The Nationals’ bullpen has been one of their biggest strengths this year, but that won’t stop them from trying to make it stronger for the season’s stretch run.
As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, one National League general manager familiar with the Nationals’ thinking said the Nationals have focused on adding young shortstops to their minor league system and relief pitching to fortify their big league roster.
On the surface, another reliever would rank among the Nationals’ least important needs. Their bullpen ranks third in the majors with a 2.64 ERA. It has not been especially taxed – at 293 innings, Nationals relievers have thrown the 18th-most in the majors. They have no particular weakness. Jerry Blevins owns a 4.84 ERA, but left-handers have batted .123 against him. Ross Detwiler has been used least often in high-leverage situations, but since June 1 he owns a 1.89 ERA over 19 innings.
The Nationals would not add a reliever to patch a hole. Rather, they would trade for a reliever to bolster depth. In 2012, the Nationals’ pitching staff wore down in the face of their first pennant race, and even with a 98-win team the Nationals limped to the finish. From Sept. 14 through the NLDS, they went 10-12. The Nationals want to avoid tiring again.
If the Nationals can consummate a trade for another reliever, they would face the challenge of making room for him, because their bullpen is already stacked with effective pitchers. But they would prefer a roster crunch to getting caught without a fresh staff in October.
As for their targeting of young shortstops, the Nationals lack depth at the position throughout their system. Beyond Class A Potomac’s Stephen Perez, a highly regarded fielder who’s improved his offense this year, the Nationals have no candidates who could fill Ian Desmond’s shoes should he leave in free agency after the 2015 season. More urgently, they have no one who could play shortstop behind Danny Espinosa, and if Desmond suffered an injury they would be exposed.
With the best record and run differential in the National League, the Nationals can afford to make deals with the fall in mind. Dealing for a reliever would be one of them.