What the Washington Nationals Should Do

We’re kicking off a new series here at FanGraphs, where we’ll profile what each team should do as we head towards the July 31st trading deadline. R.J. starts us off with a look at the Nationals.

Overview

With the arrival of baseball’s Jesus Shuttlesworth and the ability to take on payroll (both in the short- and long-term) Mike Rizzo and the rest of the front office might be tempted to make a splash. After all, despite injury carnage to their pitching ranks, the Nationals were still in the midst of the divisional race through most of May before falling to the cellar in the past few weeks.

Buy or Sell?

Realistically, the Nationals are at least a year away from competing with the Phillies and Braves. Making a big deadline deal would be aimed towards public relation and posterity’s sake. That makes selling more likely.

The Nationals rotation currently features Livan Hernandez, J.D. Martin, John Lannan, Luis Atilano, and yes, Stephen Strasburg. Injuries have decimated a previously potential-packed unit. Jason Marquis won’t return for a few more weeks; Jordan Zimmerman, who underwent Tommy John surgery, might return later in the season; same with Chien-Ming Wang (shoulder surgery), Scott Olsen (shoulder inflammation), Garret Mock (cervical spine surgery), and Ross Detwiler (torn hip cartilage).

With that kind of depth soon returning, it could be ideal for the Nats to attempt and cash in a few of their current starters with limited upside. The problem is, well, they aren’t very good. Livan Hernandez is the most notable thanks to his 2.22 ERA although his peripherals suggest he’s a house of cards. Atilano and Lannan have the same issues of Craig Stammen. None of them can strike batters out and as a result they walk more batters than they should. Stammen had a 1.94 K/BB ratio upon demotion which looks overqualified next to Atilano’s 1.00 and Lannan’s 0.71. The starting pitchers desirable to other teams are equally desirable to the Nationals. Rizzo and company should, however, maneuver a full court press when it comes to moving a reliever or two. It’s not like the Nationals can’t replace the production by sliding a bumped starter into relief anyways.

The Nationals also have an overabundance of utility players too. Cristian Guzman (who had previously only played a non-shortstop position in the 2003 All-Star Game) has taken up second base and right field this year, potentially making him more attractive to suitors if not for an $8 million salary. Willie Harris is cheaper ($1.5 million) and while he’s primarily an outfielder, he has gotten a few starts in at third base and second base in these past two seasons. Adam Kennedy is even less expensive ($1.25 million with a club option worth $2 million or a half million buyout) and has played every position but catcher over his 12 seasons. The Nationals have no shortage of utility men in the minors either, with Eric Bruntlett, Pete Orr, and Luis Ordaz a phone call, meal ticket, and coach seat on the fastest moving missile away.

Even with the odd rumors of a potential extension, Adam Dunn is in the final year of his contract and could prove worthwhile to a team in need of a bat. The problem is that Dunn has never been willing to become a designated hitter, which lowers his value and could limit the potential destinations. Josh Willingham is also intriguing, although the Nats may as well hold onto him.

The Farm

Top catching prospect Derek Norris is still a while away, but his presence along with Ivan Rodriguez’s multiple year contract and Jesus Flores – if he ever returns – mean a catcher isn’t necessary. Double-A Harrisburg features two of the team’s top infield prospects in Danny Espinosa and Chris Marrero. Neither is raking at the moment. Most of the team’s top outfield talent is in the lower minors meaning acquiring an outfielder to plug in alongside Nyjer Morgan and Willingham could be an option. Their aforementioned pitching depth is mostly contained to the upper minors as well. The Nats really need impact talent, just like most teams without contention status. None of their pieces will bring that back, so depth with traces of upside should be the focus.

Budget

It’s impossible to say what the payroll ceiling is, but with more than $20 million in contracts due to expire at season’s end it doesn’t seem impossible to expect the Nationals to be able to take on money now and for the future if necessary.





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Big Oil
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Big Oil

It’d pain me to see him go, but Dunn to TB would net some nice pieces. Although not wanting to DH would be a problem.