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Nationals’ deadline plans should look different after a hot June

A month ago, the Nats looked like they would trade Max Scherzer. Now, they should be buyers.

New York Mets v Washington Nationals Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

A month ago, the Nationals’ season appeared to be lost. They went 22-29 in the first two months while getting outscored by 26 runs. Washington had fallen to the bottom of the trash heap that has been the NL East, a division where, until recently, only the Marlins had scored more runs than they had allowed. Juan Soto was a mere mortal, posting just a 115 wRC+. Patrick Corbin had an ERA over 6.00. Stephen Strasburg was put on the IL with a neck injury. The only thing to look forward to was imagining the trade package the Nats would receive for Max Scherzer.

But then, Kyle Schwarber was bitten by a radioactive Barry Bonds. The former Beeflord of Chicago smashed 16 dingers in June, and nearly every day, he was the first player since X to hit Y homers in Z games. Around Schwarber, the Nationals coalesced. Soto got hot. Trea Turner continued to rake. Patrick Corbin pitched, uh, fairly well.

Now, a little less than a month before the deadline, the Nationals find themselves in second place in the NL East with a positive run differential to boot. The division title is well within their grasp. It turns out that when your direct competition is bad, it’s easier to climb to the top.

Unless the Nationals really beef it in July, they won’t be trading Max Scherzer. A Scherzer trade would be tricky regardless of how well the Nationals do this month. Because he has 10 years of major league service time and has spent the last five years with the same team, Scherzer has full no-trade rights and won’t waive them without an extension.

If the Nationals aren’t trading Scherzer, what are they doing? Buying? Selling? Buying and selling? If recent history is any indication, general manager Mike Rizzo wants to buy, and he wants to buy middle relief pitchers. That strategy makes sense for the Nats in 2021. Washington’s bullpen has been hit hard by injuries. Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Kyle Finnegan, and Tanner Rainey are all on the IL. That’s left a relief corps led by Brad Hand, Austin Voth, and Wander Suero. Those three have all performed well this year, but they haven’t been elite.

Adding to the bullpen would shore up the Nationals’ most obvious weakness, and there are plenty of available options. Richard Rodíguez of the Pirates could be available should the Pirates want to sell high. Through 30 13 innings, Rodríguez has a 2.10 FIP. The 31-year-old righty is under team control through 2023, so he wouldn’t come cheap. The Blue Jays have also been kicking Rodríguez’s tires, and extra competition will drive up his price.

Another option would be Seattle’s Kendall Graveman. Graveman is a free agent at the end of the year, so his price would be lower as a rental. The veteran starter-turned-reliever has a 1.11 ERA and 3.36 FIP through 24 13 innings. Alternatively, the Nationals could target Raisel Iglesias or Taylor Rogers. Both pitchers are having fine seasons on teams that are self-immolating.

Perhaps the Nationals don’t believe they’re as good as their recent hot streak would indicate. This is a team whose offense ranks 11th by fWAR, whose rotation ranks 19th, and whose bullpen ranks 17th. A couple of relievers and a healthy Stephen Strasburg might be enough to put them on top of the NL East, but can they be expected to go all the way? Is a slim shot at a World Series title worth mortgaging the future?

Yes. Yes, it is. This is almost exactly what happened in 2019 and that season ended with Daniel Hudson yeeting his glove into the lower boxes of Minute Maid Park. Washington famously started 19-31 before putting it together and adding Hudson, Roenis Elías, and Hunter Strickland at the deadline. A repeat of 2019 is extremely unlikely, but it’s not impossible.

The Nationals’ window might not be open much longer. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon are long gone. Scherzer could be gone at the end of the year. The final years of Corbin’s contract could be brutal. The only members of the starting nine who aren’t free agents next year are Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Josh Bell. (Kyle Schwarber has a mutual option for 2022).

The temptation to get a head start on the rebuild is strong, but the Nationals still have a chance. While that remains true, I’d rather see the Nationals try to compete rather than trade away Bell or Starlin Castro while saying “Trust the Process.”

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.