The Washington Nationals have the best record in the National League as they get set to make their lone visit to PNC Park this season.
Though the Nationals are 24-13 going into the three-game series against the Pirates that begins Tuesday night, they are not a perfect team. Washington has yet to settle on a closer six weeks into the season and center fielder/leadoff hitter Adam Eaton sustained a season-ending knee injury last month.
The Pirates could theoretically provide one-stop shopping for the Nationals. General manager Neal Huntington dangled closer Tony Watson and center fielder Andrew McCutchen to Washington in trade talks last December at Winter Meetings but nothing transpired as the Pirates would not come off the asking of a package of prospects topped by outfielder Victor Robles.
The Nationals instead turned to the Chicago White Sox and got Eaton. Now that Eaton is sidelined, the Nationals are playing Michael Taylor in center fielder, the position he manned most of the last season but was found wanting by manager Dusty Baker even though Washington won the NL East.
The question, of course, is if the Nationals would consider McCutchen a significant upgrade at this point.
He is off to another slow start, hitting just .212 with six home runs in 37 games. However, he never heated up last season until August and it fair to wonder just if the 30-year-old can ever regain superstar status.
Baker admitted Sunday after a loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in the first game of a doubleheader that he hoped general manager Mike Rizzo could go outside the organization to find a closer. However, the veteran skipper also added that he knew that trading for an established reliever in the middle of the May would be difficult.
Watson is not the typical lockdown closer who either overpowers hitters with a triple-digit fastball or tricks them with an outstanding off-speed pitch. However, the 31-year-old left-hander has converted eight of nine save opportunities despite having a shaky defense behind him while compiling a 1.62 ERA in 17 games.
If nothing else, Watson is better than anyone in the Nationals’ current closer-by-committee setup.
While trading away two key players so early in the season wouldn’t be a good visual, the fact of the matter is Pirates’ ownership and management feels this team has no chance to contend this season.
That has long been obvious as the player payroll was cut by $8 million between the end of last season and the beginning of this year. In turn, the Pirates are last in the NL Central with a 16-22 record.
The Pirates have no plans to exercise McCutchen’s $14.75-million club option for next season or re-sign Watson in free agency. In fact, it would be shocking if either is still in Pittsburgh by the time the July 31 non-waiver deadline passes.
While the Pirates have no chances of prying Robles, the 20-year-old wunderkind at high Class A Potomac, from the Nationals, perhaps they could at least acquire one of Washington’s prized teenage prospect at low Class A Hagerstown such as shortstop Carter Kieboom or outfielder Juan Soto.
Both are the equivalent of lottery tickets at this stage of their career but each is immensely talented.
At least, they would have a future. The Pirates will soon be in the past for McCutchen and Watson.