The trade deadline is coming up and the Nats are in a firm “buy” seat at the table. They are in first place, they have the best winning percentage in the NL, and they haven’t lost a series that was actually completed in over a month. Seriously:
Excluding O's series (not over until 8/4) @Nationals haven't lost a series since playing StL June 13-15. They're 13-1-1 in last 15 series
— Nationals Review (@nationalsreview) July 28, 2014
But is there anything they need to buy? Most teams need something, and even though the Nats are in great shape, shouldn’t they at least go window shopping?
Well, their starting staff is solid – the #4 and 5 starters have been their SPs this season. And the bullpen has been great, too, although you can always shore up the pen, so that is one option. The only glaring weakness is the loss of Ryan Zimmerman for a couple of months, replaced by Danny Espinosa, or perhaps a platoon of Espi and someone else.
As for the rest of the position players, while there are better players out there in MLB, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they actually upgrade anyone other than the aforementioned Zim fill-ins, without spending an exorbitant amount.
What they Probably Don’t Really Need
Let’s start by eliminating one trade target – left-handed bullpen help. I’ve seen a few places suggest that Jerry Blevins isn’t doing well and they might want to find someone to replace him. Blevins 4.71 ERA seems to reinforce this. That is, if you believe his job is anything more than getting lefties out. Blevins is actually dominating left handed hitters. They’re are a collective .123/.186/.185 against him. Righties are killing him though – hitting .314/.402/.457 against him.
So, if you want a LOOGY, Blevins is already great at that. If you want a left handed bullpen arm that can get righties out, too… sure, ok, but that won’t come cheap. I think what’s more likely is Blevins regresses towards his career .728 OPS against righties and you get a guy who is only so-so against RHH and demolishes LHH. Nothing wrong with strengthening the bullpen if you can do it cheaply, but it’s really been great this year, and I don’t see it as necessary.
Where They Do Need Help
The only thing they should probably be looking for seriously is that Zim replacement. They can’t be expected to trade away prospects, though. With the rest of the team healthy at this point, they should still be able to score runs, and they aren’t chasing anyone, they’re being chased. At this point most would agree that the kind of player they should get is perhaps an expiring or expensive contract that someone doesn’t want, rather than a “real” player that would cost them in prospects.
Before we see who they should get, let’s see who this person would replace. Danny Espinosa is set to get most of the playing time, and while I maintain he’s the best defensive player on the team, he hasn’t hit much lately. Despite a good April, he’s now down to .217/.281/.350 which is… not so good.
However, Espi is a switch hitter who has massive platoon splits. His career OPS vs. RHP is .216/.286/.366 which is coincidentally almost identical to his total numbers so far this year. But his career OPS vs. LHP, that is to say, as a right handed hitter, is .794. It’s not that different this year, only much more extreme. Against RHP he’s struggling with a .192/.249/.306, whereas against LHP he’s shining with a .274/.361/.466. As a platoon player, Espinosa could be surprisingly great – that .826 OPS is only behind Cano and Altuve among MLB 2B, which puts him first in the NL.
But in order for the Nats to have a great 2B platoon, there needs to be another half. Kevin Frandsen is also a righty, so he probably isn’t the best partner, and his career numbers reinforce this. OPS splits of .754 vs LHP and .621 vs RHP suggest he aint the guy. Another possibility, though, is another switch hitter, Zach Walters.
Walters has all of 51 PAs in MLB, so while his splits are extraordinary, I take them with a grain of salt. His minor league numbers do suggest they are pretty big, as well, but in a favorable direction for this platoon. He hit with around 100 more OPS points against RHP in the minors. That over-800 OPS probably won’t translate to the majors, but it likely shows that he will be better against RHP than LHP.
So now we go in with the understanding that whoever plays 2B should be better than Espinosa vs LHP or he will only be worthwhile as a Walters platoon replacement. If the guy isn’t putting together an 800+ OPS against LHP while being serviceable against RHP, what’s the point?
Aaron Hill (Arizona) – This name is probably the one I’ve seen the most. Why not? He’s a 2B that can hit, he’s on a bad Diamondbacks team, and he’s got a big contract. Well, putting aside the fact that the Nats probably aren’t interested in paying him $12 M in 2015 and 2016. That being said, his splits are what we’d be looking for – his career OPS vs RHP is .747 and it’s .785 vs LHP. He might not hit as well as Espi vs left handers but he certainly is worthwhile against righties. Although his splits are worse this year, as recently as 2012 he hit better vs RHP. His salary might make him easy to get, and if you, like me, think LaRoche is probably playing his last season with the Nats, this makes sense. But interestingly enough, despite a ton of good hitting over the years, it probably makes the most sense if you platoon him with Espinosa rather than fully replace Espi.
Jose Iglesias (Detroit) – If you’re like me and think Espinosa’s defensive ability is wasted a 2B, imagine if they threw this guy in there! As a guy with a reputation for not hitting, and a righty… yup, you guessed it – he can’t hit as well as Espi against LHP and his splits are worse against RHP than LHP. Anyone would be an upgrade over Espi against RHP, and Iglesias would probably get on base more, but it really isn’t that much of an upgrade offensively. This probably makes less sense than Aaron Hill.
Stephen Drew (Boston) – Drew is a guy I haven’t seen talked about at all but makes a ton of sense to me. Yes, Drew is a SS not a 2B but he bats left handed, and his career numbers show him as a .790 OPS hitter against RHP, and .669 against LHP. Even this year, with his horrendous offensive numbers, he is hitting better vs RHP (.669 OPS) than vs LHP (.192!!). He’s getting paid $10M this year, he’s a free agent at the end of the season, and he aint getting a qualifying offer, so I’m sure the Nats could get him if they want. Offensively, he might be the best platoon partner available. The lack of a single MLB inning at 2B might be a little scary, but coming from SS makes me think he could handle it. And maybe it’s easier to move him to 3B and let Anthony Rendon once again play 2B on the days he starts.
Chase Utley (Philadelphia) – Look, Utley is still great, and he’s a lefty but that doesn’t really matter because they wouldn’t platoon him with Espi. He would be the starter. He’s owed a ton of money for quite a few years, although his contract is kind of based on playing time which is good… That being said the price would simply be too high. A nice thought, but it isn’t happening.
Daniel Murphy (New York) – Murphy’s an interesting case because he is also a lefty hitter. His .776 OPS vs RHP beats his .698 vs LHP and certainly fits the bill as a platoon partner to Espi. That would be a good amalgam of a player, and the assumption is that Murphy, who’s a pretty bad fielder, would also get replaced at the end of games by Espi for defensive purposed. Besides the whole NL East rival thing, Murphy becomes a free agent at the end of next season – until then he’s quite affordable. The Mets are not giving this guy away cheap, certainly not for platoon-player prices.
The choices there are interesting, and while I’m sure I missed someone, I think I found a pretty good fit. Drew makes so much sense for a number of reasons. Obviously his contract situation means Red Sox would be willing to trade him, and his overall numbers make him cheap. But his platoon splits show that even in a bad year, he’s still probably a good complement to Espinosa. And his numbers since the All Star break look much better – .237/.356/.447. The pattern of hitting righties better has continued during that time, too.
It’s a pretty simple solution actually. If the Nats want to get someone to play second base while Zim is out and Rendon is playing third, just do this:
- Let Espinosa and his career .794 OPS vs LHPs, .824 in 2014, stay in the lineup for the 1/3 of the games (or whatever it is) where the Nats face a lefty starter
- Get a platoon partner for Espinosa: Stephen Drew and his great numbers vs RHPs, movable contract, and presumed ability to play 2B or 3B makes a ton of sense