The Nationals are off today, getting a chance to catch their breath after an eight-game, three-series, bicoastal win streak that concluded yesterday with a loss to the Orioles. Before it ended, the run took the Nationals from 27-36 to within a game of .500, and put them in a third-place tie in the NL East with the Mets, only 4 1/2 games out of the wild card.
Now, the question is, where do the Nationals go from here?
There are still 10 days left in June, but the Nationals have a chance to get themselves close enough to contention by the All-Star break that general manager Mike Rizzo has some things to think about as the trade deadline approaches. He said yesterday that the recent run won't affect the Nationals' plans, and as he did last year, Rizzo dodged strict classifications of the team as a buyer or seller, saying only he would stick to his vision for what he wanted the team to look like.
It's tough to change an approach based on eight wins; after all, the Nationals looked dead in the water less than two weeks ago when they left San Francisco for San Diego. But what if they keep it up? They have 14 of 20 at home before the All-Star break, and 55 of their last 90 overall at Nationals Park, where they're playing .594 ball this year.
If the Nationals stay on track with where they've been so far this year (.594 at home and .400 on the road), they'd finish 11-9 to end the first half at .500. They'll begin the second half with an important series at Atlanta before a forgiving road trip ends in Houston and Los Angeles. Rizzo might have plans to trade a veteran or two away, but the Nationals are set up to make him rethink that in the next month.
The name likely to come up most in trade talks is right-hander Jason Marquis, who's put an injury-filled, disappointing 2010 season behind him with a 7-2 start and a 3.86 ERA. Marquis could command lots of attention in July - the Yankees, among other contenders, could use a veteran starter, and the Staten Island, NY native might make sense for them. But he's also a notorious first-half pitcher - his career ERAs in August and September/October are 4.99 and 5.08, respectively - and the Nationals could have a high asking price knowing the free agent-to-be might make a perfect rental for someone.
There's a possibility the Nationals resign Marquis to be a back-of-the-rotation starter for them as they move toward competitiveness, but only if they're willing to pay; the 32-year-old Marquis will likely be looking for a multi-year deal, and a National League source said he expects Marquis to try and cash in this winter. Still, if the team is within sniffing distance of the wild card at the end of July, it'd be tough to part with Marquis, especially with Jordan Zimmermann on an innings limit and Stephen Strasburg's return looking uncertain for 2011. There are multiple scenarios in play with Marquis, and many of those will hinge on how the team plays in the next few weeks.
Michael Morse could also draw interest as a cheap power bat, and plenty of teams are also likely to call about Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey. But Morse, especially, could factor in the Nationals' future plans, especially with Adam LaRoche coming off shoulder surgery.
If the Nationals do end up as buyers, that doesn't necessarily mean they'd have to sacrifice their future for short-term fixes. The price would be steep on players like Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton, but if the Rays fell out of the race, the Nationals might be able to pry the 26-year-old away with a few prospects. They would also love to add a veteran starter, and would love to make a run at Houston's Michael Bourn, though sources says the Astros aren't likely to part with the center fielder unless they're blown away with an offer.
Nothing has to push Rizzo in one direction or the other yet, and even if the Nationals go on a run, he could have options to improve this year's roster with players who could fit in the future. But the opportunity to keep him from shipping off parts is in the Nationals' hands, and how they play in the next few weeks seems like a big variable for how their trade strategy unfolds.