Should the Nationals trade for a starter? It’s complicated

The Nationals under Mike Rizzo, rightfully, have been loath to sacrifice future assets for present wins. They have resisted the temptation to add rental players. When they have made meaningful trade deadline additions, they have dealt for players under contract beyond the current season. Holding minor leaguers and eschewing players who will leave at the end of the year is sound team construction – cheap, controllable talent is the most valuable asset in baseball.

There are circumstances when the typically prudent stance should be eschewed. The Nationals may be in the middle of one right now. They should probably be aggressive in trying to trade for a starter to strengthen the back of their rotation, even if it means taking on a rental player. But their best course of action depends more on what they think of the Braves than anything else.

The Nationals are at a point – competitive and talented enough to challenge for a pennant, but facing a significant deficit – when each win and loss could have a huge impact on their odds to make the playoffs.

The thing to keep in mind is this: Not all wins are created equal. For the very best teams and the worst teams, wins possess little marginal value.

Last year, the Nationals had the ability to lap the field in the NL East, and so some of the wins they racked up were cosmetic. It would have been foolish for them to mortgage their future just so they could win the East by another game or two. (Adding Kurt Suzuki was still a nice move because it also solved a problem for this season, providing insurance as Wilson Ramos returned from knee surgery.) And this year, a team like the Mets of course has no reason to trade away a future piece to help the current club; that present piece will have zero effect on their chance to reach the postseason.

This year, the Nationals are in the middle of the spectrum. With 70 games remaining, they trail the Braves by six games and the Reds by four for the second wild card. Winning the division is what really matters – it gains a ticket for entry into the postseason, not a coin flip. So we’ll only focus on that.

The Braves are on pace to win 92 games. Let’s say they don’t sway too far from that. It will take somewhere between 96 and 90 games to win the NL East. The Nationals, currently 47-45, would have to go 49-21 the rest of the way – 113-win pace for a whole season – in order to get to 96 wins. With an uptick in performance, the Braves could put a chokehold on the division.

Now the other hypothetical end. The Nationals need to go 43-27 to reach 90 wins, which is a 99-win pace over a full season. That’s a tall order, but it’s doable for them. The Nationals won 98 games with much the same team last season.

In choosing a deadline strategy, the Nationals’ biggest question is, how good does their front office think the Braves are? Because if the Nationals think the Braves are going to stay on their pace or improve, they should probably stand pat and hope for the best. Even with another big-time starter in their rotation, they probably wouldn’t have the firepower, based on their current standing, to catch the Braves. A rental player would be a lost cause – those extra wins would likely not get them any closer to the postseason.

But if the Nationals think the Braves are due for a slip-up, it would be worth going after a rental starter. They would be in a position in which every win is going to matter a great deal. Going 41-29 from here until the end of the year or 43-27 may mean the difference between staying home or playing into October. Getting into the playoffs is everything, and for the Nationals two wins could mean everything. If gaining those two means dealing quality minor league talent for a player who will bolt after the year, it would be worth it.

There are many moving parts this time of year for every team, but the Nationals have an inordinate number of factors of play: their own ability to start winning; the Braves’ expected future performance; the health and effectiveness of Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler.

They will start to gain some clarity in the next few weeks. Whether or not they should upgrade the back of their rotation will be a complicated decision, and one scenario may demand more aggression and risk than they have previously shown.

FROM THE POST

Jordan Zimmermann receives little help from Washington’s offense in 3-1 loss to the Phillies.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Ian Desmond loses in Final Vote

Davey Johnson not pushing the Nationals to trade for a starter

Michael Crotta is making the most of his chance at Syracuse

Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos producing at the bottom of the lineup

 

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 7, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 1: Caleb Clay allowed one run on eight hits over six innings and lowered his ERA to 1.62. Xavier Cededno, Craig Kimball and Michael Crotta each notched scoreless innings. Danny Espinosa homered again, finishing 2 for 5 with a double and raising his average to .210. Tyler Moore went 2 for 4 with a grand slam.

Harrisburg 7, Erie 0: Robbie Ray tossed a complete-game shutout on 107 pitches. He gave up only three hits, walked two and struck out 11 in his second start since his promotion. Jerad Head and Justin Bloxom each collected three hits. Rick Hague homered and Jason Martinson drove in two.

Potomac was suspended.

Hagerstown 5, Hickory 3: Brett Mooneyham allowed two runs over six innings. Gilberto Mendez earned his fourth save and has a 0.59 ERA. Tony Renda, Estarlin Martinez, Narciso Mesa, Khayyan Norfork and Wes Schill each drove in a run.

Brooklyn 4, Auburn 3: Casey Selsor allowed four runs and 10 hits over 3 1/3 innings. L.J. Hollins tosses 2 2/3 scoreless innings. Jean Carlos Valdez, Wilman Rodriguez and Jordan Poole each drove in a run.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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