WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Houston Astros addressed a need on their roster as they look to push toward the postseason, acquiring front-of-the-rotation starter Scott Kazmir from the Oakland A’s. While this transaction took place between two American League teams, it directly affected the Washington Nationals in two ways: it officially opened the trade season, and made it clear that Oakland is officially a seller at this year’s deadline.
This is important, because the Nats have deficiencies and the A’s have pieces that could remedy them. For all their strengths, the Nationals are not without their flaws. Those flaws — the bullpen and injury concerns — remain the same ones we expected at the beginning of the year, but have been exposed further through lackluster performances and a litany of disabled list stints.
Any Nats fan knows the A’s have been willing trade partners over the past few years. When Tyler Clippard was sent west for Yunel Escobar before the season, it marked the ninth time the two teams have made a deal since December of 2010. And now Clippard might be available to return (as A.J. Cole once did), along with WAR-mongering, defensive swiss army knife Ben Zobrist.
There are relievers other than Clippard out there who might add as much or more in terms of pure stuff to the back of the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman, the fastest player to 500 strikeouts in Major League history, will likely be the most prized reliever acquired this July, whether by Washington or another contender. Jake McGee is far less well-known a name, but owns a 1.19 ERA and has struck out 31 batters while walking just three in 22.2 innings for Tampa Bay. Either one would provide a worthy, left-handed counterpart to Drew Storen at the back of the Nats’ bullpen.
Even former Atlanta Brave Craig Kimbrel may be available, as the San Diego Padres look to be cutting bait on their disappointing season. And although fans might be irked by seeing Kimbrel wearing a Curly W, there’s no doubting his talent.
But none of the above is Clippard. Once Storen’s roommate, he is beloved in Washington and could bring the kind of emotional charge the team needs to come together after so many injuries have taken team leaders off the field. He’s also continued to be one of baseball’s most sturdy relievers, one who could easily fill the glaring eighth-inning void without creating any closer controversy.
As for Zobrist, he’s been the obvious missing piece for this team for a couple of years now. It was something of a head-scratcher that Rizzo went for Escobar instead of Zobrist this offseason, considering the latter’s left-handed bat and expanded versatility to play both first base and across the outfield, something Washington could have sorely used in the wake of the Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth injuries.
Now with Escobar facing a potentially chronic wrist issue he reaggravated Wednesday, the need is even more pronounced for a player who can produce while playing either in the infield or outfield. Zobrist’s left-handed bat also balances Washington’s lineup, especially if/when Werth and Anthony Rendon finally return.
But Rizzo shouldn’t wait to strike. We may still be a week from the July 31 deadline, but Billy Beane won’t stall if he’s got the right deal on the table, no matter the history between him and Rizzo.
To get the duo may cost the Nationals a few prospects, considering that Houston had to part with both a promising young catcher and a pitcher to get Kazmir. But aside from the untouchable Lucas Giolito, impending Ian Desmond replacement Trea Turner, and the emergent Joe Ross, everyone else in the system should be on the table in order to make this happen. The mini window of prime contention may close with Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Jordan Zimmermann headed to free agency.
It’s time for Rizzo to sell out by buying big, before it’s too late.