Hold or fold? Buy or sell? The next 24 hours will determine what kind of card player Mike Rizzo is—and what’s in store for his Washington Nationals for the rest of a heretofore unimpressive season.
With Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline looming, the status quo is not an option. Rizzo must decide whether this season is worth salvaging—and at what cost.
If he believes that his underachieving Nationals (52-53) somehow can summon a two-month surge to the playoffs, he needs to make a deal. His club could use Chris Archer, one of the few quality starting pitchers left on the trade market, or perhaps Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto, whose 10th-inning bloop single over a five-man infield beat the Nats Saturday night.
Because Rizzo has waited this long, though, the asking price for one of those potential upgrades may be one of Washington’s prize prospects, like outfielder Victor Robles or shortstop Carter Kieboom. MLB.com reported Sunday the Marlins were asking for both Robles and Kieboom in any deal for Realmuto, who is under club control through 2020.
If, like a sleepy groundhog, Rizzo foresees two more months of mediocrity, he’d be better served selling off impending free agents like relievers Kelvin Herrera or Brandon Kintzler. (Don’t start with Bryce Harper. Despite his up-and-down season, the backlash of trading the face of the franchise would be too great, and the likely return of talent too small to make that happen now.)
On paper, the Nationals are still a playoff team, even though they trail the Phillies and Braves in the National League East standings and must leapfrog five teams to earn a wild card. They still have nine games left against Philadelphia and seven against Atlanta, so things can change—especially if players like Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner keep playing up to their potential.
And in the past week, underperforming veterans like Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez, Adam Eaton and Harper have shown signs of making a turnaround. In fact, the most promising development of the season may have come Friday nigh, when Harper—after weeks of chasing pitches and struggling against shifting defenses that play him to pull—actually had two opposite-field hits against Miami.
But who knows how much the Nationals will get from Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy or closer Sean Doolittle the rest of the way? Strasburg and Doolittle are on the disabled list; Murphy and Zimmerman are working their way back from injuries. And Scherzer (14-5) is the only sure thing on a pitching staff that doesn’t have another starter with more than six wins.
And while rookie manager Dave Martinez seems to have endeared himself to Harper, he has yet to show command of his bullpen or strategy.
That’s why a realist say that even if this Nationals team manages to will its way into the playoffs, it has little chance of ending its streak of postseason futility. The two best NL teams improved themselves before the deadline: the Dodgers traded for Manny Machado, the Cubs acquired Cole Hamels).
The guess here, though, is that even after two straight losses in Miami—the latter featuring just two hits—the Nats believe they have the wherewithal to turn things around.
It’s hard to imagine Rizzo convincing the ultracompetitive Scherzer that this season is a lost cause. And throwing in the towel now probably ensures that Harper will leave as a free agent after the season—an eventuality that, assuming the Nats keep Robles and Juan Soto, wouldn’t necessarily cripple the franchise financially.
We’ll see what happens. Get ready for an interesting 24-hour span of high-stakes decision-making that might make even Jack Bauer’s head spin.