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As MLB trade deadline nears, Mike Rizzo and the Nationals are buyers on a budget

Mike Rizzo is looking to strengthen the Nationals’ bullpen at the trade deadline. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals are buyers in a slow-moving market, and they still don’t want to exceed the competitive balance tax threshold, and their wish list looks a lot like those of most contenders.

That will all make the next nine days, leading into Major League Baseball’s July 31 trade deadline, pretty complicated for Washington and General Manager Mike Rizzo. The Nationals have needed bullpen help since the start of the season. A lot of teams can say the same. The Nationals have had their farm system thinned by trades in recent years — including a deal for reliever Kelvin Herrera last June — and are scrambling to fill the exact same hole. And a lot of teams probably can piece together better prospect packages.

But that they are looking to add — and not subtract as they did last August — is more than Rizzo could have admitted two months ago. This is the first year of baseball’s hard-stop deadline, without a waiver period in August, meaning everyone has to pick a direction a few weeks earlier than normal. Many franchises are still left swaying in between. The Nationals, however, have a pretty simple plan of adding relievers for a pennant race.

There are still a few wrinkles to that. The first, of course, is money.

“We don’t want to go past the [competitive balance tax threshold]," Rizzo said Sunday evening in Atlanta, reaffirming the organization’s year-long goal to spend less than $206 million in 2019. “So we’re going to be cognizant of that in any deals that we make.”

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Cot’s Baseball Contracts has the Nationals’ CBT payroll at approximately $200 million, leaving them just a bit of wiggle room heading into the deadline. End-of-year performance incentives, not factored in by Cot’s, should give them even less space. They are mainly eyeing controllable relievers, Rizzo expressed Sunday, who they can keep beyond the next few months. They have been linked to Detroit Tigers closer Shane Greene, the San Francisco Giants’ Sam Dyson and the Kansas City Royals’ Jake Diekman in rumors, and people with knowledge of their plans confirmed that they have checked in on all three. Greene and Dyson will not become free agents until 2021. Diekman, a hard-throwing lefty, has a mutual option for 2020 that the Nationals could conceivably pick up.

Each of these pitchers sits right in Washington’s price range. When Greene’s salary is prorated for the rest of baseball’s regular season calendar, he’s still owed around $1.5 million after Monday. Dyson is owed around $1.8 million. Diekman’s price tag is closer to $1.25 million. The Nationals could even get a trading partner to take on some remaining money — as the Baltimore Orioles did when they dealt starter Andrew Cashner to the Boston Red Sox earlier this month — but that would require parting with better prospects. And the Orioles, a rebuilding team that can sell and spend, also have a good fit for the Nationals in right-handed reliever Mychal Givens, who still has two more seasons of arbitration eligibility before reaching free agency.

“It makes sense to identify controllable guys. That’s always been our philosophy,” Rizzo said. “But obviously we’ve gone the other direction at times.”

That only leads to another tricky element of the Nationals’ lead-up to July 31: what they can offer in return. Last June, Washington netted Herrera for third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, pitcher Yohanse Morel and outfielder Blake Perkins. They certainly can put together another package like that with what’s in their system. The question is whether they can beat other teams to desired relievers such as Greene, Dyson, Diekman and others.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox all need significant bullpen help. Other contenders could dip into the market, too, because the playoffs are basically an arms race. The Nationals are unlikely to deal top prospect Carter Kieboom, according to a person with knowledge of their plans, despite being asked for him in recent discussions. They have dangled outfielder Michael A. Taylor, but multiple people say they have had trouble garnering interest in the 28-year-old. They have given up a lot in trades for catcher Yan Gomes, right fielder Adam Eaton, relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, and Herrera since December 2016.

That kind of aggressiveness, while trying to contend every season, will eventually catch up to a team. And so the Nationals have to decide just how much more they can part with this time around. And ownership has to decide how much more to invest in a club that has climbed atop the NL wild-card standings with about 60 games to play.

“There’s always a balance you have to draw between what the acquisition cost is, what are you getting back and that type of thing,” Rizzo said before doubling down on wanting additional team control. “But it’s always preferable for us to go after a guy that will be with us for a couple years rather than a guy who will be with you for a couple months.”

That interest is laser-focused on the bullpen market, even if the Nationals seem to have holes on their bench and in the back of their starting rotation. Rizzo is content with the starting pitching depth, saying Sunday: “We got our big four guys, and we’re totally satisfied with our fifth starter spot.” He added an endorsement for the combination of Austin Voth, Erick Fedde and Joe Ross. He showed confidence in Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey, two developing relievers, to express that the bullpen has improved despite a historically bad ERA.

But it’s still a glaring weakness that needs to be addressed. Rizzo has acknowledged as much with the phone calls he has made. The 30-year-old Greene has a 1.25 ERA, 22 saves and could be a great eighth-inning option ahead of Doolittle. But can Washington meet the Tigers’ price? Dyson, 31, could excel in the same role. But will the surging Giants even sell?

What will the Nationals look like nine days from now, once a number of players are shuffled, once the deadline passes and the stretch run can really begin? That may be the most confusing question of all.

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