Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 6/13/12

Many people expected the Nationals to be legitimate contenders this season for the first time since moving to town, but I don’t think many expected them to have the second best record in baseball more than one-third of the way through the campaign. The Nats came into Wednesday’s action with a 37-23 record to go along with their +38 run differential, the fifth best mark in the game. They’ve relied on utterly dominant starting pitching so far, riding a staff that owns baseball’s best ERA (2.94), FIP (3.15), and WAR (8.3).

Great starting pitching only goes so far though, and Washington is really lacking in the run creation department. Their offense owns a .307 wOBA (sixth worst in MLB) and a 90 wRC+ (seventh worst) through their first 60 games, resulting in a 3.90 runs per game average that is the second lowest among teams with a .500+ winning percentage. Bryce Harper has been nothing short of brilliant so far — 153 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR through 172 PA — and Michael Morse‘s recent return from the disabled list should provide a boost as well.

With Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, and Ian Desmond entrenched on the infield and the duo of Harper and Morse in the outfield, the Nats really only have two obvious spots to add an offensive upgrade: catcher and in the outfield. Harper’s flexibility allows them to pursue either a center fielder or corner bat depending on the market. Jayson Werth isn’t expected back anytime soon and while Steve Lombardozzi has been solid (95 wRC+), there is obvious room for improvement.

Xavier Paul (125 wRC+), Corey Brown (167 wRC+), and even Mark Teahen (113 wRC+) have had strong seasons down in Triple-A, but the Nationals have already fired their top homegrown bullet in Harper. Any sort of impact bat will have to come via trade, so thankfully the market figures to be saturated with outfield bats. Carlos Quentin is the most obvious name, an impending free agent who is off to a ridiculous start (297 wRC+) with the Padres after missing most of the first few weeks of the season with a(nother) knee issue. Josh Willingham (168 wRC+) is having the best year of his career with the Twins but is under contract for two more seasons. That may or may not fit into what GM Mike Rizzo wants to do long-term, though he’s obviously familiar with Willingham given his time in the nation’s capitol.

The secondary market offers up names like David DeJesus (106 wRC+) and Bryan LaHair (153 wRC+) of the Cubs, Seth Smith (123 wRC+) of the Athletics, and Jeff Francoeur (92 wRC+) of the Royals. Some are obviously more desirable than others. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has hinted that a fire sale could be coming if his team doesn’t improve, though I have a hard time thinking he would discuss Shane Victorino (104 wRC+) or Hunter Pence (122 wRC+) with a division rival. Rizzo traded away many of his most tradable assets for Gio Gonzalez this winter, but he still has enough prospects to swing a deal for a quality hitter.

In addition to the outfield, the Nationals could also seek an upgrade behind the plate. Wilson Ramos‘ season-ending injury has forced Jesus Flores (63 wRC+) into everyday action, but quality catching is very difficult to find. I’m sure the Cubs will make Geovany Soto (44 wRC+) available when healthy, the Padres could peddle Nick Hundley (40 wRC+) or John Baker (76 wRC+) with Yasmani Grandal on the doorstep, maybe the Mariners put John Jaso (117 wRC+) on the block … otherwise there’s really not much to see in the catching department.

While the offense figures to be Rizzo’s primary focus leading up to the trade deadline, bullpen depth should be on the shopping list as well. The Nats have gotten 1.6 WAR out of their relief corps so far (tenth most in baseball) thanks to now-closer Tyler Clippard (1.1 WAR), left-hander Sean Burnett (0.5 WAR), and right-hander Craig Stammen (0.5 WAR). Henry Rodriguez (-0.2 WAR) and Brad Lidge (-0.2 WAR) were penciled into late-inning roles when the season opened but have been ineffective when not hurt. Drew Storen has resumed throwing after elbow surgery but is still several weeks away from returning.

The bullpen trade market is very fluid and there figures to be a ton of quality relievers available. Going back to the Cubs, I’m sure they’ll make Shawn Camp (0.5WAR) available quite soon so he doesn’t turn into a pumpkin on their watch. The Athletics have Grant Balfour (0.2 WAR) and Brian Fuentes (0.0 WAR) to deal, though neither has done much to help their trade value this year. Matt Capps (0.2 WAR), Jonathan Broxton (0.3 WAR), Matt Belisle (1.0 WAR), Rafael Betancourt (0.5 WAR) … name a non-contender and they’ll likely have some relievers available. The Nationals are in good shape at the moment and can afford to be patient with their bullpen, but adding a reliever should at least be a consideration.

Rizzo has shown a willingness to be aggressive — very aggressive at times — to improve his club and he will have ample opportunity to do so in the coming weeks. Adding an impact bat to the outfield should be priority number one for Washington while an upgrade behind the plate and in the bullpen are a little further down the list. The Nats are in the middle of their best and most exciting season since leaving Montreal, but Rizzo has to balance going all-in with planning for the future. It’s an unenviable but doable task.

Most strikeouts by a hitter in a single season
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