First, to address the reactionary question percolating in the punditry lately — no, the Nationals are not considering selling because of their recent struggles, and Thursday’s stunning comeback only reinforces the point. General Manager Mike Rizzo has no history of selling off his pieces. He has no history of surrender, though of course, he has never had much occasion for it. This team is not in need of a rebuild or even a major renovation. The Nationals will be buyers at the deadline, if they don’t stand pat. And if they buy, they probably will focus on two positions.
The Nationals need catching help. They expect to get some next week when Matt Wieters returns from the disabled list. Wieters has never been exactly who the Nationals thought he would be since signing before the 2017 season, but he is an upgrade over their two inexperienced catchers. Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom were never supposed to start for this team, this soon. They have struggled offensively, and the Nationals have received the least production from their catchers of any National League team by a wide margin. Their catchers have compiled a .557 OPS this season, 51 points lower than the Diamondbacks, who are second worst. Their catchers are hitting .190 and have driven in just 22 runs. At the time of his injury, Wieters had a .727 OPS and three homers — two more than Nationals catchers have hit in his absence. Even if he does not suddenly transform into the Matt Wieters of old, he will help.
That includes defensively, where the inexperience of Severino and Kieboom has manifested itself in an abundance of mound visits and miscommunication. Gio Gonzalez, in particular, seems to be struggling to find his rhythm with Severino. Gonzalez has thrown at least 40 innings with seven different catchers in his major league career. His ERA with Severino (6.07) is his worst with any of those catchers by a run and a half. More than once, he has shown visible frustration with Severino. Other pitchers have mentioned misunderstandings with Severino and Kieboom, too. All of that is to be expected of rookie catchers learning on the job. This team, and this rotation, cannot afford those problems now.
The Nationals are open to dealing for catching help, according to a person familiar with their plans. The Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, who leads all major league catchers with a .310 average and .907 OPS, would require a massive return. The Nationals inquired and heard the asking price included Juan Soto or Victor Robles. If that price remains the same, they will not be dealing for Realmuto. They do have other options.
The most obvious is Tampa Bay’s Wilson Ramos, who is the sentimental choice but also a practical one — and members of the Nationals’ front office have at least considered the possibility. He is the best offensive catcher in the American League right now. He would require no acclimation period with a pitching staff that knows him well. He is a rental, meaning the Nationals would have to take about $5 million in salary, but doing so would reduce the prospect haul required to acquire him. Though they will probably need to solidify their catching for 2019 and beyond, acquiring Ramos fixes an immediate problem without sacrificing future assets.
Still, the Nationals do not seem in a hurry to make this move, willing to wait and see what Wieters looks like when he returns before engaging the market more aggressively. They have time. Then again, other teams might need catching help, too. If they want to make a move, they cannot wait forever.
Other teams will want starting pitching help, too. The Nationals are monitoring that market but do not seem convinced they need to dive in, based on conversations with members of their front office. Rizzo has no history of a major midseason trade for a starter, in part because he has no history of reaching for incremental upgrades. Nationals evaluators like Rays starter Chris Archer, one of the more high-profile options who figures to be available at the deadline. They also think the price will be prohibitive. Cole Hamels is another big name that has been thrown around, but he is due $20 million next year with a $6 million buyout. The Nationals have shown themselves willing to take on money at the deadline, but never quite that much.
Besides, Hamels — like many other options available this July — does not represent a huge upgrade over the pitchers the Nationals have, even the struggling ones. For example, the Texas Rangers lefty has a 4.05 ERA with a 1.30 WHIP. Gonzalez — even as he has struggled lately — owns a 3.77 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. The difference is probably not worth $10 million this year and at least $6 million next season. In other words, unless something drastic changes with this rotation, or in the starting pitching market, Washington does not seem likely to make a splash.
It is early. Things could certainly change. If a reliever falls into their lap, perhaps the Nationals will jump at the chance to bolster those ranks even further. It certainly isn’t a priority after the Kelvin Herrera trade last month, and they almost certainly will not reach.
But the Nationals will undoubtedly be lurking at the deadline, struggles or no struggles, unwilling to sell off top prospects but perhaps not needing to do so to improve.
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