Midway point in the season gut-check

A year ago on this day, General Manager Mike Rizzo reached a tipping point with pitcher Chad Kuhl after a Friday night 1.0 inning appearance yielded 4-runs and pushed his ERA to 8.45. Rizzo got on his phone to get a pitcher to San Diego, and the next day Kuhl was officially DFA’d. At some point you have to perform even if you’re dealing with tough issues in your family as Kuhl certainly was going through. Rizzo had to think of the other 25-players, the fans, and the people who sign the paychecks.

The next day in San Diego sent the Washington Nationals on their best run to that point in the season, winning five of their next six games. Every player on the team knows the weak links on their team. They also know that there is help within the system with players like James Wood, Dylan Crews, and Brady House.

A year ago there were no stars to call-up when Kuhl was sent out. They brought Paolo Espino to San Diego as the best move they had at the time. The players knew there were no blue chip prospects who could help at the time. Espino was enough, and the other 25 players responded with wins.

That will be the challenge for Rizzo as we reach the mathematical midway point in the season at 81-games this week. The Nationals are within reach of a playoff spot — and it is gut-check time as the team is just a ½ game from that third Wild Card spot, and 30-games until the trade deadline.

The Nats pitching is carrying the team with a 3.85 ERA (3.85) and ranked 12th in MLB. The Nats total defense is 26th, and the offense at 22.

Of course it is early in the season as people might think the Nats are closer to being sellers than buyers. But really, they could be both simultaneously or do neither. The Nats have some expiring contracts with Jesse Winker and Trevor Williams, and they could be trade chips. On the other side, could the Nats trade for some players who wouldn’t cost them top prospects?

While Rizzo is 3-weeks from the MLB draft and the All-Star break, he has to be looking at the future, and no chance he will trade away the team’s future for rental pieces.

Maybe the Nationals can be looking for some players via taking on a couple of salary dumps as Buster Olney of ESPN suggests teams could do as an option. One such player is Yandy Diaz. He is a first baseman who was a star last year and struggling this year. He is owed $4 million for the remainder of this year and $10 million next year. The Tampa Bay Rays would probably want to dump him. He is incrementally better than any first baseman the Nats have — but a shadow of what he was last year. On FanGraphs, Diaz is currently at a +0.5 WAR. Not great, but an improvement.

The team could also use a setup pitcher, and so does every team. Again, can you find a salary dump or someone that others aren’t looking at which is how Rizzo got Daniel Hudson in 2019 for a low level prospect.

Beyond that, the Nats could be looking at just waiting for free agency in the offseason when Christian Walker, Pete Alonso, and Juan Soto are possible first basemen available. Yes, Soto. He has been working on first base defense hours before the stadium opens up. What would he cost will be debated for months to come.

Video posted by Chris Kirschner on his social media

The Washington Nationals are shedding over $30 million in payroll after this season. They will have an offseason payroll, factoring in arbitration-eligible players, of about $89 million. That includes Stephen Strasburg. If Juan Soto’s AAV is $40 million a year, the Nationals can afford it now. They may not be able to afford it down the road. But today, they could. Maybe Rizzo will be comfortable sticking with his current rotation sans Patrick Corbin for next year to allow the team to spend big money on a bat.

This team needs offense. They have pitching. Jake Irvin looks like their Jordan Zimmermann. MacKenzie Gore could be their Gio Gonzalez. The Nats have Mitchell Parker and he could be their Ross Detwiler. That sounds a lot like their 2012 rotation without a Strasburg. You still have DJ Herz, Josiah Gray, and Cade Cavalli. You have Brad Lord in Triple-A. There is now depth even further behind them at every level from Andrew Alvarez to Andry Lara to Jarlin Susana to Travis Sykora and José Feliz. Also don’t forget about the injured Jake Bennett.

This next week, month, and six months will be a defining point quite possibly fo the future of this team. The draft might yield another future star for the Nationals. A strong farm system could provide an annual influx of talent if all goes per plan. A strong farm system can also provide minimum salary players to offset some more expensive deals.

The future is looking brighter.

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