Reports have swirled all week about the Nationals chasing both players, and those reports are true. The Nationals have, indeed, discussed both all-stars with their respective teams. They have not, however, indicated a sudden willingness to part with their best prospects to get them. If Washington had, it would almost already have one or both players.
Common sense, right? Yes, but the Nationals’ continued pursuit indicates that they believe they can get one or both players without conceding Turner or even Robles.
At the winter meetings, the phrase “untouchable” gains a gradient not associated with it in other walks of life. On that scale, Turner is “more untouchable than Robles,” as the Nationals see a full year of Turner at the top of the order as a key to replacing Wilson Ramos’s production. The Nationals do not expect newly acquired catcher Derek Norris to duplicate Ramos’s production. They expect to make up for it elsewhere: Namely, with Turner, leading a person familiar with the team’s plans to say they can say with “99.9 percent” certainty that the team will not deal Turner under any circumstances. Baseball people, particularly the Nationals, do not like to use “never.”
Robles is less untouchable than Turner, but he seems to be more off-limits than reports about him in a McCutchen deal indicated. The Nationals have long looked at their outfield through a long-term lens. Jayson Werth is under contract through the 2017 season. Bryce Harper becomes a free agent after the 2018 season — unless he were to sign an extension first, which continues to seem unlikely. If Turner moves back to shortstop for 2017, and Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has said he still believes Turner can be a regular shortstop, the Nationals could have an entirely new outfield after the 2018 season. Robles, they believe, could be big league ready in time to help them not long after that. He is a key part of their long-term plans, and with a relative dearth of position-playing prospects compared with their pitching-heavy system, the Nationals treasure him.
Again, that does not mean a deal for McCutchen could not still get done. Indications are that the Nationals have made their pitch and been clear about what they will and will not give. They were not, according to a person familiar with the situation, just hours from making a McCutchen deal last Friday, as some reports indicated. They were not, that person added, rushing to finish a deal by the non-tender deadline so they could non-tender Danny Espinosa.
As Rizzo indicated at the general managers’ meetings in early November, the Nationals believe Espinosa still has value, whether to them or as a trade chip. They were not planning to discard him for no return, even if they had acquired a center fielder to bump Turner back to shortstop.
And McCutchen would, to be sure, play center field for the Nationals. Though defensive metrics like UZR and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and reports from those who saw him regularly indicate McCutchen’s defense declined last year, the Nationals believe he can play an adequate center field between Werth and Harper. Again, this seemed fairly obvious, but given that Harper has center field experience, one would not be unreasonable to wonder whether the Nationals would consider shifting McCutchen. They would not, which is unsurprising given how much Rizzo praises Harper’s right field defense.
In other words, early indications from the winter meetings are that the Nationals have not overhauled their mind set: They are loyal to their prospects, and will not let go of players like Robles, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and the rest if they do not have to. They believe they can make deals for Sale, McCutchen, or both, without offloading every prized prospect in their system.
How do they propose to do that? That much still remains blurry, but perhaps major leaguers could be involved. The Pirates could benefit from the acquisition of a veteran innings-eater, and Gio Gonzalez fits that mold. As stated previously, Espinosa brings a rare middle-infield combination of high power and strong defense. He could be attractive, too. No one has mentioned either player as coming up in formal talks, for what it’s worth. But these deals do not necessarily have to be built entirely on prospects.
“Untouchable” never really is, and minds change as the market evolves. But as of right now, the Nationals seem no more eager to part with Robles than they did at the trade deadline, when they chose to pursue Mark Melancon instead of conceding prized young talent for Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller. Perhaps they can build a deal for McCutchen, Sale, or both without him. As of right now, it seems they will certainly try.