With the trade deadline approaching, the 30 teams in baseball have sorted themselves into three categories: buyers, sellers and those who look to keep the status quo.
Based on most reports that have surfaced, the Nationals currently fall into the last of those three. If they do add someone, odds are it will be a reliever. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, bullpen depth goes a long way in the postseason, and it never hurts to add another option for late in games.
Unfortunately, the bullpen is hardly the most pressing need this team faces. Soriano’s Monday meltdown notwithstanding, this bullpen has been one of the best in the league. The starting rotation has been nothing short of fantastic, as well. In short, pitching has become the Nats’ very identity.
Which means what they really need isn’t another arm; it’s another bat.
The numbers certainly support how lethal the Nationals are when their offense produces. When the team manages four runs or more, the Nats win nearly nine out of ten times. The problem is that they can’t reach that total with any modicum of consistency.
The team has already tried to bolster its offense. They’ve reached out to the Rangers about Adrian Beltre, but with no success. Beltre would certainly be a welcome addition to the lineup. Unfortunately, adding another third baseman creates a logjam when Ryan Zimmerman returns.
Instead of another third baseman, which they don’t need, the Nationals should be looking for a replacement at second.
The sad truth is that Danny Espinosa just isn’t good enough. His OPS is a measly .629; if not for limited plate appearances and Ian Desmond, he’d lead the team in strikeouts. If the Nationals want to play deep into the postseason, they can’t keep sending him to the plate. With the numbers he’s put up, Espinosa represents only a slight improvement over having a pitcher bat.
The arguments supporting Espinosa have centered more around his defense, but even that logic doesn’t really hold up. In a game just last week, in which Espinosa was given the start for his defense, he made a costly error on a pop fly. Monday night, he allowed the lead runner to get into scoring position when he easily could have prevented it. Espinosa isn’t even the best second baseman on the team; Anthony Rendon holds that distinction.
It’d be nice if the Nationals could replace Espinosa with someone currently on the roster, but they have no one. Kevin Frandsen is the only real option, which basically means that they have no options. If they want a better second baseman, the Nationals will have to trade for one.
It’s a shame (for the Nats, at least) that the Pirates suddenly started winning. If they hadn’t, Neil Walker might have been available. Aaron Hill of the Diamondbacks has been mentioned; Emilio Bonifacio of the Cubs and Daniel Murphy of the Mets might also be on the trading block. Any one of these options would be an improvement.
Of course, if the Nationals do complete a trade, replacing Espinosa and keeping Rendon at third, what happens to Ryan Zimmerman when he returns?
In a way, Washington has backed itself into a corner here. Zimmerman is useless as trade material given both his contract and his injury status. Besides, offloading him hurts the offense just as much as keeping Espinosa in.
Instead, the Nationals would be better served using Zimmerman in a rotation. This way, they lower the risks of keeping him at third every day, and guys like LaRoche, Rendon and Harper could get some rest, keeping them fresh for the postseason.
If there’s anyone who would take a demotion with grace, it’s Zimmerman. He’s the opposite of a diva, the epitome of a team player. Even if he doesn’t like the move, Zimmerman would take a utility role with the type of attitude that could only bolster the Nats’ locker room chemistry.
Of course, the discussion of what to do with Zimmerman is a discussion that doesn’t need to happen right now. For the moment, the Nationals simply need to concern themselves with what they should do with Danny Espinosa. If they want to play deep into the playoffs, they may be best served to replace him.