with two months left in the season? That’s the sort of  small-time and cold-hearted thing the greedy executive in a terrible baseball movie does. You can see the movie exchange between the earnest manager and the heartless GM.

Manager: “But Drew’s our guy! He’s grown up with this organization.”

GM: “Can’t chance it. He’s blown games for us. We’ve got to get a proven guy.”

Manager: “I think this will break Drew’s heart.”

GM: “I’m not in the hearts game, buddy. I’m in the winning game.”

Over on SportsWorld, I did a quick video where I mention that there’s still a lot of season left and I predict that the Blue Jays will indeed overpower the Yankees the rest of the way but the Nationals still have too much talent to lose to the Mets. I just don’t trust the Mets to score enough runs.

Since I did the video, the Mets have taken a 4 1/2 game lead and the Nationals look completely lost. The overall point I was making remains — there’s still a long way to go in this season, and I do believe the Nationals have more talent than the Mets. As I said in the video, if the baseball season is a marathon we still have seven or eight miles to go.

But as I watch that Nationals team bumble around even as they finally get healthy, I can’t get it out of my head that Mike Rizzo — a guy who I think has done a nice job overall — really blew it with that Papelbon deal. The Mets play with a beautiful sense of purpose. The Nationals slog like the bloated and overpaid team they’ve become.

36 Responses to The Worst Trade of the Season

  1. Bruce Lee says:

    Dear Nationals,

    Thank you,

    Love Philly Phans

  2. Ryan says:

    I don’t know…did Nats fans really want Storen trying to close another big game in October? Refusing to add talent to your team because you might bruise someone’s ego sounds like a bad way to do business, and indicates your team is too sensitive.

    Maybe the team is losing ground simply because of the injuries, Matt Williams, and the fact that the Mets have decided to never lose again.

    • As for “you might bruise someone’s ego,” it is my understanding that Papelbon would not approve the deal unless he was assured that HE would be the closer — he’s chasing Mo Rivera’s record, as if topping that record would make anyone compare Papelbon to Rivera favorably, or at all. So his ego is at least as involved in the outcome as Storen’s, the only difference being that Storen was doing his job a lot better with the Nats than Papelbon was with the Phillies.

      I’m not a Nats fan, but the trade struck me as ridiculous from the git-go. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Storen was one of the few things on the Nats that weren’t broke.

    • VermontPhilsPhan says:

      Did they want Papelbon to close a big game in October? Like he failed to do against the O’s in 2011, taking the Sox out of the postseason.

  3. MikeN says:

    So is this a really terrible trade or just a really terrible trade like James Shields for Wil Myers?

  4. It’s easy to agree with the sentiments here that the Papelbon trade was a psychological blow not just to Storen, but the whole team, which has coincidentally seemed to implode since the announcement. On the other hand, I wonder how much of this is just fans projecting their own emotions onto the players, who are pretty conditioned to this sort of stuff?

  5. Steve says:

    Joe, I wondered why of all teams the Nationals acquired Papelbon. The only logic I can think of is he adds bullpen depth. Washington probably thought that having Storen as the setup guy was better than any Setup guy they could acquire. However, there was a price to this trade that.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      That’s the point. The Nats issue was not closing but getting the ball to the 9th inning. Since they traded Clippard, they had been having trouble with the set-up guys. I didn’t particularly like the trade because (1) I don’t think Papelbon is all that great at this point; and (2) you are basically guaranteeing that Storen leaves when he hits free agency. But I don’t think the trade was specifically about not trusting Storen to close or wanting Papelbon. It was about strengthening the bullpen generally. Storen has struggled at time since but the major problems with the team have not been the bullpen but the offense and starting pitching. I seriously doubt that Storen’s bruised ego is making the hitters not hit. The team is overrated; even last year, the offense was not that good and now with Desmond struggling (although he has picked up recently) and Ramos becoming replacement level and Span out, there’s not much there except Harper. Werth is old and probably doesn’t have much left and Zimmerman is simply not that good anymore. While the Mets are throwing out an entire staff of 1s and 2s, the Nats have Gio Gonzalez, who is basically a back end of the rotation guy now, Strasburg has been hurt, Scherzer has been struggling, and Fister sucks (in part due to injury). I don’t buy at all that the Nats have been losing because of the psychological blow from the trade. These are major league players; if they are that fragile emotionally, they would never have made the majors.

  6. schlom says:

    Well they made up for it by making probably the best trade of the year – Stephen Souza to the Rays for Joe Ross and Trea Turner.

  7. I’m not going to say you’re completely off-base. But this trade wasn’t about swapping Papelbon in for Storen at closer. This trade was about swapping Papelbon for Aaron Barrett, Blake Treinen, and whoever else the Nats were running out in the 6th and 7th and doing poorly. Papelbon was available but apparently would only approve the trade if he knew he’d be closing (evidently he has a save-based incentive in his contract). Storen had no such leverage, so the deal was made. Storen can then pitch the 8th, Casey Janssen can pitch the 7th, etc., and Aaron Barrett gets sent down. I also think it’s worth noting that Storen’s first several 8th-inning outings were nearly perfect; the last three have been lousy. But it’s not like he went into a funk starting immediately after this trade.

    Now, one can argue that the bullpen’s struggles are the result of Matt WIlliams not knowing how to handle them. Williams likes to point at a guy and say “You! Pitch the 7th!”, and expects the guy to get three outs regardless of platoon advantages, personal history, or anything else. He could do that when he had Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard, but right now it’s not working out so easily. But that’s another post altogether. Bottom line, though, if the Nats HADN’T done anything to improve their bullpen, you’d be wondering about that right now.

    • jalabar says:

      Yes, the Nats needed to improve their bullpen, and there is a guy they should have traded for to keep a leg up on the Mats. Unfortunately the Mats themselves traded for the guy the Nats SHOULD have gone after, Tyler Clippard. Funny thing is a said to a buddy of mine at work “If the Nats get Kimbrel or Chapman, either of those guys should be the closer and Storen the set up guy. However, if they get Papelbon, he should set up for Storen.”

      If Clip had come back, he comes back to set up Drew Storen. There are no hurt feelings. But Rizzo went for the splash rather than the solid trade.

      And no, you can’t manage or GM to not hurt feelings. If the team needs to improve, you try to improve it. But it isn’t good when a guy appears to have EARNED a role to take it away from him. In my opinion, Storen had earned that closer role, and taking it away was a bad look to/for everyone.

  8. Paul Zummo says:

    ” I do believe the Nationals have more talent than the Mets.”

    I feel like this is one of those themes people insist on long after its veracity has been proven to be dubious. At this point in the season the Mets rotation has shown itself to be better than the Nats’ rotation. This is no longer “the Mets have more potential” type thing. No, the Mets’ rotation is better now.

    As for the lineups, the Nats are tad deeper, but even this isn’t the slam dunk it once was. Harper is better than anyone, but there is a steep curve after him. Even granting the injuries, we have a deep enough sample size of Werth and Zimmerman just not being very good. Technically the Nats might have more talent in the lineup, but are you really that much more confident that the Nats can put more runs on the board than the Mets?

    Anyway, this is all tangential to the larger issue. I think it’s deeper than trading for Papelbon. Mike Rizzo is a good GM, but once again he really failed to go for the jugular. Couldn’t he have gotten a Cespedes? Or a Gomez? Or Tulo? or Price? etc. The probably with the Nats is not that the media and fans bought into the hype; it’s that they bought into their own hype, and Rizzo seemed content to keep the roster put except for the dubious idea of bringing in Papelbon. He addressed precisely the wrong thing.

    • The Nats have a history of not adding current-year salary at the trade deadline (yes they’re picking up Papelbon’s $11M for next year, but the Phillies are mostly paying for him this year). When they can make moves cheaply, they do. But if getting Cespedes or Gomez would have meant paying out cash, Rizzo may well have been denied by ownership.

  9. So Joe writes “On June 22, after he blew away the Mets, the league had hit one homer against him all year, he had a 44-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his ERA was 1.73.”

    And when they made the deal for Papelbon, HE had a 40-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and HIS ERA was 1.59. So Papelbon was having a better season and was a proven commodity in the playoffs, and yet you are killing the Nats as THIS trade being what has killed them? What kills them is that they have a HORRIBLE manager and a bunch of prima donna chokers who think they are God’s gifts to baseball. They deserve to be ripped, but to single out Papelbon as being a horrible trade is just stupid. Plain stupid.

  10. […] update: Joe Posnanski wrote a column 2 weeks onward, crucifying Rizzo and this trade (calling it “The Worst trade of the Season”) for its […]

  11. dtro says:

    I don’t think that the Nats are particularly more talented than the Mets at this point. Scherzer and Harper have really carried them most of the year and the Mets trades for competent bats have allowed them to send some really awful players back to AAA. Position by position the Mets win more of those battles than you’d expect and the pitching aside from Colon is top notch.

  12. Karl Kolchak says:

    The Nats never should have gone into this season with Storen as the closer given that they obviously didn’t have faith in him for the playoffs. Trading Clippard instead of Storen this past offseason is where the real mistake was made. The Papelbon trade just compounded it.

  13. Werth came back from injury around this time and has hit miserably in the middle of the lineup (a jaw-dropping .408 OPS).

    For years, people have said the Nats as a whole have not played as well as the quality of their parts. Maybe they just don’t have great parts, not any more.

  14. Himself says:

    Poor baby Storen. Somebody give him back his blankey.

  15. Like a lot of folks, I don’t think the Papelbon trade is what hurt the team – as noted, he’s only pitched 4 innings. Which is to say, if your manager only uses a closer when you have a lead – and you can never get the lead maybe the new closer isn’t your problem.

    I.E. – The abominable hitting performances of Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos, who have both slipped defensively too. Matt Williams putting strikeout machine Michael Taylor at the top of the lineup. Batting Jayson Werth at cleanup in August, with his OPS under 500.

    And Matt Williams running out Trienen and Barrett in high-leverage situations vs. the Mets instead of pitching Storen or Papelbon just compounds that.

    One thing I do know – Werth, Desmond, Ramos, Taylor et al arent hitting like my dead grandma because they traded for Papeblon.

  16. Hold Your Horses says:

    The worst trade of the season was giving up Trae Turner and Ross for a pack of cigarettes and a Macy’s 5% off coupon.

  17. Brian says:

    The Nationals gave up their #10 prospect for one of the top closers in the league. Storen is a good closer but Papelbon is one of the best in baseball. They made a good trade to shore up their bullpen but their mistake is in failing to shore up their offense. The Nationals played all their starters Thursday, and their lineup included only two hitters with an OPS above .700. They’ll get a big boost when Denard Span comes back but not nearly the boost the Mets got by upgrading three positions with trades.

  18. adamst12 says:

    Joe, I enjoy your writing but the reasoning here is just terrible.

    First, it’s results based analysis. But worse, it’s seeing the events through your personal bias. You could just as easily write that Storen’s terrible performance the last two weeks JUSTIFIES the trade because it shows he isn’t the guy you want to rely on, down the stretch or in the playoffs.

  19. belmontbill says:

    Joe, you’re way off base in this piece. First of all, in what universe is it a bad idea to pick up an experienced and talented pitcher when your team is in position to possibly go to the world series for the first time EVER?? Since when is it a crime to add talent and depth to a contending team? Having Papelbon on the team gives them some protection in case Storen gets injured.

    Secondly, I will shed no tears for a man who makes 5.7 million per year for pitching about 60 innings. That works out to about $21,000.00 for each batter Storen will face this year. And I don’t believe for a second that Storen’s 2011 post-season problems led to his off year in 2012, nor that his 2014 post-season is something he’s had to “fight back from”.

    I can think of about 5.7 million reasons why Storen should be overjoyed to be pitching for a contending team regardless of what inning he gets used in.

  20. bpdelia says:

    Yeah. This isn’t even in the top ten worst trades this year. In fact it isn’t a bad trade. The nationals can’t keep getting credit for being talented add if it was 2012 anymore. Zimmerman, werth, ramos, Desmond. It’s been 3 years since they were stars. They are no longer anything but names. The rotation isn’t even close to the mets at this point.

    Implying that the nats problems stem from getting the sadz because drew storen now pitches an inning earlier is the type of silliness one should expect from the best worst type of baseball analysis.

    The mets greatly improved the weakness on their team. The nationals improved their bullpen but still have half of their everyday lineup playing like what they are. Guys who were one great players but now are past their primes.

    Sorry joe but this one is truly absurd.

    • bpdelia says:

      Oof. Some pretty bad phone auto corrects up there but you all get my point.

      I agree with the field. Joe. Joe, Joe, Joe…. This one is pretty disappointing.

      Talent wins. And now Storen can “battle back” from the nightmare of being forced to make millions pitching high leverage situations late in games without getting saves

      🙁 🙁 🙁

  21. Andy says:

    The Nats’ situation sounds similar to the 2012/13 Phillies — above average rotation while hoping a line up of aging stars produces similar to 2 years ago. And we know where that led for the Phillies.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      But the Nats aren’t really old, other than Werth. Zimmerman is 30, Desmond is 29 (although, IMO, he has always been overrated), Ramos is 28, Rendon is 25, Harper is 22, etc.. Even Escobar is, I believe, in his late 20s. The team is actually very young. It’s not age, its injuries and just plain underperformance. Clearly, Zimmerman isn’t the player he was, but it’s not because of age and he can still hit. Ramos was quite good in previous years but had been hurt a lot; this year, he has been healthy but not playing well. Desmond has simply fallen off a cliff (although he is playing a bit better now), but there was no reason to expect that. . One of the big things is that Rendon was hurt and has not gotten his stroke back-plus, they continue to play Escobar at third even though Rendon is a great third baseman. Also, trading Clippard and losing Stammen to injury severely hurt the bullpen. Losing Denard Span has hurt a lot more than people expected. The Nats have plenty of problems, but age is not one of them. They need to cut bait, I think, with Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, as they have younger arms in the minors. But, the situation is nothing like the Phillies and, in fact, they will likely get younger with Desmond leaving to be replaced by Trea Turner.

      • Andy says:

        Good points, but I still think the comparison works even if the ages are not as close as I thought. Harper and Rendon are very young, obviously, but Dan Uggla has played as much as Rendon this year. I thought Zimmerman was older (he was starting at 3B at 21!), but he is still past prime as is Desmond and their everyday 3B is 32. The Phillies core was 32-33 at the time and the Nationals players are not as good, so I’d expect them to get worse along the lines of an average player, i.e., 29.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          But Uggla is purely a gap-filler, who will be gone next year. I guess I see your point for this year, but I don’t think it applies much going forward. Escobar won’t be starting next year; Rendon will ultimately be the everyday third baseman, Trea Turner will be the everyday shortstop (or second baseman). Uggla won’t even be around. You are probably right about Zimmerman being past his prime, but he can still hit some. I agree that Werth is about done. But, if you are going to talk about the core of the team, you have to include Harper, who is 22. Michael Taylor has been up and down but I like his potential. They also have young arms in the minors; I assume that Fister will be gone next year and, I hope, Gio Gonzalez, but Joe Ross has looked very good, and they have Lucas Giolito ready soon to step up.

          I just don’t see the comparison with the Philies. I’m not saying the Nats are a flawless team, but I don’t see them falling off the cliff like the Phillies; for one thing, they don’t have a Ryan Howard-like contract (admittedly, Werth’s isn’t very good but he is getting close to the end of it).

  22. ….so, drew storen is sulking? sounds like a guy you’d want to count on…

  23. […] worst trade of the season (something I supported at the time, but now see how wrong I was), read Joe Posnanski. That trade, plus the pre-season dealing of Tyler Clippard (which I did not support at the time), […]

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