NEW YORK — The question was posed mere minutes after the clubhouse was open to reporters Sunday: “How about Dempster?” one player asked with eyebrows raised.
The Washington Nationals had just sent the Atlanta Braves out of their house with a series split, maintaining their 3½ -game grip on the National League East with a 9-2 victory in which they chased starter Jair Jurrjens from the game after just 2⅓ innings.
A day later, the Braves tried to pull the trigger on a trade for Chicago Cubs ace Ryan Dempster, possibly bringing the NL East-killer into the division and seemingly turning the heat up on the first-place Nationals. There was a hitch, though. Dempster, a 10-year major league veteran with his last five in Chicago, could veto any trade.
As gametime approached, he apparently was still thinking about it. Young Braves right-hander Randall Delgado, who threw six innings of two-run ball against the Nationals on Saturday night, was said to be heading to Chicago if the deal went through.
Either way, most of the reaction inside the Nationals’ clubhouse was muted.
“We don’t play them for a while, so I don’t look at it impacting us,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “They’re going to do what’s best, they think, for now. I hate to give up young arms this time of year for maybe just leasing them for a couple games, but I don’t worry about [the Braves‘ moves].”
Most players, too, shrugged their shoulders.
They acknowledged that their closest divisional competition acquiring a veteran right-hander with a 2.11 ERA would certainly make the Braves a better team. But the Nationals only play the Braves six more times — and no opposing team’s trade would impact the confidence they have in themselves and their MLB-best 3.26 ERA, either.
The Nationals are in a different position at this year’s trade deadline in that, for a bona fide contender, their needs are not glaring. The impending shutdown of Stephen Strasburg has them rumored to targeting starting pitchers. But sources said they were never truly “in” on Dempster and are not in position to pay the price it would cost for an elite rental such as Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke.
Whether the Braves acquire Dempster, the Nationals don’t appear poised to make a reactionary move. If they decide to add pitching at the deadline, their targets more likely will be front-line pitchers with some control still left on their contracts. As far as the veteran starters or second-tier types, the Nationals would be more than comfortable with John Lannan over a pitcher who would come with a high prospect price.
It’s not that the Nationals don’t think they have a legitimate shot to make some noise down the stretch and, potentially, in the playoffs, it’s that they feel they already have the essentials of the team they think can do it. As Johnson has said on multiple occasions, it’s his opinion that it wouldn’t be “wise” to rent a player.
It certainly appears the Braves don’t feel the same way. Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who chatted about the topic with Nationals third base coach Bo Porter over the weekend, was fairly outspoken in his postgame comments about the Braves‘ starting pitching.
“We’ve struggled with our consistency because we’ve struggled at the end of our rotation,” Jones told reporters. “It’s a little demoralizing when you’re in a dogfight for the division and you’re constantly fighting from behind.”
Elsewhere in the division, the Miami Marlins began what appears to be the “selling” stage, trading right-hander Anibal Sanchez and versatile utilityman Omar Infante and to the Detroit Tigers for prospects. Plenty of Nationals will be happy to Sanchez go. He was 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA in 118 innings (19 starts) against the Nationals.
Notes: After an eight-day stretch in which he was 15 for 32 (.469) with five home runs and a 1.067 slugging percentage, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman earned National League Player of the Week honors. Zimmerman, who received a cortisone shot in his right shoulder June 24, has hit .392, slugged .804 and has an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.255. It’s Zimmerman’s third career weekly honor.