LOS ANGELES — The trade deadline is fast approaching and the Nationals have made no secret that where the organization finds its least amount of depth is in the outfield. With that in mind, the Nationals have several leadoff-hitting center fielders on their radar including names like Minnesota’s Denard Span, Tampa’s B.J. Upton and Houston’s Michael Bourn.
Yesterday I explored the reasons why the Nationals view Span as a possible fit, but they have also long been connected to Upton both in rumors and in personal relationships. Rizzo drafted B.J.’s brother, Justin, with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft when he was the scouting director for the Arizona Diamondbacks and both Upton brothers grew up playing with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in Virginia.
Upton was out of the Rays lineup on Sunday, fueling trade speculation for the second time this weekend.
For what it’s worth, Zimmerman endorsed a potential trade that would reunited him with his childhood teammate, but also noted that he’s happy with the personnel the Nationals have at this time.
“I think we have a good group here now but any time you can add a guy with that level of talent, he can do things that are going to help us win,” Zimmerman said. “He’s a guy who can steal 60 to 70 bases. You know he’s going to get on base more, his average is going to be higher. I’m all for it. I want people on our team that will help us win.”
Upton has been dogged by a reputation that he doesn’t always play hard and has underachieved for a second-overall pick with a .256 career batting average — but not hitting above .241 since the 2008 season. Zimmerman said those concerns are overblown, citing a maturation process that has taken Upton some time but is certainly ongoing.
“Coming out, he was young and really talented,” Zimmerman said. “He was kind of going through some of the things I think Bryce (Harper) is going through. He’d never failed. He was always the best player, he was always the best at everything and I think he’s kind of misunderstood as far as the person that he is, the attitude that he has. It’s hard at first when you’re that young, just got up to the big leagues, expected to perform. You have to learn how to fail. I think he’s learned a lot. Obviously he’s got a ton of talent. He’s a five tool player so the more he can learn the better he can get I think we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
“A lot of people think he’s kind of to himself, a little cocky, but he’s just kind of a quiet guy until you get to know him. But when he was young he had to go through stuff that no 17 year old kid should have to go through. I think his brother’s a little more outgoing because he got to see BJ go through that.”
Zimmerman didn’t think he’d played on the same team as Upton, who is older than him, since he was a junior in high school but the two keep in touch and text every month or so. Playing together was never a prospect truly discussed but Upton has commented to Zimmerman and fellow Virginia-native David Wright how nice it must be for them to play close to home.
For the Nationals, it will all come down to price tag. They are not unsatisfied with what they’ve gotten out of Roger Bernadina and Rick Ankiel has come on as of late but if the Nationals can make a move that doesn’t detract from players they deem to be a part of their future while also building that core, they’ll do so.
– But while their search for an elite center fielder may lead them to some negotiations this week, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has maintained that he’s not about to barter with one of the team’s core pieces. Despite speculation to the contrary, that includes shortstop Ian Desmond, according to a baseball source.
Make no mistake, the Nationals are getting calls on Desmond, who has vastly improved his defense and showed last year some of the offensive potential the Nationals see for him. The shortstop is considered a player they plan to build around for the future. No player is untouchable, but to move him, it would take an absolutely unbelievable offer from another team.
Last year the issues were with Desmond’s defense while he hit well. This year it’s with his offense. The Nationals believe in his potential and the last thing they want is to see him put it all together next year for another team.
The easy answer for those speculating on Desmond has been that the Nationals could very simply move Danny Espinosa, a natural shortstop, back to that position and call up infielder Steve Lombardozzi from Triple-A.
There are issues with that logic, though, as there’s no proof that Espinosa will be an elite major league shortstop — and he is such at second base — while there are also no guarantees that Lombardozzi will immediately be an impact major leaguer. The Nationals brass love Lombardozzi and laud him frequently but Desmond himself was hitting .354 at Triple-A when the Nationals called him up in 2009.
– The Nationals would be open to moving either one of their veteran starters, Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis but the general sense is that they won’t be giving them up for a pittance. Marquis has been priced high, according to industry sources, and the Nationals aren’t planning to simply give him away.
That said, the Nationals will need to clear space in their rotation this coming week when Chien-Ming Wang is eligible to come off the disabled list and pitch in the major leagues for the first time since 2009. That space could be made by moving someone to the bullpen, sending someone to the minor leagues or via a trade from the rotation as it currently stands.