Still, in the eyes of many around the sport, this year is different for the Nationals. Many of their core players have reached their prime together, and many of them – Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Jordan Zimmermann, Adam LaRoche, Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Doug Fister – will be eligible for free agency in the next two years. Meanwhile, with the Mets and Marlins on the rise and Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez returning next year, the division will only become more challenging.
“This is their window,” one American League evaluator said. “They ought to go into the playoffs as the favorite in the National League. That’s an American League lineup they run out there. They’ve got a great club. The opportunities aren’t frequent in the game. We’ll see what they do. They really should be a club that doesn’t have to play in that one-game playoff.”
The circumstances of the season have only added to the pressure. The Nationals own the best run differential in the National League and the second-best record. But they lead the Braves by just 1 ½ games in the NL East, and four other NL teams are within three games of them – if they don’t seal the division, there’s no guarantee they’ll even make the wild card game. They still have nine games left against the Braves – 16 percent of their schedule – to make sure they do win the division.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which wins would hold more value to a team. If the Nationals were running away with the division, like in 2012, even a significant upgrade wouldn’t have shifted the odds of their postseason chances much. Now, though, a marginal boost could provide the difference between a division title and a massive missed chance.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they win the next two World Series,” the evaluator said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t make the playoffs this year and things fall apart on them.”
How can the Nationals fortify their roster today? The biggest decision they make will be whether they acquire a fill-in for Ryan Zimmerman, who has “a little tear” in his hamstring, the team official said. The Nationals have not publicly declared Zimmerman’s status, perhaps in an effort to maintain leverage with teams they may acquire an infielder from. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if he misses the majority of the remainder of the regular season.
Rizzo has expressed faith in Danny Espinosa, who’s started 71 of the Nationals’ 105 games. His defense has been exceptional. He’s struck out in a third of his plate appearances while hitting .212/.280/.344.
As of Wednesday morning, the Nationals had not spoken to the Diamondbacks about Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, two of the best available infielders. Their contracts may be prohibitive for the Nationals; both have more than two years and more than $25 million remaining on their contracts. The Indians’ Asdrubal Cabrera could be a fit, but he would be a rental player, the kind of acquisition Rizzo eschews.
The most likely addition would be a reliever. The Nationals have been looking for bullpen help all month. Even though their bullpen has been one of the best in the league, they are weary of a repeat of 2012, when their staff wore down. They also don’t take their health in the bullpen this season for granted, and they want to build depth in case of injury.
The Nationals have a handful of hours to decide how and if they’ll upgrade their roster. It comes at a fascinating moment for the franchise. They might stay good for a long time, but they are definitely good right now. Will they be better by the end of the day, and how much are they willing to affect their future to make it happen? We’ll know soon.
FROM THE POST
Nats hang on for a much-needed 4-3 victory over the Marlins, James Wagner writes.
MLB’s task now in the MASN dispute is keeping the Nationals and Orioles out of court.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Pawtucket 3, Syracuse 2: A.J. Cole allowed two runs in five innings on three hits and three walks, striking out five. Ryan Mattheus allowed one run in one inning on two hits and no walks, raising his ERA at Syracuse to 4.94. Steven Souza went 2 for 3 with a double and two walks. Tyler Moore went 1 for 3 with two walks.
Harrisburg 6, Richmond 3: Quincy Lattimore went 4 for 7 with a grand slam in the 13th inning. Drew Vettleson went 1 for 6 with a homer. John Simms allowed one run in six innings on six hits and two walks, striking out six.
Myrtle Beach 10, Potomac 6 (16 innings): Ike Ballou went 2 for 7 with a homer. Randolph Oduber went 4 for 7 with a double and a triple. Pedro Encarnacion allowed two runs in 4 2/3 innings on nine hits and no walks, striking out one.
Hagerstown was off.
Brooklyn 9, Auburn 4: Raudy Reed went 2 for 4 with a double. James Bourque allowed seven runs, three earned, 1 2/3 innings on five hits and two walks, striking out one.