Trade Deadline scenarios: Nationals the key

July 26th, 2021

We’re in the stretch run leading up to the Trade Deadline at 4 p.m. ET on Friday, giving teams only a few days to fine-tune their rosters for the final two months of the season.

Which major storylines will we all be following this week? Here are three things to watch:

National treasures
Washington just might be the key to the entire Trade Deadline, as the Nationals -- swept this weekend by the last-place Orioles and with a 1.4% chance to make the playoffs, according to Fangraphs -- have a number of potential trade candidates who would make a major impact on postseason races.

Should the Nationals -- eight games behind the first-place Mets in the National League East and 11 games behind the Padres for the second NL Wild Card spot -- decide to sell, would become the most-sought starting pitcher on the market, if not the most desirable player overall.

Scherzer, tied for 14th among all Major League pitchers with a 2.5 fWAR this season, would be the type of difference-maker Justin Verlander was in 2017. Given the dearth of quality starting pitching available in the trade market this year, Scherzer likely would garner a solid return for the Nationals if they were to deal the three-time Cy Young Award winner.

But Scherzer, who turns 37 on Tuesday and possesses full no-trade rights, isn’t the only player the Nationals could move this week. Relievers and are both slated to become free agents at the end of the season, as are left fielder (who has an $11.5 million mutual option for 2022 with a $3 million buyout), catcher and infielder/outfielder , giving GM Mike Rizzo several assets to move in an effort to build up the club’s farm system. The Nats’ farm entered the season ranked last of 30 MLB organizations by MLB Pipeline.

The Nationals’ DNA is not to sell. We all remember how they rebounded from a 19-31 start in 2019 to win the franchise’s first World Series title. But given the Nationals’ place in the standings, this year might be the exception. If it is, Washington’s trade chips could help decide a number of races during the final two months.

For rent
Among the biggest names on this year’s market are , , , and , each of whom is headed for free agency after the season. The same goes for , , , , and , among others, giving contenders a variety of options for short-term rentals.

But what type of returns will these impending free agents bring back?

As we’ve seen in recent years, rental position players don’t tend to result in a big haul for the sellers. The Dodgers sent five low- to mid-level prospects to the Orioles three years ago for Manny Machado, who at the time was in his contract year and widely considered the jewel of the trade market. A year earlier, the D-backs acquired J.D. Martinez from the Tigers in his contract year, sending back an underwhelming three-player package.

So while Bryant, Story, Báez, Rizzo and Marte each have the potential to boost a contender’s chances down the stretch, there simply won’t be as much competition for their services as there will be for pitchers, likely keeping the price tags down for rental position players.

That said, while the returns might not be as strong as the sellers hope, those guys should all be wearing new uniforms by the weekend -- and each could have a significant impact on the playoff picture.

Wild West
The NL West has been the best division in baseball all season, with the surprising Giants joining the Dodgers and Padres in a three-team free-for-all that could go down to the final week of the season.

That makes this week that much more important for all three clubs, giving them each an opportunity to bolster their own rosters while playing keep-away from the other two.

The Padres struck first, acquiring on Sunday night, according to sources. They sent three prospects to the Pirates for the versatile infielder/outfielder.

Both the Giants and Dodgers are making a bid for Royals left-hander , even though the 32-year-old is on the injured list with a left flexor strain that might keep him out for the majority of August. It’s reasonable to think that all three NL West contenders will be looking to make pitching upgrades this week, setting up the delicious possibility of an intradivision bidding war for a number of arms.

When you consider that Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi know each other well from their days together in Los Angeles, then factor in Padres GM A.J. Preller’s ability to pull off a deal nobody saw coming, this has the makings of a fascinating week within the division.

In the American League West, the Astros likely will try to shore up their pitching staff in an effort to hold off the Athletics, who are expected to make some moves of their own.

Then there are the pesky Mariners, who, despite a minus-52 run differential, are 54-46 entering the week, sitting just 1 1/2 games behind Oakland for the second AL Wild Card spot. Like Preller, GM Jerry Dipoto has never been afraid to make trades. Given the six-week surge that thrust Seattle into the playoff picture, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Dipoto try to fortify the roster in an attempt to bring the franchise’s 20-year postseason drought to an end.

One of those moves could involve of the Royals, who, according to sources, is among Seattle’s top trade targets. Merrifield is under contractual control through 2023 for approximately $10 million, a very reasonable deal that would fit well with the Mariners’ payroll.