We knew Tyler Clippard was the Washington National most likely to be traded heading into this offseason. Relievers–especially relievers with closing experience–in their final year of arbitration often are. The reason is simple: they can be replaced at a fraction of the cost. Tyler Clippard is headed into arbitration this offseason, and history tells us he may earn up to 9 or 10 millions dollars in salary. For a team looking to cut costs–and yes, it appears the Nationals are closely monitoring their payroll–players like Clippard are prime trade bait.
We made it through the Winter Meetings and into the New Year with Clippard still a National. For a moment, it looked like he’d have one more run at the World Series in a Nats uniform. But there was an opening at second base, and Rizzo needed to fill it.
We knew Rizzo wouldn’t go into the season with Danny Espinosa as his everyday second baseman. Some folks on Twitter have been the debating the merits of that lately, but in reality it was never a realistic possibility. If Rizzo wouldn’t trust Danny with the second base job last year, there’s no reason he would this year.
The writing on the wall for this trade probably arrived when Asdrubal Cabrera signed with the Tampa Bay Rays for a reasonable one year deal last week. Cabrera, the Nats second baseman at the end of last season, was not a hot commodity on the open market. While Cabrera didn’t bounce back to his all-star form last year, he was a reasonable option as a plug-in for an otherwise complete Nats team. By letting a player like Cabrera walk out the door–on a reasonable one year deal–it was a signal the Nats wouldn’t be upping their payroll this year.
So second base would be filled via trade. Enter Clippard.
The Nats last week allegedly tried to get Yunel Escobar in a blockbuster trade involving Ian Desmond and Ben Zobrist. We’ll never know how close that trade came to being reality, but after Escobar got shipped to Oakland instead, Rizzo didn’t take long to zero in.
Escobar isn’t exciting, but he plays a serviceable middle infield and carries a respectable lifetime OBP of .347. Batting in the 8th hole, he’s an offensive upgrade over what we’ve seen the past few years from the Nats. More importantly, Escobar is under team control until 2017 with reasonable salaries. Mike Rizzo saved himself a lot of sleepless nights knowing he has a backup option if the Nats are unable to find a replacement for Ian Desmond next season. Rizzo, again, is thinking long term. He swapped one year of a replaceable reliever for three years of a middle infielder, where the Nats may soon have a huge vacancy.
And Clippard is replaceable. Rizzo stockpiles young arms for exactly this purpose. Aaron Barrett may soon find himself pitching in the 8th inning, while a rookies like Blake Treinen or Erik Davis might fill the opening in the bullpen.
This brings us back to salary. Treinen or Davis will literally earn a twentieth of Clippard’s inflated salary next season. If the Nats had unlimited payroll (or big MASN money), a trade like this wouldn’t be necessary. But bullpen is a place salary can be trimmed. The Nats will miss him, but maybe not in the standings.
Were this trade hurts is on the emotional level. I try not to get sentimental about baseball players since they’ll all inevitably leave us, but with Clipp, it’s hard not to. Clippard was here for the bad years. In fact, for a few years, he was a bright spot on a pretty dreary landscape. His 2011 season stands out in particular with a 1.83 ERA in 72 games. Clippard’s biggest asset was his durability; he’s had over 70 appearances in each of the last 5 seasons. For a time, it appeared Clippard had a rubber arm. We kept waiting for him to break and he never did. He kept going and going and eventually played a huge role in 2 division championships. Clippard’s swagger, goggles, and devastating change ups have been staples at Nats Park since he was traded for Jonathan Albaladejo in winter 2007. The Nationals got six years of lights-out relief for guy nobody will remember.
We’ll miss Tyler Clippard. I wish there were another way. But this is baseball. Rizzo did what he had to do.