When the Nationals traded set-up man Tyler Clippard to the Oakland A's for second baseman Yunel Escobar on Thursday, the move made a lot of sense.
The Nats had nothing going on at second base, unless you think Danny Espinoza or Dan Uggla were going to be able to un-stink their way through the 2015 season. So, Washington clearly felt that adding an everyday player of Escobar's caliber was more advantageous to them then keeping Clippard, who had eight terrific years in the Nats' bullpen, with a 2.88 ERA in 491 career innings, to go along with 34 saves.
Clippard is also expected to make around $8 million in 2015, another reason the Nats made the swap.
Of course, losing Clippard is a huge blow to a bullpen that went into a severe state of flux late last season. As Rafael Soriano slowly imploded, Washington shifted Drew Storen to the closer's role and had Clippard as the 8th inning man.
Now, the Nationals enter the 2015 season without their 8th and 9th inning guys. Surely they plan to rely on some of their young pitchers, like Craig Stammen (3.84 ERA in 72.2 IP), Jerry Blevins (4.87 ERA in 57.1 IP), Aaron Barrett (2.66 ERA in 40.2 IP) and Blake Treinen (2.49 ERA in 50.2 IP).
But that's not a whole lot of experience for a team with playoff aspirations.
Of course, you don't want a team loaded with a bunch of high-priced veterans. Smart bullpen construction usually consists of a collection of young, low-priced, live arms all vying for spots in high leverage situations. But a little veteran presence in the later innings isn't a bad thing if it's sprinkled in here and there.
Which brings us to Jonathan Papelbon.
The Phillies have been trying to trade Papelbon for a while now, but have not found anyone willing to take on the dual headaches of his contract (which pays him $13 million this season with a performance-based vesting option of $13 million that triggers if he finishes 48 games next season) and his sparkling, crotch-grabbing personality.
That being said, despite a fastball with a declining velocity, Papelbon has been very, very good during his tenure in Philadelphia. His ERA of 2.04 last year was the lowest since 2009. He saved 39 games for a last place team (with only four blown saves), the most he's had in a season since 41 in 2008. And while his strikeout rate was down for a second straight season (8.5 batters per nine, compared to his career mark of 10.3), he gave up only two home runs all season, the lowest total of his career.
Some might say he's been lucky. But he's been doing this with declining velocity for a while now, so it's reasonable to assume he can continue to put up decent numbers as a late-inning reliever.
If the Phillies were willing to pay half his salary this year, he would cost the Nats $6.5 million, essentially a little less than what Washington would have paid Clippard. The Phils likely wouldn't need much of a prospect back in return, as they're looking to simply be rid of Paps. And even though Papelbon has a 20-team no-trade list, he has said in the past he'd waive it in order to play for a contender.
It's unknown if Washington is on his no-trade, and if they are, he would likely make them pick up his vesting option for 2016, presumably with the Phillies picking up part of the tab as well. That commitment to 2016 might be the killer to any deal. It's also unclear if Papelbon would be willing to play for a contender if he is that team's set-up man, rather than the closer.
Still, the Phils should certainly be kicking the tires on the situation in Washington right now. And if the Nationals aren't prepared to do anything this off-season, that tune may change if their 'pen struggles in the first half of 2015.
The Nats have World Series aspirations, and if their bullpen is an obstacle to that, Papelbon should be an option they consider.