For months, front-office executives in Atlanta and Philadelphia wondered how prudent it would be to add veterans at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Sure, their rebuilding efforts matured more quickly than expected, but there was a widely held assumption that this year's Nationals would start playing like last year's Nats. Once that happened, aggressive moves by the Braves or Phillies -- deviations from carefully constructed plans -- would seem foolish in retrospect.
Well, the Nationals dropped below .500 with a shutout loss on the Fourth of July. They are seven games behind the first-place Braves and 5 1/2 behind the Phils in the National League East.
Over 84 seasons of Major League Baseball in our nation's capital -- spanning three franchises -- no Washington, D.C., team has reached the postseason after trailing its division (or league) by that many games. The biggest comebacks belong to the 1933 and '24 Senators, who won American League pennants after six-game deficits.
For all their talent and potential Hall of Famers, the Nats have floundered long enough that they must attempt a comeback without local precedent.
With that, it's time to cue the dramatic music in Atlanta and Philadelphia, creating the backdrop for what is now -- unquestionably -- the most intriguing division race in the Majors.
Now, the issue is not whether it makes sense for the Braves and Phillies to "buy" at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. They will. The question is how far they're going to go -- while glancing, if fleetingly, at the surprising competitor in the adjacent lane.
Here we have a narrative writer's dream, with the same mega-star -- Orioles infielder Manny Machado -- as one object of each team's Trade Deadline longing.
Having fielded inquiries from across the industry, the O's prefer to move Machado to a team that is rich in their area of greatest need: young, controllable starting pitching. The Braves and Phils both match that description. So what now?
Prior to this season, Phillies right-hander Zach Eflin had a career 5.85 ERA in 22 Major League starts. He was sent to Triple-A at the end of this Spring Training and spent all of April in the Minors. If the Orioles had called in April with a one-for-one trade proposal -- Machado for Eflin -- it's reasonable to believe the Phils would have accepted.
Now? The circumstances have changed. Eflin has a 2.97 ERA in 11 Major League starts this year. If Baltimore made the same proposal today -- a half-season of Machado for 4 1/2 of Eflin -- Philadelphia likely would say no, one source told MLB.com.
The Phillies also would be reluctant to part with right-hander Sixto Sanchez -- their No. 1 prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com -- in a trade for Machado. It's unclear how the Phils will react if Class A right-hander Adonis Medina, who ranks No. 2 on that list, is the Orioles' formal request in a Machado offer on July 31.
Meanwhile, the Braves have ample pitching prospects to trade, even if Sean Newcomb (8-3, 3.10 ERA) and Mike Soroka (now injured) are unavailable. Of Atlanta's top seven prospects according to MLBPipeline.com, all but third baseman Austin Riley (No. 6) are pitchers. So general manager Alex Anthopoulos could part with two top arms and still have plenty of depth. That doesn't mean he will.
In fact, one source highly doubts the Braves would offer right-hander Ian Anderson (No. 4) and left-hander Max Fried (No. 7) for Machado, because the team: (a) believes both pitchers have high ceilings; and (b) views the bullpen as a more pressing need.
Of course, these are market snapshots in a blurry month. July 31 is more than three weeks away. But we know this for sure: The Nationals are in a vulnerable position in the NL East. The longer that remains true, the more pressure the Braves and Phillies will face to make an impact move -- and the more sense it makes to strike.