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Analysis | This trade deadline won’t define the Nats, but it could still be busy

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The trade deadline has not consumed the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse as it did the previous two Julys. All-stars won’t leave in the haze of a coronavirus outbreak. Reporters aren’t circling Juan Soto before every game. Instead, as a nod to how different and slimmer the options are this year, the operative mode is lighthearted humor.

Before a win over the New York Mets on Saturday, right-hander Trevor Williams joked that backup catcher Riley Adams might get traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Adams suggested a return of superstar Mookie Betts, then proceeded to raise his small-sample-size OPS to .919 with a pair of doubles.) Ahead of Sunday’s loss at Citi Field, Manager Dave Martinez joked that outfielder Lane Thomas was worried about sitting because his name has been floated — and floated and floated — in the usual deadline chatter. (It was a scheduled day off for Thomas amid a two-week slump.)

These wisecracks don’t mean the Nationals are happy to sell again. Martinez would love to keep third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who is a virtual lock to be moved by 6 p.m. Tuesday. The deadline is a good reminder that the front office and clubhouse often have different goals during a rebuild — the executives focused on building a roster and depth to sustain a run of contention, the players and coaches looking to win the game in front of them, then the one after that. But the mood is decidedly lighter because Soto, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner are not in the equation. Nor, for that matter, are Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes or Josh Bell.

At this moment, with less than 36 hours to make trades, Washington’s plans revolve around Candelario, Thomas and reliever Kyle Finnegan. None of those players were drafted by the Nationals or helped bring a World Series title to D.C. Only Finnegan, signed before the 2020 season, has played for a version of the team that truly aimed to contend. That doesn’t mean fans haven’t connected with them. It just means there is less baggage should they be shipped away.

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Unlike Candelario, who has been frequently linked to the New York Yankees in recent days, Thomas and Finnegan are not locks to be traded. Each is under team control for two more seasons. For Thomas, a 27-year-old having a career year, General Manager Mike Rizzo set a very high asking price, at least partly because he has always preferred to keep Thomas, according to two people familiar with his thinking. With Finnegan, 31 and rock solid since joining Washington, Rizzo held on last summer despite interest from multiple contenders. On Sunday, he projected a hard-line approach during an interview with MLB Network Radio.

“We want to improve ourselves. But we want to stay good, and we don’t want to take a step backwards,” Rizzo said of a team with the second-worst record in the National League. “We’re going to be careful with who we trade and who we move — and if there is a guy who could help us in the near future, we’d have to get a good price to move him.”

Rizzo went on to note that ownership is “tired of losing games.” No matter how true that is — and the Lerner family will be free to prove it in the free agent market this offseason, should they still own a team that was put up for sale in April 2022 — this is what any GM has to say publicly. The reality is the Nationals are not expected to be a contender next year, even if keeping Thomas or Finnegan might help them add a few more wins. But in the quote above, Thomas and Finnegan are players who “could help us in the near future,” meaning Rizzo is already hedging the chances of them being dealt.

The arguments to trade Thomas, whom Washington acquired from St. Louis for Jon Lester at the 2021 deadline: With 16 homers, one shy of his career high, he could regress and never be this valuable again; he is a strong runner and can play all three outfield spots if needed; there aren’t many other right-handed bats on the market, especially controllable ones, giving the Nationals more leverage than they might have in a future summer; and they have a surplus of outfielders in the minors, including top prospects James Wood, Dylan Crews and Robert Hassell III, among others.

The arguments to trade Finnegan, whom Washington smartly signed to a major league contract off the minor league free agent market in December 2019: Most contenders, if not all of them, can find a reason to add a reliever for the stretch run; given the volatility of reliever performance, it’s prudent to explore trades whenever a player such as Finnegan is reliable across a meaningful sample; and his two additional years of control should boost the return, even if it’s unclear how much that matters given his age and that most inquiring teams will be focused mainly on the next three months.

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Candelario is a simpler case because he’s a rental, signed to a one-year, $5 million deal last offseason. And because the expanded postseason has thinned the number of sellers, he may be the best available bat, a switch hitter with an .823 OPS entering the week. Rizzo has spent the past month discussing him as a surefire trade candidate. The only drama is whether he can stay healthy for one more game — and that’s if he’s still employed by the Nationals at 7:05 p.m. Monday against Milwaukee.

On Sunday, the Cardinals began their sell-off by trading closer Jordan Hicks to the Toronto Blue Jays, then starter Jordan Montgomery and reliever Chris Stratton to the Texas Rangers, who a day earlier made a huge splash by landing Scherzer from the Mets. On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Angels acquired C.J. Cron and Randal Grichuk, both right-handed hitters, from the Colorado Rockies.

Maybe the Hicks trade will make another club more aggressive with its offers for Finnegan. Maybe a team that wanted Cron or Grichuk makes a stronger push for Thomas and/or Candelario. Maybe a dearth of bats stirs a market for Joey Meneses, who has just seven homers but could be a platoon option for a team wanting to hit lefties better.

And maybe, just maybe, Washington finds a trade partner for someone aside from Candelario, Finnegan, Thomas or Meneses, as when it swapped utility man Ehire Adrianza for minor league outfielder Terone Harris III a year ago. Dwindling time will tell.

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