MIAMI -- A team already in first place, with designs on playing deep into October, has traded for a pitcher who has reached baseball's summit. The Nationals acquired Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon on Tuesday night in exchange for prospect Nick Pivetta. The Nats also agreed to terms with Papelbon on a revised contract for 2016.
A six-time All-Star, Papelbon strengthens the back end of the Washington bullpen, which includes Drew Storen and Casey Janssen. All three pitchers have pitched the ninth inning during their careers. But Papelbon has done more than that, with a 1.00 lifetime postseason ERA highlighted by a save in the final game of the 2007 World Series with Boston. He immediately becomes the man in the ninth for Washington.
Papelbon is having one of his most productive seasons, going 17-for-17 in save opportunities with a 1.59 ERA. He is one of only three MLB closers to be perfect in save opportunities and ranks among National League relief leaders in ERA (seventh) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (tied for 10th, 5.00). He is one of the few players on the Nationals with World Series experience.
"He is an All-Star closer," manager Matt Williams said. "He has been in pressure situations during his whole career, so we are happy to have him. We want to make our team better. It provides us opportunity to do that. It's not easy. Paps is going to pitch the ninth."
As Friday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, the Nationals have been looking to improve their bullpen, and they did so in a big way on Tuesday. Papelbon will be the closer and Storen will be the primary setup man, a job he did well last year. Papelbon is expected to join the Nationals on Wednesday.
Storen could get some opportunities to close, but Papelbon will be the primary option. General manager Mike Rizzo said that Papelbon is not expected to pitch three games in a row.
"[Papelbon] is a proven elite closer in the game of baseball," Rizzo said. "He comes with a track record. He has done it in some of the most stressful situations he can [have]. It will fit well with his intensity and his competitiveness in the clubhouse and with the ballclub."
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the Phils are paying a "significant" portion of Papelbon's salary for the remainder of the season. The Washington Post reported it is $4.5 million, which is essentially the rest of his 2015 salary. But Amaro said they will pay none of the $11 million Papelbon will make in 2016. Papelbon, who waived his no-trade rights, actually took less money to leave the Phillies, forgoing a $13 million club option that would have automatically vested if he finished just 14 more games this season.
Before the deal was consummated with Papelbon, Rizzo had a talk with Storen. Rizzo said he gave Storen a professional courtesy to let him know that Papelbon was coming.
Storen didn't sound like a guy who was happy about the change.
"All I'm going to say is, I'm aware of the move and I've talked to Mike about it. I've talked to my agent about it," Storen said. "We've had some ongoing discussions. Until those have progressed, I'm just going to leave it at that. No comment for now. But as the situation goes, I'll keep you guys posted."
This will be the third time that Storen has lost his job as closer. Coming off a 43-save season in 2011, Storen started '12 on the disabled list because of an elbow injury. When he returned, he lost his job to Tyler Clippard. Storen regained the closer's role toward the end of the regular season that year.
Storen then lost the closer's role after the team acquired Rafael Soriano, who kept the job until he slumped badly during the second half of the 2014 season. Storen flourished during the month of September and the success continued this season. In 38 games in 2015, Storen has saved 29 games with a 1.73 ERA.
Outside of Storen, the 'pen has been shaky for most of this season. Washington thought it had found an eighth-inning option in David Carpenter, but he is on the disabled list because of shoulder issues. Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen have been inconsistent, and Treinen was recently sent back to Triple-A Syracuse. Janssen has been effective but is not overpowering.
Rizzo had interest in relievers like Padres right-hander Craig Kimbrel and Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman, but he indicated that those teams asked for too much in return.
"We had a lot of discussions with a lot of teams about a lot of relief pitchers," Rizzo said. "Either the Minor League talent was too much to [give up] or it just didn't work out with certain players. We think we have one of the elite closers in the game of baseball and we are happy to have him."