A quarter of the 2017 baseball season has come and gone, and things are beginning to crystallize a little (although only a little). Raise your hand if you thought that the Colorado Rockies would have the best record in the National League in late May (followed by the Diamondbacks!), or that the Milwaukee Brewers would be leading their division thanks in part to a blistering April from AAAA journeyman-turned-Korean demigod Eric Thames.* The third division leader in the National League, meanwhile, the Washington Nationals, are exactly where they were expected to be at the start of the season, except that none of their division rivals (most notably the injury-ravaged Metropolitans) are putting up much of a fight; the rebuilding Atlanta Braves are closest right now, six and a half games back and four games under .500.
*Any reason to mention fellow Pepperdine Wave Thames is an excuse to give you a link to his theme song from the KBL. Enjoy!
For varying reasons, none of the other teams in the NL East looks capable of mounting any kind of serious challenge to Washington. The Mets, the most likely choice at the start of the year, have nine key players on the shelf: three fifths of their rotation (including their best pitcher, who won't come back from a lat tear until August), their closer, their catcher, the left side of their starting infield AND the guy they brought back to shore up that infield, and their best hitter. The Braves have some interesting young players but are going to be without their best hitter until the end of July or so. The Phillies have exactly one regular hitting more than five percent above league average at present (left fielder Aaron Altherr). The death of Jose Fernandez last season has left the Marlins with little to no pitching depth, and a rotation that might be the worst in the National League despite having one of the most pitcher-friendly home parks in baseball.
The Nationals' brain trust are probably less concerned with holding off four moderately competent to inept division rivals and more worried about making sure that their team is capable of advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, having lost in the Division Series three of the past five years. To that end, their biggest issues over the winter were finding a full-time center fielder and upgrading a bullpen that had a lot of promising arms but no consistent presence, and certainly no one who could be counted on as a the closer from day one. Despite the front office's efforts, both of those problems remain unsolved as Memorial Day approaches.
To be fair, GM Mike Rizzo did make a move to address the outfield. After balking at the Pirates' asking price of Washington's top pitching prospect (Lucas Giolito) and top hitting prospect (Victor Robles) for two years of Andrew McCutchen (coming off of a down year), Rizzo instead sent a flotilla of top pitching prospects (Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning) to the South Side for five years of the much less heralded but very effective Adam Eaton. The early returns on that trade were spectacular, with Eaton getting on base at almost a .400 clip and scoring 24 runs in 23 games before tearing his ACL in an awkward landing on first base while running out a ground ball. So unless the Nationals make an upgrade soon, the new everyday center fielder is Michael A. Taylor.
Taylor is a very capable defensive center fielder with terrific range (although sometimes shaky reads) and a rocket arm who is a great player to have as your fourth outfielder; he can be a defensive substitution in late innings, get a spot start or two a week to give a breather to aging or injury-prone teammates (hello, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper!), and serve as a pinch-hitting or pinch-running option thanks to his wheels and some pop in his bat. As a team gunning for a World Series, however, you do not want to run him out there as your everyday center fielder, because what he giveth with the glove, he taketh away with the bat. In almost 900 career plate appearances (close to two seasons' worth), Taylor has hit .232/.283/.370, a full twenty-five percent below league average, and has struck out about a third of the time. Although he has been better this year, and specifically since the Eaton injury, Taylor is still only hitting .266/.300/.426, striking out almost forty percent of the time (38 in exactly 100 PA thus far), and has drawn five more walks than you or I. People like to think of Taylor as a really young player because he looks like he's twelve, but he's actually 26; at this point he kind of is what he is, and it would be unwise to expect a major leap in offensive performance over the rest of the year. Thus, the Nationals could use a short-term fix for 2017 that won't get in the way of either Eaton's return next spring or the arrival of Robles as soon as next summer.
As for the bullpen, Rizzo and the Nationals shopped around this winter's bull market for closer's but went home empty-handed. They blinked when the Giants offered Mark Melancon, a perfectly capable reliever who is 32 and doesn't miss a ton of bats, four years and $62 million to shore up their atrocious bullpen. They offered Kenley Jansen a truckload of cash, only to see him take less to stay in Los Angeles, where he was happy. And although I don't know for sure (because, you know, I'm just a guy with a keyboard and not a professional reporter or anything), I would guess that their pursuit of Aroldis Chapman was less than heated due to his domestic violence issues. After those three, the only "Proven Closer" left on the market was Greg Holland, who had been out since September 2015 thanks to Tommy John surgery and thus would be cheap. The Rockies landed him for $7 million this year and a $15 million vesting option for next year that Holland will have the option to take or decline if he finishes ten more games this season. That Colorado, a franchise free agent pitchers avoid like the plague, especially when they're coming off of a major injury and need to prove themselves, got Holland for that little tells me that the Nationals could not have made much of an offer at all. Their loss; Holland has pitched brilliantly for the Rockies thus far, with a 0.802 WHIP and twenty-six punchouts in a little over eighteen innings.
All this leaves the Nationals in their current pickle, with a flammable bullpen that has lost enough of Dusty Baker's trust that the top four starting pitchers are all throwing more pitches per start than last year (I feel like we've seen this movie before). Some of the issues will fix themselves through positive regression. Shawn Kelley is not going to give up a gopher ball every other inning all year. Blake Treinen is too good to carry an ERA of almost eight (!!!) deep into the summer. Joe Ross coming back and pitching more like his 2015-16 self would give the Nationals yet another above-average starting pitcher to take some weight off of the bullpen. And so on.
There are other internal tweaks that can be made. People around baseball think highly of Koda Glover as a potential shutdown reliever, and he certainly stepped out of central casting for the role: 6'5", 225, goatee, tattoos, angry glare, high-nineties heat and a wipeout slider. However, the results have not quite matched the potential yet, although there are signs that he is putting it together. The top remaining pitcher in the farm system after the Eaton trade, righty Erick Fedde (the team's first-round pick three years ago), recently got moved from the rotation to the 'pen at Double-A Harrisburg in preparation for a 2017 call-up to strengthen the major league unit. And assuming Ross can remain healthy enough to give the Nationals twenty more starts (and that A.J. Cole can fill in the gaps without self-immolating), the team might be well-served to move Jacob Turner into a true long man role, using him for two to three innings if a starter falters rather than reaching for one-inning-max guys in the fifth or sixth. Turner is the kind of pitcher who can do well once or even twice through a lineup, but probably not a third; just last week he matched Gerrit Cole for five innings, shutting out the Pirates on three hits (one of which was an infield single off of his leg) before getting in trouble in the sixth on his third time through the order.
All of the above changes to the current group of relievers, plus some overdue positive regression, will turn the Nationals' bullpen from "possibly the worst in the league" to at least above average. But the Nationals have had an above average bullpen in three prior playoff matchups dating back to 2012, and it has been a big factor in their demise in each of those series. The relief pitching market is much thinner than last year, when Melancon, Chapman, and Andrew Miller all changed teams. The Giants stumbled out of the gate and are already nine games back in the NL West, with Madison Bumgarner out another two months thanks to a shoulder sprain sustained while dirt biking in Colorado; they might decide to punt on Melancon (and his contract) if they feel like they can get a good return. I don't think that Rizzo will pursue that route, both because he will not want to part with one of the few remaining top prospects (Brian Sabean would surely demand either Robles, Fedde, or Andrew Stevenson, recently promoted to Triple-A Syracuse after raking in Harrisburg) for a relief pitcher and because taking on that much payroll for an aging reliever does not jive with the team's need to clear the financial decks as much as possible in order to open up their wallets next winter to get Harper to stick around. That leaves two options that are both a) a significant upgrade on what the Nationals have right now and b) highly available to be plucked from their current teams; David Robertson of the White Sox and Kelvin Herrera of the Royals. Robertson is 32, striking out more than a dozen per nine as the superfluous closer of the rebuilding White Sox, and is owed roughly $20 million through next season. Herrera is 27, struggling more as a closer than he did as a setup man the past few seasons, and owed a little less than $3 million the rest of this year, with roughly $8-$9 million coming to him in his final year of arbitration next year. Neither would hamper the payroll space the Nationals would need next winter, and either would provide a boost.
But wait! Before we get down to brass tacks exploring a possible deal for one of those, let us remember that they also need an even shorter-term upgrade in center field, one of three contenders or possible contenders who must say that about their center field situation. The other two teams are the Yankees, currently trotting out a replacement-level Jacoby Ellsbury, and the Indians, who have Lonnie Chisenhall currently playing above his head. The most likely trade bait? Free-agent-to-be Lorenzo Cain of the Royals, who can give you league-average offense or better coupled with outstanding defense. Not only does he have enough speed to fit the old-school Baker approach to number two hitters (twelve steals this year against zero caught with an 83% career success rate), he can also get on base more frequently (.358 this year, .338 career) than the likes of Taylor or Wilmer Difo, whom Baker simply cannot resist giving too many starts to at the top of the order (for purposes of this exercise, "too many" means "any"). Cain is 31, and because the Royals would certainly be extending him a qualifying offer over the winter, they will be seeking at least the equivalent of the mid-to-late first-round pick they would recoup were he to walk, as he almost certainly will. For the Nationals, the benefits are obvious; they would be getting an elite glove whose speed and on-base ability at the top of the lineup with Trea Turner would force opposing pitchers to throw even more fastballs to the troika of Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy, who so far have combined to hit .345/.417/.657.
If the Nationals are going to look at the rest of the National League and conclude that they need a stronger presence in their bullpen and an above-average player in the middle of their outfield, their options are either to make two separate trades (for Robertson and Cain) or one package trade (Herrera and Cain). Over the winter, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the White Sox and Nationals talked about swapping Robertson for lefty Jesus Luzardo and third baseman Drew Ward (currently the #10 and #12 Nationals prospects according to MLB.com's Jim Callis, #12 and #19 per ESPN's Keith Law), with the White Sox eating roughly half of the $25 million owed Robertson through next year, but the deal got hung up over money. Assuming they went back with that same offer and agreed to take on two-thirds of the remaining $20 million, would that be enough to get a deal done? With the Royals as regards Herrera, I think that prospect package plus taking on Herrera's entire contract could work, and then figure out how to add Cain to the mix.
I'm going to assume that Robles is pretty much untouchable, except as part of a Godfather offer for Mike Trout or something. Ditto Fedde, the last high-ceiling pitcher close to the majors that the Nationals have. I would also expect them to hold on to Stevenson for the time being because he should be able to help replace Jayson Werth in 2018 as at least the strong side of a platoon, and to Juan Soto, currently smacking the ball around for Class-A Hagerstown to the tune of .360/.427/.523 as one of the youngest players in the Sally League. That leaves Carter Kieboom, also currently hitting the ball well for Hagerstown and a year older than Soto at nineteen, as the most likely player to move. A teenager in A-ball who can handle shortstop and hit .333/.398/.536 against mostly older competition is probably the equal of a first-round pick, only with a higher net present value, so that should be enough to get the Royals' attention. If it takes another player to make it work, Rafael Bautista, a 24-year-old Syracuse outfielder who has appeared in five major league games this year, seems like a perfect fit. Bautista would fit the mold of a Jarrod Dyson, a burner who can be an excellent fourth outfielder but may not hit enough to be more than that. He is currently blocked at the major league level and less important to the Nats' future than Robles, Stevenson, or Soto, and his skill set with six more years of team control would look mighty attractive to the Royals (as opposed to three more years of, say, Taylor).
There you have it. A net loss of four minor leaguers (Kieboom, Luzardo, Bautista, and Ward) for a relief weapon and a temporary fix in the remaining hole in the field. That move would both improve the major league team now and keep the payroll flexible for a possible Harper re-signing in eighteen months. It would give the Royals a good mix of the kind of young players that they like developing, with different major league ETAs, while not costing the Nationals any of the most vital pieces in their system. This Nationals team is good. Even if Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy won't all hit like peak Ted Williams all year, a regular lineup of Turner, Cain, Harper, Zimmerman, Murphy, Rendon, Werth, and Wieters should be the kind that eats away at even the best starting pitchers and gives Washington more opportunities to win with their strong rotation and a more consistent bullpen. These Nationals have been built to win now, but also to underscore a commitment to their soon-to-be free agent star that they are building to win in the future as well. A trade for Cain and Herrera would help Rizzo meet both of those goals and make one of the best teams in baseball even better.