MLB, Washington Nationals

Inside the Clubhouse: Washington Nationals trade plans, Ketel Marte and more

This week, Inside the Clubhouse looks at the Washington Nationals trade plans, Kyle Schwarber‘s breakout, Ketel Marte‘s market and more.

Don’t look now, but the Washington Nationals suddenly look like buyers, not sellers, ahead of the July 30 trade deadline.

As bad as the Nationals were in the first two months, they have won seven of 10 games, improving to 37-38. They are in second place and only four games behind the New York Mets in the National League East. Kyle Schwarber can’t stop hitting home runs. Josh Bell is showing signs of life after a slow start to the season. Their pitching has drastically improved, ranking eighth in baseball in the last 30 days with a 3.53 ERA.

“I got a weird feeling that the Nats go for it,” one rival executive said.

The executive went on to say that it was a gut feeling rather than an informed opinion. But it’s hard not to think that Nationals owner Ted Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo would want to go for it, especially after they started the 2019 season 19-31 and went on to win the World Series.

Now, these are not the same Nationals. They are currently without star right-hander Stephen Strasburg. Left-hander Patrick Corbin has a 5.33 ERA. There are plenty of holes throughout the roster, most notably at third base with Starlin Castro posting a mediocre .635 OPS through 72 games, and the team could also look to upgrade the rotation and bullpen.

But while it took the 2019 Nationals 80 games to get back to .500, it took the 2021 Nationals only 72 games to get back to that mark.

The Nationals will likely pursue incremental upgrades rather than making a big splash with the Dodgers, Padres and Giants lurking in the NL. Among the options they will consider include Diamondbacks infielders Eduardo Escobar and Asdrubal Cabrera. Pittsburgh Pirates infielder/outfielder Adam Frazier is another possibility, though the asking price is said to be sky high and could cost the Nationals top prospect Cade Cavali, something the organization would seem unwilling to do.

If the Nationals fell off in the four-and-a-half weeks before the trade deadline and decided to sell, they’d have plenty of inventory: Scherzer, Schwarber, Bell, Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson. But the Lerners have never been willing sellers and Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, recently told NBC Sports Chicago that it would take a contract extension for the 37-year-old right-hander to waive his no-trade rights.

The most likely scenario is that the Nationals approach the trade deadline as buyers, a surprise after their slow start.

Kyle Schwarber is having himself a month

Just how good has Kyle Schwarber been this month?

  • His 13 home runs in June ties Bryce Harper (May 2015) for most homers in any month in Washington Nationals history.
  • His eight home runs in a five-game span are tied for the second-most in MLB history, trailing only Shawn Green in 2002.
  • His 13 home runs in 14 games are tied for the second-most in a 14-game span since 1901. The most? 14 home runs in 14 games by Barry Bonds in 2001.

So how did Schwarber, who entered June 12 hitting .218/.312/.404 with nine home runs and 26 RBI, get to this point? There are some scouts who believe that baseball cracking down on foreign substances, which has drastically decreased spin rates throughout the game, has helped Schwarber against the high fastball, something he had struggled with throughout his career.

Nationals officials, however, credit Schwarber’s breakout to two things: 1) moving him to the leadoff spot in the batting order and 2) his work with hitting coach Kevin Long. The two have worked pregame on hitting off a tee, with Long setting the tee above the top of the strike zone that allows him to more consistently square up against high pitches.

“He’s gotten back to being a hitter first and power is always there,” the exec said. “When he’s driving balls the other way he’s at his best. He’s finally rock-solid in his legs and his head is staying very still. Kevin Long has been very good for him.”

Ketel Marte likely won’t be traded

The Arizona Diamondbacks were built to contend in 2020 and 2021, but have the worst record in baseball and just recently snapped a 24-game road losing streak. Yet team officials say they are unlikely to execute a complete teardown before the July 30 trade deadline.

A source with direct knowledge of the Diamondbacks’ thinking said that it’s unlikely that star outfielder Ketel Marte is traded. The team is expected to listen to offers for the remainder of the roster, with the focus of their trade talks surrounding their six players on expiring contracts.

One of those players, infielder Eduardo Escobar, has drawn early interest from the Chicago White Sox, but a source familiar with the situation said there has been little progress since the talks were reported early last week by Bob Nightengale of USA Today.

Escobar, 32, is hitting .254/.300/.484 with 16 home runs in 74 games. He mashes left-handed pitching and plays solid defense at second base and is viewed as a strong fit to replace Nick Madrigal, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his right hamstring. Escobar will earn roughly $3.5 million the rest of the season, which would leave the White Sox with more than enough room to upgrade other parts of the roster.

Other Diamondbacks on expiring contracts include Asdrubal Cabrera, Joakim Soria, Stephen Vogt, Josh Reddick and Tyler Clippard. Outfielder David Peralta, who is signed through 2022, is also expected to draw interest, though his struggles against left-handed pitching could limit his market.

Keston Hiura looks like a completely different hitter

Even after the Milwaukee Brewers optioned him to Triple-A Nashville, multiple team executives continued to insist that Keston Hiura was close to breaking out of a season-long slump.

Since being recalled, Hiura looks like a different hitter. The sample size is small. Let’s make that clear. But seven of the 11 balls that he has put in play have had an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, as noted by Will Sammon of The Athletic, with Hiura hitting two home runs and five RBI, including a game-winning sacrifice fly on Friday against the Colorado Rockies.

If Hiura is indeed turning the corner, and there are some in the organization who are confident that is the case, it could completely change the outlook on their season. It would give the Brewers another bonafide hitter alongside Christian Yelich, Kolten Wong and Avisail Garcia. It would fill what has been a gaping hole at first base all season, especially when Daniel Vogelbach recently went down with a hamstring injury that will sideline him for at least six weeks.

Still, the Brewers are likely to target corner infield depth at the trade deadline. They are also expected to prioritize upgrading the bullpen after trading J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen. But the need for an impact corner infield bat decreased when Luis Urias stepped up at third base following Travis Shaw’s injury and if Hiura is indeed on the verge of breaking out, it could turn what was their greatest weakness into a strength.

Braves and Blue Jays are looking for bullpen help

Rival executives say that two of the most aggressive teams looking for bullpen help have been the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays.

With the Cubs and Nationals unlikely to sell, it takes Craig Kimbrel, Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson from the trade market. The best reliever now expected to be available is Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Richard Rodriguez, who is already drawing trade interest, as well as Los Angeles Angels righty Raisel Iglesias, Texas Rangers righty Ian Kennedy and Seattle Mariners righty Kendall Graveman, among others.

Around the Horn

  • The early reviews of the MLB Draft combine have been positive. “Gave the combine week a B or B-minus,” one agent said. “Thought it would be a D grade. Has legs and a chance.”
  • Baltimore Orioles slugger Trey Mancini, who had a Stage 3 cancerous tumor removed from his colon 15 months ago, will participate in the Home Run Derby at Coors Field. Pretty cool.
  • Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton has missed 279 games since 2017 with a fractured toe, migraines, sprained wrist, wrist confusion, hip strain, groin strain, concussion, dislocated shoulder, hip strain, labrum surgery, a sprained foot and now a fractured hand that will keep him out at least a month. Said manager Rocco Baldelli: “This isn’t fair. That’s how I feel about the whole thing.”
  • My darkhorse pick to win American League MVP was Los Angeles Angels pitcher/outfielder Shohei Ohtani. I’m feeling pretty good about that right now.

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