Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Choke Job

The Washington Nationals' train wreck of a season came to a practical end on Saturday night when the Mets officially eliminated them from the playoffs with a 10-2 win in Cincinnati, but that apparently wasn't enough for them; on Sunday, in full view of a paid attendance of 28,661, recently acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon decided to pick a fight with presumptive National League MVP Bryce Harper* after a routine fly ball, grabbing Harper by the throat shortly after he returned to the dugout and slamming him into the wall before several players and coaches jumped in to separate them. The moment perfectly encapsulated what has gone wrong with this season for the Nationals, as both Joe Posnanski and Mark Zuckerman have explained.

*Yes, Harper should be the MVP. Don't spout the tired "it should be a guy from a playoff team" line. This isn't basketball, where one player can carry a team day after day. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, and Harper had a historic season, let alone for a 22-year-old. He was the best player in the National League by a wide margin. End of story.

To me, the whole episode is a classic case of fighting a battle after losing the war. Did Harper sprint out of the box on the can of corn he hit to Jeff Francoeur in left field? No, he did not. But did he reach first base by the time the ball was caught, which is the general rule of thumb for running out easy flies and popups? Yes, he did. So right away Papelbon was out of line, before even considering the fact that he did this in the dugout instead of the privacy of the clubhouse. Not to mention the fact that he is a) a relief pitcher who's good for maybe 70 innings a year, and b) a prima donna who insists on serving as the closer only, which was the major condition of agreeing to waive his no-trade clause and join Washington in the first place.* Mostly, Papelbon was butt-hurt after Harper called him out for throwing at Manny Machado twice a few days earlier, which was also unnecessary and could have prompted the Orioles to drill Harper in retaliation.

*As for an analysis of the actual fight, Harper was clearly unprepared for Papelbon to immediately grab him with a choke hold as they jawed at each other. While both guys are high-maintenance and have fairly strong tempers, Papelbon is a total loose cannon and has probably been in more fights than Harper, who has always been both the best and the youngest player on his team, dating back to Little League. But they are similarly sized (Papelbon has an inch and ten pounds), and probably would have been a fairly even match in a prolonged fight, although again, Papelbon is something of a nut job. There, you happy, Ryan?

But wait, you say, didn't C.J. Nitkowski quote a bunch of players who took Papelbon's side? Well, sure, but not one of those players had the stones to go on the record with their opinions, and in any case it's been pretty clear from Harper's first week in the majors that he would not win a popularity contest among the 1200 players drawing a major league paycheck. You can cite the player polls in successive springs that named him the most overrated player in baseball, or single events like Cole Hamels plunking him just because he was a new rookie and had (still has) an aura of arrogance about him. That's going to color any perception of his hustling capabilities (there are plenty of players who resent him for "running too hard" or for effects like letting his helmet fly off when he's sprinting around the bases), so please don't tell me that other players are "objective." Harper is a strong personality, for which a lot of people, players and fans alike, dislike him. He also happens to be one of the two or three best players in the game at a precociously young age, and has happily taken on the burden of being the face of the Nationals, with all of the off-the-field work that such a role requires (and for the record, he is easily the most popular athlete in Washington, despite the fact that the Redskins dominate conversation here). Yet a significant percentage of people have written him off as a punk since he was a teenager on the cover of Sports Illustrated proclaiming that he wanted to be the best ever, so they have formed their narratives around that preconception. And those people are wrong.

What was arguably the most embarrassing part of the whole incident was manager Matt Williams, after the game, trying to explain the decision to leave the instigator of a public fight in the game to pitch (Papelbon promptly imploded, turning a 4-4 tie into a 12-5 rout) with nothing more than "Tie game in the ninth, our closer is going to be out there." Later Williams called reporters and told them that he wouldn't have left Papelbon in the game had he known about the severity of the fight. What? Are you kidding me? A fracas breaks out twenty feet away from you, and not only do you not see it, none of your coaches tells you "Excuse me, Skip, but we have an ugly situation here." I don't buy that for a second. Yet another misstep by a guy who should be trying to prove to his bosses that he can actually lead this team, and in all likelihood the final nail in his coffin.

Where do the Nationals go from here? Apart from the ascendance of Harper to the stratosphere (he is the third position player age 22 or younger to post a 10-WAR season since 1900, joining Mike Trout and Ted Williams), Max Scherzer's first-half dominance (which included arguably the greatest three-start stretch in baseball history), and the pleasant surprise of Yunel Escobar hitting .318/.377/.420, not a lot has gone right for the Nationals. They have four major free agents (Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span, and Doug Fister), along with five other players whose contracts either expire (Matt Thornton, Dan Uggla, and Reed Johnson) or will not see their options picked up (Casey Janssen and Nate McLouth). The Papelbon trade all but ensured that Drew Storen will be traded this winter, and now Papelbon has created another ugly incident in a career full of them. Without replacing those eight departing players, the team will have about $135 million in payroll on the books for next season, after running a $177 million payroll this year as they chased a World Series. I wouldn't expect them to equal that number next year, given that their TV dispute with the Orioles and MLB is still unresolved, and they will have major decisions to make in the near future as players like Strasburg and Harper approach free agency. Their Opening Day roster could look something like this:

C     Wilson Ramos (age 28)
1B   Ryan Zimmerman (31)
2B   Anthony Rendon (26)
3B   Yunel Escobar (33)
SS   Trea Turner (23)
LF   Jayson Werth (37)
CF   Michael Taylor (25)
RF   Bryce Harper (23)

C     Jose Lobaton (31)
IF    Danny Espinosa (29)
OF   Tyler Moore (29)
IF    Clint Robinson (31)
OF   Matt den Dekker (28)

SP   Max Scherzer (31)
SP   Stephen Strasburg (27)
SP   Gio Gonzalez (30)
SP   Tanner Roark (29)
SP   Joe Ross (23)

RP   Jonathan Papelbon (35)
RP   Blake Treinen (28)
RP   Craig Stammen (32)
RP   Felipe Rivero (24)
RP   Sammy Solis (27)
RP   Taylor Jordan (27)
RP   David Carpenter (30)

I mean, that's not a bad team, but it's also not the 1927 Yankees, with only four players (Harper, Rendon, Scherzer, and Strasburg) who are solid bets to be above-average performers in 2016 (you could talk me into Ross, Ramos and Gonzalez after a beer or two, I suppose). The biggest issue, though, is who exactly leads this team? Desmond, the longest-tenured and most respected member of the organization (he was drafted by the Expos in 2004), will be gone, as will Zimmermann, the longest-tenured pitcher. Zimmerman is a stoic, lead-by-example type not much given to firing up a clubhouse. Scherzer is still somewhat new in town, and Strasburg too often has displayed the temperament of a thoroughbred horse. Werth is making $18 million in part because of the tone he supposedly sets, but he's also someone who wouldn't face the music and deal with the media after the Nationals flamed out of the NLDS a year ago (a series in which he went 1-for-17). Gonzalez is a goof ball. So I ask again, who becomes the leader?

Look, it is entirely possible that everybody can get past this incident and coexist just fine next year. But it is also possible that the acquisition of Papelbon in the first place, coming as it did at the expense of Drew Storen, one of the club's most well-liked players (and their player's union representative), touched off a fuse that has blown up an already mismanaged clubhouse. Perhaps a new manager, with a better grasp of personalities and adaptability, will help. But if the Nationals want to keep Harper in Washington beyond his free agency in 2018 (when he will be turning just 26)*, it would behoove them to keep him happy now. If that means dumping Papelbon on another team in need of a closer while paying at least part of his $11 million freight, they should do it.

*Given that Harper will be younger than any free agent since Alex Rodriguez, and that names like Mickey Mantle, Miguel Cabrera, and Ted Williams are popping up as age-appropriate comparisons, you had better believe that the nine-figure deal it will take to sign him will probably start with a '3' or possibly even a '4.'

All season the Nats have underachieved, and all season they have hidden behind the excuse of injuries (the projected lineup of Span-Werth-Rendon-Harper-Zimmerman-Desmond-Escobar-Ramos played just two games together this year), but there have been other problems as well, from sloppy play by healthy regulars to a highly combustible bullpen that never found an adequate replacement for Tyler Clippard to inept, inflexible managing. All of that boiled over on Sunday in a ridiculous scene perpetrated by a ridiculous player, and it pulled back the curtain on what a basket case these Nationals have become.