Through 63 games this season, the Washington Nationals have scored two runs or fewer 22 times — a rate slightly under 35 percent. Although that only ranks as the 13th most in the majors, only two of the 12 teams with more games with two runs or fewer currently sport winning records.
Unlike most of the teams on that list, the Nats have World Series aspirations. As much as the pitching staff has been able to carry the team to a winning record thus far, it won’t be able to do so deep into the playoffs. Factor in the recent injuries to Stephen Strasburg, Jeremy Hellickson and Brandon Kintzler and it’s clear Washington needs an upgrade in the middle of its lineup.
The return of Adam Eaton and reportedly imminent reinstatement of Daniel Murphy will give the batting order a jumpstart, but it’s unclear if that will be enough to push Washington’s lineup into the elite category. The catcher spot has been a black hole devoid of any offensive output all season and injured starting first baseman Ryan Zimmerman currently owns an OPS of .689.
At first, the most obvious trade target is Miami Marlins backstop J.T. Realmuto. The 27-year-old catcher is in the midst of a career year, hitting .291/.361/.500 in 44 games since opening the season on the disabled list. The Marlins are certainly shopping him, and the Nats have reportedly “checked in” on his status.
However, the problem here is Miami’s asking price. According to FanRag Sports, Washington isn’t willing to meet the package Derek Jeter and the Marlins’ front office is seeking, which likely includes either Juan Soto or Victor Robles. Between Bryce Harper nearing free agency and the inconsistency Michael A. Taylor has endured at the plate, the Nationals don’t appear to be too keen on mortgaging their future outfield makeup for a catcher.
Instead, the Nats must look to other options. Perhaps Wilson Ramos or Francisco Cervelli will attract their eye, but Ramos is in a walk year and Cervelli is owed $11.5 million next season with a shaky injury history. Outside the catcher market, however, there’s one position Washington could afford to upgrade: second base.
Murphy has been slow in his recovery from knee surgery and has struggled the most with making lateral movements defensively. It might be in both Murphy and the Nationals’ best interest to shift the three-time All-Star over to first and move the struggling Zimmerman to the bench when he returns.
Sure, Matt Adams has performed admirably in Zimmerman’s absence. But pushing Murphy to first keeps him healthy and allows Washington to use both Zimmerman and Adams in pinch-hitting situations. This wouldn’t be the first time the Nats have sent Zimmerman to the bench either, doing so in the 2014 postseason following the addition of second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera at the trade deadline.
To fill the now-open hole at second base, the Nats can then target one of the crown jewels of the trade market in Cincinnati Reds infielder Scooter Gennett.
Gennett, 28, owns a .340/.376/.556 slash line with 12 home runs and 47 RBIs on the season.
FanGraphs pegs him at 2.4 WAR, which ranks second among all second basemen behind only Jose Altuve. The Reds are in full rebuild mode and should be motivated to trade him while his stock is soaring.
What makes Gennett even more of an attractive option is the fact that he’s still arbitration-eligible for 2019 under his current contract. Murphy is a free agent at the end of this season, and Washington’s only internal replacement for him is utility man Wilmer Difo.
If the Nats acquired Gennett, he would shore up their hole at second base and still give them financial flexibility to target other stars in a loaded 2018-19 free-agent class.
Cincinnati will likely be expecting pitching prospects in return, and Washington has several trade candidates in 2017 second-round pick Wil Crowe and AA-Harrisburg starter Jefry Rodriguez. A package including those two names would likely be pretty attractive for a Reds organization starved of starting pitching.
Although the Nats’ farm system isn’t exactly stocked full of pitchers, the position was the organization’s top priority in the 2018 amateur draft.
Washington selected pitchers with six of its first seven picks, retooling its lower levels with several high-ceiling arms.
For the near future, the Nationals have top pitching prospect Erick Fedde, who will get a chance to prove himself during Strasburg and Hellickson’s absences, and Tommy John recipient Joe Ross, a candidate for the rotation in 2019. The team could afford to lose Crowe and Rodriguez without jeopardizing its rotation moving forward.
Gennett hits left-handed, so his bat would force the Nats to hit three left-handers in a row. But for a team that’s lacked any kind of offensive punch for a majority of the season, it’s a price the Nats should gladly pay. Eaton and Murphy just might be the jumpstart this Washington lineup needs, but Gennett could be the spark plug that pushes it into overdrive.