Picking Splinters: Keeping the Nats on the Upswing

As baseball nears its midway point of the season, the Nationals are approaching the most crucial stretch on their schedule – the days leading up to the July 31st trade deadline.

In years past, there are usually four days that Nats fans can look forward to: Opening Day, the draft, the first day of free agency and the trade deadline. Those are the four days when hopes for this woeful franchise are the highest. Therefore, with one of those hallmarks on the horizon, it’s time to take a look at what this year’s trade deadline means for the Nats.

Everyone knows that the Nationals should be sellers at the trade deadline, but I’m here to say that they should refrain from being wholesalers.

Believe it or not, this team isn’t that far from contention. Yeah, you heard me. Earlier this season you may recall an article in which the case was presented that, with average Major League pitching, the Nationals could have been contenders this year. Unfortunately for Washingtonians, there are some batting tees that are closer to the Major League average than the Nationals’ bullpen. But the good news is that finding “average” talent on the market is easier than finding guys who can almost singlehandedly turn around your offense. Guys, say, like Adam Dunn.

I know that the Nats’ offensive resurgence isn’t entirely because of Dunn, his 20 HR and 56 RBI. The continued health (knock on wood) of Cristian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman and (most shockingly) Nick Johnson is at least equally responsible. But with Dunn in the clean-up slot, the Nationals have one of the most-productive first four hitters in the Majors. That didn’t even happen when Alfonso Soriano topped the lineup in his 40-40 year. But putting three guys with a combined on-base percentage north of .360 ahead of a 40-homer hitter will do that.

As the trade deadline approaches, Dunn’s name keeps popping up in rumors more often than Jennifer Aniston’s tabloid fling of the week. In my mind though, there’s no price high enough for the Nats to sell him off.

Prospect-for-proven-star deals are few and far between these days. Franchises are finally convinced of the value of cheap talent with upside, relative to the costly contracts of hitters for hire. With the economy looking as sour as the Nats’ record, those cheap prospects look even more valuable and will be almost impossible to pry away from contenders looking for a bat at the trade deadline.

For Washington to justify trading Dunn, they would have to get ridiculous value in my mind. Not only is his bat propping up the lineup, but he is a rarity these days: a legitimate slugger signed to a manageable contract for next season.

With Dunn in the lineup, next year could be vastly different from this year’s catastrophe. Ink two arms from the bullpen, maybe a decent arm for the No. 3 or 4 spot in the rotation. If Stephen Strasburg signs and Drew Storen pans out, the pitching suddenly becomes much deeper. Are the Nats a World Series contender? Probably not, but with the mediocrity of the NL East this season there’s no reason to think they couldn’t challenge for a playoff spot.

Without Dunn, everything changes. We know what this lineup looks like without a heavyweight to hold down the middle. Runs are as frequent as rain in the Sahara. If you deal him, you’re now faced with the challenge of finding a potential No. 4 hitter in the minor league system (I’ll save you the trouble of looking. He isn’t there.) or luring another heavy-hitting free agent to the downtrodden District where the team has been mired in last place practically since they got here. Good luck with that.

Swapping Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett is basically a push, but it certainly improves the Nationals, an absolutely abysmal fielding team. And anyone who doubts the value of error-free defense should refer to the turnaround by this year’s Texas Rangers and last years Tampa Rays. With Morgan in left field, they can move Dunn to first base and trade Nick Johnson instead of Dunn. That’s the deal that should be made. Move Dunn, on the other hand, and I think you create far more problems than you solve.