No team from the NL East has yet separated themselves from the pack. The Phillies, Braves and Nationals are all within five games of the division-leading Mets, with much of the division hovering within the realm of .500.
It’s almost certainly division title or bust for all those teams, with the top three in the NL West all ahead of the Mets in the National League playoff picture. There’s likely only one path to the postseason for each of New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, but the division’s overall underwhelming play has left the door open for each.
None of that group can really afford a slump over the next couple weeks — especially not the fourth-place Nats, who sit at 45-49. Speaking with reporters (including Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com and Maria Torres of the Athletic) before Tuesday’s game, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo acknowledged that the team’s performance over the next week and a half will go a long way towards determining their course of action before the July 30 trade deadline.
Rizzo suggested the front office would look to add to the roster if the team plays well over the coming days. He didn’t tip his hand as to exactly what that calculus looks like or how close to the top of the division the club would need to stay in order for the Nationals to serve as buyers. Washington beat the Marlins Tuesday night and will go for a sweep of Miami this evening. After an off day Thursday, the Nats head to Baltimore for three games before a four-game set in Philadelphia that’ll take them up to the deadline.
Under Rizzo’s watch, the Nationals traditionally haven’t been shy about making midseason upgrades when they see the opportunity. The GM didn’t specify where the club would looking to upgrade if they wound up buying, but a few places on the roster stand out as logical fits. The Nationals could use help at the back of the rotation, and the bullpen has again had its share of issues.
On the position player side, either of second or third base could be easily upgraded upon. Alcides Escobar has played well since being acquired a few weeks ago, but he hadn’t appeared in the big leagues in either of the past two seasons and hasn’t had an above-average campaign since 2014. (Escobar was also diagnosed with a right wrist contusion after being hit by a pitch in last night’s game).
Starlin Castro didn’t play especially well at third base and was placed on administrative leave last week after being accused of domestic violence. (While not a disciplinary action, administrative leave gives MLB time to investigate alleged violations of the domestic violence policy while keeping the accused player away from the team). Rizzo told reporters Tuesday (including Britt Ghiroli of the Athletic) he doesn’t expect Castro to return, saying the organization “failed” in their vetting process of the player’s makeup and stating that Castro’s alleged behavior is “not something that (manager) Davey Martinez’s and Mike Rizzo’s Washington Nationals are going to have on this team.”
If things go in the other direction and the Nationals do wind up selling, no player on the roster would draw more attention than ace Max Scherzer. Rizzo said he expects Scherzer to remain in Washington beyond the trade deadline, although he stopped short of calling him untouchable. Asked if there was any scenario in which Scherzer might be made available, Rizzo replied “if we turn into definite sellers, everything would be on the table, I would think. Which I don’t foresee.”
The odds are overwhelmingly stacked against a Scherzer trade, although it’s at least a little notable that Rizzo wouldn’t completely rule that situation out. It’d seemingly take a poor week of play for the Nationals to even consider a Scherzer trade, though, and there are numerous obstacles that could stand in the way even if Washington made him available. While he’s slated to hit free agency at the end of the year, the eight-time All-Star is due $15M in annual deferrals through the end of 2028. He also has full no-trade rights, and agent Scott Boras suggested last month Scherzer might not waive those unless given some other form of contractual inducement to do so.
It’d be more straightforward for the Nationals to move a few of their other impending free agents. Utilityman Josh Harrison and relievers Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson would all generate calls from interested clubs. Jon Lester isn’t having a great year, but he could still upgrade some teams’ fifth starter spots and would be a respected veteran addition to a clubhouse.
The opportunity is there for the team to quell any of that speculation by playing well over the next week. The division still seems winnable for any of the top four teams, and Rizzo’s track record backs up his assertion he’d be willing to supplement the roster if the club shows enough life leading up to the deadline.