Perhaps the only reason Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo hasn’t dialed up Rick Hahn on the bat phone is that the Nationals are the hottest offensive team in baseball and singlehandedly slugging their way through the National League.
Washington has a nine-game lead over the downtrodden New York Mets and Atlanta Braves behind a historic early-season performance from Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman’s renaissance. As a team, the Nationals’ lineup leads the league in batting average (.289), on-base percentage (.358), slugging (.492), OPS .850 and runs, hits, doubles and runs batted in. Washington ranks second in home runs (62) and leads the league in runs per game (6.11).
This kind of offensive production paired with an All-Star rotation appears to be a recipe for success, but for as glorious as the offense has been, the bullpen has been equally appalling.
Washington’s bullpen ranks 27th in earned run average (5.19), owns the second worst opponent batting average (.281) and has only converted 11 of 19 save opportunities. And they still sit atop the N.L. East.
Given the erosion of the Mets’ pitching staff and a dearth of viable N.L. East competitors, it seems wise for Rizzo to continue riding his offensive juggernaut until it becomes absolutely necessary to address the bullpen.
The starting rotation has been a point of strength for the Nationals thus far, logging the seventh best ERA (3.79) while soaking up innings on their way to owning the highest quality start rate in Major League Baseball (63 percent). Unsurprisingly, Nationals starters average six and a third innings per start, yet find themselves tied for the league lead in wins lost (7).
Yes, the Nationals are a very good team. They have an undeniably ferocious lineup with a pitching rotation that features three elite starters in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. The weakest link remains the bullpen, and without a closer, Washington’s sail into the playoffs will lose steam.
All experiments at closer have deflated. Koda Glover was supposed to handle ninth-inning duties but pressure-cooked situations got to the youngster. Glover was deposed for Shawn Kelley and later, Matt Albers briefly took a crack at closing. All have tried and all have failed and the grand experiment continues with Blake Treinen.
It is no secret that the Nationals have pursued subsequent trades with the Chicago White Sox after striking a deal to net Adam Eaton. In fact, the Nationals were named alongside the Boston Red Sox as having dispatched scouts to keep a close eye on White Sox’ assets for potential deals.
Rizzo is the likeliest to sit at the table with White Sox and order carte blanche from the menu. Washington will need David Robertson for the second half of the season despite the Tampa Bay Rays timid cast on Alex Colome.
Before the start of the season, Colome was floated out as trade bait, but most teams circled the closer without much serious interest. Now that Tampa Bay is only six games out of first place in a wide open division, there hasn’t been too many whispers about dealing Colome – especially since he already has 10 saves.
Robertson is owed $25 million through the 2018 season and appears to have been a significant sticking point in previous negotiations. Naturally, Rizzo would like to avoid adopting all $25 million of Robertson’s salary (something Hahn has been open to) but White Sox brass is sly enough to sneak something else out of the deal – perhaps an extra prospect is on the menu?
Kahnle was imported from the Colorado Rockies in 2016 and performed well in limited action. He’s even better this season. In 15 innings, the stout right-hander has fanned 27 batters on his way to a 1.80 ERA.
Swarzak joined the South Siders from the New York Yankees and owns a mesmerizing 0.00* ERA in 19 2/3 innings pitched while striking out 22 batters. From April 25 to May 13, Swarzak went 8 2/3 innings without allowing a hit and opposing hitters are batting .068 against the veteran.
White Sox fans can set aside Victor Robles in any pragmatic trade. The Nationals might lose Harper to free agency after the 2018 season and Jayson Werth is aging. It would be foolish of Rizzo to give up Robles in any deal considering he is the best outfield prospect in baseball.
Soto is an outfielder with raw power that projects as a prototypical right fielder while Kieboom has the athletic ability to play anywhere on the field. Both players demonstrate positive zone discipline, exceptional pitch recognition and tremendous barrel control. And while the pair rank three and four among Nationals prospects they are both very young (18 and 19 years old respectively).
A third prospect that has surfaced in discussions is catcher Pedro Severino. The 25-year-old earned a September call-up in 2016 and he is a glove-first player. Severino makes sense for the White Sox to pair with Zack Collins as a strong plate presence.
Depending on the package there are several combinations of players that could be included in a trade. Rest assured that if a trio of bullpen arms swing down to Washington there will be more than three prospects sent back.
The only team that could make a splash at the deadline and spoil a trade between the Nationals and White Sox are the San Francisco Giants. Given the healthy dose of turmoil heaped on them after Madison Bumgarner went down in a dirt bike accident, Mark Melancon could become a bargaining chip if the Giants decide to tear down their roster. And for anyone looking for pitching, the bay area is flush with hurlers.
*Swarzak gave up his first runs of the season against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Wednesday night.