MILWAUKEE — The trade deadline looms a week from Tuesday. In recent years, this week for the Washington Nationals has included speculation about relief help, specifically the few available back-end types who might help push them over the top. This season, as the Nationals linger in the purgatory between legitimately contending and potentially sliding away, their plans seem less clear-cut.
The Nationals do not have much room to tinker with their roster. Their manager, Dave Martinez, is already juggling more first basemen and outfielders than he can play regularly. When healthy, their bullpen is loaded with late-inning options. If they are to upgrade, they seem most likely to do so behind the plate, where their catchers have struggled all season, or in the rotation. They have called teams to discuss both possibilities, monitoring both markets all season, according to multiple people familiar with their plans.
On Monday night, MLB.com reported the Nationals had discussed a deal for veteran left-hander Cole Hamels, currently with Texas. A person familiar with their plans said those reports are inaccurate, that the Nationals have not engaged the Rangers on a trade. Dan Jennings, a special assistant to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, was at Hamels’s start in Texas on Monday night. People inside the Nationals organization said Jennings was not there on a special Hamels assignment, but rather as part of his usual pre-deadline rounds.
The Nationals would owe Hamels $7 million this season and either $6 million in a buyout next year or $20 million in salary. They have never taken on so much money midseason and are not particularly high on Hamels as a marked upgrade over their current starters. Hamels allowed seven runs in five innings Monday, and his ERA is up to 4.72. Tanner Roark’s ERA, for reference, is 4.85.
What is not clear, however, is who they do view as an upgrade — and how much they might be willing to pay to make one. People familiar with the Nationals’ thinking say they think highly of Chris Archer but assume the asking price will be too high. The Tampa Bay Rays scouted the Nationals’ Class A Advanced Potomac team earlier this month, though at the time, that seemed likely to be tied to a potential deal for the now-injured Wilson Ramos. Rays right-hander Nathan Eovaldi might be available for a tolerable price. The Nationals and Rays have a long track record of consummating deals, something that has often proved predictive for Rizzo in the past. The Detroit Tigers might make some of their starters available. The Toronto Blue Jays might sell veteran J.A. Happ. The San Diego Padres have veteran Tyson Ross, who is pitching well. Starters are available.
Stephen Strasburg struggled in his first start back from the disabled list. Gio Gonzalez walked five in 5 2/3 innings Monday night. Roark has showed signs of revival but has not convinced anyone he is back in form just yet. The Nationals must decide how much they will pay for an upgrade to that rotation, and how much of an upgrade they can find for the price. If they do decide to jump, they will have to make room for a newcomer, a decision that will not be easy given Roark’s tenure and Jeremy Hellickson’s recent success. But those decisions remain theoretical. With a week before the deadline, six games back in the National League East, they have plenty of other choices to make first.
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