The Nationals are 24-33, 9 1/2 games back of the NL East lead and six out of wild-card position. If that keeps up, they seem likely to sell leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. For now, though, that isn’t the Nationals’ intention. An American League executive told Jayson Stark of The Athletic that Washington’s “still talking about adding. They’ve been calling around, looking for upgrades in the bullpen. And teams with that attitude have a hard time flipping and saying it’s time to re-trench for next year.”
If the Nationals aren’t going to wave the white flag, the bullpen’s a logical place to seek upgrades. Their relief corps has been a horror show all season, ranking last in the majors in ERA (7.23), 29th in blown saves (11), 28th in FIP (5.26) and 26th in walks per nine innings (4.38). As you’d expect from those statistics, bright spots have been difficult to find in the group.
Of the seven Nationals who have logged double-digit relief appearances this season, only closer Sean Doolittle has put up respectable numbers, but even the oft-dominant left-hander had a couple blowups in the second half of May. Meanwhile, blowups have been all too common throughout the season for southpaw Matt Grace and hard-throwing righty Kyle Barraclough – one of the Nationals’ key offseason acquisitions. Fellow offseason pickup Trevor Rosenthal could scarcely record an out before the club banished him to the injured list April 26 because of a viral infection. Wander Suero, Tony Sipp and the injured Justin Miller have mostly been ineffective, while it’s too soon to pass judgment on a Tanner Rainey–Javy Guerra–Kyle McGowin trio that has thrown a combined 13 1/3 innings.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, with the deadline still two full months away, teams with valuable relief trade chips may want to keep them in hopes of sparking a late-July bidding war. Although, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was able to pry reliever Kelvin Herrera out of Kansas City almost a month and a half before last year’s deadline. The Herrera acquisition didn’t work out, though, continuing Rizzo’s spotty track record of bullpen trades. Even getting Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Athletics in 2017 cost the Nats Blake Treinen and Jesus Luzardo, the former perhaps baseball’s best closer in 2018 and the latter now an elite pitching prospect, as well as a good third base prospect in Sheldon Neuse. The summer before that, reeling in Mark Melancon from the Pirates forced the Nationals to give up now-excellent Pittsburgh closer Felipe Vazquez.
Though the Nationals want to make yet another in-season trade(s) to repair their wonky bullpen, the luxury tax line is worth keeping in mind in their case. Ownership reportedly doesn’t want to exceed the $206MM threshold, which helps explain why Washington hasn’t just signed free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel to better its late-game situation. The team’s a bit under $203MM in luxury tax payroll, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, and would have to shell out a 50 percent surtax for every dollar spent over the line.
The tax is likely weighing on the Nationals’ minds as they consider buying. However, there’s plenty of time for the club to change course and pivot toward selling if the on-field product doesn’t improve. Should Washington take that route, it could consider moving the premier impending free agent in the game (at least among position players), third baseman Anthony Rendon. Rizzo was in a similar position last year with Bryce Harper, but given that the Nationals were hovering around the .500 mark, he decided to retain the outfielder. The Nationals then missed the playoffs and failed to re-sign Harper, leading him to bolt for the division-rival Phillies in free agency after rejecting a qualifying offer. All the Nats got for his exit was a fourth-round pick. The departure of a qualified Rendon would return something better – a draft choice after Competitive Balance Round B – but only if they stay below the tax line.
Beyond Rendon, Stark points to Doolittle and right-handed ace Max Scherzer as potential trade chips. Stark hears from multiple executives that the Nationals are not interested in moving Scherzer, though. The 34-year-old Scherzer’s contract still has more than $100MM on it – including in deferrals – but he remains a dominant force who’d draw plenty of interest. Doolittle has just another year of control left (a $6.5MM club option), though trading him would likely damage the bullpen-needy Nationals’ chances of competing in 2020. More realistically, a Nats sale could revolve around Rendon with Michael A. Taylor, who’s under control for one more year, and potential free agents Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier and Gerardo Parra also looking like trade candidates.