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Bells Are Ringing: Many Nats Could Be On The Move

All season, we’ve discussed how the Nationals would likely soon flip a handful of their best players for prospects or younger big leaguers. Thus far, that hasn’t happened. But in any profession, deadlines spark action.

Tuesday, August 2 marks the annual MLB Trade Deadline. Every year, it’s a time when the rich get richer and the bottom-feeders attempt to reset their rosters looking toward the future.

For the second consecutive season, the Nationals find themselves in the latter category. In fact, they’re the lowest of the low across the entire league.

What makes the Nationals so much more captivating approaching this year’s deadline than most “sellers”, however, is that they hold the keys to some of the best available assets that “buyers” will be bidding for.

Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up:

Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco

Wait, what? Why would anyone want Washington’s primary second and third basemen, each of whom has posted an OPS in the low .600s?

In the case of Hernandez, I’d argue that he’s been an eyesore primarily because of where he’s batted in the lineup: almost exclusively in the top two, and mostly leadoff.

As is standard for Hernandez, he’s been average at worst defensively, which is something many teams could use up the middle of the infield. If he’s placed in the bottom third of a team’s lineup, or even becomes a part-time player, he’ll become much more of an asset – especially considering his relative knack for stepping up in clutch situations, which have seldom arisen for him in Washington.

With Franco, I could be completely off base, but I think he could return some value in a part-time role. Early this season, he was arguably the team’s best situational hitter, pacing the Nationals in RBIs.

My theory is that increased usage exposed his weaknesses at the plate. In a lesser role, and possibly with a move to the American League, I wonder if his production might regress positivity back toward the mean. Technically (and I use that word generously), he also has defensive versatility between each infield corner, although his time at third base needs to decrease.

Yadiel Hernandez and Victor Robles

These two outfielders have very different cases. For Hernandez, his value stems from his solid hitting ability and controllability – he won’t reach free agency until after the 2026 season. Because of this, teams may look at him as a plausible fourth outfielder who can also fill in as a designated hitter at times.

The cons, however, are his age and defense. He’ll turn 35 years old in October – all the more reason why the Nationals may look to move him – and he’s close to unplayable in the field. Some work in left field is fine, but tread lightly and consider a defensive substitution in the late innings.

Robles is the polar opposite. He’s only 25 years old, can’t hit much at all and is controllable for two fewer seasons than Hernandez. But here’s the catch: he can catch anything in center field, as well as – at least in theory, when he’s not TOOTBLAN-ing – wreak some havoc on the base paths.

Suffice it to say, he has sparkplug upside, even if it shows up infrequently.

Whereas Yadiel Hernandez can be viewed as Washington’s outfield version of Maikel Franco in some respect, Robles is much more the equivalent of Cesar Hernandez. If a team like the Yankees bats him ninth as their “more often than not” starter in center field, they could reap major rewards.

Steve Cishek

He’s been a little underwhelming, but we all know why the 36-year-old Cishek was signed. His ERA isn’t far below 4.00, and he’s seldom been turned to in high-leverage situations – to the limited extent that those have even existed for the Nationals. Still, he’s provided passable production and has a track record to boot, including 133 career saves. Oh, and his unconventional pitch delivery is a useful wrinkle to add to any bullpen.

Nelson Cruz

Cruz has become much less appealing than he was supposed to be. The 42-year-old DH has a well-below-average OPS, and his price tag might make him an undesirable option for contenders. He’s still owed the remainder of his $15 million salary for this season, along with a mutual option next year that includes either $12 million to keep him or a $3 million buyout to move on from him.

Still, he has obvious pedigree. His 18-year career home run tally stands at 457, although only eight of them have come this season. He’s come up with countless big hits, has a championship to his name, and is a strong clubhouse presence – especially considering his bilingualism. The most noise I’ve heard has been in regards to the Mets, who do seem one hitter short, with no true need for anyone who can play in the field.

Patrick Corbin

I’ll say it quickly and move on, because I don’t see it happening, especially after Mike Rizzo shot down the idea on “The Sports Junkies” on 106.7 FM radio. Corbin is under contract through 2024, when his salary escalates from the $20-25 million range to $35 million. However, Rizzo’s intent seems to be adding as many assets as possible and to not, in his words, “dilute a return for any player by adding a bad contract.”

Barring something unforeseen, this ends the Corbin trade discussion until at least this offseason.

Speaking of starting pitchers, I’ve heard Erick Fedde and Paolo Espino delicately placed inside the rumor mill, but I’d consider their markets to be slim to none. They’re both inexpensive and controllable through at least 2024, though.

Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan

One could easily argue that Edwards and Finnegan have been Washington’s best two relief arms this season. With Tanner Rainey and Sean Doolittle sidelined, they’ve become their top two high-leverage relievers for the past few weeks – and possibly the foreseeable future

Somewhat comically, both are approaching 31 years old, with birthdays one day apart from each other. Edwards comes with controllability through 2023 and the benefit of having recorded key outs in late-inning situations during a World Series run in Chicago, while Finnegan has two extra years of club control and more experience closing games.

Shy of the next two names – and perhaps ahead of one of them – I’d expect one or both of Edwards and Finnegan to be gone more than anyone else. They likely won’t receive anything of consequence in return for them, but lottery tickets are still valuable, especially when they’re in exchange for players who don’t fit the your timeline towards becoming a competitive team again.

Josh Bell

In my opinion, Bell was probably the most notable All-Star Game snub this year. For most of this season, Bell has been Washington’s most productive hitter. To this day, he still boasts the highest OPS (.883) on the team. That’s not dissimilar from the mark he posted after early May of last season, following a battle with COVID-19.

His obvious downsides are that he’s a lumbering first baseman who might be better served as a DH, will become a free agent when the season ends, and is two weeks away from turning 30 years old – which is when many players of his physical profile begin to break down. If that wasn’t enough, he’s a Scott Boras client.

Still, any team who’s looking to add a middle-of-the-order bat would be foolish to not make a pitch for Bell. Particularly considering the negatives I just listed, he’ll be more affordable than hitters as productive as him typically are. To go on one run, he could very well be someone’s missing piece. And even past this season, he likely wouldn’t be un-re-signable, even in spite of Boras.

Juan Soto

All points I just made about affordability in spite of Boras and ease to acquire via trade can be thrown out the window for Soto.

He is without question the best available player on this year’s trade market. He has the most long-term value of anyone I can ever remember a team dangling at the Trade Deadline.

If you want to go deeper into how complicated the Soto situation is, I wrote about it in a mailbag style earlier this week.

In short, anyone who wants him will have to empty their pockets – and maybe still not have pockets deep enough to suffice. In my mailbag, I outlined what a required trade package might look like. Now we have a clear data point from which to measure. Friday night, the Reds traded Luis Castillo – their ace starting pitcher who is affordable and has an additional year remaining on his contract – to Seattle. In return, the Mariners sent their Nos. 1, 3 and 5 prospects plus a throw-in to Cincinnati. That includes MLB Pipeline’s Nos. 18 and 93 overall prospects league wide.

I’d say this serves as the floor for a Soto trade, but it isn’t even that – although it’s nice to gain a frame of reference like this. Someone the caliber of Noelvi Marte (Seattle’s top prospect) will be necessary, as will two players better than Levi Stoudt (their No. 5) in addition to Edwin Arroyo (their No. 3).

Three top 100s including a top 20, plus another couple respectable prospects or quality young major leaguer must be the asking price. If that doesn’t come, there’s no trade to be made.

Jim Bowden of CBS Sports and The Athletic has reported that the race for Soto is down to four teams, including the Padres and Cardinals – ironically, the team facing the Nationals this weekend. The Cardinals have reportedly been reluctant to include top prospect Jordan Walker, but – among others – young big leaguers Dylan Carlson and Nolan Gorman have been suggested to be available.

Not to sound any alarms, but ESPN’s Jeff Passan has opined that Soto is 80 percent likely to be dealt by August 2, with the caveat that the asking price needs to decrease.

Set Your Schedules!

I’ll say it one more time. This year’s moment of truth will come at 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, August 2. I can’t say it enough; it’ll be a major pivot point for the future of this franchise.

Once the deadline passes, we’ll have a recap discussing the players coming into the organization, as well as the outlook for the rest of this season and beyond.

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Friday, 12 August 2022

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