The Washington Nationals didn’t play Thursday, but they enjoyed their most significant victory of the season, granted by a New York court. Cut through the legalese, and it’s this: At some point, they likely will receive more money — significantly more money — from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, on which their games are broadcast. Celebrate, Nats fans — but maybe save the Dom Pérignon for when we find out exactly how many millions and when it will come in.
But with the second half of the season opening Friday, the decision also compels those same Nats fans to turn to the Lerner family, all but screaming, “Spend the money!” Most World Series contenders — and the Nationals are indisputably one — enter the final weeks before the trade deadline with a wish or a want. The Nationals have a need dressed in blaze orange, one so obvious it was in some ways the talk of the sport at the All-Star Game in Miami.
Washington has the highest-scoring offense in the National League. It has a rotation fronted by a pair of all-stars. Not addressing that need — the bullpen — would amount to malpractice. And now, with their share of revenue likely to be determined by an MLB panel — exactly where the Nationals wanted it determined, a loss for the MASN-controlling Baltimore Orioles — there’s no more hiding behind financial constraints.
This team will be good enough to win it all when — not if — it addresses the bullpen. The struggling Chicago Cubs have a middling rotation. What did they do Thursday? Why, they added a front-line starting pitcher in lefty Jose Quintana, brashly sending four prospects across town to the White Sox.
So we’re off and trading. And don’t think each move made by another contender doesn’t put pressure on the Nats. It does.
There are a few ways to approach this and a few groups from which to choose. There is, it seems, no way the Nationals are going to give up stud outfield prospect Victor Robles. But it will be interesting to see whether other previous untouchables become, essentially, touchable.
The place to start, of course, is the ninth — and then work backward. The most prominent established closers who could be available: Zach Britton of the Orioles, Kelvin Herrera of the Royals and David Robertson of the White Sox. There are catches with all of them.
We have pointed out in the past one inescapable truth: Since the Nationals moved to Washington in 2005, Baltimore is the only franchise with which they haven’t completed a trade. Given that the MASN feud still engulfs both franchises, don’t expect Peter Angelos to bless any deal with Ted Lerner, even if general managers Dan Duquette and Mike Rizzo could work out a palatable baseball trade. Britton isn’t driving down the BW Parkway. He’s just not.
Herrera’s problem isn’t the way he has pitched or his velocity; 10 of his past 11 outings have been scoreless, and he’s throwing his fastball 98 mph, up over last season. It’s that Kansas City, proud of its recent run, is just three games out in the AL Central and 1½ games out of the wild card. For Herrera to become available, the Royals would have to start the second half horribly.
That brings us back to Robertson, kind of where the Nationals have been since they lost out on free agents Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen in the offseason. Washington pursued a deal with the White Sox for Robertson in the offseason, and at least the Nats feel like they had a trade in place — only to have ownership nix it. Now, as one person put it, “The price of poker goes up.” Robertson has 13 saves in 14 opportunities, a 2.87 ERA, just 1.02 walks and hits per inning pitched (the collective WHIP of Nats’ relievers is 1.45) and a résumé that says he has closed for the Yankees and set up Mariano Rivera.
The haul from the Cubs, which included both slugger Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease, shows how White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn has the power in negotiations for his remaining major league assets. In a conference call with reporters, Cubs President Theo Epstein said the deal “had zero percent chance of happening without both players.” Which makes you wonder whether Hahn would walk away from the Nats without, say, outfielder Juan Soto or pitcher Erick Fedde.
Maybe Hahn will win such a standoff and take a prime piece — or more. Maybe Rizzo won’t blink but won’t come away with Robertson. That could leave the Nats turning to one of a group of lesser-known closers: Raisel Iglesias of the Reds or A.J. Ramos of the Marlins.
The Reds signed Iglesias out of Cuba, and in his first year as a closer he has impressed: 16 saves in 17 chances, a 1.69 ERA and a 0.914 WHIP . He’s also under control through 2020 and is owed just more than $16.6 million over the next three seasons. He could solve a problem now and later — which, of course, drives up the price. Ramos, whose stats aren’t as sexy as Iglesias’s, is a free agent after next season. Translation: You might get him for less.
But here’s the problem with closers who have closed for only lousy teams: When your team rarely has leads to protect, you’re perpetually rested and ready. What happens when you’re trying to close out four games in seven days? How will you respond?
Which brings us to the other part of this equation: The Nats need two more relievers. They already enter the second half with two ex-closers on the disabled list — veteran Shawn Kelley and rookie Koda Glover — and unless Sammy Solis’s demotion to Class AAA Syracuse on Thursday means one of those two is ready to return, they’re thin to start.
Say they just added Robertson. Would that make Blake Treinen the eighth-inning guy again? Glover, if he’s back healthy? Kelley? Or Matt Albers, who, stunningly, has been Washington’s most reliable reliever thus far?
Preferably, another option pushes those choices into the seventh and sixth innings. Enny Romero has shown flashes of what he can be. But the Nats’ current construction asks him, too frequently, to perform jobs for which he’s only occasionally ready. Add a closer and a veteran setup guy, and suddenly everyone else is in more comfortable situations.
Two of those options, Pat Neshek of the Phillies and Brad Hand of the Padres, made the NL all-star team. Justin Wilson of Detroit has taken over closer’s duties since the Tigers booted veteran Francisco Rodriguez, and he would be a candidate for multiple roles. Keep an eye, too, on Oakland’s Ryan Madson — who turns 37 in August and is owed $7.6 million in 2018 as well — because Rizzo has a history of pulling off deals with Athletics baseball head Billy Beane.
And how about this one, just for fun? Hunter Strickland of the Giants.
Put the helmet down, Bryce.
No, seriously. The Giants are a disaster, Strickland has a 2.01 ERA and strikes out a guy per inning, and Bryce Harper — who was hit by Strickland earlier in the season — would have zero problem with any player who gives the Nationals a better chance to win.
The major news for the Nationals on Thursday was the MASN victory. But if that’s the major development in July for this franchise, then it will have failed. Stay close to the phone. Turn on your alerts. Play begins again Friday, and relief help is on the way — or else.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.