Fixing the Bench and Trading from a Strength
The Washington Nationals still hold the second worst OPS in the NL but with the additions of Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon their run production has begun to creep in the right direction. With Rendon in the line-up the Nationals are averaging over four runs a game. With a healthy Harper that number should be much closer to the major league average and could be as high as 4.5 runs a game, but with Werth possibly headed back to the DL the Nats offense may be in continuing trouble. For the next few games and perhaps even the next two weeks worth of games, depending on how long Harper's rehab takes, the Nats outfield will not feature one batter with an over .700 OPS and two with a below .600 OPS if both Bernadina and Lombardozzi play.
The complete failure of the Nats bench has been the biggest difference between 2012 and 2013. Last season the Nats bench was worth over four fWAR, and so far in 2013 they have combined to earn -3.7 fWAR with Roger Bernadina being the lone positive at 0.1, and that is because UZR only counts if a ball is caught not the perplexing route it takes to catch it. Through 75 games last season's bench would have been worth 1.9 fWAR. That is nearly a six win difference between this season and last season. Miguel Cabrera is the current fWAR leader at 4.8. In other words the Nats bench has cost the teams more games than if the Tigers didn't have Cabrera. Six also happens to be the exact number of games the Braves lead is on the Nats. Even if the Nats bench were replacement level that would be four additional wins and two games behind the Braves.
The Nats need to fix their bench. That is what it all comes down to. The offense is bad because whoever is filling in for an injured player is bad. The Nats have five batters with 80 plate appearances or more with at least a .750 OPS and they have five with an under .600 OPS. A lot of the failures of the Nats bench couldn't be predicted. Some regression should have been expected from Bernadina, Moore, and Tracy, but their is a big difference between regression and falling into a bottomless pit. The only issue with how the Nats have treated the bench is that they have been too slow to make moves. The moves the Nats have made haven't helped a great deal Kobernus is slightly more valuable than Lombardozzi because he has hit a little better, can play better defense, and can play more positions. Chris Marrero hasn't looked much better the Tyler Moore, but with both having options there is nothing that says it is an either or choice.
The Nationals have other options they can turn to in the minors or they can consider the current stat of Jayson Werth and decide they need to make a trade for a player more accommodated to the role. It is hard to think of any really key bench guys anymore but the Nationals once had the exact players they need in Laynce Nix and Jonny Gomes. Nix has been banged up with the Phillies and it is unlikely they would trade with the team that is only marginally in front of them in the division and the Red Sox kind of need Gomes themselves, but the Nats should look for two players like that, and they may both currently be starters on a lesser team.
How the Nationals acquire a solid bench bat is another matter. With Taylor Jordan likely to join the rotation for the injured Dan Haren, Brian Goodwin underwhelming, and Anthony Rendon needed on the major league squad the Nats don't have much depth to trade from. What they do have is bullpen arms. This makes a trade for a bench bat very difficult as most selling teams are going to want prospects in return and while both Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard have multiple controllable years left they are also getting expensive fast. Trading one of these two takes out a number of lower budget teams that are out of it, but it also opens up teams like the Red Sox and Tigers. Perhaps the Tigers would part with Andy Dirks or Don Kelly to shore up the back of their bullpen or the Red Sox might even be willing to move Jonny Gomes for a "proven closer."
The Nats bench is so bad and they need so much help that trading for a known quantity looks better than the more standard practice of picking up player after player off the waiver wire and hoping one of them sticks, but with how slow Mike Rizzo has been to react this season Nats fans should question if he even has interest in fixing the bench. If the Nationals don't this season is going to be over quickly. The hole the Nationals have dug is already deep and gets deeper every day. They need players that can perform on the roster and they need them soon. Trading Clippard or Storen could solve these issues, and while ranking 13th in ERA doesn't make the Nationals bullpen look like a strength they rank first in baseball in FIP. With the loss of Henry Rodriguez and Zach Duke the Nationals bullpen is as strong as it has been all season, and should only get stronger with Christian Garcia and Ryan Mattheus coming back. Both are perfectly capable of handling the role of sometimes set-up man, sometimes seventh inning, and sometimes ROOGY that Storen has had this season. The Nats are set up well to trade a reliever for good to great value in order to improve the bench.
When you think about it even further the label of proven closer that is slapped on guys like Clippard and Storen makes them even more valuable than they truly are. Most bad trades recently have involved teams trading for proven closers. Think back to the Nationals trade for Wilson Ramos or the trade of Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox for Josh Reddick. The Nationals have two guys with the proven closer label that they aren't using as such with guys in the system that can fill their roles to an acceptable degree, and with the bullpen being ranked first in FIP with the stats of Henry Rodriguez and Zach Duke, Clippard and Storen may be able to help the Nationals more as trade pieces for solid bench bats more than they can as relievers.