Despite Major League Baseball resuming less than 6 weeks ago, the Washington Nationals are already looking ahead to the August 31st trade deadline in this shortened season.
More often than not, the Nats enter trade deadline season primed for playoff contention and are clearly looking to add to their talent. The last time that they didn’t make a notable addition via trade near the deadline was way back in 2013.
This season though, it’s not quite that simple.
So far in 2020, the Nationals are 11-16 and languishing at the bottom of the division. Yet, despite the poor record, with an expanded postseason this year, they are 4.5 games back from the division-leading Atlanta Braves, four games behind the second-place — which is an automatic playoff spot this year — Miami Marlins, and two games back of a Wild Card spot.
So while the record and the play on the field has been underwhelming, the Nationals do still have a decent chance to qualify for the postseason given the expanded playoff field.
The case for adding at the trade deadline is simple. This team is still talented and not far out of a postseason berth, so with a couple additions, they could get hot again and go on yet another deep postseason run to try and defend their crown.
After all, this was a ballclub that was supposed to at least give a good run at defending their World Series championship this season. Now that it looks as though there will at least be a chance to sneak into the postseason, they could easily push some more chips into the middle.
In a similar vein, it’s easy to argue that the Nationals should sell off some pieces next week.
The lineup and rotation have both been underwhelming and a fair amount of the players aren’t getting any younger, a sell-off of some of the older pieces could allow for a quick retool to go again in 2021 or 2022 centered around their young core.
There are expiring contracts in Asdrúbal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, Kurt Suzuki, Aníbal Sánchez, or Adam Eaton, who could attract interest for some teams to help bolster a poor farm system, even if it’s only marginally with a high-risk, high-reward prospect.
However, as you may have guessed from the title of this piece, the best answer might be neither of the above for the Nats, and in fact, standing pat and doing little seems logical.
Holding course with more-or-less the same roster that they have now is the best balance between wanting to try and compete in the postseason while also not risking the future of the franchise by trading away even more prospects from an already thin pool.
Realistically, if the Nationals want to buy, then the positions they could make an upgrade in are positions occupied by younger players that it would be good to get an extended look at.
For example, with Carter Kieboom showing some growing pains with the bat so far this season, the Nats could easily turn around and go acquire someone like Hanser Alberto to instantly upgrade at the position.
Or if the they wanted to overhaul the back-end of their bullpen and trade for Trevor Rosenthal or Keone Kela, it would mean less high-leverage opportunities for Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, or Dakota Bacus, who have impressed when called upon so far.
A rotation upgrade could make the most sense with Austin Voth and Erick Fedde hardly impressing, but they do have Wil Crowe, Ben Braymer, as well as some promising pitching prospects in Fredericksburg who could be called upon.
But in this shortened and slightly less meaningful season, surely it would make sense for the Nationals to make the most of it with their youngsters and give them as much playing time as possible to evaluate where they stand moving into 2021 and beyond.
I guess you could say they should “let the kids play” as MLB’s marketers will do constantly.
That said, selling on the veterans doesn’t make sense either. Don’t forget, this is still a talented team. It’s a team that still had a 67.3% chance of making the postseason entering Tuesday’s slate of games, according to Baseball Reference, the sixth-best odds in the NL.
If the starting rotation can get back to true form — mostly looking at you Max Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez — and the lineup can feed off of the form of Trea Turner and Juan Soto, then it’s not a stretch for them to turn it on late in the season, just as they did in 2019.
It’s also possible that none of the players previously mentioned as those with expiring contracts would command too much in a trade anyway.
Eaton, Thames, and Sánchez have significantly underperformed so far, and while Cabrera and Kendrick could perhaps be the most desirable of the bunch, as one-month rentals, it still won’t be much more than a dart-throw prospect.
At that point, is it really worth any kind of sell-off when the playoffs are still realistic? Probably not. Which brings back the best plan of action for now and the future to hold firm.
Admittedly, it’s much easier said than done for someone like Mike Rizzo, who has always been fiercely competitive and aggressive at the deadline, never folding until his hand is forced.
So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Nats’ general manager go out and try to find a small upgrade in the rotation and an extra bullpen arm at bargain-basement prices for a prospect or two that the organization won’t miss too much if things don’t work out this season.
Doing the above wouldn’t jeopardize what should be at the forefront of the team’s mind now: Giving players such as Rainey, Crowe, and Luis García a chance to prove themselves and start their development as big parts of the team’s future.
Usually, GMs are bashed if they sit on the fence at the deadline. However, in this unusual spot, it’s a scenario that might be the best path forward for the Nationals this season...