Dave Nichols: Nationals have 10 days to decide whether or not they’re contenders

The Nationals were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in their first series back from the All-Star break, losing close ballgames Friday and Saturday, while having their lunch handed to them Sunday, with Jordan Zimmermann getting rocked for seven earned runs in two innings. It’s the stuff of nightmares for a team that needs to win just about every series from here on out to remain relevant in the standings.

Forget about the playoffs for a moment. The Nats, at 48-50, sit in third place in the National League East, seven games behind front-running Atlanta and a half-game behind the Phillies in second place. Worse, the Nats are a mere three games ahead of the Mets - the Mets, for goodness sake - in fourth place. What, did someone turn the calendar back to 2011?

This season started with boasts of “World Series or bust” from none other than manager Davey Johnson. But here we are, 10 days out from the non-waiver trading deadline, and the Nats have no idea whether they should be buyers, sellers or just stand pat. Here’s a team that everyone and his brother had as legitimate World Series contenders, and right now they can’t hit their way out of a wet paper bag.

General manager Mike Rizzo sure has his work cut out for him with the approaching trade deadline. He told reporters before Saturday’s game that Ross Detwiler is the team’s fifth starter if he’s healthy, but also said that Detwiler was a couple of weeks away from pitching again, after a bullpen session that resulted in a less-than-encouraging prognosis. Taylor Jordan currently occupies that spot, but in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, he’ll be shut down well before the stretch run.

Dan Haren has looked decent to good in his two starts since being activated from the disabled list, but will that last with the season he’s put together so far?

So do the Nats make a play for a veteran pitcher? Do they try to bring in a stopgap? Should they bother? After getting swept by the Dodgers, this is a team that hardly looks ready for a postseason push. Should Rizzo sacrifice top prospects for a rental pitcher such as Matt Garza?

As for the offense, all the hitters are finally healthy, but should they make a play to bolster the bench? Rizzo endorsed pinch-hitter Chad Tracy on Saturday, then the veteran went out and had a three-hit game. But between Tracy and Roger Bernadina, the team hasn’t had a dependable left-handed bench bat all season. There’s just no one on the bench that scares anyone.

Rizzo is going to have to look long and hard at the roster he’s assembled and try to determine if they have the stuff to make a run.

The Braves, who have plenty of injury problems of their own, are doing everything they can to keep the Nats within hailing distance. Better yet, the Nats have nine more head-to-head opportunities to close the gap. And with 17 of their next 22 games at Nationals Park, the Nats hope they can make a push and put themselves back into a position to make a run.

But if they play the next 10 days like they played the last three, it would make no sense for Rizzo to surrender any assets in exchange for fool’s gold. No, if the Nats can’t close the gap by a couple games before the trade deadline, or if they lose any more ground, they should decide that discretion is the better part of valor, play out their hand and regroup for next spring. There’s need to throw away part of the future if the present is so uncertain.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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