Bryce Harper strikes out during Monday’s loss in Milwaukee. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The Nationals face an important question ahead of Tuesday’s MLB trade deadline, and how they fare in Wednesday’s finale at Milwaukee and a four-game series at Miami could go a long way toward determining the answer. Will this team, which was expected to coast to a third consecutive National League East division title but instead sits six games back of the Phillies, be a buyer or a seller come July 31?

“We have a lot of good players that a lot of teams feel that can help them down the stretch drive,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo told the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan when asked Wednesday whether other clubs have inquired about acquiring Nationals players before the deadline. “We’re on the phone all the time trying to make deals, looking at what helps us as a buyer, as a seller, as a mixture. We’ve never been shy at this point of the season and we’ll continue to be aggressive and put together the best product we can to help us win in 2018 and beyond. You guys are talking like we’re looking to 2019. I’m looking to 2:30 today when we play the Brewers.”

In his latest column, ESPN’s Buster Olney listed the Nationals among the five teams that need to decide now whether they’re buyers or sellers. Olney suggested the Nationals listen to offers for pending free agent Bryce Harper if they believe the chances of signing him this offseason are slim, as a contender might be willing to part with a couple of solid prospects in exchange for two months (plus the playoffs) of Harper’s services.

“But I doubt that would happen,” Olney wrote. “It seems more likely the Nationals will bet on a rebound from their players — and remember, Washington is chasing a couple of young teams in the Phillies and Braves which arrived earlier than expected.”

During his interview with the Sports Junkies, Rizzo confirmed that he is, at this point, still betting on a rebound, but he didn’t completely shut down the possibility of dealing Harper.

“That’s a question that’s tough to answer,” Rizzo said when asked whether trading Harper before the deadline was “100 percent off the table.” “It would have to be a spectacular set of circumstances for us to do that. We’re going to do what we have to do to better this team for 2018 and beyond. That’s one of the superstars in the game and he’s a guy that is near and dear to my heart personally, and in Washington D.C., and is one of the great players in the game.”

Rizzo also dismissed the notion that trading Harper, or any other pending free agent, at the deadline would hurt Washington’s chances of signing him in the offseason, pointing to what the Yankees did with closer Aroldis Chapman in 2016. He said he still has “great confidence” in the Nationals’ ability to catch the Phillies and Braves in the division race, and rattled off several teams, including the 2017 Cubs, who overcame deficits of five-plus games after the all-star break to win the division in recent years. Entering Wednesday’s games, FanGraphs gives the Nationals a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs, while 538 gives them a 21 percent chance.

“This is a good team that needs to play better,” Rizzo said. “There’s nobody sugarcoating this thing. Our starting pitching since June 1 has been poor, with the exception of Max [Scherzer]. I think [our starting pitchers are] 3-17 in that time frame. We’re not offensively efficient. Our bullpen has been overused and overtaxed, just because we’ve got starters going less than five innings on a consistent basis. So everyone’s gotta step up. Pitchers gotta pitch better. Players gotta play better. GM’s gotta GM better. We’re all in this thing together. When one succeeds, we all succeed, and when one fails, we all fail. That’s how I look at this thing. You’re never going to hear a negative word about a player from me in the media, in the public, but behind closed doors they get the message unfiltered and in no uncertain terms. They know it’s time to step up. We’ve got five games before the trade deadline. That’s an important milestone.”

Rizzo also said the “state of the clubhouse is great,” despite the public spat between Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg last week and a rookie manager in Dave Martinez whose handling of the pitching staff has been questioned by his own players this season. It’s fair to wonder whether the Nationals would be looking up at the Phillies and Braves were Dusty Baker still managing the team.

“Like I said before, this is a confident bunch,” Rizzo said. “They’re as befuddled as the rest of us are as to why they can’t consistently win baseball games with the talent that we have. I think that they’re frustrated like everybody else is frustrated. They’re playing with a whole lot of urgency because they see the dates going off the calendar and that, by some act of God, we still have some type of puncher’s chance to win this division. We’re going to grasp onto that, and run with that, and see if we can put together a string of games that puts pressure on two really talented but young teams ahead of us in the Braves and the Phillies.”

Listen to Rizzo’s entire interview with the Sports Junkies here.

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