WASHINGTON — Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sounds very much like someone prepared to enter next season with Jonathan Papelbon as his closer, despite the pitcher's dugout brouhaha with NL MVP Bryce Harper last September.
While not ruling out trading Papelbon, Rizzo spoke glowingly about the right-hander to reporters during a conference call on Saturday, a day after Washington sent former closer Drew Storen to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Ben Revere.
"We see Papelbon as being one of our late-inning relievers. He's been very effective at it his entire career, including last year, except for the last portion of the season," Rizzo said. "This guy's a quality reliever, quality closer. ... He knows how to win. He brings a swagger to the bullpen. And he's a guy that we'll rely on to pitch late innings, leverage innings."
Late last season, Papelbon grabbed Harper by the throat during a fight between the teammates in the middle of a game. Papelbon was suspended by the Nationals and the players' union filed a grievance on his behalf that is still pending.
Papelbon, a six-time All-Star acquired from Philadelphia in late July, is guaranteed $11 million for 2016.
His arrival in Washington meant Storen — who had converted 29 save chances and had a 1.73 ERA at the time — was shifted to an eighth-inning role. Storen struggled and finished the season with a 3.44 ERA without another save. His season ended in mid-September when he slammed his locker in frustration and broke his right thumb.
"I've got a great affinity for Drew," Rizzo said. "The one thing that Drew and I can say honestly is we've had some difficult conversations, but we've had them eye-to-eye, man-to-man, and this is a guy who cared about the organization and really handled himself in a professional way every single time."
Storen, who was drafted by Washington, leaves with 95 saves and two particularly infamous blown saves — in Game 5 of the 2012 Division Series against St. Louis, and in Game 2 of the 2014 Division Series against San Francisco.
He tweeted Saturday: "Thanks DC for all the memories. Thanks to the fans, you were with me through thick & thin. I'm happy to have been part of something special."
In response to a question about who might wind up being the team's eighth-inning setup man, Rizzo mentioned three players he added this offseason — Shawn Kelley, Yusmeiro Petit and Trevor Gott — and two relievers who were with the team last season, Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero.
"We feel good about where we're at in the bullpen," Rizzo said. "We've got depth. We've got quality. We have guys who pitched in an array of roles in the back end of games."
As for Revere, Rizzo said the player's exact role "remains to be seen." The GM praised Revere's defensive ability in center field — aside from acknowledging less-than-ideal arm strength — and skills as a contact hitter and base stealer.
Revere also fills one of Rizzo's top offseason priorities: adding a left-handed hitter.
Rizzo says he likes "the way the roster is constructed right now" and would "be comfortable" if next season were starting tomorrow.
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