The Washington Nationals are currently in first place in the National League East, but the Nats are expected to make a move or two before the trade deadline to improve the club.
The Nationals, who came into the season expected to compete for the NL East divisional title, avoided a sweep at the hands of NL Central division cellar dweller Cincinnati Reds by winning a 10-9 slugfest on Sunday. Washington is now 34-23 and sitting two games ahead of the New York Mets (31-24). The Miami Marlins (30-27) are just four games back, and the Philadelphia Phillies (28-29) are six games behind Washington.
Washington owns one of the top pitching staffs in Major League Baseball, but the team’s bats have struggled throughout the season. The Nationals have just two regulars, Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos, who are hitting above 0.260 and are batting 0.244 as a team, which ranks 18th in the majors. The Nats are also 16th in runs (248), 18th in on-base percentage (0.318) and 14th in slugging percentage (0.416).
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reports that the Nationals could be in the market for a left-handed hitter who possesses the power to help with the offense. Clint Robinson currently fills that role, but he has only one hit-in-his-last-19 at bats and is hitting 0.196 for the season. Robinson does have two homers and 10 runs batted in. He batted 0.272 with 10 homers along with 34 runs batted in last season.
Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Gio Gonzalez lead a fabulous starting pitching staff. The Nationals’ starters are a combined 27-16 with a 3.27 ERA and are fourth in the majors with 37 quality starts. Strasburg, who has registered nine quality starts in 12 appearances, leads the way with a 9-0 record and 2.85 ERA. Joe Ross and Tanner Roark fill out the rotation.
Overall, the Nats’ pitching staff ranks third in the majors in ERA (3.18), third in WHIP (1.14), and third in batting average against (0.227).
As good as Washington’s starters have been, its relievers have been equally as good. The Nationals bullpen has a combined 7-7 and ranks fourth in all of baseball with a 2.97 ERA. The Nats’ bullpen also ranks fourth in batting average against (0.217) and fourth in save percentage, converting 16-of-20 save opportunities.
Washington has used eight different relievers so far this season and only setup man Felipe Rivero has an ERA above 4.00. However, Bill Ladson of MLB.com is reporting that the Nationals top priority prior to the trade deadline is to acquire bullpen help.
Ladson wrote that the Nats would be interested in a pair of New York Yankees southpaws, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, if they became available. Jonathan Papelbon is currently the closer in Washington, but the team believes they can upgrade the position. Papelbon’s velocity and strikeout rates are down this season.
Papelbon converted his 15th save in 17 opportunities in the Nationals victory on Sunday, and he made it very interesting. Taking the mound with a 10-8 lead in the ninth inning, Papelbon promptly gave up a single to Tyler Holt and then walked Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips drove in Holt with a double to make it 10-9 with no outs. Following an intentional walk to load the bases, Papelbon got three straight outs to close the door.
Papelbon is 0-2 this season with a 3.18 ERA in 23 appearances. The 35-year-old is permitting hitters to bat a career-high 0.275 off him and his 7.15 strikeout-per-nine innings is his worst of his career. Also, Papelbon’s 2.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio is well below his career average of 4.47.
Chapman blew his first save of the season on Sunday in the Yankees 3-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. The 28-year-old came into the game in the bottom of the eighth inning with runners on first and second with one out. He struck out Jonathan Schoop but then gave up a single to Francisco Pena to load the bases.
Matt Wieters, who was pinch-hitting for Ryan Flaherty, gave the Orioles their first lead of the game with a two-run single. Wieters advanced to second, and Pena scored on a Jacoby Ellsbury throwing error. Chapman struck out Adam Jones to end the threat.
Chapman is 0-0 on the season and has nine saves in 13 appearances since coming back from his suspension. The 28-year-old has limited opposing hitters to a 0.217 average and averages 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings, which is a little down from the past four years. He has just walked three batters and his 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a career best.
Miller has been fabulous this season out of the Yankees’ pen. The 31-year-old has given up four hits and three runs in his last 11 innings. He is 2-0 with six saves in seven opportunities along with eight holds. Miller has surrendered only 13 hits and four runs all season, posting a 1.14 ERA and holding opponents to a 0.157 average.
Chapman will be a free agent at the end of the season while Miller is under contract through 2018 at $9 million a year. Both are expected to garner a ton of interest from teams if the Yankees decide to trade them.
New York (26-30) is six and a half games behind the division-leading Orioles in the AL East. The Yanks will likely keep a hold of both players until they are eliminated from the playoff race.
The Nationals may not necessarily have to make a trade to improve their bullpen. Veteran right-hander Bronson Arroyo told Ladson that he hopes to pitch for the Nats this year and would be willing to come out of the bullpen. The 39-year-old suffered partial tears in his rotator cuff tendons this spring and is currently pitching intrasquad games at the Nationals’ spring training complex in Florida. He has not pitched in the majors since 2014.
Washington heads to Chicago for a three-game series against the White Sox, starting June 7. Ross, Scherzer, and Gonzalez are slated to take the mound in the series for the Nats.
[Photo by John Minchillo/AP Images]