The answer, of course, is yes!
The Nationals right now have arguably a better team than the Kansas City Royals that took home the championship in 2015, or the San Francisco Giants who topped them the year before. No fewer than five Nats are having a good enough year to be in the conversation for Most Valuable Player voting. Washington has among the best rotations in baseball and one of its most potent offenses, both of which stand to be bolstered by reinforcements from within the organization as top pitching prospect Erick Fedde joins the team this weekend and injured position players Jayson Werth, Michael A. Taylor, and Trea Turner slowly work their way back.
That being said, this isn’t a perfect team. No team is perfect.
Joe Ross‘ torn UCL catapulted journeyman Edwin Jackson (back) into the Nats rotation, where he wears the curly W for the first time since 2012 after being released last month by the Baltimore Orioles up the road. The Nats got troubling news when they lost Stephen Strasburg, the pitching staff’s co-ace, to some sort of elbow nerve issue the organization isn’t saying much about. Strasburg could be back after missing just one start, as manager Dusty Baker said, but we’ve been through enough seasons in which Strasburg missed significant time with injuries to know that this could just be the tip of the iceberg for him.
In the bullpen, closer Koda Glover amazed us all with a mid-90s mutant slider and a take-no-prisoners mound presence — all too briefly in between stints on the disabled list, the latest of which could threaten his season. Setup man and sometime-closer Shawn Kelley hasn’t looked right all year, and while he is nearing a return, there is no guarantee that after two DL trips of his own this year around 18 innings and nine home runs surrendered, he will either stay healthy for the rest of the season or pitch effectively enough to be trusted in any relief role at all. While the Nats have enjoyed a career year so far from fireballer Enny Romero, the big lefty has been scuffling a bit recently. So have freshly acquired Sean Doolittle, the Nats’ de facto closer, who appears unable or unwilling to throw what we’ve all been told is a wipeout slider and has struggled with pitch command while throwing almost 100% fastballs, and jack-of-all-trades Joe Blanton, who seems to be regressing after a few weeks of marked improvement over his terrible start in D.C.
Injuries have depleted the Nationals’ lineup to the point where even some players who didn’t make its Opening Day bench are everyday fixtures in the lineup. No one could have foreseen Brian Goodwin and Wilmer Difo as the Nats’ everyday 1-2 hitters in the order, but with both Adam Eaton and Trea Turner on the shelf and top-of-the-order candidates Taylor and Werth also hurt, along with occasional two-hole hitter Chris Heisey, that’s the 1-2 that Dusty Baker has been deploying most frequently. It has been a month since the Nats, the same team that was so infielder-rich it DFA’d and later released one-time top prospect Grant Green after he temporarily filled a roster hole in April, added 10-year minor league middle infield depth piece Adrian Sanchez to its major league bench; he has collected two hits and a run batted in since that time. Adam Lind, the first baseman with the physique of a bar bouncer acquired in late winter to back up the frequently injured Ryan Zimmerman, has been playing so much left field he’s actually starting to almost be good at it.
Despite their flaws and setbacks, the Nationals hold a 13-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and have a 61-39 win-loss record that is second-best in the National League. They are about as close to a lock to make the playoffs for the fourth time in six years as you can get. That means while the Nats shouldn’t sleepwalk through August and September with 62 more games to play, they have the luxury of not needing to think about who they need to acquire to get to October — and the burden of having to think about who they need in order to succeed then.
The non-waiver trade deadline is near the close of business (4 pm) Monday. Let’s take a look at possible upgrades to his team that general manager Mike Rizzo could make.
The starting rotation
A lot of the impetus here depends on a few variables, which are (in no particular order): How confident is management that Strasburg will bounce back from his elbow issue? How confident is management that Jackson can pitch effectively enough to start Game 4 of the National League Division Series if need be? How confident is management that Fedde is ready to contribute at the major league level this season and into the postseason?
With the trade deadline so close, the Nats have just one more shot to see Fedde and Jackson before it’s decision time, and just a few more days to evaluate Strasburg’s condition. If they’re satisfied with any of the following — Strasburg is or soon will be fully healthy, Jackson can contribute as a solid #4/5, Fedde can contribute as a solid #4/5 — then Rizzo will probably keep his powder dry. There will be starters that can be acquired via waiver trade in August, too. But if the news on Strasburg is bad and Fedde and Jackson come out of this weekend looking like they got lost on the way to a game against the Durham Bulls, that ratchets up the pressure considerably with not a lot of time to pull the trigger on a non-waiver trade.
There’s no certainty the Nats will seek a starter, but there’s a sound argument as to why they should. If they do, there’s a few different routes they could go.
A rental, such as: Marco Estrada, Jaime Garcia, Yu Darvish, Andrew Cashner, Jeremy Hellickson, Lance Lynn, Jhoulys Chacin, or Gerrit Cole. (There’s no guarantee all of these names will be available, but at least some of them are. They range from those who will be very expensive, like Darvish and Cole, to those who likely could be acquired for very little, like Cashner and Hellickson.)
A controllable piece, such as: Sonny Gray, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Dan Straily, Justin Verlander, Julio Teheran, or Jeff Samardzija. (Any of these would be considerably expensive to acquire, and some of these would command a king’s ransom, especially from the Nats in the case of someone like deGrom.)
A salary dump, such as: Jordan Zimmermann, Homer Bailey, or Ian Kennedy. (None of these pitchers are trade assets to their teams unless their current teams eat large chunks of their future salaries, and none are likely to move, because of the absurd contracts attached to each of them. In theory, though, that means attaching them to a trade deal could dramatically lower the acquisition cost for a more attractive player or players. But it’d also mean we’d be daubing a lot of red ink onto our payroll sheets for the next few years.)
Each of these avenues carries some risk. This year’s crop of rental starters includes several pitchers who might end up watching the Nats in the playoffs from Edwin Jackson‘s couch rather than making the playoff roster, especially if Strasburg returns at full strength. A controllable pitcher fills Joe Ross‘ spot in the rotation next year (perhaps at Fedde’s expense), but likely at the cost of one or two of our best prospects now. Filling our starter gap with an albatross tacked onto a player we actually want means we wouldn’t have to give up great young talent but would have to downscale any ambitious designs we have on the 2018 and 2019 free agent classes, possibly including a few certain players of our own.
Unfortunately, the downside to not getting a starting pitcher now could well be a playoff rotation that features Jackson (5.51 ERA over the past three and a half seasons), Fedde (5.57 ERA at Triple-A this season), or both. It’s fair to say there’s considerable risk on both sides.
Rizzo made his biggest mid-season trade in years when he sent Blake Treinen and a couple prospects to the Oakland Athletics for not one but two veteran setup men. Doolittle has taken over ninth-inning duties for the Nats, with decidedly underwhelming results so far, while Madson (who resembles an older, better, more experienced Treinen in appearance, delivery, and arsenal) has settled in as a quality eighth-inning option.
The trade conspicuously failed to address the loudest criticism of the Nats we’ve been hearing all year: This great team doesn’t have a closer. Glover, the closest thing in-house to a closer, is out indefinitely after he reportedly had foolishly tried to pitch through severe rotator cuff inflammation and a back injury. Doolittle, with his steady diet of mid-90s fastballs vaguely in the direction of the inside part of the plate, hardly looks like a prototypical closer for a contending team. Some reports suggest the Nats are hopeful of getting a big contribution from Kelley, who was the team’s closer for a few weeks earlier this season before losing the gig amid injuries and a lot of big innings, but it seems wildly optimistic to count on him at this point.
The Nats have been connected to a few closers and other late inning relievers this month. Among them:
– AJ Ramos, the crafty Miami Marlins right-hander with a full arsenal of pitches, but a proclivity toward walks and some issues with consistency. He’s a free agent after next season.
– Justin Wilson, the Detroit Tigers southpaw who has thrived since being pressed into closing duties this year. He’s a free agent after next season.
– Raisel Iglesias, the Cincinnati Reds right-handed flamethrower who has quietly emerged as one of baseball’s premiere late-inning relievers over the past season and a half. He’s controllable through 2021.
– Brad Hand, the San Diego Padres starter-turned-setup man with a toolbox of lefty pitches and a ton of upside. He’s controllable through 2020.
– Trevor Rosenthal, the St. Louis Cardinals righty fireballer with a sky-high strikeout rate but serious consistency problems. He’s a free agent after next season.
– Zach Britton, the Baltimore Orioles closer with a power sinker from the left side but who is controlled by a front office and ownership that hate the Nats. He’s a free agent after next season.
Not yet linked to Washington but also possibilities:
– Brandon Kintzler, the Minnesota Twins right-hander who stepped up as closer midway through last year and has become a force to be reckoned with despite a very low strikeout rate. He’s a pure rental.
– Roberto Osuna, the 22-year-old Toronto Blue Jays stud with right-handed gas and insanely low hit and walk rates. He’s controllable through 2020.
– Seung-Hwan Oh, the St. Louis Cardinals “Final Boss” who had a remarkable rookie season last year after coming over from South Korea but whose sophomore season has been more pedestrian. He’s a pure rental.
None of these guys would come to D.C. for free, with Kintzler almost certainly being the cheapest option on the list. The Padres are reportedly demanding an exorbitant return for Hand, the Orioles reportedly wouldn’t even return the Nats’ messages regarding Britton earlier this month, and the Blue Jays would have to be nuts to part with Osuna for anything less than an overwhelming prospect package the likes of which Rizzo might not even be able to muster if he wanted to.
The best fit for the Nats on this list might be Iglesias, with his lengthy team control and outstanding stuff. But even though the Reds don’t need an elite closer now, or probably next year, or maybe not even the year after that, they’ve reportedly indicated they would need to be bowled over to trade him. The Nats likely have the prospect pieces to sufficiently motivate Cincinnati, but the hit to our farm system could be severe.
Hand would seem like another obvious fit (and who could resist the delightful tandem of Hand-and-Glover his acquisition would form?), but the Padres have been fleeced by Rizzo before and are seemingly determined to extract an overpay for their lefty relief ace. Hand also is more of an eighth-inning guy than a closer, although he’s probably a better fit for the ninth than anyone the Nats have available right now; even still, Dusty Baker already has about four eighth-inning guys and what he really needs is a ninth-inning guy.
The Nats’ powerful offense earned comparisons to the 1927 New York Yankees back in April, when Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters were hitting close to .400, Adam Eaton and Trea Turner were wreaking havoc at the top of the lineup, and seemingly every pinch-hit led to the team scoring runs.
That great lineup has been diminished. While Anthony Rendon has caught fire and Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy have continued to scorch the ball, Zimmerman has faded somewhat and Wieters has completely imploded. Eaton is out for the season, and his replacement Taylor is dealing with an oblique issue that appears to be more serious than originally believed. Turner is working his way back from a fractured wrist. Werth is working his way back from a fractured foot.
But much of the thinking surrounding the offense in this trade season is rooted not in the present but in the past. In 2015, the Nats were linked on deadline day to Tigers outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, thrilling many fans — who then watched in dismay as Cespedes instead landed with the division rival New York Mets, who promptly knocked the Nats off the top of the NL East and rode Cespedes’ MVP-caliber offensive numbers all the way to the pennant. In 2016, the Nats focused entirely on shoring up an already-strong bullpen, only to wind up a bat short as catcher Wilson Ramos suffered a season-ending injury in a meaningless late-September game and the Los Angeles Dodgers ended up winning three out of five games by just one run apiece to capture the Division Series and send Nats fans into another early winter in agonizing fashion.
So, here’s the logic: The Nats had a 1927 Yankees-like offense, and then they lost Eaton for the year. Therefore, if the Nats add an Eaton-like bat to the lineup, they will once again have a 1927 Yankees-like offense.
The problem is, of course, that Eatons don’t grow on trees.
Perhaps the most obvious fit for the Nats was Reds All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart, who could have shifted Turner to a less physically demanding outfield position once he returns from the disabled list and added his high-OBP bat to the top of the order before departing for free agency at the end of the year. Unfortunately, Cozart has been dealing with a stubborn quadriceps injury and now appears less likely to be traded before the deadline, as it is unclear to what extent he will be able to contribute down the stretch. The Nats could take a gamble with the assumption he’ll be healthy at least in time for the playoffs, but especially coming off a red-hot first half so far above his career norms, an injured Cozart carries some real risk.
Another obvious fit who remains somewhat plausible is the Kansas City Royals’ center fielder, Lorenzo Cain. With World Series experience and a top-of-the-order skill set, Cain — also a free agent at the end of the season — could immediately take over center field duties, shifting Goodwin over and allowing Dusty Baker to stop platooning his backup first baseman with his backup middle infielder in left field. However, the Royals’ recent moves suggest they don’t see themselves as deadline sellers anymore, and Cain may not be available at any price.
One other possibility that has emerged recently is St. Louis outfielder Tommy Pham. The Las Vegas native has rebounded after an injury-plagued 2016 season with what looks like a career year, hitting over .300 with some pop and showing off his characteristically breathtaking defense in center and left fields. Pham doesn’t come without his issues, though, as he suffers from a degenerative eye condition that very likely will continue to worsen and could eventually bring his career to a premature end despite his prodigious talent. He’s also a pre-arbitration player under team control through 2021, even though he’s already 29 years old, so there’s no chance he’d come cheap.
Rizzo could instead seek to upgrade his catching tandem. Right now, the Nats are carrying three catchers: Matt Wieters, Jose Lobaton, and Pedro Severino. Wieters has gone ice-cold after a hot start and is now on track for the worst offensive campaign of his career, even as his skills at blocking the plate and throwing out runners appear to be declining as well. Lobaton has rallied somewhat after a dreadful first three months as Wieters’ backup, but he remains a well-below-average hitter and mediocre defender behind the plate. Severino had an atrocious start to the season at Triple-A but has been playing somewhat better since a lengthy stint on the disabled list; even still, he seems likelier to end up as a reserve than a frontline catcher, as he simply has not developed into the kind of hitter who can hold down a regular spot in the lineup. The Nats reportedly like the progress that top catching prospects Raudy Read and Taylor Gushue have made both offensively and defensively this season, but both are likely still a year or more away from being able to contribute meaningfully at the major league level.
A couple of these options are likely unrealistic. Barnhart is young and controllable, and the Reds’ other catcher, Devin Mesoraco, can’t seem to stay healthy, so Cincinnati has little incentive to deal him for anything less than a staggering return for a backup catcher. Lucroy has declined sharply this season, but he will still be valued as a possible everyday catcher, and it seems unlikely Rizzo would put someone in front of Wieters on the depth chart. The same is true with Avila, who is having a career year and will likely command a big haul from a motivated buyer, while the Nats have more pressing needs and it seems improbable they would commit the kind of package needed to bring him back even if he came over with Wilson.
The realistic options here seem to be Hundley, who has been the second-string catcher behind perennial All-Star Buster Posey for the San Francisco Giants, and old friend Suzuki, who has become a key piece for the Braves after originally being picked up specifically to catch the venerable R.A. Dickey‘s knuckleball. Neither would require a huge outlay, with Hundley perhaps coming particularly cheap with the Giants at the bottom of the NL West and looking for a reboot.
All that being said, Lobaton is extremely popular with the clubhouse as well as the front office, and the Nats have a lot of money tied up in Wieters over the next season and a half. While getting more production out of the catching position would undoubtedly help the Nats, internal politics and the limits of our farm system make the chances of it happening seem somewhat remote.
The Nats are blessed with the good fortune of not needing to make another big move before the deadline and cursed with the memories of 2012, 2014, and 2016, when three other good and talented squads not so dissimilar from this year’s ended up not quite being good and talented enough to advance out of the first round.
Rizzo pulled off a coup in upgrading the bullpen already without giving up a top talent. But he also stopped short of going all the way, and the result is that the Nats themselves aren’t as likely to go all the way as perhaps they’d be with someone like Yu Darvish in the rotation, someone like Raisel Iglesias holding down the ninth inning, and someone like Alex Avila taking over behind the plate.
No team gets everything on its wish list at deadline time. If the Nats are done, they remain an improved team that will have to hope it improved enough. If the Nats make another move or two, they will be a further improved team that will still have to hope it improved enough. There is no such thing as a certainty in baseball.
Can the Nats win it all this year? You bet they can. How well-positioned are they to do it? We’ll know more soon…