Since Mike Rizzo became general manager, the Washington Nationals have entered the trade deadline in various forms. They have been a mess, a work in progress, a juggernaut in the making and, this season, a letdown. As the state of the team has fluctuated, Rizzo’s approach to late July has remained steady. He views potential deals on how they will alter the Nationals’ future, never through a binary buyer-or-seller lens.
With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching Wednesday at 4 p.m., Rizzo does not see the next two days as an opportunity to blow up a struggling team or a chance to spark a late-season push.
“We’re going to stay consistent with the same thought process we’ve had since 2009,” Rizzo said. “We’re always thinking about this year, improving ourselves this year, but when we improve ourselves this year it will be this year and beyond.”
Even if Rizzo wanted to act on the Nationals’ chances this season, he would face a dilemma. Sitting nine games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and entering Monday seven out of the wild card, the Nationals remain in the race but too far out of first place to feel realistic confidence about their chances. They wouldn’t be able to wave a white flag and sell attractive pieces, but it would be reckless to mortgage future seasons to reinforce a 52-54 team.
“It’s a tough decision that Mike and those guys are going to make,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Those guys we have [in the minors] that they’ve groomed can help. I know Mike hates giving up those guys. The truth is, you go out and get someone, you have them for this year. You stay with the guys you’ve got, you have them for three, four, five, six years. It’s a tough decision.”
Barring a last-minute change — which has been known to surface this time of year — Rizzo will not make any big splashes. Rather, he will try to improve the Nationals’ bench and double down on his belief in the roster he built this winter.
The Nationals’ offense entered Monday 14th in the NL in runs per game, but Rizzo has few ways to make a major impact given the hitters available on the trade market. Plus, the Nationals have players under team control through at least 2014 at all eight starting positions, a stable Rizzo does not want to disrupt.
“We feel good about our core players and we feel that we’re solid at our position players,” he said. “We like our rotation, we like our bullpen arms. If we could tweak or improve certain spots on the bench, I think that would be one place that we would attack.”
Rizzo would not say which spot on the bench he could see upgrading. But the Nationals already added a right-handed outfielder in Scott Hairston, and Rizzo said after acquiring Hairston that he had no plans to replace veteran left-handed pinch-hitter Chad Tracy.
The Nationals, then, may be looking to upgrade from Roger Bernadina, who is batting .184 with a .250 on-base percentage and .279 slugging percentage coming off the best year of his career in 2012. They may want an alternative to infielder Steve Lombardozzi, who despite recent strong performances has hit .251 with a .577 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
Washington may be willing to part with catcher Kurt Suzuki, a key to the success down the stretch in 2012 after he was acquired shortly after the deadline. Wilson Ramos has gotten most of the playing time behind the plate, Suzuki would be a free agent after this season if the Nationals don’t exercise a team option and the team feels comfortable with Jhonatan Solano as a backup.
The Nationals did some initial exploring into the starting pitching market. With lefty Ross Detwiler slated to be on the disabled list for roughly another month and Taylor Jordan nearing a team-mandated innings limit, their depth has been challenged. They “kicked the tires” on Cubs right-hander Matt Garza before he was traded to Texas, according to a person familiar with the situation. According to a person close to the team, the Nationals had interest in Chicago White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy, who would be attractive because he’s under contract for 2014 as well.
But the Nationals’ interest in starting pitching has waned as they’ve listened to high asking prices and the back of their rotation has stabilized. Dan Haren has a 3.13 ERA in four starts since coming off the disabled list, and Ross Ohlendorf has been flinging mid-90s fastballs while compiling a 1.87 ERA in 332 / 3 innings. In an emergency the Nationals could turn to Nate Karns, who made three big league starts earlier this year and in his past 10 outings at Class AA has a 2.88 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 591 / 3 innings.
The Nationals are not worried about a theoretical disruption to their staff. They have no concern Gio Gonzalez will be disciplined when MLB issues suspensions to players with ties to the Biogenesis case. The New York Post reported discipline could be meted out this week. Gonzalez is “not in that group,” one Nationals official said.
Gonzalez’s name appeared in notebooks at the Biogenesis office, according to the original Miami New Times report in January. ESPN subsequently reported Gonzalez had not been sold performance-enhancing drugs. All year, the Nationals have remained confident Gonzalez would be cleared, and with a resolution apparently near, that has not changed.
And so, the Nationals will remain vigilant and busy between now and 4 p.m. Wednesday. The diligence, though, will likely lead only to a quiet deadline.
“We’ve got a lot of trade discussions,” Rizzo said. “We’ve received calls, we’ve made calls. I’m not going to go much more into it than that, other than we’re going to do what we do at every trade deadline. We’re going to try to improve this ballclub for 2013 and beyond.”