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Where do Nats turn to solve what ails them?

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Where do Nats turn to solve what ails them?

This space could be devoted to a breakdown of Thursday night's 3-1 loss in San Francisco, with mentions of Stephen Strasburg's rocky first inning but impressive rebound after that, Yunel Escobar's game-opening homer followed by a complete lack of offense by the Nationals after that and yet another case of this bullpen's inability to keep the score of the game intact (whether ahead, tied or behind).

Alas, a comprehensive look at merely the latest in a string of frustrating losses by the Nats doesn't really seem like a productive use of time and space right now. This team's problem isn't what's happening on any given night. It's what has happened in the big picture over the last two weeks.

On July 31, the Nationals arrived at Citi Field holding a 3-game lead over a Mets club that appeared to be in disarray. They had just acquired Jonathan Papelbon in a trade that surprised most — and upset some — but ultimately seemed like a move that would help address the team's biggest area of need. They also had just activated Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth off the disabled list, giving the lineup a sorely needed boost.

So, what has happened since then? Pretty much everything negative you can imagine happening.

The Nationals' lineup hasn't been boosted at all by the return of those key players, Zimmerman's solid production notwithstanding. Papelbon has been a non-factor, appearing in all of four games, only two of them save situations. The bullpen as a whole has been scored upon in 11-of-14 games, posting a collective 5.50 ERA.

The Mets, on the hand, have completely reversed course. Buoyed by the acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, they've taken the sport's 30th-ranked offense (which was averaging 3.6 runs per game) and turned it into one of the game's most-productive groups (averaging 5.3 runs per game since July 31). And their already-fantastic pitching staff has become even better, going from a 3.29 staff ERA through July 30 to a 2.29 staff ERA since.

And so you end up with the following facts about these two division rivals: Since July 31, the Mets are 11-2, while the Nationals are 4-10. And thus what had been a 3-game lead for the Nats only two weeks ago now has morphed into a 4 1/2-game deficit faster than you can say Noah Syndergaard.

Which leads to the real pertinent question of the moment: How on earth do the Nationals flip the script again and put themselves back in position to take the NL East title before it completely slips out of their hands?

Manager Matt Williams alluded after Thursday night's game in San Francisco to some potential changes for Friday night's contest against the Giants. He most likely means some lineup juggling and perhaps the insertion of one or two bench guys. The odds of some truly dramatic shakeup seem unlikely at this point.

Williams only has so many reasonable alternatives at his disposal. Want to bench Werth, now 8-for-56 since coming off the DL and owner of a .185 batting average, .256 on-base percentage and .530 OPS for the season? OK, your backup left fielders are Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore.

Fine, prefer simply to move Werth down in the lineup where he can't kill as many rallies? Well, who are you going to move up to the No. 5 spot? Your choices are Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Michael Taylor.

This is where the continued absence of Denard Span really devastates the Nationals. If Span is healthy, Taylor falls into the fourth outfielder role, available to take over for anybody else who is struggling. Instead, Taylor is forced to play every day as the only true center fielder on the roster.

It's been said before, but it needs to be said again: The Nationals are 35-24 this season when Span plays, a .593 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 96-66 club. When Span doesn't play, they're now 23-32, a .418 winning percentage that equates to a 68-94 team. Kind of a significant difference there, huh?

But it can't be that simple, can it? Is a healthy Denard Span really the difference between a 96-win team and a 68-win team?

No, not really. But there's still no denying Span's importance to this lineup. Think about it this way: If he's playing, somebody is hitting fifth besides Werth. Maybe Zimmerman. Maybe Escobar. Maybe Rendon. Whatever the case, the lineup is lengthened considerably just with the addition of its regular leadoff hitter.

The Nationals, though, can't just sit around and wait for Span to return from his back injury. If he even does return.

No, this team has no choice but to try to win with what it has. There's no magic trade to be made, not in mid-August. There's no magic minor-league call-up that's going to take this team on his shoulders. (Sorry, even if Trea Turner is promoted from Class AAA Syracuse, he doesn't solve the real problem right now.)

This is the team Mike Rizzo built, the team Matt Williams has to manage. They could have chosen to do something more dramatic before July 31, but they chose to bank on their returning regulars carrying the load at the plate.

That hasn't happened. But it's going to have to happen if this team wants to right itself and fulfill its immense potential.

For better or worse, this is who the Nationals are. The question is which team they'll ultimately resemble: The one that led the division by 3 games on July 31, or the the one that has given it all back and more over the last two weeks?

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Roark is out, who could be in?

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Roark is out, who could be in?

LAS VEGAS -- Let’s strip the name and take a blank taste test. Wednesday, the Nationals sent an average of 197 innings out the door. That’s 591 outs. It’s not something to shrug off.

Trading Tanner Roark for a reliever, a minor-league one at that, extracts a path to almost 600 outs. The Nationals need to find a new one. Choices to do so aren’t very enticing.

They are back in the starting pitching market because of Roark’s regression the last two seasons coupling with an increase in pay. He’s expected to earn around $10 million out of salary arbitration. The Nationals are gambling they can find equal effectiveness through another starter -- or two.

There’s money to allocate now. It’s not much for the remaining upper tier of free agents. It’s sufficient to bring in someone on a one- or two-year deal and perhaps apply to a more versatile bench piece than a straight backup at first base.

Washington made Patrick Corbin the highest-paid pitcher this offseason. He was priority one. In a vacuum, he may not be worth six years and $140 million. But not all players carry the same value with every franchise. The Nationals had a clear need for another potent starter, and preferably a left-handed one at that. They received the combination with Corbin.

The challenge for the Nationals is handling this market after Charlie Morton and Lance Lynn complicated it. Morton signed a two-year, $30 million deal with Tampa Bay. Lynn received a three-year, $30 million contract from the Texas Rangers. If the Nationals didn’t want to pay Roark $10 million, they surely don’t want to pay another pitcher something near what Morton and Lynn received, even if it allows more control. Roark was entering the last year of his contract.

Dallas Keuchel remains atop the available starters. By WAR, the next-best available pitcher is 34-year-old Anibal Sanchez. He put together what appears to be an outlier season in 2018 following three consecutive years of significant regression. Sanchez’s ERA-plus went 80, 73, 70 before spiking to 143 last season, the third-best mark of his 13-year career. Sanchez has also averaged just 138 innings pitched on average the last four years. That’s a lot of outs between the workload Roark handled and Sanchez has as he heads into his age-35 season.

Next on the list by WAR? Gio Gonzalez. Moving on.

After that? Not much inspiration. Left-hander Wade Miley pitched well in just 16 starts last season. He has a carer 4.26 ERA. Miley has not put together a strong full season since 2013.

Matt Harvey? Trevor Cahill? Clay Buchholz?

Brett Anderson? James Shields? Jason Hammel?

These are not exactly places to hang your hat.

However, the Nationals have little choice. Their solution to replace Roark’s outs will come from outside the organization. Depth at Triple-A Fresno is negligible. Options in Double-A to help the rotation now are non-existent.

They have one intriguing pitcher lurking: Henderson Alvarez. The Nationals signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

“Chance to make the team, if not, to pitch in Triple A for us,” Mike Rizzo said of his outlook on Alvarez.

Alvarez threw a no-hitter in 2013. He was an All-Star in 2014. Shoulder surgery was followed by shoulder discomfort, then another shoulder surgery. Alvarez didn’t pitch in 2016. He started three games for Philadelphia in 2017. He then pitched in the Mexican League in 2018, where he finished with 4.60 ERA in nine starts. The wildest of wild cards here.

Washington has also kept an eye on Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who is available through posting system.

Somewhere, they need to find another 180 innings.

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Five things to know about new Nationals prospect Tanner Rainey

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Five things to know about new Nationals prospect Tanner Rainey

In what may be a Major League Baseball first, two players named Tanner R. were traded for each other Wednesday at the Winter Meetings.

It’s a fun (unconfirmed) fact, but what really makes it interesting for Nationals fans is the fact that one of the Tanners’ last name is Roark, which means Washington now has a hole to fill in their rotation. They’ve already added Patrick Corbin, but expect the team to search for other options now.

Roark had been a staple in the Nats rotation for the last few years, and often provided a steadying presence at the back end of the rotation. He was never as talented or awe-inspiring as Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, but he never needed to be.

Let’s focus on the newest addition to the organization though: the one named Rainey.

Here are five things to know about Tanner Rainey.

1. He went to two small schools, but still has pedigree

Rainey was born in Louisiana, and played collegiate ball at Southeastern Louisiana University and the University of West Alabama.

He was both a first baseman and a pitcher, but was drafted as a pitcher in the second round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds.

2.  His career got off on the wrong foot

Rainey made his Major League debut in April 2018, and it could have gone better. He allowed a grand slam to Scott Kingery of the Phillies, and he finished the season with a 24.43 ERA.

Of course, the caveat is sample size. He pitched just seven innings at the big league level in 2018, and while he struck out an impressive seven batters in those innings, his WAR was -1.0.

3. He was born on Christmas Day

This, of course, allows for many fun puns, especially considering he once played for the Reds. Rudolph The Red(s)-Nosed Rainey-deer? Okay, we’ll try to come up with something better.

The Christmas Day he was born on was in 1992, so he’ll be 26 in a few weeks. It’s a little old for someone without much Major League experience, but he’s got some arm talent, and relievers regularly develop into reliable options later in their careers.

4. He has an electric arm

Rainey may struggle with command at this point in his career, but he can really whip a fastball.

While we live in the era of velocity and relievers boasting ridiculous radar gun totals seemingly every day, it’s interesting to note that 100 mph is still an impressive mark to reach. As Simon mentions, only 36 pitchers hit triple digits in 2018, and Rainey was one of them. That’s something any bullpen can use.

When taking a chance on unproven minor leaguers, you might as well take a chance on somebody with a very valuable, very elite skill.

5. He may never end up working out, but that doesn't mean it was a bad trade if he doesn't

Most minor leaguers don’t pan out. The fact that Rainey has thrown a pitch in the Majors makes his career more impressive than millions of players before him. He was ranked in the top 30 (no. 23 to be exact) of the Reds’ prospects according to MLB Pipeline, so he’s clearly talented enough for the Nats to think they can tap into his potential.

If it doesn't happen, however, losing Roark won’t be the difference for this roster in competing or not. With the rotation they have, even as top-heavy as it looks, they can certainly still compete in the division, and if it works out, they’ve acquired a dynamic piece for the back end of the bullpen.

You have to give up something to get something, and this trade could end up looking good for both teams down the road. If the Nats were set on moving Roark, which it appears they were, they could have done worse than a hard-throwing reliever in an era when hard-throwing relievers are more coveted than ever before.

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