Dave Nichols: With playoff hopes slipping this season, will Nationals make big changes for next year?

The Washington Nationals are 12 1/2 games out of first place at 54-57, three games below .500, with a three-game series against the division-leading Atlanta Braves looming this week. The Nats and Braves have nine such games to play before the end of the season, so each of these games count doubly in the standings. But with the Braves playing as well as they have lately, the Nationals lost three games in the standings in the past week.

But a division title, at this point, is all but unreachable. Teams just don’t make up 12 1/2 games in seven weeks.

There are but 51 games remaining in the Nationals’ schedule to reach the playoffs via the wild card, and the Nats would have to win at least 85 games. And that probably wouldn’t be enough. For the sake of the math, to get to 85 wins, the Nats need to go 31-20 the rest of the way, a .607 pace, equivalent to a 98-win pace over a full season. It’s just not realistic.

Taylor Jordan will be shut down after about four more starts. Ross Detwiler might be done for the season with his balky back. Ross Ohlendorf might have made his last pitch as a National.

The ingredients for a late-summer push just aren’t there. The Nats’ inability to put any sort of winning streak together so far this season makes the probability of it happening look slim.

The team on the field will remain focused on winning as many games as possible. It’s in their DNA. But the rest of us can and should have one eye toward the future at this point. Where do the Nats go from here?

It’s tough to see many changes to the lineup for next season, unless GM Mike Rizzo does some major shuffling, which would be a sign of admission that these players that he’s hand-picked weren’t the right ones for the job. He, of course, has the backing of management on the heels of his shiny new contract extension and promotion, so he pretty much has carte blanche to make any changes he wants. Will he use that option?

Everywhere you look on the roster, though, players are locked in for 2014.

The two biggest contract questions the Nats have to face are Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond, and whether Rizzo will negotiate long-term extensions for the pair. Both players have All-Star seasons to their credit (Zimmermann this season, Desmond in ‘12) and are entering what should be the prime of their careers.

Let’s assume Rizzo signs them both. That means the entire lineup and top three starting pitchers are all signed for 2014. Where do you upgrade? Denard Span hasn’t lived up to his billing this season, but Rizzo gave up a top prospect to acquire him so he won’t quit on Span for next season. Adam LaRoche won’t match his 2012 numbers, but he’s under contract as well and a respected clubhouse leader.

The only real “open” spot is the back of the rotation, where Dan Haren’s free agency and Ross Detwiler’s inability to stay on the field might lead Rizzo to reach into a deep pool of free agent starting pitchers. And the bench needs serious work as well.

But the bulk of this roster will be back. It’s essentially the same team that won 98 games in ‘12, and in on pace to win just 78 this season. Which team is it really? Or does it fall somewhere in the middle?

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. 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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