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After losing out on Aroldis Chapman, the time is now for the Nationals to part with prospects

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Lucas Gioltio is one of the most promising pitchers in baseball, but should that make him untouchable? (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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The sting of missing out on Aroldis Chapman, within the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, must have been amplified upon hearing Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein explain his reasoning Monday: “If not now,” Epstein asked, “when?”

This iteration of the Cubs is in its second season as a bonafide contender. The Nationals have been among the league’s elite, without making a dent in October, for five seasons now. They have built an established power, but General Manager Mike Rizzo has never made the kind of all-in move Epstein made in dealing for Chapman. For the Nationals, the time also should be now. They need to consider trading prospects whom they may feel uncomfortable trading, the kind of action they have avoided.

Wilson Ramos will either sign elsewhere this offseason or likely not produce at the rate he’s currently producing next year. Daniel Murphy has evolved into a monstrous hitter, but it strains credulity to believe he’ll remain perhaps the greatest offensive force in the National League, an annual MVP candidate. Jayson Werth, currently defying his age in the middle of the 30-game on-base streak, will have one more year to defy next year. This has the makings of a special season in the middle of a sensational but ultimately unfulfilling run of Washington baseball.

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The Post’s Barry Svrluga reported last week that the Nationals considered Trea Turner, Lucas Giolito, Victor Robles and Reynaldo Lopez untouchable in a Chapman deal. Turner already has proven too valuable to the current roster to consider moving. The other three? Every year since they became a threat, the Nationals have mostly kept their prospect powder dry. Now is the time to be open-minded about changing course.

Many baseball people believe the price the Cubs paid to land Chapman – headlined by top-shelf shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres – will make it prohibitive for teams to part with the resources necessary to land Andrew Miller or Wade Davis, both of whom, unlike Chapman, have an extra year of contractual control. Both pitchers, especially Davis, may simply be unavailable.

The Nationals should make a serious push, anyway. It would be an important boost for the Nationals clubhouse, which surely felt frustration when the Cubs – a team the Nationals have jockeyed with all season for the best record in the National League  – added Chapman instead of them. Manager Dusty Baker openly called it a disappointment. Another person familiar with the Nationals’ clubhouse called it a “total letdown.”

How much are the Nationals willing to give up for Andrew Miller?

Acquiring a star provides an undeniable jolt. The Mets rode the energy and production Yoenis Cespedes injected last season to the World Series. As part of the rationale for acquiring Chapman, Epstein said, “We believe in this team.” Rizzo surely believes in his team, too. It’s his turn to show it.

This discussion comes with two perennial caveats. No. 1: You can’t simply scream, “Go get Miller!” and call it a failure if it doesn’t happen without knowing the precise nature of talks. We don’t know if the Yankees ceased discussions after asking for, say, Turner, and probably won’t know details until after the deadline. No. 2: Nationals ownership has prevented Rizzo from adding payroll midseason, which in the past has hamstrung his deadline efforts.

Still, it is fair to wonder whether the Nationals cling too tightly to their best prospects.

The Nationals vaulted into their current cycle of success, in part, by turning four prospects, headlined by A.J. Cole and Derek Norris, into Gio Gonzalez in a trade with the Oakland A’s during the winter entering 2012, the season in which they asserted themselves as a force.

Since that move, the Nationals have had 11 players who ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects: Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Lucas Giolito, Brian Goodwin, Michael Taylor, Lopez, Robles, Erick Fedde, Turner, Joe Ross and Cole, whom they re-acquired. They have traded none of them. Obviously no one’s trading Harper or Rendon, but in other cases, the Nationals could have sold high or afforded to part ways.

The most highly-regarded prospect the Nationals have traded since the Gonzalez blockbuster is probably Robbie Ray, whom Baseball America ranked as Washington’s fifth-best prospect entering 2014, when the Nationals shipped him, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi to Detroit for Doug Fister. In three seasons, Ray is 11-25 with a 4.44 ERA and a 94 ERA+. He’s a just-below-league-average lefty starter at age 24.

Rizzo, admirably, has swung shrewd trades while keeping the Nationals’ top prospects. He turned Steven Souza into Ross and Turner, which retains the appearance of alchemy. The Fister trade was hailed instantly as a steal and proved to be.

The Nationals are in position to win their third division title in five seasons, and in the two years they fell short, they still managed at least 83 wins and came within shouting distance of a wild card. There are plenty of questions for the near future, but given the complexion of their roster, it’s fair to assume the Nationals will contend again next season. A six-year window of annual contention is not something to take for granted or overlook.

But then the Nationals have never truly gone for it, either. In 2014, they resisted the temptation to significantly bolster their bullpen or add a lineup-changing bat, settling on replacing injured Ryan Zimmerman with Asdrubal Cabrera and adding Matt Thornton in an August deal. Both players were solid, and Thornton helped in 2015, too. But in the 2014 National League Division Series, their offense wilted, and their bullpen blew two games.

With Chapman headed to Cubs, whom do the Nationals target now?

The Nationals can afford to be less stingy with prospects further away from the majors. No sane analysis would advocate trading Turner, who has become instantly vital to this major league team. Those further away from the majors, though, should be considered.

Robles, for example, is 19 years old and playing at Class A Potomac, probably setting him up to arrive in the majors by late 2018. By the time Robles reaches the majors, the Nationals will have had two cycles to draft, sign and develop outfielders, a couple years to find another Robles. Evaluators believe Robles is special, and it could be painful if he becomes a star in some other team’s uniform. But that doesn’t make him irreplaceable. Prospects are hard to find, but they’re also a renewable resource.

Rizzo prides himself on maintaining the long view while contending in the present. The outlook has helped the Nationals stay relevant for an extended period. It’s an important balance, but it is a balance. While more mistakes are made in worrying too much on the present, it’s possible to focus too intently on the future, too.

The point is, ever since the Nationals got good, they’ve horded their best prospects. At a certain juncture, that ceases to be prudent and becomes overly cautious. If not now, when?

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