It doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago that the Washington Nationals seemed nailed on to be sellers at this year’s trade deadline. But now, after compiling the best record in baseball since May 24th, it would be stunning if they didn’t find a way to add to their ballclub.
Top of the shopping list for Mike Rizzo and the rest of the front office: Relief pitching, relief pitching, oh, and more relief pitching.
Even though the relief corps has certainly improved from the calamitous start to the season, all told, they still own the second-worst bullpen ERA in the majors at 6.02, 10th worst FIP at 4.67, and their 5.05 xFIP is the second-worst.
That means the semi-annual tradition of trading for a reliever or two is likely to return in 2019. And based on the team’s previous activity, we can likely expect the Nationals to plug that hole from the top-end of the market.
Since the team became serious contenders in 2012, Rizzo has made five non-waiver “deadline” trades to bolster his bullpen. Those trades acquired Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson/Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler, Mark Melancon, and Jonathan Papelbon.
At the time of each of those players was traded, the only one who possessed an ERA above 3.00 was Doolittle. You could even go one step further, as the only other reliever whose ERA was above 2.00 was Kintzler.
The Nats have hardly been scared to deal promising prospects in these trades either.
Across those five trades, they’ve surrendered seven top-30 prospects and four top-10 prospects at the time of their respective trades, according to MLB Pipeline.
And that doesn’t include the big league talent they flipped in Felipe Vázquez and Blake Treinen, who Nats fans undoubtedly miss even more now given the current state of the bullpen.
The point is, assuming the Nationals do indeed make a move or two to shore up what is by far and away the clearest weakness on the team, expect them to look at some of the best available arms on the market.
There are plenty of names out there who would seem to fit the bill on teams that are clearly going to be selling. Will Smith, Shane Greene, Alex Colome, and Ken Giles all have ERAs under 2.20 this season and are all likely on Rizzo’s radar this month.
There could perhaps be other names who make their way onto the market too if their teams have a rough few weeks in the build-up to the deadline. Kirby Yates, Brad Hand, Raisel Iglesias, and Liam Hendriks could find themselves in that category.
One possible restriction the Nats will face is that the farm system is not in the same shape it once was. It’s turned into a very top-heavy system, which could make trades particularly difficult given the number of buyers there are bound to be for relievers.
This would probably hinder their ability to go after some of the rentals, where their mid-level prospects pale in comparison to some of the other contender’s farm systems.
For example, when you consider an arm like Smith, the Nats would seemingly be up against the odds in this instance, unless they’re willing to overpay massively.
With Smith’s contract only set to run until the end of this season, a team looking to acquire should be able to do so without giving up their top talent.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, after their top few prospects, there isn’t too much for other teams to get excited about in return for one of their prized assets.
Combine that with the fact that their fellow suitors may be willing to pay a premium for a lefty, where it’s not essential for the Nats, a Smith trade seems unlikely on its own.
The front office also needs to consider luxury tax implications in their pursuit of bullpen help.
Rightly or wrongly, the Lerners are adamant about not going over the luxury tax threshold of $206 million this season, putting a self-imposed restriction on the players that could be acquired.
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Nationals are currently projected to be $6.5 million under the tax threshold. However, this doesn’t include incentives, which would likely push them closer to $3-4 million in breathing room the rest of the way.
All of this means that the Nationals are likely to set their sights on a pitcher under reasonable cost control for more than this season, and they’ll have to be willing to deal from their top five or six prospects in order to get a deal over the line.
The name that jumps off of the page as a great trade fit for the Nats is Ken Giles. The Toronto Blue Jays seem to have hitting prospects coming out of the wazoo, so could do with some pitching prospects who are aren’t too far from the majors to pair with them.
Say Mike Rizzo was willing to float Wil Crowe or Tim Cate as the primary piece in an offer, that could pique the Jays’ interest, allowing them to piece together an offer from some of the other mid-range prospects in the system.
Giles has the gaudy strikeout numbers, with a 15.39 K/9, a stellar 1.45 ERA, and a large sample of success in the majors, albeit with some stumbles mixed in. His pro-rated luxury tax value would come in at around $2.5 million, which should be enough to work with.
Then if the Nationals go out and make Giles - or if they fail on that front, Colome or Greene - the main piece of the puzzle, they could make a Madson or Kintzler-esque acquisition to complete their stretch-run bullpen.
Roenis Elias, Joe Jiménez, or Tony Watson might make nice trade acquisitions with affordable contracts, who could also be had without touching the top five or six prospects in the system.
The above names have drawn some trade interest from teams around the league so far. But all are likely better than the rumor mill gives them credit for, just as Madson and Kintzler were back when the Nats acquired them in 2017.
After last year’s deadline where the Nationals sat on the fence, this time it’s clear that they’re going to be buyers with plenty of relievers already on their radar.
It’s time for management to be aggressive and give this team’s bullpen the help it needs to make the Nats a serious playoff contender.