Overheard in the Cubs office recently:
Theo: First we got Lackey, then Chapman. Yet, our likability factor has remained high. I’m thinking we could still use more of an edge.
Jed: What about having Hope Solo sing the Stretch?
Theo: Maybe we could have Crane look into that. But do you really think that’ll even make a dent after Dempster did whatever it was he did?
Jed: Good call. Hey, what about Papelbon? Not only does he fit the pattern we’ve established of bringing in guys we’re familiar with from our Boston days, but he’s also a total dick. And it’d be a sweet troll job on all the people who already think the Cubs are chokers.
Theo: I like where your head’s at, let’s kick the tires. And while you’re at it, give Coppolella a call and see what’s up with Pierzynski.
Okay, so that wasn’t an actual conversation between the top minds of the Cubs’ brain trust. Or was it? It’s not a stretch to imagine Jonathan Papelbon’s name coming up in the wake of his release by the Nationals, which just happened to coincide with Pedro Strop’s trip to the DL with a torn meniscus.[beautifulquote align=”full”]The bullpen’s collapse provided just the kind of knee-jerk reaction that could set in motion a Rube Goldberg device cobbled together from various disappointments and failures.[/beautifulquote]
The bullpen’s collapse in Saturday’s loss to the Cardinals provided just the kind of knee-jerk reaction that could set in motion a Rube Goldberg device cobbled together from the various disappointments and failures of a motley crew of relievers. Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, and Adam Warren have been jettisoned via different channels, Mike Montgomery and Joe Smith have been less than stellar in the early going, and Carl Edwards Jr is untested in high-pressure situations.
So when Papelbon asked for and was granted his release by the Nationals, the Cubs were naturally going to be one of the teams linked to him. From a purely historical perspective, I’m intrigued by this possibility. I mean, when’s the last time one team employed four separate elite closers during the course of a single season? Joe Nathan’s not around any longer, but Pap, Chap, and Rondon were or are lock-down pitchers of the highest order. But is this really something the Cubs would or should do?
On the surface, the idea of replacing the funktastic Joe Smith with a guy who’s won a World Series in Boston and has racked up 368 saves is enticing. Joe Maddon had been loathe to push Edwards into tight, late-inning situations, but Strop’s loss necessitates a change of plan. Papelbon’s addition would reset the learning curve and give Maddon the margin for error he’d enjoyed until a few days ago. And his playoff experience could prove invaluable come October.
Sounds pretty good so far, right? I think we need to see what’s on the other side of that coin, though.[beautifulquote align=”right”]Randal Grichuk is a veritable golem brought to life by an inordinate amount of devil magic.[/beautifulquote]
Let’s first look at Saturday’s debacle, which saw Edwards walk four men to set the stage for Smith to allow a grand slam. Sure, it was an abject disaster, but are you looking at that as the norm for those guys? Edwards had been displaying great control up to that point and, while a complete inability to throw strikes is far from acceptable, there was bound to be a hiccup at some point. I really don’t blame Smith either, since the homer was hit by Randal Grichuk, a veritable golem brought to life by an inordinate amount of devil magic for the explicit purpose of destroying the Cubs.
Seriously, if this guy was on a team with Billy Hamilton, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Neil Walker, and five high schoolers, they would never lose to the Cubs. In 237 career games, Grichuk carries a slash line of .249/.302/.482 with 34 home runs and 95 RBI. In 29 games (19 starts) against the Cubs, however, he’s slashing .289/.322/.619 with 5 home runs and 17 RBI.
What I’m trying to say here is that you can’t put a lot of stock in one game, particularly when you’re only looking at a single inning of that game. What you can put stock in is the Cubs’ double-digit division lead and the absence of any real pressure to make a move that would put them over the top. That’s what the Chapman acquisition was supposed to be. Strop’s loss, while unexpected and detrimental in the short term, should be just that: temporary. You can’t take for granted that he’ll come back good as new, but it’s not an uncommon procedure and resting his arm for 4-6 weeks might be a good thing in the end.
There’s also the matter of Papelbon’s potential addition making only a minor incremental difference in terms of performance. Though he’d usurp Smith’s innings and would eat into some of Edwards’ as well, even significant improvement in that sample would be nominal due to its small size. And considering Papelbon’s 4.37 ERA, unimpressive 8.0 K/9, and pedestrian 3.6 BB/9, improvement of any degree is far from guaranteed. Then when Strop returns, Papelbon’s impact would be even further blunted.
You’ve also got the matter of the former closer’s acceptance of a reduced role, which is the reason he’s available in the first place. After being bumped out of his spot by the Nationals’ acquisition of Mark Melancon, Papelbon was a man without much of a purpose. Nats manager Dusty Baker admitted that there just wasn’t a fit anymore and that he “didn’t know where to use (Papelbon).”[beautifulquote align=”left”]We’re not talking about a guy who boasts a mid-90’s heater and a wipeout slider any longer.[/beautifulquote]
There is a huge difference between being forced into a new role and willingly accepting a position of reduced leverage and import, but is Papelbon willing to do the latter? He wasn’t able to adjust to a setup role in Washington, so I don’t know how he’d feel about being an occasional 6th-inning guy in Chicago. And should the Cubs be willing to bring him in even if he is good with it? Remember, we’re not talking about a guy who boasts a mid-90’s heater and a wipeout slider any longer. With a fastball that averages under 91 mph and a slider that doesn’t break 80 and has become much more hittable, Papelbon isn’t the same pitcher he once was.
And we haven’t even talked about his surly demeanor and how that’d play with fans. Like so many other players of similar ilk, teammates have generally spoken very highly of Papelbon and his competitive fire. With that in mind, I have no doubt of his ability to assimilate into the beneficent Borg that is the Cubs clubhouse (though recent stories have shaken my confidence). My skepticism is rooted firmly in his ability to get opposing hitters out. Fans can put up with a jerk who’s pitching well, but they’re not going to have much patience for a jerk who gets rocked on the mound. If the Cubs really want to go after a former big-time close to bolster the pen, I’d much rather they try to bring Joe Nathan back into the fold.
In the end, I’ll gladly defer to Epstein and Hoyer and their scouting when it comes to personnel decisions. I just can’t imagine how — between the marginal potential for improvement, lack of real need, and requisite roster shuffling, not to mention the PR aspects — Jonathan Papelbon makes sense for the Cubs.