Looking at the Nationals' potential trade chips

We’ve reached the final week of the first half of the season, the All-Star break looming after that, not to mention the 2022 MLB Draft (which begins Sunday night). And then looming right after that, of course, is the trade deadline.

Three weeks from today, on Aug. 2, the fates of contenders and rebuilding clubs alike will be shaped with a flurry of deals. And though the Nationals don’t figure to be as active as they were one year ago, when they traded away eight players in the span of 24 hours, they almost certainly will be active.

A year ago, general manager Mike Rizzo was still trying to decide if he’d be a buyer or seller at the deadline. The events of a disastrous July made that decision crystal clear by month’s end. This time around, there’s no question if the Nats will be sellers. The only question is how many players will be dealt before the deadline.

Let’s be clear, though, about one key factor here: The Nationals don’t have the two big-time trade chips they did last year. There is no Max Scherzer and there is no Trea Turner for Rizzo to dangle to a contender and receive multiple top prospects in exchange for.

(Sure, Rizzo could theoretically put Juan Soto up for sale and see just how huge the return would be. But there’s been no indication from anyone that’s part of anyone’s plan at the moment. The Nats have given every indication they intend to continue to try to sign Soto long-term. And even if that doesn’t happen yet, he’s under club control another 2 1/2 seasons and is still viewed as the centerpiece of their next contending roster, if the rebuild proceeds as the organization hopes it will.)

Point is, lower your expectations for what Rizzo is likely to acquire in this summer’s trades. As much as the Nationals would love to get another Josiah Gray and/or Keibert Ruiz, it’s probably a pipe dream to believe any current players would bring back that kind of return.

The Nats’ best chip right now remains Josh Bell. Though he wasn’t selected to the All-Star team, make no mistake: He’s having an All-Star season, entering the week sixth in the National League in batting average (.306), third in on-base percentage (.386), ninth in OPS (.877) and seventh in WAR among position players (3.1, per Baseball-Reference).

Bell also is pretty affordable, owed only about $3.3 million over the season’s final two months. That could make him an attractive option for lower-payroll clubs that could use another big bat in the middle of their lineup.

What teams might be looking for a slugging first baseman/designated hitter? Among the possibilities are the Blue Jays, Brewers, Guardians, Red Sox and Mets (if Rizzo is willing to trade with a division rival).

Some of those same teams might also be interested in Nelson Cruz, and therein lies a problem for the Nationals: There are going to be a limited number of teams who need a DH, and it may be tough to find takers for both Bell and Cruz. It doesn’t help that Cruz, after surging in May and June, has gone cold again at the plate this month. Over his last 12 games, the 42-year-old is batting .193 with zero extra-base hits and a .484 OPS.

Entering the season, the Nats probably thought they had a couple of veteran infielders who could be trade chips in César Hernández and Maikel Franco, but it’s fair to ask at this point if there’s going to be any series interest in either guy. Hernández has yet to hit a homer after blasting 21 of them last year. Franco has a .617 OPS and a league-worst minus-11 Defensive Runs Saved at third base.

The more attractive role players currently on the roster might well come from the bullpen, with several intriguing candidates, should the organization be willing to part ways with relievers who are under club control beyond this year.

Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey each could be attractive to contending teams seeking power arms to serve as setup men. Each has suffered through his share of late-game meltdowns this season, but each also has risen to the occasion a good number of times, especially Finnegan, who often is tasked with retiring an opposing lineup’s best hitters with the game on the line.

The selling point for Finnegan and Rainey is that neither is eligible for free agency until 2026. That could help one or both command a higher-end prospect than a rental player. Then again, the fact both have three more years of club control also is a reason for the Nationals to be hesitant to trade either away at this point.

The Nats will probably feel less attached to veteran relievers Carl Edwards Jr. and Steve Cishek, though the return for either right-hander doesn’t figure to match what they would get for the others.

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