September 2, 2014

Washington Nationals: Buyers at MLB Trade Deadline finally, but are Nats going shopping?

The Washington Nationals have a well deserved off-day Monday after winning eight of their last ten games to hold a share of MLB’s best record with the red-hot Cincinnati Reds at 61-40. They also have a four-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. East. Teams in their position historically are known as “buyers” at the MLB Trade Deadline, which is 4:00 pm Tuesday.

Will the Nats be buyers?

All along, GM Mike Rizzo has said he’d do a deal if it made sense for the long-term goals of the team. He’s reluctant to give up prospects for rental players — players in the last year of their contract who can become free agents at the end of the season. He’s also reluctant me make a deal for a player under contract for an extended length of time, so if he’s to make a deal this deadline, it will probably be more of a supplemental deal than a blockbuster.

We’ve already seen some big-name talent moved this July. Zach Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and Ichiro are just some of the big names that have been moved so far, with others like Josh Johnson, James Shields and a pair of Cubs pitchers, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, still potentially on the block.

With the prospect of the Nats shutting down Stephen Strasburg when he reaches his team-imposed innings limit this season, there has been rampant speculation that the Nats would be in the market for a starting pitcher for the stretch run and possible playoffs. But a difference-making starter would cost several top prospects from a minor league system that was gutted in the off-season of most of their near-ready prospects.

The Gio Gonzalez trade cost the Nats four of their top 15 prospects, and three of their closest to the big leagues. This now leaves lower minors players such as Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer and Brian Goodwin at the top of the Nats prospect list. With others such as Matt Purke and Sammy Solis dealing with injuries, a trade for top-level prospects would leave the Nats quite thin in the minors.

Could the Nats make a move for a lesser pitcher like the D-Backs’ Joe Saunders or the Mariners’ Jason Vargas? Sure. But with John Lannan stocked in Syracuse (and already paying him), the Nats have to feel like if they need to add a fifth starter they already have in-house candidates.

Rizzo has said on several occasions he considers Jayson Werth, currently rehabbing in AAA-Syracuse, and the recently returned Drew Storen, as the Nats big-name deadline acquisitions this season. Werth should be able to return to the Nats soon and would give them a boost in the batting order and in morale. But the team could use some help in a couple of spots and might look to acquire some depth in those key positions as the deadline approaches.

Ian Desmond’s oblique injury has made the Nats especially thin at middle infield. Danny Espinosa has slid over to the shortstop position almost flawlessly, while Steve Lombardozzi has become a full-time player at his natural position of second base. But Lombo starting means the only backup is veteran Mark DeRosa, who’s played a grand total of eight games at second base in the last three seasons. Were Espinosa to go down, the Nats would be in a heap of trouble. And there’s no possible help in the minor leagues.

Veteran middle infielder Marco Scutaro was traded from the Colorado Rockies to the San Francisco Giants last week. He would have been an ideal candidate in that spot, though he’s a player that has been accustomed to starting and would have been a forgotten man once Desmond returns. But players like Scutaro are in practically every organization (except, it seems, this one), and the Nats should be able to find a player of his caliber if they deem necessary.

The Nats could also use some help at catcher. They are fairly gifted with depth at the position in the minors, but other than Jesus Flores, who’s dealing with back issues from being overworked, none have enough experience to be trusted to carry a heavy workload should Flores go down for any length of time. Flores’ production has gone down significantly as the season has progressed, and could he could really use a dependable veteran to lighten his workload a couple of times a week.

The Rockies have  veteran Ramon Hernandez available, but the 36-year old has had an injury-plagued year himself and has been bad when not hurt (.1959/.237/.333 in 132 PAs). To complicate matters, he’s signed through the 2013 season at $3.2 million. Doesn’t sound like an ideal fit. Another name that has popped up lately is Kurt Suzuki of the Oakland A’s, but he’s signed through 2013 as well and is even more expensive than Hernandez.

One last catcher to think about is Boston backup Kelly Shoppach. He’s a free agent at the end of the year and he’s hitting .261/.346/.504 in 132 plate appearances. If Boston, 9 1/2 games out in the A.L. East in fifth place (and behind six teams for the wildcard), decides they want to move some parts, Shoppach could garner some interest.

Another thing to consider is that veteran backup can also be obtained after passing though waivers after the non-waiver deadline. So even if the Nats don’t make a move by Tuesday at 4:00 pm, it doesn’t mean they won’t later in August.

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