The Nationals own a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League East and the third-best record in the NL. They have the lowest ERA in the majors, have hit the most homers in the NL and boast the best fielding percentage in baseball.
Yet the biggest question facing general manager Mike Rizzo these days is a simple one: Could he make his team even better before the non-waiver trade deadline, now looming in the not-too-distant future on Aug. 1? (The deadline was pushed back this year from the traditional July 31 date because that falls on a Sunday.)
The answer to that question is more complex that you might think at first glance.
“We like the team we have,” Rizzo told MLB Network Radio during an interview Sunday afternoon. “We don’t think there’s any major moves we have to make. But if an opportunity presents itself to become a better team, we’ll certainly look into it. We’ve shown in the past we’re not afraid to pull the trigger and make a trade to help ourselves. But it has to be the right opportunity, and not making a trade for trade’s sake, but doing it to improve our club.”
This is the balancing act Rizzo and the GMs of other contending clubs must deal with this time of year. They must have done something right to reach this point in first place, but have they done enough to ensure they finish in first place? And then give themselves the best opportunity to keep playing deep into October?
And it’s not the first time Rizzo has found himself in this position. For the fifth straight year, the Nationals are in contention in mid-July. And for the fourth time in these last five years, they’re in first place in mid-July.
As Rizzo pointed out, he hasn’t been afraid to make a move at the deadline. Typically, those moves have been calculated and in most cases necessary to fill a hole created by injury (Kurt Suzuki in 2012 after Wilson Ramos got hurt, Asdrubal Cabrera in 2014 after Ryan Zimmerman landed on the disabled list). And then there was the boldest mid-summer deal of his tenure: last July’s acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon, which bumped Drew Storen out of the closer’s role and perhaps altered the entire course of the rest of a disappointing season.
From a baseball standpoint, each of those trades made perfect sense. The Nationals were addressing needs and/or adding depth to positions that could have used it.
But there are considerations beyond simple baseball ones when it comes to major trades, especially in-season ones. There is the question of chemistry, and how a deal might help or hurt whatever vibe a team already has going on in its clubhouse.
How do clubs account for that?
“You’ve got to ask people that you trust,” manager Dusty Baker said. “People on your coaching staff that might have had a guy or two. Or call some friends around. Or guys on another staff. Because what you covered over here may not be what you’re getting over there.
“There have been some guys that I would have loved to have on my team, and then I found out he was a bad guy. Or there were other guys that I thought was a bad guy that we ended up getting and ended up being a great guy.”
Rizzo follows the same mantra. Whether you liked the end result or not, he did talk to a host of former teammates and coaches about Papelbon before acquiring him from the Phillies. And he stands behind that trade as strongly today as he did one year ago.
What does that mean for this year’s deadline?
“I see us kind of staying with the same philosophy we’ve had the last couple of seasons,” Rizzo told MLB Network Radio. “If there’s a deal out there that makes sense, we’ll go for it and be aggressive. But we’re not going to tinker with something that’s been working so far for us. We recognize we’re not a perfect ballclub, and it’s hard to become perfect. But if we see an upgrade, we’ll do the homework on the makeup and how he fits with the staff and in the clubhouse, that type of thing to make the decision on if it’s worth it or not.”
There is an art to these negotiations, as well. GMs in possession of a coveted trade piece (like the Yankees’ Brian Cashman right now with relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller) have to know when to pull the trigger on a deal and when to drag things out, hoping to start a bidding war between two other teams.
The buying clubs also have their patience tested, debating internally whether to be aggressive in making a move early or holding out until the last minute for perhaps a better deal.
“I remember one time with the Cubs (in 2003), our GM was after Joe Randa, hot,” Baker said. “And I said: ‘No, just wait, wait. I think we can do better.’ And that’s the tough thing about making a deal. Sometimes you wait too long. Sometimes you make a move, you make a move too soon.
“You don’t know if a trade is a good trade until later. Well, it happened with us. What fell into our lap was Aramis Ramirez, who stayed there for years - he fell right into our lap - Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon. I mean, there’s one-third of my lineup that came over from the Pirates, and that’s what shot us to the playoffs and almost to the World Series, that particular move right there.”