What's Their Situation?
The Nationals checked in at the All-Star break with a 42-47 record. They're in fourth place but only six games out of first, precisely where they sat at the break in 2019. Granted, this team is clearly in worse shape overall than that one (which was 47-42 and within closer range of a wild-card spot), but the current Nats squad should be considered a player with intent to add at the deadline.
Especially because, as we'll discuss, they've got an aging veteran ace reaching the end of his deal, and a barren farm system. Now is the time to push for one more, and perhaps even add some help for the coming years.
What Do They Need?
You may recall that when the Nationals made their improbable run two years ago – from 19-31 in May to hoisting a trophy in October – they were fueled by star power: a three-headed monster in the rotation (Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin), plus a lineup powered by MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and rookie phenom Juan Soto.
Most of those pieces are still in place (minus Rendon), which is why it seems silly for the Nationals not to make a push. Especially because one of those remaining pieces – Max Scherzer – is at the height of his prowess. He was the All-Star Game starter and is a Cy Young front-runner. He's also 36, so it's not like he's got too many years like this left in him. This is his final year under contract with the Nats.
The trouble is that, while Scherzer is the kind of horse who can carry you through a postseason, he needs some help in the rotation if they're gonna get there. Stephen Strasburg's been out almost two months weeks with a neck injury. Patrick Corbin is struggling. Jon Lester has proven to be a J.A. Happ-caliber veteran pickup.
A significant outside boost for this rotation would make a world of difference, especially with Strasburg expected back around the deadline. Can a return of that three-headed monster formula in August and September fuel a familiar surge?
Of course, the Nationals could also use a boost in the lineup. They rank 11th out of 15 National League teams in runs scored, despite the pre-injury slugging heroics of Kyle Schwarber. The most glaring weakness in their lineup is Rendon's former home, third base, where Starlin Castro produced 0.5 fWAR before going on administrative leave last week amidst domestic abuse allegations.
Which Twins Are the Best Fit?
If we're making a list of plausible destinations for Josh Donaldson, I'm pretty sure Washington is at the very top.
I mean, the Nats were finalists to sign Donaldson two offseasons ago, when he opted for the Twins. They're a free-spending big-market club that could afford to take on a healthy portion of his contract. And the need at third base is crystal clear. A healthy Donaldson delivers a transformative jolt for this team, and going forward, he wouldn't be blocking anyone set to emerge from their ... thin farm system (more on that in a moment).
Donaldson is, of course, a considerable risk. Maybe a bigger one than this semi-longshot wants to take on. The real prize in Washington's eyes is likely José Berríos. Adding a durable top-end starter to their rotation alongside Scherzer and Strasburg for the stretch run would give the Nats a huge boost, and Berríos' return in 2022 (at least) would help fill the void of Scherzer's potential departure as a free agent.
Who Could The Twins Get Back?
Here's the sticking point: Washington is not rich with prospect capital. Coming into this season, their system was ranked as the 30th out of 30 teams by MLB.com. They had only two prospects in the overall Top 100, and one of them – 2019 first-rounder Jackson Rutledge – has been hampered by shoulder issues all year.
The real prize would seem to be right-hander Cade Cavalli, who ranked as MLB.com's #77 prospect before the season (two spots ahead of Jhoan Duran) and recently graduated to Double-A, where he's been missing plenty of bats.
He would be an excellent get, and perhaps a worthy headliner in a Berríos package, but Cavalli is just one year removed from being drafted in the first round. He's Washington's only bona fide stud prospect and is on track to be ready next year. Are the Nats going to part with such a cost-controlled asset in exchange for the pricy proposition of acquiring and extending Berríos?
If they choose to lower their sights and go for someone like Donaldson, there are plenty of interesting pieces in this system for Minnesota to pick from. Seven of Washington's top 10 prospects are pitchers, and the system has several raw young position players that could soften the blow of losing JD in a salary dump.