Wow, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s get started.
There’s no doubt the Nationals players are frustrated with this season, but nobody expected this. Jonathan Papelbon attacked Bryce Harper in the dugout after the two exchanged words in the bottom of the 8th inning. (Watch the video here). Based on obvious lipreading, Papelbon gave Harper a hard time after “not running out” a fly ball. Harper, frustrated by his at bat and the season in general, did not appreciate the impromtu lesson in the Unwritten Rules of Baseball, particularly from a relief pitcher who’s been with the team for about five minutes.
Was Papelbon right to say something to Harper? Maybe. Maybe not. Harper “not running out” the fly ball looked barely distinguishable from what we see Major Leaguers do every day. Compare Harper’s at bat to Dan Uggla’s in the 7th inning when he carried his bat all the way to first base. The better answer to the above question is “who cares?” Papelbon tried to CHOKE A TEAMMATE in the dugout during a game. If you spend any time worrying about the Unwritten Rules of Baseball here, you’re probably missing the larger point.
I hate to bring this up, but this incident is another byproduct the annoying and persistent “Harper doesn’t hustle” narrative that was born when Matt Williams benched him in April 2014 after “not running out” a ground ball. To most Nationals fans, that incident is ancient history, but I can assure it is not around baseball. During the Mets/Nationals series earlier this month at Nats Park, a Mets fan in front of me stood up every time Harper hit the ball and screamed something along the lines of “Hustle Harper! Make sure you touch first!” Remember the incident this summer when the Braves announcing team criticized Harper for “not hustling?” Matty the Manager put a target on Harper with that unfortunate event in April 2014, and it’s still there. It’s funny that Matt Williams will be fired next week, and his enduring legacy in DC will be a presumption that Harper doesn’t hustle. Of course, any Nationals fan watching Harper on a daily basis knows how ridiculous that presumption is.
Papelbon, though, appears to be one of those irritating “old school” players who adhere to that Unwritten Code of Baseball where touching first base after the fielder catches the ball is more important than anything else, including, it appears, basic human decency. Marvel for a minute on the irony of Papelbon lecturing a teammate on playing the game of the “right way” and then moments later physically assaulting that same teammate during a game. It’s safe to assume Papelbon watched Harper from a distance in Philadelphia, regularly muttering to himself about this young punk Harper who didn’t “respect the game.” He probably nodded with approval in the dugout that night Cole Hamels hit him with a pitch for no particular reason. Now on the same team, Papelbon took out a season’s worth of frustration on Harper because Harper is an easy target. Harper is always an easy target.
Anyway, that’s enough about the fight. The bigger question facing the Nationals is what to do about Papelbon. The Nationals picked up his option for next season as a condition of Papelbon waiving this no-trade clause to come to DC. There are many Nats fans who want to cut Papelbon outright, but that doesn’t absolve the team from paying his $11 million 2016 salary. The Nationals could trade Papelbon, but the market for Papelbon would probably be soft. His reputation as a bad teammate didn’t get any better during his stay in DC, and he has a relatively large salary. Moreover, the Nats would be trading with no leverage if there’s a presumption the Nats have to trade him.
The best option right now is to take it one step at a time. Papelbon already has one suspension pending appeal for throwing at Manny Machado. (Speaking of this, does anyone now doubt Papelbon threw intentionally at Machado last Wednesday?) Papelbon would be smart to drop his appeal and serve his suspension this season. The Nationals, Rizzo probably, would be wise to suspend Papelbon for this incident to send a message, whatever is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. This will give the Nats time to address Papelbon’s status in the offseason. This may be hard to believe, but people are capable of moving on from events like this. People fight, and then they move on. It’s entirely possible Harper and Papelbon cannot exist in the same clubhouse next season, but the Nats should wait to make sure that’s actually the case before dumping Papelbon for pennies on the dollar.
This is all very sad because it overshadowed the classy sendoff for Ian Desmond that Jordan Zimmermann was denied Friday night. This has been a painful season. It would have been nice to end it on a high note. Instead, Jonathan Papelbon, the poster boy for the disappointing 2015 Nationals, is sending us out on a low one.