Time to find out who the Washington Nationals really are: the team that sank toward the bottom of baseball in the first two months of the season, or the one that was scorching in the six weeks before the all-star break. After the Nationals beat up on weaker foes to climb to 47-42 and claimed the top spot in the National League wild-card race, they now face tougher competition. The second half starts on Friday night in Philadelphia and includes matchups against the Atlanta Braves, Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Braves again.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, we answered some of your most pressing questions:
What are your thoughts on a single (July 31) trade deadline? Will this influence the Nationals to either extend Anthony Rendon now, or trade him now for MLB prospects?
Dougherty: Going to answer this one at a time, since there’s no longer seems to be a connection between Rendon and the new hard-stop trade deadline. The July 31 deadline, without an August waiver period, forces teams to choose a direction a full month earlier. Last season, the Nationals were still trying to build and compete in July — trading for the Kansas City Royals’ Kelvin Herrera — and then became sellers in mid-August. That’s when they sold off Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Ryan Madson and Gio Gonzalez. That’s not an option now. Washington, like all franchises, have until July 31 to decide if they want to further invest in their rosters or shed some money. The clock’s ticking for everyone.
But as for Rendon, and where the Nationals stand as a whole, July 31 is far less complicated than it once was. A month ago, when they were still way back in the division and wild card standings, that looked like a fast encroaching date, and trading Rendon felt like a somewhat realistic possibility. But by finishing the first half with a 28-11 record, the best in baseball over that stretch, Washington is positioned as a buyer that needs bullpen help. Dealing Rendon, and forfeiting three months of exclusive rights to negotiate with him, would have always been a risk. Now the Nationals — leading the wild card, six back in the NL East — will surely want their best best position player for a pennant race.
Any thought on who will be the fifth starter?
Though the bullpen remains a more important problem, this is still a significant puzzle piece for the Nationals to figure out for the second half. They need someone who can go five or six innings and keep them in the ballgame, which Erick Fedde and Austin Voth at times struggled to do both in their limited auditions for the role this season.
On Thursday night, the Nationals transferred three potential candidates — Kyle McGowin, Fedde and Voth — from Class AAA Fresno to Class AA Harrisburg, seemingly to have all available on short notice. Voth started Thursday night, and McGowin is scheduled to start Friday, so both would be available to start next week at Baltimore against the Orioles on regular rest. It’s unclear when Fedde will next start.
The Nationals have a scheduled day off Monday, so they could go without a fifth starter until July 22. However, the team might want to be sure of what it has in one or two of those three pitchers as they head toward the trade deadline because General Manager Mike Rizzo will consider every option as he evaluates where this roster can be fortified to make a postseason push.
Since Gerado Parra was picked up, the team seems to be gelling and enjoying playing more than they have in a very long time. While not the best player on the team, how much credit should be given to him for the turnaround, including clutch situations, and overall team demeanor?
A couple weeks ago, on a Sunday morning in Detroit, Gerardo Parra and reliever Fernando Rodney rolled into the clubhouse looking to hit the club. It was about 10. The clubhouse was quiet. Some players were playing Sudoku. In character, Parra wore yellow sunglasses and carried a boombox from which thudded Latin music. Their teammates laughed, and they seemed to appreciate the extra energy.
Parra has earned his fair share of credit for helping the Nationals stave off rock-bottom with a few clutch hits, but it would be an exaggeration to say he’s solely responsible for the overall team demeanor. He’s an important part of it, but the Nationals are the oldest team in the majors and veterans around the clubhouse, such as Max Scherzer and Brian Dozier, are responsible for this team staying the course as well.
Is Koda Glover basically done for the season? Seems like we haven’t heard from him in months. Any chance we see Aaron Barrett in DC this season?
Dougherty: The last word on Koda Glover came in mid-June, when Martinez revealed that the reliever had a PRP injection and was shut down. That came after a setback during his recovery from a strained right forearm suffered in his first spring training appearance. Glover, perpetually injured, debuted on Aug. 10 last season. He appears to be behind that schedule and missing the entire year is a definite possibility.
As for Aaron Barrett, the organization’s feel-good story, the trickiest part is creating space for him. He is a logical candidate to be a September call-up — given all he’s endured to even get back to the minors — but he can’t be promoted if he’s not on the 40-man roster. In most seasons, if the Nationals’ bullpen hadn’t been reeling from March on, finding room would be an easier task. But Washington has used every bit of its 40-man roster to try out relievers this season, and Barrett will only get a chance if the Nationals believe he’s better than one of their current options.
Barrett was an Eastern League all star with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. His fastball velocity has reached the mid-90s and reports on his slider have been positive. For the moment, he’s on the outside looking in of what’s been a hectic, revolving bullpen situation. That doesn’t mean that can’t change.
After what we’ve seen in the first half, are Bryce Harper and the Phillies officially villains to D.C.? Do you think this is the first real rivalry the Nationals are a part of?
Dougherty: This would be a better question for a Nationals fan, because it’s hard for me to keep up with how the base feels about Harper and his team. But I will say this: The second-half schedule will really give a chance for these teams to build on the early steps toward a rivalry.
Harper’s first return fueled it when Nationals Park welcomed him with rounds and rounds of heavy boos. But that energy soon dissipated, especially after rain staggered the most recent series. The Nationals lead the Phillies by a half game atop the wild card standings, and they are both within striking distance of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. They’ll first meet for three games in Philadelphia this weekend, beginning at 6:05 p.m. Friday. Yet the highlight could come in the final week of the regular season, with a five-game series in Washington from Sept. 23-26. A June postponement set up a split doubleheader that Tuesday.
If the Nationals and Phillies are still battling in the wild card or division race, it will make for some awesome theater.