WASHINGTON, D.C. — This time of year, with the trade deadline looming, it can seem like every single event that transpires in and around a baseball game spurs some sort of knee-jerk implication.
Actual event: Reports start surfacing that Nats top pitching prospect Erick Fedde will be called up to start in place of injured Stephen Strasburg on Saturday.
Actual event: Bryce Harper gets tossed for arguing with home plate umpire Chris Segal, his second ejection of the season and 10th of his career. His defensive replacement in the top of the ninth is rookie Andrew Stevenson, which results in an outfield alignment of (from left to right) Adam Lind, Brian Goodwin and Stevenson.
Knee-jerk implication: Without outfielders Adam Eaton (torn ACL), Jayson Werth (broken foot), Michael Taylor (oblique), Chris Heisey (groin) and Ryan Raburn (trapezius), the Nationals have no choice but to acquire the entire Marlins outfield. So what if Miami general manager Michael Hill says he isn’t selling? An abduction will do just fine, thanks.
Actual event: New closer Sean Doolittle — who was warming up in the bottom of the eighth for a potential save situation but instead entered with an 8-2 lead after the Nats batted around during a seven-run inning — gets roughed up for three runs on a walk and three hits, including a mahhhhhhnster jack by just-called-up Brewers prospect Lewis Brinson.
Knee-jerk implication: Despite the recent deal that brought Doolittle and fellow reliever Ryan Madson to D.C., the Washington bullpen is still a work-in-progress, and therefore GM Mike Rizzo must swing a deal for Tigers closer Justin Wilson and/or Mets closer Addison Reed.
The truth is, the Nationals don’t need an outfielder. Not with a double-digit lead in the NL Least. Not with Werth and Taylor expected back some time in the not-too-distant future. Not with Goodwin doing a serviceable job filling in during their absence. Not with Harper raking like it’s 2015 all over again. And not with the infield trio of Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon producing runs the way they are.
It’s debatable whether Washington needs another reliever. Despite Doolittle’s mini-implosion Wednesday, Dusty Baker’s bullpen is clearly better now than it was a couple weeks ago. Still, there’s no shut-down, lights-out, tried-and-true closer currently on the Nats roster. Then again, there’s no shut-down, lights-out, tried-and-true closer currently on the trade market, either.
As for Washington needing to acquire a starter, that isn’t quite so knee-jerk. Following the game, Baker confirmed that Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list and that Fedde is, in fact, getting called up to start on Saturday.
This could just be a case of the Nationals being overly cautious with an injury-prone pitcher who signed a $175 million contract extension last year, whose torn pronator tendon forced him to watch from the sideline last season as his team got bounced by the Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
“From what I understand, it’s not anything serious,” Zimmerman said after Wednesday’s contest. “Obviously, we got to try and win each game, each day, and he gives us a really good chance to win every time he pitches every fifth day. Big picture, we got to make sure that he’s able to help us win every fifth day in a month or two from now.”
The flip side is the Nats have been known to undersell injuries (see: Werth’s “bruised” foot), and at this point, there’s no telling just how severe Strasburg’s injury (officially described as a nerve impingement) is.
If Strasburg can return to health and stay that way down the stretch and into the playoffs, it’ll be the first time that he and ace Max Scherzer have pitched in the same postseason rotation, a configuration that makes it hard to imagine Washington going home early again. If, for some reason, Strasburg misses the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine the Nats going deep — unless they dive into the starting pitching market sometime between now and July 31.
If you’re Rizzo, it’s a tricky spot to be in. He has five days to look into his crystal ball and decide whether his rotation needs augmentation and, if so, whether it’s worth the cost in prospects to do so. If he thinks a trade is necessary, he’ll need to convince ownership, which recently increased it’s already stretched payroll by more than $12 million with the Madson-Doolittle deal, to foot the bill.
That’s a tough sell. After all, they dropped $175 million on Strasburg last year so that, in theory, they wouldn’t need to be thinking about this right now. It’s an even tougher sell given that Strasburg could very well end up being fine in October, in which case any trade made now could seem unnecessary in hindsight.
But when you’re dealing with that kind of dough, it’s worth blowing a little more to protect your investment and your dreams. There’s even an entire industry built around the concept. It’s called insurance.