WASHINGTON — MLB trade deadline season is always a hectic time, and this year is, of course, proving no different.
The Nationals hold a 5.5 game lead in the National League East, and they’re just 1.0 game behind the San Francisco Giants for the best record in MLB. Their success, coupled with the lack of success the relatively minor success the New York Mets are having, means Mike Rizzo and the Nationals will likely be buyers in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
Reports have lingered for months — and longer in some cases — that Washington could be in the market for bullpen help, especially a closer to replace Jonathan Papelbon. The organization has also been tied to Cincinnati Reds’ left-handed outfielder Jay Bruce, it tried to trade for Brandon Phillips in the offseason, and questions of whether it would be interested in a starter to replace the struggling Gio Gonzalez have also arisen.
The Nationals’ farm system isn’t quite as strong as it has been in recent years, but it still boasts a bevy of talent, especially on the mound. Lucas Giolito is the top pitching prospect in the nation, and he now has two major-league starts under his belt. Tuesday night, the Nationals are giving 22-year-old Reynaldo Lopez the start, making him the second highly-touted hurler to make his big-league debut in less than a month.
Washington also has A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde waiting in the wings, among other intriguing pitching prospects.
With all that pitching depth in the minor-league system, two options become immediately available: The Nationals could promote some of their prospects to help make a late-season run, or they could trade some of them for veteran help.
It seemed they were going all-in on the former option with the promotions of Giolito and Lopez, as well as the boost in playing time Trea Turner has gotten recently, but Eddie Matz of ESPN.com explained to The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan Tuesday morning why he thinks the Lopez debut is a showcase for other teams.
“I’m a conspiracy theorist by nature,” Matz told the Junkies. “My theory is — there’s no doubt that Giolito needs more work and more time, I think we saw that. … Whether or not that’s the reason they’re bringing up Lopez, I have my doubts. To me, that looks like, the trade deadline’s almost here, to me this looks like a little high-profile showcasing. Maybe I’m way off-base, maybe they have no intention of giving up a top prospect like a Lopez, who I think was ranked No. 4 coming into the season among Nationals prospects. But to me, it’s a way of, if he comes up here and he implodes and he doesn’t do much, fine. No harm, no foul. But if he goes out there and throws seven innings of two-hit ball and strikes out nine guys, all of a sudden, you’ve got a really high-profile successful outing where, presumably, at this time of year there’s scouts in every press box at every game, watching guys, looking at who they might want to trade for. The Nationals, if they’re gonna make a move, they probably would get some bullpen help. So to me, this is a little showcase.”
The theory would make sense. The Nationals have little need for another right-handed starter, now or in the future, as they already have Tanner Roark, Joe Ross, Giolito, Cole and Fedde, and Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer are both under contract for the foreseeable future. There is a chance Lopez becomes a better pro than the three other prospects, and there have been rumblings that he could move to the bullpen — pitchers that can throw 100 mph are often better candidates for the bullpen than the rotation.
And maybe the Nationals will move Lopez to the bullpen this season.
But if Washington is in win-now mode, which by all accounts it is, a veteran reliever would be preferable to a 22-year-old kid who has only ever been a starter at the minor-league level.
Host Jason Bishop then asked Matz what Washington’s target would be.
“Do you still think that their top priority is a closer, or do think they’re looking at maybe another starter, or a bench player? What do you think their priorities are?”
“I think it’s still a reliever,” Matz answered. “The bullpen’s been good actually, if you look at the numbers, I think they’re second in ERA. But everyone could use more relief help, and I think Papelbon’s looked good since he came back from the DL, but I think they could use another reliever, whether it’s a closer or a setup guy. I think in an ideal world, you get a guy who is a cast-off closer from a team who’s not contending, you bring him in here, maybe he can start out as a setup guy, and he’s almost an insurance policy for Papelbon. That way, if Papelbon gets hurt — because he was injured earlier in the season — you’ve got someone who can step in, and/or if Papelbon falters, then you’ve got someone who can step in. But I don’t think they would just get a closer who you bring in here to close. They did that last year with [Drew] Storen, and that was weird when it happened, but I don’t think they would do that to Papelbon.”
Matz also mentioned the Nationals possibly being interested in adding a right-handed power bat, either off the bench or to replace one of the under-performing players in the lineup. Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Michael A. Taylor or Ben Revere would be candidates to be replaced in that capacity, but the consensus is the team’s biggest need is an upgrade at closer.
The entire Matz conversation on the Lopez debut/showcase is available below.