Second-half storylines aplenty for Nationals

There was no baseball Wednesday. It’s the first time that was the case since mid-February, before pitchers and catchers reported to Florida and Arizona. It’s nice to have a little break from the action, I suppose, but it’s not something you want to experience for too long.

Fortunately, the season starts up again Friday. The Nationals will open the second half in St. Louis, then head to Chicago after that before returning home. They’ve already played 90 games, more than 55 percent of the season. But there is still much to come before everyone packs up for good after the Oct. 1 finale in Atlanta.

Let’s run through the biggest storylines of the second half for the Nats. Some of these take place on the field. Some of them take place off the field. All of them are significant in one way or another …

From the outset, this season always was about the development and progression of any young core players who figure into the team’s long-term plan. That means MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz and Luis García, among others. What can we expect to see from those guys the rest of the way? Can Gore get more consistent and get to, say, 26-28 starts and 130-140 innings before the Nats decide he’s had enough? Can Gray continue what he did in the first half and finish with 32-34 starts and 170-plus innings for the first time? Can Abrams stick in the leadoff position (he looked good in his first three games there)? Can Ruiz start getting some of those hard-hit balls to fall, and show real progress behind the plate? Can García get more selective at the plate and more consistent at second base? There’s very little else that can happen on the field the rest of the season that matters more than all that.

We are less than three weeks away from the Aug. 1 trade deadline, and though the Nationals aren’t going to be headliners like they were the last two years, they could still be quite active. Jeimer Candelario seems the likeliest candidate to be dealt, but can Corey Dickerson do enough to make himself worthwhile to a contender as well? Is Mike Rizzo willing to part with any or all of his controllable, late-inning relievers (Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Carl Edwards Jr.)? Is Lane Thomas part of the plan moving forward or a prime “sell high” candidate? And would there actually be a taker out there for Patrick Corbin? Rizzo may not be able to reshape his entire farm system like he did last summer, but he can make moves that will benefit the club in the long run if he plays his cards right.

Nothing would get fans and club officials excited like the promotion of a top prospect to make his major league debut before season’s end, and the Nationals have a prime candidate for that in James Wood. The 20-year-old outfielder has played only 33 games at Double-A Harrisburg, but he’s got seven doubles and six homers in 141 plate appearances. He just hit cleanup in the All-Star Futures Game. Maybe he’s not quite ready yet, but it sure would be a jolt of excitement if we see him sometime in August or September. Robert Hassell III looked like a better bet to debut when the season began, but he’s struggled at Harrisburg as he returns from hamate surgery in his wrist. Then there’s Jackson Rutledge, the 2019 first-round pick who is finally healthy and pitching well and was recently promoted to Triple-A Rochester. A big league debut for the big right-hander would be a nice reward for a guy who has worked really hard to get to this point.

First things first: Crews (and all other draft picks) have until 5 p.m. July 25 to sign contracts. Assuming he does, though, it’ll be fascinating to see where the Nationals place the No. 2 overall pick in their farm system. Most draftees play at least a couple of weeks at the Florida Complex League in West Palm Beach, and maybe they’ll want Crews to get his feet wet there before bumping him up. But the 21-year-old obviously is as polished a college player as you’re ever going to find, so it’s not crazy to think he could go straight to low Single-A Fredericksburg or even high Single-A Wilmington if the Nats think he’s ready. Depending on where Crews finishes this season, we should have a pretty clear idea of just how soon the organization believes he’ll be ready to play in D.C.

The question has been looming underneath the surface all year long, and at some point it’s going to have to come to the forefront: Is either Rizzo or Davey Martinez returning next season? Both men are in the final year of their respective contracts. Unlike a year ago, there are no options for ownership to pick up. They either get new contracts for 2024 and beyond, or they don’t. Of course, the question of the future of ownership supersedes everything, but with each passing day it feels like the Lerner family is going to be the ones making the immediate decision on Rizzo and Martinez. But what kind of offer would they make? One year? Two years? More? Would either Rizzo or Martinez turn down a short-term deal, given their past accomplishments? It’s quite possible this remains unresolved until after the season ends, but until there’s some resolution, it’s going to continue to be a major looming issue they can’t ignore much longer.

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