Nats won’t decide to buy or sell until right before deadline

If their general manager is to be believed, the Nationals have nine more days to prove they deserve to be trade deadline buyers and not sellers.

Mike Rizzo, taking questions from beat reporters Tuesday for the first time since April, outlined a two-pronged approach he plans to take as the July 30 trade deadline approaches. He could decide to buy or he could decide to sell. And it all depends on how his team plays during this critical stretch and what the standings look like at the end of it.

“We still have some games to play before we make those kind of decisions, but I think a dual path is probably the most advantageous for us right now,” Rizzo said during a 27-minute session in front of the Nationals dugout prior to Tuesday’s game against the Marlins. “We’ll have our lines in the water on the buy side. We’ll also prepare some type of sell scenario if we have to. But we’re looking forward to playing better baseball for the next two weeks and see if we can creep closer to the New York Mets and see if we can make some noise in the National League East.”

With their 6-3 win over the Marlins on Tuesday, the Nationals enter tonight’s series finale at 45-49. They haven’t reached the trade deadline during a 162-game season with a sub-.500 record since 2013, when they were 52-56.

But the inability of any NL East team to sustain success this year has left the door open, even for a team in the Nationals’ position. It may not take 90 wins to capture this division title and that’s why Rizzo remains upbeat despite his team’s actual record.

“We went through a rough 18 or so games and we played a lot of tough competition,” the GM said, referencing the 6-11 stretch the Nats just completed against the Mets, Rays, Dodgers, Padres and Giants. “And just at that time, we had a lot of substantial injuries that affected our performance on the field. But I can’t get past the fact that we’re still just six games out. Correct me if I’m wrong, I think 11 games (still to play) with the Mets, 12 with the Phillies and a bunch more with the Marlins and Braves. So we’re going to play in our division a lot. We’ve come back in the past and played well in spurts this year. I certainly don’t see us at this particular point as a must-sell.”

Given all that, Rizzo doesn’t expect to make any real serious decisions until the final day or two leading up to the deadline (which was moved up to July 30 this year to avoid it falling on a weekend). That adds extra significance to the Nationals’ upcoming schedule against the Marlins, Orioles and Phillies.

Thumbnail image for Rizzo-Chats-With-Martinez-at-Cage-Sidebar.jpg“I think we’ll deal with the trade deadline closer to the trade deadline,” he said. “My thought process is to see where we’re at. We’ve got 12 days until the deadline, until we have to do something. I think we’ll utilize that to see where we’re at and how we’re playing and what type of momentum we have going forward, from where we are in the standings and that type of thing.”

If the Nationals do put themselves in a position to buy, Rizzo certainly will be looking for help at either third or second base, and possibly the outfield as well. With Kyle Schwarber recovering from a significant hamstring strain and Starlin Castro on administrative leave while Major League Baseball investigates an accusation of domestic violence by the veteran infielder, manager Davey Martinez has been forced to mix and match at three positions.

Alcides Escobar, recently acquired from the Royals, has become the everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter (though he’s now day-to-day after getting hit by a pitch on his right wrist). Josh Harrison, who had been starting at second base, has bounced between third base and left field, with Jordy Mercer sometimes at third base and Andrew Stevenson and Gerardo Parra getting some time in left field.

“I think Davey’s done a really good job of putting players in a position to succeed,” Rizzo said.

The Nationals also could be in the market for at least one more reliever, possibly prioritizing a left-hander. They could use rotation help, but it seems unlikely they’ll be willing to give up the prospects or take on the salary necessary to add another starter and instead will hope Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross return from the injured list and provide a late-season boost.

If, however, the club finds itself in a position to sell, Rizzo figures to look for takers on both of his late-inning relievers (Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson). Harrison and Schwarber (if healthy) would draw interest as well.

What about Max Scherzer? Some have speculated since April the Nationals might be willing to trade their ace and future Hall of Famer, whose contract expires at season’s end, if they’re out of the race. Rizzo maintained Tuesday he doesn’t expect to be a seller of anyone at this point, but left the door slightly ajar if his team should crater in the next week.

“I mean, I think if we turn into definite sellers, everything will be on the table, I would think,” he said, before adding: “Which I don’t foresee.”

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