With Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list and plenty of elite relievers still reportedly available, there still could be some moves for the Washington Nationals to make ahead of Monday’s trade deadline.
But even as Mike Rizzo made a deal earlier this month to get bullpen help — and then made a second move Friday night to acquire Howie Kendrick from Philadelphia — the Nationals held tight to their top three prospects: Erick Fedde, Victor Robles, and Juan Soto. And they have given no indication that their stance has changed.
Robles is a key part of their long-term plans. Fedde, who will make his big league debut Saturday, is a big part of their shorter-term plans. Soto had surgery to remove the hamate bone in his hand and has battled injuries all season, though many longtime Nationals executives rave about his talent relative to others they have had over the years.
But if the Nationals are not willing to part with any of those three players before Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, then what kind of deals can they reasonably expect to make? Minor ones, like landing Kendrick for left-hander McKenzie Mills, who was recently promoted to high Class A Potomac after impressing at Hagerstown (12-2, 3.01 ERA). Mills was an 18th-round pick in 2014.
First, a reminder: Nationals untouchables Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez suddenly became touchable in the right deal. Rizzo’s stance on prospects, while rigid more often than not, is not so dogged as to ignore an opportunity. If he sees one, as he did then, he will take it.
But if the Sean Doolittle-Ryan Madson deal is any indication, those prospects are not necessarily make-or-break pieces when it comes to the Nationals’ search for help. They can find help without those players. Elite help? Perhaps not. But if, for the sake of argument, the Nationals did try to make a deal for a front line starter or high-end reliever, who might they try to package instead of the big three?
While the number of Nationals minor leaguers rated on all the top 100 lists of prospects is generally limited to that aforementioned trio, they nevertheless have some enticing pieces in their system.
As demonstrated by the Doolittle-Madson deal, and by the Mark Melancon trade last summer, Rizzo is willing to part with big league pieces to get big league help. Felipe Rivero has thrived with Pittsburgh, and Blake Treinen went five scoreless appearances in Oakland before blowing a save Thursday. Given the choice between parting with elite prospects in-season and parting with members of his active roster, Rizzo recently has favored the latter.
However, he and the Nationals have needed every inch of their major league depth this season, particularly in the outfield, where many of the Nationals’ best prospects play. Certainly, the emergence of Michael A. Taylor, then Brian Goodwin, qualify as positives for the Nationals.
But injuries to Adam Eaton, Jayson Werth, and Taylor have limited their ability to deal from what was once a position of depth. More than one opposing scout described Taylor as a very enticing trade chip, and he helped his cause with a steadier performance than ever in his most recent interim stint in center. Goodwin, while not as highly regarded around the league, has nevertheless proven himself a capable big leaguer. Rafael Bautista has missed the majority of this season with a hamstring injury. Andrew Stevenson is in the big leagues, one of the few healthy outfielders the Nationals have left after Ryan Raburn joined Chris Heisey on the disabled list Wednesday.
Wilmer Difo also has garnered interest in trade talks over the years, but the Nationals cannot afford to part with him, either. He is the more-often-than-not starter at shortstop these days and will be needed in that role until past the trade deadline when Trea Turner is expected to return. The Nationals also have Stephen Drew and Adrian Sanchez to play shortstop, and they are planning for August returns for Turner, Werth and Taylor.
Perhaps they could get through a few weeks one or two more players short. If everyone were healthy, they would have quite a surplus. Then again, if everyone were healthy, Difo, Goodwin and even Taylor would probably not be as enticing; all three have proven themselves capable of major league duty with more regular playing time.
Either way, the Nationals also have potential trade chips in the minors, too — even beyond those much-discussed big three. Start from the very bottom of the system, as many of their high-ceiling talents are still teenagers working below rookie-league level.
The Nationals blew past their bonus pool on the 2016 international market and signed three of MLB.com’s top 20 international prospects in that year’s class. Yasel Antuna and Luis Garcia, both teenage shortstops from that international class, are now ranked as the Nationals’ eighth and ninth-best prospects, respectively, by MLB.com.
Though Soto and Carter Kieboom, the Nationals’ 2016 first-round pick, are both hurt, the Nationals have talent at their lower affiliates, too. Their Gulf Coast Nationals combined to throw two seven-inning no-hitters in two games of a doubleheader Sunday, one of which was anchored by Joan Baez, a hard-throwing righty who is 22 years old.
Daniel Johnson, the Nationals’ fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft, is a speedy outfielder who rocketed up their internal boards this season and earned a South Atlantic League all-star nod. Harrisburg third baseman Drew Ward has always drawn interest from potential trade partners. Blake Perkins, a tools-y outfielder taken after Stevenson in 2015, is also at Hagerstown. Opposing evaluators also like Harrisburg reliever Ryan Brinley and Senators catcher Raudy Read. But players such as these fill out deals; they don’t make or break them.
Generally, teams with elite arms to trade are looking for two elite prospects. If the Nationals don’t want to part with any of their big three, can they keep up with teams willing to deal two?
If history is any indication, the Nationals will do everything they can to create deals without sacrificing the top guys. They have some other enticing options. Those options, particularly given the needs of their injury riddled roster, might not be enough, though.