WASHINGTON -- In the hours leading up to Tuesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Nationals found themselves at the center of speculation and the rumor mill, with general manager Mike Rizzo juggling several possibilities in the final 24 hours on what direction to take the franchise.Rizzo ultimately decided to stand pat,
WASHINGTON -- In the hours leading up to Tuesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Nationals found themselves at the center of speculation and the rumor mill, with general manager Mike Rizzo juggling several possibilities in the final 24 hours on what direction to take the franchise.
Rizzo ultimately decided to stand pat, betting on a talented but underachieving roster that began the day a game under .500. The Nationals made one move before Tuesday's Deadline passed, shipping right-hander Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs for a Class A pitcher, Jhon Romero, but this Deadline will ultimately be remembered for what Washington did not do on the trade market as much as what it did.
Although Rizzo acknowledged he had several discussions with teams about his superstar outfielder Bryce Harper, some of them with "more than a passing interest," the Nats elected to hold onto Harper and keep together virtually all of their core for the final two months of the season. Even though the third-place Nationals entered the day trailing the Phillies by 5 1/2 games in the National League East amid negative reports about their clubhouse culture and questions about first-year manager Dave Martinez, they did not decide a full-scale rebuild was necessary nor did they add any players for the stretch run.
"We believe in the players we have," Rizzo said prior to Tuesday's game against the Mets. "We've got players coming off the disabled list that are starting to get in a groove, offensively, defensively. Our pitching staff is coming together. Our bullpen is strong. We feel on paper we're as good as any team in the league if we play up to our capabilities. We're worried about how we play. We're not worried about the other teams in our division or in the National League. Because if we play like we can play, we don't have to worry about anybody."
To this point, 105 games into the season, the Nationals have not played up to their potential. Coming off back-to-back division titles, they were heavy favorites entering the season not only to repeat, but to potentially make a run at the World Series. So, the fact that Washington was even faced with the reality of becoming a seller Tuesday came as a surprise.
Word spread Monday night that the Nats were having discussions about a potential trade for Harper, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. Rizzo called those discussions due diligence, and that it would have taken a "spectacular set of circumstances" for Harper to get moved, and ultimately, when that was not met, they decided to hang on to him. Rizzo phoned Harper on Monday night amid the speculation to inform him he was not going to be traded.
"Yesterday and early this morning, [Rizzo] made it known that I was going to stay here and was going to be here," Harper said. "I took that as me and Rizzo have a great relationship, and Rizzo's one of the best GMs in all of baseball, and I think he would be straightforward with me if I was on the block or anything like that. That just goes to show how good our relationship is. It was nice to see."
Whether the fact those discussions even took place have an affect on Harper's impending free agency remains to be seen, but the Nationals have intentions on trying to re-sign him in the offseason, so they were never going to trade him away easily.
They decided to move Kintzler, however, because the Nats felt they could deal from a position of depth in the bullpen. Rizzo pointed to last month's acquisition of Kelvin Herrera, who was also reportedly on the trading block, to go along with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and, as of late, Shawn Kelley to form a formidable back end of the bullpen. Plus, the Nats wanted to find a spot for right-hander Wander Suero, who the team feels is Major League-ready and was called up Tuesday, and the club believes right-hander Koda Glover is near a promotion after his shoulder injury in the spring.
Yet, the trade caught Kintzler by surprise. When he was called into the manager's office to be informed of the trade, he thought he it was a joke. Seven months ago, he re-signed with the Nats as a free agent for two years. Then, on Tuesday, he stood in the Nats clubhouse, shocked that he had been traded once again.
"Definitely the last thing I kind of expected when I was coming to the field today," Kintzler said. "I felt like I was throwing the ball well. I can go help a contender, another contender, right now. I don't know. Just shell-shocked right now. At a loss for words."
The Nationals also did not add any pieces for the stretch run, despite the fact that so many other teams in the National League added something to their roster in some way. They are getting the worst production in MLB from their catching position (.538 OPS) and did not address it in any way. Nor did they address a starting rotation that has been one of the worst in baseball the past two months.
The Nationals have maintained throughout the season that they are better than what their record says they are and that they believe a breakout could come at any point. They are going to get the chance to prove it through the final two months of the season, after their front office kept this roster largely in tact for the stretch run.
"You think about the expectations, what they were in Spring Training, and then you think about where you're at on July 30-31, thinking about the possibilities of what it could be. You kind of think about, 'How did we end up here?'" Doolittle said. "It's been such a tough and frustrating first half that, I mean, I think a lot of us are grateful.
"I think for everything that's been said about our clubhouse, this is a good group, and there are a lot of guys in here that have played together for a long time. So, I think there still is pretty good chemistry, and I feel like we're grateful they didn't blow it up so we can go make a run."
• Stephen Strasburg has been cleared to throw and resumed playing catch on Monday for the first time since landing on the 10-day DL with a nerve impingement in his neck Thursday. He will begin a throwing program again soon, but Martinez said he does not expect him to need much time to be ready to rejoin the rotation.
• Although Doolittle was hopeful to get out of his walking boot Monday, the results of the latest MRI on his left foot did not show any change in his status, although he was told it was good news by the team's training staff that it has not grown worse as they have increased the intensity of his rehab.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.