Nationals' second half storylines

The All-Star break has come and gone. The first half of the season is no more. Everybody’s enjoying one more day of relaxation before regathering Friday and commencing the second half.

For the Nationals, this is going to be a second half of change and promise, and perhaps some heartbreak as well. A lot could happen in these next few weeks leading up to the Aug. 2 trade deadline, after which the roster may look even less like the one that was trying to win championships not that long ago.

There will be no shortage of storylines to monitor the rest of the way. Here are five particularly important ones …

1. Is this really it for Soto in D.C.?
There was zero reason to even broach this subject one week ago. Of course Juan Soto would be finishing out the season with the Nationals, perhaps putting forth another monster second half and making an MVP case for himself, no matter the team’s record. That all changed Saturday with The Athletic’s report that Soto had turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension with the Nats, who now were going to explore the possibility of trading him.

It’s a bombshell development, one that could fundamentally change the way the rest of this season plays out for the Nationals. That doesn’t mean general manager Mike Rizzo is definitely going to trade Soto by Aug. 2. Given how complicated such a trade would be, there’s probably a good chance he doesn’t do it yet and re-explores the market over the winter (when the franchise may have some more stability on the ownership front, by the way).

But fair or unfair, no story is going to dominate the next two weeks like the Soto story is going to dominate. And if doesn’t produce some kind of resolution by Aug. 2, it’s only going to continue to dominate until something does finally happen.

2. Who else is getting traded?
Even before Soto was thrown into the mix, the Nationals already faced an intriguing trade deadline, with a host of potential candidates to be dealt. That hasn’t changed.

Josh Bell remains the most valuable trade asset (non-Soto category), and his performance this season has only made him more valuable. It’s fair to ask how much the Nats can reasonably expect in return for a rental player. But there are several contenders who could sure use a middle-of-the-order bat like Bell, so they should be able to acquire something of value in exchange for him.

It may be tougher to get much for Nelson Cruz, who is 13 years older than Bell and not nearly as productive a hitter at this point. The Nationals pretty much have to move him, though. Otherwise, what was the point of signing him in the first place?

There are several relievers with potential value to contenders (Kyle Finnegan, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr.). Is there a market for veterans César Hernández and Maikel Franco? That could be tougher to pull off.

3. When will Cavalli and Henry debut?
As for actual baseball storylines, nothing figures to be bigger than the major league debuts of the Nationals’ top two pitching prospects: Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry. There’s every reason to believe it’ll happen for both 2020 draft picks before the end of the season, but it’s hard to figure out when exactly it’s going to happen.

Cavalli should be the first one called up, and his recent performance at Triple-A Rochester suggested he was already on the cusp of making his debut. But a blister-like issue on one of his pitching fingers could throw a wrench into the team’s plans. Where it previously looked like Cavalli might be days away from debuting, he might now need to start one or two more games for Rochester, perhaps more, to make sure everything’s fine before the Nats make the call.

Henry, meanwhile, is still dealing with shoulder tightness and has been rehabbing in West Palm Beach, Fla., for several weeks. The team is closely monitoring his workload this season, so maybe they’re just buying some time. But it doesn’t seem like Henry is about to be called up in the next week or two. If it happens, it may not happen until September.

4. Which young building blocks will step up?
This season is supposed to be all about identifying key long-term pieces to the puzzle, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty about who fits the bill.

Josiah Gray has had far more good starts than bad ones, but he’s still far from a finished project. The young right-hander needs to show he can be consistent over the season’s final 2 1/2 months, a significant hurdle he needs to overcome to establish himself as a frontline starter beyond 2022.

Keibert Ruiz has really impressed behind the plate, especially with his arm, but the young catcher is still trying to figure out who he is at the plate. Is Ruiz just a good contact hitter who doesn’t produce much power? Or does he have the ability to launch a few more poorly placed pitches deep and establish his full offensive capabilities? These next 2 1/2 months are important for him.

The same goes for Luis García, who has made significant strides at the plate but still has work to do, especially in the field. Are the Nationals committed to the 21-year-old at shortstop the rest of the season, or is there a move to second base in the works?

5. When is the sale of the franchise going to happen?
This, of course, is the biggest storyline of all, the one that impacts every other storyline with the franchise. But it’s also the toughest one to track down quality information about. We know the Lerners have begun meeting with potential new owners. We don’t know when they’re likely to actually hand over the keys to the new guys.

An in-season transfer of power seems awfully unlikely. An offseason sale, however, would make far more sense. If it happens by, say, November, that could go a long way toward charting the franchise’s next big moves (including Soto’s future). If it drags on even longer, it only makes the Soto saga keep dragging on as well.

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