The Nationals left Atlanta on Sunday in the same place as they entered: 6 ½ games behind the first-place Braves.
A four-game split without Max Scherzer is palatable. A 5-4 overall road run since showing up in Philadelphia after the All-Star break is acceptable, though an easy argument could be made the results should have been better. Chances to sweep both in Philadelphia and Baltimore slipped.
What changed in the first nine games since the break? Nothing for the Nationals. They need bullpen help -- still. They remain in a solid position to make the playoffs -- still. Their health -- outside of a new heel flareup for Ryan Zimmerman -- remains decent. Scherzer’s lobbying to pitch Sunday night failed. However, he’s expected back on the mound Thursday against Colorado, which would put him on turn to face the Braves on July 30.
That Scherzer start would arrive a day before the trade deadline. This year, July 31 is it. No more post-deadline deals, no more scrapping pieces after a couple more weeks of testing the waters for a truer read on outcomes. It’s get it done by July 31.
Like their standing in the National League East, nothing changed over the weekend for the Nationals when it comes to need. They need another reliever. Probably two. And, they need to get in line.
Sunday night, reports began to percolate about Boston being interested in San Diego closer Kirby Yates and Toronto closer Ken Giles. The Red Sox are 11 games out of first place and three games out of the wild card. They, of course, are traditionally a go-for-it organization in such instances. As are the Nationals. The questions will be who else is joining them to drive prices and who will be willing to pay them.
Take Yates. He’s the National League’s best closer this season. He is ultra-low-cost. The salary-tracking site Spotrac pegs him as the best relief bargain in baseball. San Diego has another year of control and expects to improve next year. Is he someone it really trades? If so, how epic is the cost? Would the Nationals ever meet it with a higher-end prospect out of a sagging farm system?
What is San Francisco thinking now? It’s 2 ½ games out of a wild-card spot. It is suddenly -- somehow -- a .500 baseball team with 50 wins. The Giants are 22-10 in one-run games. That typically represents two things: a good bullpen and unsustainable results. The Giants’ bullpen has the seventh-best ERA in baseball. Three of the teams ahead of them currently hold a playoff spot. None of the other three are more than a game out of a playoff spot. The group is legit and seemed to be the basis of a pending sell-off from San Francisco (along with, possibly, Madison Bumgarner). But, now? They have to decide, and everyone waits.
Among the Giants’ would-be trade pieces is closer Will Smith. He has moved from a decent reliever to an excellent one the last two seasons. He knew at the All-Star break what might be ahead for him. Smith was the Giants’ lone member of the National League All-Star team.
“I don’t really pay attention to [trade rumors],” Smith told NBC Sports Washington. “I think that’s a distraction, kind of.... I don’t try to think too much into it, really. I play for the Giants right now. I’m going to play as hard as I can for as long as they want me to. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, oh well, I still get to play baseball. It’s kind of a win-win for me.”
Smith has been traded four times. The first time was as a 21-year-old minor-leaguer. He was stunned and disappointed.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
By now, he’s moved to a more Zen approach.
“Now -- the whole control what you can control, it really applies to this,” Smith said. “There’s nothing you can do about this, so why even try to drive yourself crazy.”
The potential playoff pile has tempered movement. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera on June 18 last year. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson arrived on July 16, 2017. If he can, Rizzo has shown a willingness to pull in problem-solvers well before the deadline. If pushed to the edge, like he was for Mark Melancon on July 30, 2016, he’ll move then, too. He’s yet to find a bullpen solution this year -- just like everyone else.
Yates, Smith, Giles and Detroit’s Shane Greene are assumed to be destined for new teams. Four teams are within 2 1/2 games of the National League’s second wild-card spot. Washington holds the top spot by a mere half-game. Demand is high. Stock is low. Going for may get you in. Holding may send you home. In those ways, nothing has changed for the Nationals.
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