As blasphemous as the notion seemed, it wasn't completely looney-tunes. On May 24, Washington was 12 games under .500 and had the third-worst record in the National League. Lineup cornerstones Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner had already returned from injuries and, contrary to forecasts, had failed to cure the Nats. The bullpen was historically abominable and there was no reason to think it was just a phase. In short, the 2019 season was a lost cause.
Locally and nationally, it became a foregone conclusion the Nats should go into sell mode. Not a complete Miami Marlins kind of fire sale, but rather a judicious auction process that would help a talented but underperforming team stock up for annual pennant runs in the near term. Not a rebuild, but a reload.
Closer Sean Doolittle, who was an All-Star last season and has an extremely budget-friendly team option for 2020, would have plenty of sizzle on the trade market, particularly in a year when so many contenders need bullpen help. Rendon, a premier third baseman who could be the top free agent this coming winter if Washington doesn't sign him to a contract extension before then, would be the 2019 version of Manny Machado, fetching a small army of prospects in return for his services down the stretch. And then there was Scherzer.
With two-plus seasons remaining on his contract and a Hall of Fame résumé in his pocket, Scherzer would be the trade chip to end all trade chips. Much like his former Tigers teammate Justin Verlander did when Houston acquired him in 2017, the three-time Cy Young winner would seismically shift MLB's competitive complexion both this season and beyond. In the process, Scherzer would supply Washington with a colossal cache of prospects. Maybe even a current big leaguer or two. Combine that haul with a talented core that features Turner and young outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles, not to mention a stout rotation anchored by Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and presto -- the Nationals would be the first team in MLB history to win back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back World Series titles.
Only one problem: How in the world do you justify trading Max Scherzer? If you're general manager Mike Rizzo and owner Mark Lerner, how do you tell your fan base -- the very same fan base that watched Bryce Harper walk away and shack up with Philly this past winter -- that you just shipped out a guy who's not only the current face of the franchise, but arguably the best pitcher of this millennium? How do you convince the masses that in doing so, in giving up on this season, you haven't also given up on 2020 and 2021 and every single year for the rest of baseball eternity?
The answer to all those questions is, you don't.
"If at any point you want to be competitive, wouldn't you want to start with a guy like that?" Doolittle said during the final homestand of the first half. A headline deadline acquisition himself in 2017, Washington's closer simply couldn't fathom the Nats' front office doing what all those armchair execs and talk radio hosts had been suggesting. "I can't imagine them trading him away. If Max isn't safe, then nobody's safe."
As it turns out, Washington's ace is safe. Unlike last summer, when the Nationals reportedly came dangerously close to dealing Harper, the idea of trading Scherzer never amounted to anything more than a water cooler what-if. For that, Mad Max has himself to thank. Over his past nine starts, the 34-year-old right-hander has almost single-handedly willed Washington into playoff contention, going 7-0 with a 0.84 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 64 innings. During that time, the Nationals have gone from would-be sellers to should-be buyers.
From late May to early July, a span of just over six weeks, Washington went from third-worst in the NL to third-best. Coming out of the All-Star break, the Nats had won 28 of their previous 39 games and were in possession of the top wild-card spot.
"We're hitting our stride at the right time," said catcher Yan Gomes, who spent the past several years in Cleveland, where the Indians have made an art form out of turning slow starts into playoff finishes.
Added Strasburg: "We're playing good baseball right now, and we're going to continue doing that."
"If at any point you want to be competitive, wouldn't you want to start with a guy like that? I can't imagine them trading him away. If Max isn't safe, then nobody's safe."Nats closer Sean Doolittle
Unfortunately for Strasburg and the Nationals, doing what they've been doing might not be enough. Sure, they've been beating up on the competition lately. But it's one thing to do it against lowly squads in early summer (Washington's final 12 games pre-break were against Miami, Detroit and Kansas City). It's quite another to do it against the top dogs in early fall. If the Nats have any intention of fulfilling their preseason promise and beating talented teams like the Dodgers and Braves come October (or the Astros or Twins or Yankees, if things should progress that far), they'll need to address their flaws before the end of the month.
With two weeks left until MLB's July 31 trade deadline, Washington's no-brainer need is bullpen help. Free-agent signing Trevor Rosenthal didn't pan out and was released in June. Fellow offseason acquisition Kyle Barraclough has battled inconsistency and injury. Underrated righty Justin Miller has also had trouble staying healthy. Even Doolittle, who's borne a heavy workload out of necessity and has admitted to feeling fatigued, hasn't been his usual efficient self.
Just how thin is the Nats' pen? So thin that in the past couple months, Rizzo has seen fit to sign a 42-year-old with an ERA above 9 (Fernando Rodney, released earlier this season by Oakland), and a three-time Tommy John survivor who'd been cut by division rival Atlanta (34-year-old Jonny Venters). Yes, the Rodney signing has worked out well so far. And yes, Nats relievers have performed better lately, posting a 4.09 ERA since Memorial Day (sixth in MLB). Still, of all the contenders who need bullpen bolstering -- a list that's only slightly shorter than Arya Stark's kill list -- Washington is still right at the top.
As usual, there's no shortage of attractive arms out there. Closer Will Smith headlines a deep Giants bullpen that, with San Francisco looking to rebuild, could be the hub of this summer's supply chain. The Blue Jays will almost certainly sell, and closer Ken Giles will be one of their featured items. If the middling Padres decide to be vendors, All-Star closer Kirby Yates could spark a bidding war. Ditto for the Pirates and closer Felipe Vazquez, who came up with Washington before being shipped to Pittsburgh in the 2016 deal that brought Mark Melancon to D.C.
Speaking of the Melancon/Vazquez deal, it's but one piece of evidence that suggests Rizzo and the Nationals will make a move between now and the start of August, and that said move will involve the back end of the bullpen. Behold the following list of midseason trades:
2015: Nationals acquire closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies
2016: Nationals acquire closer Mark Melancon from the Pirates
2017: Nationals acquire closer Sean Doolittle and setup man Ryan Madson from the A's, and closer Brandon Kintzler from the Twins
2018: Nationals acquire closer Kelvin Herrera from the Royals
Here's the catch: Thanks to all the wheeling and dealing in recent years (including the 2016 trade that sent Lucas Giolito and two other pitching prospects to the White Sox for Adam Eaton), there's not a whole lot left in the kitty. Middle infielder Carter Kieboom is a top prospect who would likely be coveted by any team looking to unload a marquee reliever, but it's doubtful the Nats would be willing to part with him, as he figures heavily in their future plans. So maybe Rizzo lowers his sights and goes after someone with less name recognition. Even then, it takes talent to get talent.
In the meantime, Nats fans can rest assured that there's one player who won't be used as trade bait. His name is Max Scherzer.