The 2020 MLB season is just under three weeks old, which means the trade deadline is just under three weeks away. It’s still a bit jarring to be thinking about the deadline less than a month into the campaign but there’s been little about this truncated, mid-pandemic season that’s retained a semblance of normalcy.
It’s been an up-and-down start for the Nationals, who enter play Wednesday at 6-7 and just outside the playoff picture in the NL. Though the team had a less bumpy plan in mind for kicking off its World Series title defense, Washington has avoided major injury and put health scares surrounding stars Juan Soto, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg behind it.
That said, the Nationals are going to need to start stringing more wins together if they want to secure themselves a favorable spot in the playoffs. Under MLB’s expanded postseason format for this season, the top eight teams in each league qualify for a best-of-three series with the top seed facing No. 8, No. 2 facing No. 7, etc. Teams will have until Sept. 15 to add players to their rosters in order for them to be eligible for the playoffs; the trade deadline is set for Aug. 31.
If the Nationals are going to make a move at the deadline, it’ll likely be for a position player.
Barring any injuries, Washington’s rotation isn’t going to change. Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are the most formidable starting trio in baseball and Aníbal Sánchez will be given every opportunity to show he can still pitch like he did in 2019. Even Austin Voth has impressed as the No. 5 starter, posting a 1.80 ERA over his first two starts.
As for the bullpen, things aren’t going the way the Nationals had hoped and that seems to be working out just fine. Daniel Hudson is the closer after Sean Doolittle’s fastball velocity dropped and Will Harris struggled in two appearances before landing on the IL with a groin strain. Meanwhile, contributions have come from unexpected places. Tanner Rainey has improved his control and looks settled into a set-up role. Javy Guerra, Sam Freeman, Kyle Finnegan and Ryne Harper have all been reliable in the middle innings. Wander Suero just returned from the IL.
The Nationals could conceivably add another late-inning reliever, but they’re already facing a personnel crunch. The eight aforementioned active relievers plus long man Erick Fedde make up the team’s relief corps. That number will be cut down by one once Harris returns and would have to drop again if another arm is added. Left-hander Roenis Elías also remains on the IL and hopes to return this season.
Offensively, there are plenty of areas Washington could improve. Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes have combined to hit just .205 with zero home runs out of the catcher spot. Eric Thames has played almost exclusively against righties and has yet to show the power that landed him a free agent contract last offseason. Adam Eaton has a .577 OPS on the year while playing questionable defense in right field.
They’ve only played 13 and a half games—a tarp malfunction forced Sunday’s game to be postponed—so the Nationals probably aren’t going to make any knee-jerk reactions based on early returns. But Thames and Suzuki are free agents after this year. Eaton could be too if the Nationals decline his $10.5 million option for 2021. As the trade deadline draws closer, their production will be worth watching as they could be replaceable.
If they do dip into the catcher market, some potential targets for the Nationals include the Boston Red Sox’s Christian Vázquez (.798 OPS since start of 2019), James McCann of the Chicago White Sox (.804 OPS since 2019) and the Kansas City Royals’ Salvador Pérez (missed 2019, .825 OPS this year).
Pérez would be the most expensive with a $14.2 million salary next season, which would likely mean the Royals would have to eat some money to make a deal work. McCann became expendable after the White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal last offseason while Vázquez could be a valuable trade piece for Boston while it retools its roster.
The first base market is much more expansive. Mitch Moreland (Red Sox), Todd Frazier (Rangers), Christian Walker (Diamondbacks) and Jesús Aguilar (Marlins) are just a few names that could be on the move. It’s still uncertain just how active this year’s deadline will be, but there will be plenty of talent available if teams are willing to pull the trigger.
It’s worth mentioning that the Nationals may be inclined not to partake in the trade deadline at all. Even if they’re in line to make the playoffs, one bad draw for the opening three-game series could spell the end of their season. General manager Mike Rizzo and Co. may decide it’s not worth sacrificing future assets to contend for a championship in a shortened season.
For now, the Nationals are still evaluating the players they already have. A lot can happen over the next two and a half weeks and they’re going to want to work with as big of sample sizes as possible before making moves that could have future implications.
The pressure is on the offense to show that the front office has nothing to worry about.
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