As the trade deadline rapidly approaches, fourteen games in July will come to the forefront of discussions in front offices across the country.
Those fourteen games—the two weeks worth of baseball that come before the trade deadline and after the All Star Game—are supposed to help teams make a final decision: if they’ll buy or sell at the deadline, if they think that their team realistically has a chance to make it into—let alone deep through—October.
However, others have found themselves in situations they didn’t expect; the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies were assumed to be a year away and most likely didn’t expect to buy at the deadline.
Likewise, the Nationals probably never assumed they would be in a position where they wouldn’t be gearing up to make a sizable addition at the deadline. It’s not to say they won’t add or at least attempt to do so when the deadline arrives — it’s more to say that there’s a possibility they stay put or even sell in a worst-case scenario.
On paper (a fun phrase used often in this city), the Nats have no reason to punt on this season — why would anyone give up on Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, and Daniel Murphy? Why wouldn’t anyone try to actively improve that core?
Here’s why: Tanner Roark (who is currently pitching to a 4.49 FIP) seems to have lost any shred of what he had in 2016. Pedro Severino (worth -0.6 fWAR on the year) is currently batting .174 over 176 plate appearances. Daniel Murphy still doesn’t seem quite healthy, and Adam Eaton has found himself resigned to an on-and-off role.
Most damning: and the Nats have lost eleven of sixteen, and were shut out in two straight by the lowly Tampa Bay Rays. They are a paltry four games over .500 at 41-37.
No injuries remain to blame. Everyone save Stephen Strasburg and Matt Adams has returned, or will do so within the week.
There is no reason a lineup with Eaton, Harper, Trea Turner, Rendon, Murphy, and Soto should be struggling to produce every day, but runs still evade this ballclub.
Ironically, the bullpen—the team’s greatest weakness just a year ago—is their only consistent piece. In fact, it got even more consistent when GM Mike Rizzo added Kelvin Herrera to shore up an already impressive back end of the relief corps.
With that in mind, the full decision on what Washington should do at the deadline should not come exclusively from the fourteen game pivot point before July 31st; it should also factor in heavily the coming two weeks, which will include four games against the Philadelphia Phillies, three against the Boston Red Sox, and then four with Miami and the beginning of a three-game set with Pittsburgh.
In these coming two weeks, the Nats will see baseball’s best and worst — and how they react should dictate how Mike Rizzo goes about improving his team at the deadline, or how he goes about holding onto his prospects.
From just the four-game series with Philadelphia, the Nats could bring themselves within a half-game of first place and lock themselves into the divisional race with the Phillies, a team they must beat to secure a playoff spot.
Against the Red Sox, who, in a normal year, would be baseball’s best club by a longshot, the Nationals will get a chance to prove something to themselves: that they, despite a mediocre performance to date, are still one of the league’s superpowers, and can hang with the best.
Then, against the Marlins and Pirates, the Nats have the chance to beat up on the league’s bottomfeeders and make up some ground in the standings.
It’s all more than possible — the pitching seems to be there for the most part, as long as Gio Gonzalez doesn’t have a repeat performance of his horrific six-run, one-inning show in Tampa Bay. From there, one can draw the lines: Harper could bust out of his slump, Murphy could find his swing, and the duo of Soto and Rendon could continue to propel the team forward.
If the team manages to win ten of the next fourteen — three in Citizens Bank, two against the Sox, and then a sweep of either the Marlins or Pirates along with a two-win series— then any doubts about this team can be dispelled, beating good teams and beating up on bad teams with a healthy core.
In this dream scenario, the Nats would end up at 51-41, and go into the All-Star Break flying and ready to deal for another starting pitcher and potentially a catcher.
Of course, there’s also a nightmare scenario: losing three or four to Philly, getting swept by Boston, and struggling to take a split with Miami and Pittsburgh.
In that scenario, they might not lose second place or even the division for the year — nine games with Atlanta and thirteen with Philadelphia remain before October — but they would certainly leave themselves with an upwards battle and not much inspiration to buy at the deadline, though they certainly wouldn’t have to sell.
‘Why not sell?’ one asks. ‘Why not get some value for Bryce Harper before he goes?’
Well, the answer is annoying, but true: these Nationals could still be good, even if they don’t find it in the next week, or even the next month.
Take last year’s Minnesota Twins, who began selling off assets before their group fully gelled. They still found themselves in the AL Wild Card Game. Imagine what they could have done had they not traded Brandon Kintzler away to the Nationals, or starting pitcher Jaime Garcia to the Yankees (who they acquired in a fit of optimism after knocking off a bunch of wins).
Realistically, the stretch will end somewhere in between, seeing as the Nationals have been depressingly inconsistent this year; some days the offense shows up, other days it doesn’t.
Then one would have to read between the margins: if they go 8-6, did they sweep Miami and Pittsburgh and only take two from the big guns? Or if they go 6-8 and lose a few to the non-contenders, what’s preventing them from winning games they need to win?
In that case, the Nats would be stuck with their current group, and would have to hope that something clicked come mid-August — which isn’t unheard of (see Minnesota), but it certainly doesn’t feel likely right now.
They could also wait it out and see what the next few weeks after these two bring until they make a choice on selling or staying put, but they aren’t going to get a more rounded test for a while.