Dave Nichols: Nats both buyers and sellers at trade deadline

The non-waiver trade deadline is July 31, a mere six days away. As with every year since their inaugural season in D.C., the Washington Nationals - despite the protestations of Jayson Werth - are destined to be on the outside looking in once the playoff seeds are settled, especially considering the recently concluded 3-6 road trip. But contrary to years past, the organization - and Nats fans - can see brighter days ahead. The Nats have a lot of pieces in place already, and with a few key moves, they can get closer to truly being a competitive team.

Could some of those pieces be obtained at the upcoming trade deadline? It’s a fascinating question. General manager Mike Rizzo has always played his cards close to the vest when it comes to trades. For example, no one in the D.C. media saw the Matt Capps-for-Wilson Ramos deal coming last year. This season, there have already been plenty of rumors tying the Nats to Tampa Bay center fielder B.J. Upton, with good reason. Upton is young (26), athletic and has already been scouted by Rizzo. His name has popped up in trade rumors with the Nats for the last two seasons.

Upton is currently hitting .229/.310/.395 with 15 homers and 23 stolen bases in 95 games with Tampa. He’s arbitration-eligible in 2012 and a free agent after 2013. Ryan Zimmerman has already stumped for his fellow Tidewater-area resident, and Upton plays a steady and sometimes spectacular center field. The two biggest glaring needs on this team are an athletic center fielder and leadoff hitter. Upton could fill both those roles. What’s not to like?

Well, the price tag, for one. TampaBay has a very strong team, one that is perennially contending in the difficult American League East. They will probably want a king’s ransom for Upton. Another thing is the competition. Upton has been mentioned as being a target of Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia and just about every other contender that could use a bat. It would probably take a package including Ian Desmond, another hitting prospect like Derek Norris, and a pitching prospect such as Brad Peacock, or one of the several very talented arms the Nats have stockpiled.

It takes talent to acquire talent, and the Nats finally have a stockpile of prospects to make such a deal. But is it best for the Nats in the short and long term? Upton is a tremendous talent, but in some eyes, he’s always underachieved. His batting average is weak, but his lifetime .340 on-base percentage is above league average. He brings an intriguing package of speed, power and defense. But can the Nationals afford to trade three young players for an established veteran like Upton? There are a lot of suitors for his services - perhaps the prize jewel of the 2011 trade deadline - and he will cost a pretty penny. It will be interesting to see how much Rizzo really gets involved in the proceedings.

The Nats have several other parts that contenders may find interesting, including veteran starter Jason Marquis, utility player Jerry Hairston Jr. and reliever Todd Coffey. The next few days will provide endless speculation, and the action off the field will be even more interesting that the action on the field. The Nats are on their way to their best record since 2005, but Rizzo needs to be concerned with the 2012 and 2013 teams already, and if he can get a player that will contribute to those teams in exchange for an aging veteran this season, he should explore those options.

Sunday, July 31 should prove to be an interesting day indeed.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nationals News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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