The Washington Times - July 28, 2009, 03:38PM

As we get closer and closer to the trade deadline, the Nationals’ prospects for obtaining a prospect seem to be getting cloudier.

The Giants, the most likely partner for a Nick Johnson deal, appear to be out of the first-base market now that they acquired Ryan Garko, though the Rangers could still be a possibility. Adam Dunn isn’t likely going anywhere, unless a team comes through with a monumental offer. The two names I’d keep an eye on are Joe Beimel and Willie Harris (we’ve heard the Cubs are interested in Beimel, and the Rockies are reportedly looking for a left-handed reliever). But neither will bring back a huge return.


And then there’s Josh Willingham. He’s commanded some interest this month, and will likely get more with the attention generated from his two grand-slam game last night. Willingham is 30 and has battled back problems in the past. But he’s also arbitration-eligible for two more seasons, will only get a modest raise from his $2.95 figure this season and is quietly turning into a middle-of-the-lineup force.

He’s hit .326 with 15 homers and 37 RBI since the beginning of May. Project those numbers over a full season, and Willingham is a 40-100 player who hits for average and can play multiple positions (first base and catcher, in addition to outfield), though he’s not a stellar defender anywhere. And he’s a smart hitter, hard worker and a good teammate.

Problem is, all of the reasons he’s attractive to another team should be the same ones he’s attractive to the Nationals over the next few years. The Nats talk about how Willingham is a “young” 30, because of how late he got to the majors. I think there’s a belief within the organization that if some of the team’s young pitchers progress and they can reverse the catastrophic missteps made with the bullpen and defense, the team could be respectable next year. Why deal an affordable outfielder who is proving he can be a mainstay in the middle of the order?

So in the final days before the deadline, I’d keep an eye on Beimel (there’s no reason not to trade him, with his deal expiring after the year and a number of teams crying out for bullpen help) and Harris. But that won’t bring the kind of major package to get too excited about.

What Willingham, Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman can do in the middle of the lineup, though, is worth some excitement. It’s a foundation I don’t believe the Nationals will break up in the next few days.