ATLANTA - As he tries to navigate his way through these final days before the July 31 trade deadline, Mike Rizzo has to cope with the following realties:
* The Nationals need bullpen help.
* Their list of desirable prospects isn’t nearly as long as it has been in the past.
* They can’t afford to take on much more salary without surpassing the league’s luxury tax threshold, something the organization is openly saying it won’t do.
* Almost every contending team is also in the market for relievers.
* So many teams are bunched up in the wild card race, especially in the National League, that there aren’t many legitimate sellers right now.
* Once July 31 passes, there’s no longer an opportunity to acquire players via August waiver trades.
Suffice it to say, Rizzo and the Nationals have a very narrow needle to thread in the coming days if they’re going to make necessary improvements to their roster in spite of all those obstacles.
In their search for potential bullpen arms, Rizzo acknowledged Sunday he continues to prefer players who are controllable beyond the current season. He’s acquired a few rental players over the years (Mark Melancon, Kelvin Herrera) but most have been under control into at least the next year.
“There’s always a balance you have to draw between what the acquisition cost is, what are you getting back and that type of thing,” he said. “But it’s always preferable for us to go after a guy that will be with us for a couple years, rather than a guy who will be with you for a couple months.”
Among the potentially available relievers who fit that description: the Giants’ Sam Dyson, the Tigers’ Shane Greene, the Blue Jays’ Ken Giles and the Padres’ Kirby Yates.
The trouble, at least in the case of Dyson and Yates, is that their teams are still on the fringes of the wild card race and may decide not to sell at the deadline.
The scarcity of teams conceding defeat in 2019 has thrown a wrench into trade talks across the league. The Nationals have been aggressive in the past, acquiring Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera all before July 20. But they haven’t been able to jump the gun this time around.
“I think it’s a later-developing trade market,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know if that’s because of only the one trade deadline (or), especially in the National League, there are a lot of teams that are bunched together. But I do see it as a later-forming market.”
Has that made it tougher on the Nationals?
“It’s ... I wouldn’t say tougher,” Rizzo said. “But there’s teams that are taking more time in deciding what they are doing.”
Rizzo has for years refused to trade away top prospects for players who could help his team win immediately - think Juan Soto and Victor Robles - and that hasn’t changed this summer. Other clubs love Carter Kieboom, Luis Garcia and Mason Denaburg, but Rizzo isn’t about to give any of them up unless someone swoops in with a stunning offer he can’t refuse.
If they aren’t willing to give up top prospects, the Nationals might need to be willing to take on more salary of veterans they acquire. The trouble there, of course, is their perilous position with respect to the luxury tax threshold. One formula has them as close as $6 million to the $206 million figure.
The Nats went over the threshold in 2017 and 2018 and paid the tax for it. They continue to insist they won’t go over for a third consecutive year and be subject to a 50 percent tax on all overages, plus other penalties.
“We don’t want go to past the CBT (competitive balance tax),” Rizzo said. “So we’re going to be cognizant of that in any deals that we make.”
That probably means the Nationals have to limit themselves to one or two moves, most likely to address their bullpen. They probably aren’t in a position to acquire another starting pitcher, though Rizzo suggested he wouldn’t be seeking one regardless of their payroll situation.
“No, I like the depth that we have,” he said. “We got our big four guys, and we’re totally satisfied with our fifth starter spot. When you’re running (Austin) Voth, (Erick) Fedde and (Joe) Ross and that group out there, I like those guys as our fifth starter.”