The Nationals, in the strictest of baseball senses, are off today. On the heels of a roller coaster 3-4 road trip through Milwaukee and Miami, the players and coaching staff will catch their breath today, spend time with their families and prepare to return to action Tuesday night against the Mets on South Capitol Street.
The Nationals, as an organization, are by no means off today. This may prove to be among the busiest days they have all summer, with everyone in the front office now charged with figuring how exactly they're going to approach Tuesday's 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline.
The final two days of July are always hectic, no matter a franchise's situation, but this one promises to be unlike any other in club history. For the last six seasons, the Nationals have been unquestioned buyers. (Or, at least, only looking to add, not subtract.) This season? We still don't really know what they are.
The sense heading into the weekend series against the Marlins was that the front office was still in wait-and-see mode, and that the results of that series could play a role in tilting the scales one direction or the other. So what wound up happening? The same thing that has been happening to this team all year long. The Nats split the series, winning two blowouts, then losing a 10-inning nailbiter, then losing in a lifeless shutout.
Did that series leave club officials in any better position to make a decision about the fate of the season? It's tough to say. This is a notoriously tight-lipped organization when it comes to baseball decisions, and that hasn't changed in recent days.
Many want to frame this as an either-or scenario. Either the Nats are buyers or they're sellers, right? Truth be told, general manager Mike Rizzo and members of the Lerner family probably aren't looking at this in binary terms like that.
The reality of the situation is this: The Nationals have as many as six different paths they could take the next two days. And they could even choose to take more than one of those paths at the same time.
So let's run through the potential scenarios ...
1. BUY BIG
The vibe in the clubhouse right now is that this is a good team that has underachieved but has a couple of significant holes that can't be filled from within. If the front office agrees, then why not make an all-in play and try to do something bold that could help the current roster get over the hump.
We know who Bryce Harper wants. Asked late Saturday night about J.T. Realmuto's game-winning bloop single, the star outfielder replied: "If that guy was on our side, it wouldn't have happened."
Harper may have rubbed some people the wrong way by vocalizing it in public, but it's safe to say he's not the only one inside the clubhouse who believed it. Realmuto is the one difference-making catcher who could be had, the one who not only could address the Nats' problem behind the plate this year but beyond since he's not eligible to become a free agent until after the 2020 season.
But as has been the case since last winter, the price to acquire Realmuto includes Victor Robles. And probably at least one more significant prospect. For months, Rizzo made it clear he wasn't going to succumb to the Marlins' demands. Would he suddenly change his mind now?
Well, Juan Soto's emergence, plus Robles' recent return from a hyperextended elbow, plus the Nationals' major need for both a short-term and long-term catcher might just be enough to do it.
2. BUY SMALL
If the Nationals aren't willing to go big, they still could add a piece or two in an attempt to increase their chances of winning this season, without sacrificing too much future potential. In this scenario, they wouldn't acquire a starting catcher or a starting pitcher, but perhaps an experienced, second-tier catcher who could replace Spencer Kieboom and share duties with Matt Wieters. (Texas' Robinson Chirinos and San Diego's A.J. Ellis would fall into this category.)
The Nats also could look to bolster their bullpen, acquiring an experienced left-hander who would leapfrog Sammy SolÃs and Matt Grace on the depth chart. Or they could try to find a modestly priced bat, this summer's version of Howie Kendrick.
One other note: These moves don't necessarily have to occur before Tuesday afternoon. There are waiver trades that can be made in August, and Rizzo has been known to make those. Wilson Ramos, for what it's worth, would probably be available in a scenario like that, because the veteran catcher is still recovering from a hamstring injury but is expected to be healthy within another couple weeks.
3. STAND PAT
This may not satisfy most folks, but it's absolutely an option right now. Maybe the most likely option. The Nationals haven't played well enough to make it clear they're going to contend down the finish line (and perhaps into October) but neither have they fallen far enough back in the pack to concede the season. And so it's quite possible Rizzo and ownership will decide the most prudent route is simply to stick with what they have and hope for the best.
No, that doesn't solve the catching problem or insert another big-name starter into the rotation. But neither does it tell players and fans they're giving up. In a way, it's a small vote of confidence in the group that has been assembled: "Hey, you guys believe you're good enough to win. OK, go show us you can do it now."
It wouldn't draw the headlines of a buy or a sell, but it would cause the least disruption, it wouldn't create any new payroll issues and it wouldn't turn everyone's attention to 2019 just yet.
4. SELL SMALL
If the Nationals aren't convinced they have a strong chance of making up the necessary ground to reach the playoffs this season, they do have players who would be of interest to other clubs. And not just big-name players.
Forget about dealing Harper, Daniel Murphy or Michael A. Taylor for a moment. What about one of their right-handed relievers who aren't on long-term deals (Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley)? What about Matt Adams, who certainly could help a team or two and maybe even bring a decent prospect in return?
None of those moves constitutes a concession on the 2018 season. But one or two of them could help the organization restock an area of need in its farm system in exchange for veterans who aren't likely to return to D.C. in 2019 anyway.
5. SELL BIG
There were more and more calls for this over the weekend, with plenty of fans convinced this season is a lost cause and that the front office needs to acknowledge it and move on. We know the Nationals have several big-name players who are hitting free agency this fall (Harper, Murphy, Herrera, Madson, Wieters, Gio Gonzalez) and we know draft pick compensation for losing any of them will be minimal.
So if that's the case, perhaps the smartest move is to just go ahead and rip the Band-Aid off in one fell swoop. It's going to be painful, but it might be the best way for the Nats to re-position themselves as a contender again in 2019 and beyond.
There's certainly logic to it, but this also feels like an unlikely scenario. Rizzo has never been one to concede defeat. His team's odds of a late-season surge may be dwindling, but they're hardly nonexistent. And a trade of Harper now would bring an abrupt halt to any realistic hope of re-signing him over the winter.
6. A CULTURE-CHANGING BLOCKBUSTER
On July 31, 2004, the Red Sox made a shocking trade. They worked out a crazy, four-team deal that involved sending Nomar Garciaparra (one of the most popular faces of the franchises) to the Cubs while acquiring Orlando Cabrera from the Expos and Doug Mientkiewicz from the Twins. It was an absolute stunner. And it ultimately helped them win the World Series and break the Curse of the Bambino.
Is there some scenario where the Nationals could attempt to pull off something like this? What if another contender was interested in Harper and was willing to give up not prospects but current major leaguers who could actually help the Nats win right now? Or maybe a third (or even fourth) team would have to be involved to make it all work.
It sounds ludicrous. And the odds of this actually happening are probably miniscule. But if the Nats front office comes to the conclusion that despite all the talent currently on the roster there's just something inherently missing from this group that prevents it from realizing its full potential ... well, this would sure be a way to try something really bold and see if it worked.