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Washington Nationals: Do They Need to Add More Pieces to Contend?

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Washington Nationals: Do They Need to Add More Pieces to Contend?
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The Washington Nationals are almost a flawless baseball team. Yes, I said it.

If you took a glance at Washington's record and stats, you might laugh. The Nationals are underachieving at 46-42, as they have fallen short of the lofty expectations set for them this season. The starting pitching, the bullpen and the batting order has had its struggles.

However, despite suffering a plethora of injuries, the Nationals are just four games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves. Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann have carried the Nationals, and as a result, they are still right in the thick of the playoff hunt.

With 74 games left, the Nationals have to make up a meager four games. All they have to do is play like the 96-66 team that racked up the league's best record last season. While they are certainly capable of doing that with their current roster, every team has room to improve.

But do the Nationals need to sacrifice top prospects or quality depth to improve at the 2013 MLB trade deadline?

The numbers seem to say so. The offense ranks 27th in runs scored, the bullpen is in the middle of the pack in ERA and has labored through poor seasons from key pieces in Drew Storen and Craig Stammen. Dan Haren has been a train wreck as the fifth starter, and Ross Detwiler has been hampered by injuries.

Will Bryce Harper lead the Nationals to offensive success?

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In short, lots of things have gone wrong so far. However, lots of things are poised to go well in the second half. On offense, Bryce Harper has heated up, as he concluded Washington's weekend series against the San Diego Padres with four hits, four RBI, two runs and two walks in six at-bats.

Harper entered Saturday's game against San Diego with a lackluster .260 batting average. His brief hot streak boosted his average, which is bound to rapidly escalate, to .274.

And as he does, the Nationals will pick it up on offense.

Desmond, Werth and Zimmerman are all getting on base at a solid rate, prodigy Anthony Rendon leads the team with a .303 batting average and Adam LaRoche has continued to get on base and supply power from the middle of the lineup.

Washington doesn't seem to have a hole in the lineup. All of its starters have a WAR of at least 0.6, which is remarkable considering that Rendon, Ramos, Harper and Werth have all missed at least 31 games. In addition, every current starter has an OBP of at least .322.

In other words, Washington's lineup has immense top-to-bottom talent around Harper and doesn't need to be tampered with.

The offense, which has scored 32 games in its last four games, is bound to wreak havoc on opposing pitchers in the second half of the season. Washington's tremendous trio of aces will do so as well, but the bottom of the rotation may not follow in its lead.

As for the top of the rotation, it has put up pristine numbers and will continue to do so. Somehow, Strasburg has just five wins, but his 2.45 ERA and his streak of nine consecutive starts with only two earned runs surrendered proves how effective and paramount he has been.

On the other hand, Zimmermann has some wins to show for his stupendous work. He has accumulated 12 wins and compiled a glistening 2.57 ERA, as he has proved his dominance once again. Gonzalez has also been the victim of minimal run support, but he has a sharp 3.14 ERA.

Should the Nationals make a trade?

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While the Nationals have three fantastic hurlers at the top of their rotation, uncertainty and trouble is present at the bottom. Dan Haren has been absolutely horrendous, as he has the worst ERA (6.15) among qualified starters and has surrendered an astounding 19 home runs.

Ross Detwiler has been solid, but back problems have limited him lately. Detwiler was placed on the 15-day DL on Sunday (via The Washington Post), and he might not be able to return after the All-Star break. If so, Taylor Jordan will continue to pitch in the rotation.

Jordan has done a respectable job in two starts, but it's safe to say that the Nationals won't be able to get by with the worst pitcher in baseball (statistically) and a young, inexperienced prospect who was ranked 17th on the team by Baseball America (at the beginning of the season) in the rotation.

So how can they stay strong at the back of the rotation? By pulling the trigger on a trade.

Pitchers are already coming off the market, as Ricky Nolasco was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday. Matt Garza, Bud Norris, Jake Peavy and Cliff Lee are among some of the available arms on the market, and all of them can help.

The Nationals don't need an ace like Lee, as they already have three ace-caliber pitchers. However, they could unload a prospect from their loaded farm system to acquire a middle-of-the-rotation arm. Garza has a 3.45 ERA in nine starts this year, and he could definitely thrive with the Nationals.

With Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Detwiler and Garza, the rotation would be absolutely lethal. All five are consistent, and three are top-tier pitchers. The Nationals paid Haren $13 million and could see if he returns to form as the fifth starter, but they can't afford to keep losing. Washington has lost Haren's last eight starts, and it can't make the playoffs if it loses almost every fifth day.

Luckily for the Nationals, they have the minor league talent to replace Haren by orchestrating a trade.

Washington can also use its minor league talent to bolster the back of the bullpen. At the beginning of the season, fans expected Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard to make up a devastating trio at the back of the bullpen. Unfortunately for the Nationals, the trio hasn't been seamless.

Storen has an inflated 5.11 ERA, and Soriano's 1.22 WHIP is too high for a closer. However, Clippard has done a great job, and Soriano has stranded 82.9 percent of the runners who he has let on base. In addition, he's second in the NL in saves with 24.

Will Drew Storen get back on track?

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While Storen coughed up a two-run lead in Game 5 of last year's NLDS and has a -0.9 WAR, he is bound to return to his 2012 form and inch closer to last season's 2.37 ERA. If he does, the Nationals will be fine. If not, they would need to make a trade.

Relievers such as Steve Cishek and Jose Veras will be on the market, but the Nationals may decide to keep their bullpen intact. They have good reason to do so, as everything looks great on paper.

With Stammen and Ross Ohlendorf in long relief, Ian Krol and Fernando Abad available to handle southpaws and Soriano, Storen and Clippard finishing games, Washington should be fine. If everything goes as planned, it will be more than fine.

Washington's hitters are finally healthy, and that's going to lead to a multitude of offensive onslaughts. Great pitching performances will also be plentiful, as the Nationals may add another starter to sharpen their fabulous rotation.

The Nationals should add a pitcher to spearhead the bottom of the rotation, but that's all they need to do. The Nationals already have most of the pieces in place to seize another NL East crown and punch their ticket to the playoffs, but that doesn't mean general manager Mike Rizzo will be unheard from in late July.

Because even though the Nationals are likely to squeak into the playoffs, their current team would have trouble achieving its ultimate goal: winning the World Series.

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