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To Sell or Not To Sell?

First off, let me be the first to say that I'm excited about the overall play of the Nats this season. Even though their 8-3 loss to the Tigers Wednesday dropped them to 31-35 on the year, consider this:

  • Through 66 games in 2009, the Nats were a dreadful 20-46 (.303 winning pct.), and that could have been worse had they not won games 64, 65, and 66 (including two in Yankee Stadium.... they would also win the next night to notch their longest winning streak of the first half at 4 games).
  • Through 66 games in 2008, they were also a pretty pathetic 26-40 (.393).

Believe me when I say that 31-35 (.469) is a fantastic improvement that we should be celebrating. It's clear that the overall product that the Nats are putting on the field this season is leaps and bounds better than what we've seen in the recent past.

The road woes have come, however, and with them the familiar crawl back to last place in an extremely deep and talented NL East. Since taking two out of three in Citi Field from May 10 through May 12, the Nationals have gone a horrific 6-15 (.286) on the road. They've lost seven straight road series, and they've been indiscriminate in doing so.

  • They've lost to teams they should struggle against (Colorado, St. Louis, Detroit)
  • They've lost to teams they should have a decent shot at beating (San Diego, San Francisco)
  • Finally, they've lost to teams that they should probably beat (Houston, Cleveland)

In the big picture, though, this may be the best thing for the team's long-term success. Why?

We now have six and a half weeks until MLB's non-waiver trade deadline. Roughly a month ago, rumors were flying about the Nationals trading in their recent selling shoes and becoming buyers, possibly going all out to acquire Roy Oswalt from the Astros. Don't get me wrong. I don't dislike Roy Oswalt. I think he's a fine (if expensive) pitcher who certainly has a few more years in the tank.

Would Oswalt have made this team better in 2010? Almost certainly. An argument could also be made that a successful veteran like Oswalt would have been beneficial to some of the young pitchers on the team, such as Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann (when healthy) and Ross Detwiler (same). Veteran presence aside, Oswalt's likely value in the standings would have been that he'd help the team end up floating a few games closer to .500. Maybe in a perfect world he could even have helped them notch that magical 81-81 record that many of us would love to see.

Maybe I'm in the minority, but rooting for the Nationals to go all out to be a .500 team this year makes far less sense to me than hoping they use what they have to try and make themselves a legitimate contender within the next two or three years. Were the Nats to decide to sell off some useful parts to build for the future, it would obviously be the same old story to many of you (and me, though I'd be OK with it). However, there's a time when it makes sense and a time when it doesn't. As the deadline approaches, there is going to be a ton of pitching on the market. There don't figure to be as many bats available, however.

Regarding the starting pitching on the market:

  • Oswalt's already out there. As teammate Wandy Rodriguez has just a year of arbitration left and a history of success (though not much this season), Rodriguez may become available as well.
  • As Cliff Lee's agent has made it abundantly clear that he wants to test the free agent waters, Lee is likely to become available in the coming weeks.
  • While Arizona continues to plummet in the standings, rumors have started to spread about the availability of Dan Haren.
  • There are smaller names out there from non-contending teams as well: Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, and Zach Duke are all names we could see on the move to a team hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.

Offensively, a lot less figures to come on the market:

  • There's always the possibility that the Padres drop out of the race and put Adrian Gonzalez on the block.
  • There's a legitimate chance that the Brewers realize that they're going to get more for Prince Fielder this season than they will next year. Ryan Howard's deal has probably changed his status from "difficult" to sign after 2011 to "darn near impossible" for a team with the Brewers payroll.
  • Some of the usual suspects will surely get involved. David DeJesus has been rumored to be on the block for the Royals, which makes perfect sense. The White Sox will likely move Paul Konerko at some point, and try to move A.J. Pierzynski. The Indians may see if they can get someone to give anything up for a guy like Travis Hafner.

Still, until/unless there's actually news that Gonzalez or Fielder are on the block, is there a better power hitter than Adam Dunn who could be available this trade season? Not that I can see.

Yes, this post is about The Big Donkey. There are other players I think the Nats should put on the market as well (most notably Capps. I'd love to say Guzman, but I couldn't see anyone taking him), and it's possible (even likely) that I write a story or two about other guys that the Nats could or should trade in the coming weeks. It's unlikely that another bat like Dunn will become available in the next six weeks, however. Simply put, that's a market inefficiency that I feel Mike Rizzo can probably take advantage of.

Dunn is a free agent at the end of the season, and while both he and the Nats have made their token public statements that they'd be interested in inking another deal, there's no guarantee they'll get it done. Keeping him, offering him arbitration, and watching him sign elsewhere anyway wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Depending upon who signed him, it would likely result in either a first or second rounder and a pick in the supplemental (or sandwich) round next year. He figures to be a Type A Free Agent, and the Nats should feel fairly safe in offering him arbitration. As the Nats continue to improve their farm system, two extra (likely top 50) picks could be very useful in building the farm system.

Then again, acquiring a couple of young big league (or big-league ready minor league) players could still be the more efficient way to handle their veteran slugger's impending free agency. If both sides are really that committed to Dunn being in Washington next year, the Nats can always pursue him as a free agent. It certainly wouldn't be unprecedented (living in St. Louis, I could easily relate that the Blues dealt Keith Tkachuk to the Thrashers a few years ago, only to have him return to St. Louis as a free agent in the offseason).

Oddly enough, Dunn's contract status could be something that could actually be viewed as attractive to some trade partners (the one I think is the best fit in particular). Particularly in today's baseball economy, nobody wants to take on an albatross of a contract. While players such as Oswalt (due approximately $30 million if the team he's traded to buys him out of the final year of his contract) come with the caveat of being more than just rental players, they're players that are guaranteed to be eating into a team's payroll for the next few seasons as well. A team that wanted to go all in this year, but didn't want to take on a hefty salary for 2011, could view both the fact that Dunn isn't signed for next season and the fact that they'll likely end up with draft pick compensation next year for letting him walk as a bonus.

Among the primary teams that appear to be contenders to this point in the season, there are really only a few teams that look like they could really use Dunn's services. Based on my comments above, many of you probably already know where I think he could/should end up if the Nats decide to pursue trading him, but let's break them all down:

(Disclaimer: This is all speculation. There are no rumors here. If you're a fan of one of the other teams that just happens to read this, realize that I'm being optimistic and just throwing darts at the wall)

1) Tampa Bay Rays - The Rays easily appear to be the best fit should the Nationals decide to trade Dunn rather than attempt to re-sign him (or lose him as a free agent and take the draft picks). They've proven in the past that they draft and develop astutely, and could view losing him as a free agent next season as a big opportunity for them to load up on draft picks. Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are set to become free agents at year's end as well. While there's certainly terrific depth in the Rays' system to replace them within the next few seasons, their current window to take a shot at winning it all is probably getting smaller. What's more, the Rays certainly have a hole that Dunn could fill quite nicely at DH. While Dunn has said repeatedly that he'd prefer not to DH, there's also the selling point that Pena is only signed through the end of this season as well, and the Rays could possibly retain him at 1b (though I'd think that would just be some politicking on both sides' part).

The Rays' organizational strengths certainly match up pretty well in a trade with the Nats as well. Their current crop of big league ready starters stands at six, and while it's a nice problem to have, not a single one of them will hit free agency until after the 2011 season (possibly the 2012 season. I'm uncertain on James Shields' service time). These six pitchers (listed by service time):

  • James Shields
  • Matt Garza
  • Jeff Niemann
  • David Price
  • Wade Davis
  • Jeremy Hellickson

It could (and should) be argued that Hellickson was the AAA starter more deserving of a promotion to the big leagues this season, but the spot went to Wade Davis. Davis is a year and a half older and had 211 AAA innings under his belt as opposed to Hellickson's 57. Hellickson outpitched Davis last season in Durham, and has been phenomenal again for the Bulls this season (8-2, 2.42 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 84:20 K:BB ratio in 81+ IP). At 23 with a three-pitch mix, outstanding command, and a history of dominating the minors, it's difficult to argue that he wouldn't be starting for at least 25 major league teams (and probably 28 or 29, to be honest) right now. However, he's currently buried in AAA and blocked by five quality starting pitchers who remain under club control for at least another season and a half.

It's clear that both Davis and Hellickson have left one-time top prospect Jake McGee in the dust, but McGee has shown a little more improvement in his second season back from Tommy John surgery, and could have the chance to at least fill the depth chart down the line. They also have several strong arms coming up the pipeline in Alexander Torres, Matt Moore, and Nick Barnese. Surely, dealing a player that they have under club control for several years wouldn't really fit the Rays that we've come to know, but the depth of their system would allow for it.

As for who the Nats could try and pry from the Rays, Price would almost certainly be untouchable. I would suspect that they'd have a difficult time parting with Garza, though the fact that he's already in his arbitration years could make him available. I suspect that Shields would be the guy they'd be most likely to move, but he also might be the guy I'd least like to see the Nats acquire. Niemann is outperforming his peripherals right now, but looked like a solid middle of the rotation type in his first full season last year and won't hit arbitration for another year. I think the Rays would consider him a player that they could sell a bit high, and he'd be the arm I'd expect to be most likely to be dealt of this group in a Dunn deal. Honestly, if I had to pick an arm (other than Price) that I wanted from this group, it would be the one who has yet to throw a pitch in the majors... Hellickson. I just don't trust Davis as much. Any one of the six would pretty much instantly slot in as the Nats' #2 or #3 starter (when Jordan Zimmermann is healthy).

Yes, I'm being too ambitious and hopeful!

A big-league ready starter would obviously be the key to any type of deal, and dealing for any of these pitchers in particular would certainly eat up pretty much all of the value that the Nats could expect in return. There are always other players of interest, though, and going beyond any of the starting pitchers, I'll mention the slight abundance of middle infielders the Rays have. Oddly, as he gets closer to free agent status himself (and given that the other two formed a solid enough middle infield while he was out), I'd think that Jason Bartlett might be the most likely Rays' MI to be traded, but he'd be costly. I do like Sean Rodriguez as a power bat (but not much more) and Reid Brignac as a solid defensive infielder who can hit for average, and think that either of the two would give the Nats a nice young 2b as we see how Danny Espinosa develops. Guzman's obviously gone after this year, and (at present) it doesn't look like Adam Kennedy's option is really going to be worth picking up. On the positive side, Kennedy's option for next year is cheap enough so that he could be an affordable utility infielder. Though former #1 overall pick Tim Beckham hasn't lit the world on fire in the minors, Brignac (a natural SS who has mainly played 2b this season) really still figures to be more of a placeholder for them.

2) Los Angeles Angels - The Kendry Morales injury really changed things here. You could say that the Halos could possibly be in the market to upgrade with a bat before Morales' injury, but since the injury there's a definite need for a left-handed power bat. While the Angels have shifted things around a bit, even moving C Mike Napoli to 1b at times, a little middle of the order firepower would certainly help them. Dunn could even play 1b for them.... probably as well as Mike Napoli could (there aren't many players I can say that about, so I had to!).

Unfortunately, the high-end big league ready starting pitching that we see in the Rays' system isn't quite as readily available (which could stem from the fact that the Angels are typically deadline buyers). If the Nats were to target pitching, they'd almost certainly be looking for depth, rather than finding someone who would be able to help quickly and be at or near their peak in the next three years. Garrett Richards looks like an interesting arm for down the line, as does Trevor Reckling. Arguably their top young arm headed into last year (Jordan Walden) has been shifted to the bullpen due to injury problems last year, and it looks like that may be his future.

In the big leagues, most of the arms that the Nats could go after would be kind of counterproductive. Jered Weaver could provide some immediate help, but will be hitting free agency before the Nats are likely to be ready to contend. The same goes for Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir. Plus, the Angels don't really have the depth to compensate for losing any of them (well... maybe the disappointing Kazmir) and would pretty much be creating a hole on their roster to fill a different one. While all three would be logical patchwork players who could fill a current need better, none of them would really improve the Nats' long term prospects unless they were re-signed.

There are some nice bats in the Angels' system, most notably OF Mike Trout. However, there's not really a snowball's chance that the Halos would include him as any part of a package. The next best bat in their system figures to play at a spot where the Nats have some depth already, C Hank Conger. A guy like OF Peter Bourjos could be an interesting addition to the outfield from a depth standpoint, but would be a huge disappointment if he were the primary player back in a deal for Dunn.

3) San Francisco Giants - Question this all you want. Their offense has improved quite a bit since they called up Buster Posey and shifted him to first base (and Aubrey Huff to the outfield). The fact remains that the Giants offense isn't all that spectacular, and part of the reason for that is the guy playing Posey's natural position. Dunn would give them an outstanding power bat with patience, two things a team with a .741 OPS could certainly use. Dunn could help push either Bengie Molina (.650 OPS) out of the lineup with Posey starting behind the plate and/or allow them to remove Aaron Rowand (.655 OPS) a little more often by shifting Andres Torres to CF.

As with the Angels, there's a bit of a caveat. There's not a lot of high end (possible big-league ready) talent in their system beyond Madison Bumgarner, who the Giants have been extremely careful with and almost certainly wouldn't trade. Most of their top young arms outside of Bumgarner seem to be relievers, and several of them are in the big leagues (or have been at some point this season) already, such as Dan Runzler and Waldis Joaquin. There would definitely have to be some interest in a nice young outfielder like Thomas Neal, but he wouldn't be enough for Rizzo to hang his hat on in a deal.

4) Atlanta Braves - As Chipper has continued to struggle this year, there would always be the possibility that the Braves could consider moving Troy Glaus back to third base and open up a hole at first base. Still, I don't think this is a realistic destination for Dunn. They have a ton of pitching in the low minors, particularly in High A Ball.

5) San Diego Padres - Another tough sell, the Padres would have to move Dunn back to the outfield. They've pretty much committed to building a team around their ballpark (pitching, defense, and speed offensively), but a second basher to go along with Adrian Gonzalez would never hurt. Of course, they'd hope that Kyle Blanks is that guy. Honestly, I got scared enough watching Dunn patrol left field in Nats Park last year, and couldn't imagine him doing so on a nightly basis in Petco.

Still, there's definitely some rotation depth for them to trade from as soon as Tim Stauffer (moved to the bullpen to start the year) is back from having his appendix removed (one of the cooler stories of the year, he was self-diagnosed and dead on about the problem). They surely consider Mat Latos untouchable, and the Nats' interest in a guy like Jon Garland or even Kevin Correia would be tempered a bit by age/service time. Clayton Richard's kind of an interesting young lefty who would be more obtainable (but also kind of a tough sell). Wade LeBlanc is someone I'd be awfully careful about trying to acquire. He's had success, but in a Lannan-like way, the numbers just don't really add up. While Stauffer himself certainly isn't a prospect (he's 28, though he'd still be under club control for quite a few years), he could be an interesting piece of a deal who could probably start right away. He couldn't be considered a huge part of any return, though.

There are a couple of nice young arms at AA in Simon Castro and Wynn Pelzer. The Pads also have some nice young positional prospects in OF Donovan Tate (unobtainable), OF Jaff Decker (probably more obtainable, and struggling in his first look at A+ ball), and 3b James Darnell.

Honestly, the best fit I could see (by a wide margin) would be the Rays. They have a strong need for a player with Dunn's talents and a spot to play him. They have a wealth of depth at the position that the Nats would most likely target. Furthermore, the depth that they have could possibly net the Nats a player or two who figure to be ready to contribute quickly. I'm probably just dreaming, but figured I'd share this dream with all of you.