The trade deadline is a little over two months away, and as with anything in baseball when there is a deadline, nothing will happen until it is upon us. With the Nationals two games under .500 and falling further out of the playoff race every day, the question of if the Nats are going to be sellers at the trade deadline should be asked, and if they are a seller, who could go?
The most obvious candidates to be traded are the veterans in the last year of guaranteed club control: Adam LaRoche, Rafael Soriano, Scott Hairston and Denard Span. All of them bring value that a contending team will be looking for.
LaRoche is a power-hitting left-handed first baseman that could DH in the American League if needed. Many contending teams have struggled at the back end of the bullpen this season. Jim Johnson has been a disaster in Oakland and Grant Balfour just as bad for Tampa Bay. If the Nationals were willing to eat most of what remained of the $7 million owed to Soriano for this season, moving him won't be difficult. Hairston hits left-handed pitching. As a pinch-hitter against lefties, there are few better than Hairston and the Nats could get a low-level prospect with upside for him. Span doesn't bring much in the way of offense, but he is an elite defender in center field and there will be at least one team looking to upgrade its defense come the trade deadline.
All of those players are rentals and none of them are superstars. The Nationals won't be getting close to major league ready prospects for any of them. If the Nats really want to make trades that will improve the team for 2015 and beyond, they'll look at the players that are two years from free agency: Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tyler Clippard. Of those four, Clippard will bring the least. But a reliever as reliable as him is hard to find and with that extra year of control, he is likely to bring back more in prospects than Soriano.
The real assets at the trade deadline are pitching and power, and Zimmermann and Fister are thought to be two of the better pitchers in the National League. Despite the fact that Zimmermann has struggled this season, general managers don't trade based on a season's worth of numbers and the total picture of Zimmermann's career is pretty good. Fister and Zimmermann should have similar value on the trade market and the extra year of control will only make it higher. The asking price should be one or two near major league ready prospects, most likely ones that can swing a bat, and a couple of low-level, high-upside guys. That, or one elite prospect in the manner of the Jean Segura for Zack Greinke trade.
Power-hitting shortstops are as rare a commodity as there is going to be around the trade deadline. Troy Tulowitzki is comfortably leading shortstops in home runs with 14, but Desmond is tied for second with Jhonny Peralta at nine. When it comes to power from the shortstop position, Desmond will provide it, and being able to insert that power at short will be alluring to a contending team. The asking price for Desmond won't be much different than for Fister or Zimmermann. It is likely going to take one or two near major league ready prospects and a couple of lower-level guys with high upside.
By now, you're probably wondering how this helps the Nationals for 2015. It's possible that none of Span, LaRoche, Hairston or Soriano will be back next season anyway, so trading them and getting something for them is a good move. Then there's the four that are two years from free agency. Desmond's defense is on enough of a downward swing that anything he's provided positively on offense has been washed away by his errors on defense. Zimmermann and Fister are good pitchers, but A.J. Cole is going to be ready sometime this season and Lucas Giolito sometime by the middle of next season. Either could also be replaced by a free agent like James Shields or Justin Masterson in the offseason. Clippard is a very good middle reliever, but still just a middle reliever. Aaron Barrett has already made the majors and shown what he can do and the Nationals have other relief prospects in the system as well as free agency to fill that role.
Without Zimmermann, Fister, Clippard and Desmond on the 2015 roster, the Nationals still have Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth. There is the makings of a strong core there. What they need is to get better complementary pieces and that can be achieved by making the tough choices come the trade deadline by trading off popular and good players for possibly younger and better players for the future.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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 regular roster of writers.