Late July in the DC Metro area used to mean for most the start of Redskins Training Camp.  While things still get underway this week in Richmond (better than Ashburn but not as awesome as Carlisle), more than a few eyes will be focused on baseball’s non-waiver trading deadline.  What do the Nats need?  Do they have the organizational depth to get what they’re looking for?  And would they even consider putting all of their minor league chips into the middle of the 2015 table?

Needs begin with the relief corps.  The Nats rank 13th in MLB in bullpen ERA– and their relievers allow the 10th highest batting average in the bigs.  The bridge that was so solid last year (Tyler Clippard) is by the Bay…saving 17 games with a 2.79 ERA for last-place Oakland.  Would the bring him back and what sort of ransom would the A’s demand for the ex-Nat?  Cincinnati’s already traded starter Johnny Cueto… could Aroldis Chapman (20 saves in 21 chances with an ERA of 1.73) be far behind?  Craig Kimbrel (29 saves for sub-500 San Diego) is another option…as is the potentially combustible (on the field and in the clubhouse) Jonathan Papelbon.  If they bring the former Phillie down I-95, does that move smack of the Rafael Soriano signing?

Needs continue with a struggling lineup.  We get it– four of the top five projected hitters in the batting order were on the disabled list as late as last week.  While the return of Anthony Rendon solidifies the infield–Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span are on the road to South Capitol Street.  But the team ranks 25th in runs for July and is hitting 27th in the Majors.  They’ve struck out the 6th most times in the bigs this month.  Who’s to say that the fantastic four won’t be 100% when they return?  And who’s to say one of them won’t go down to injury again?  Oakland’s Ben Zobrist has played 30 games in the outfield and 34 at 2nd base.  The switch-hitter is on pace to hit .268 with 15 HR and 80 RBI over 162 games…and could be moved around the lineup and in the field depending on who can’t come back fully to contribute.

SB Nation ranked the Nats farm system 16th at the beginning of the year.  They do have alluring pieces while also boasting a few considered to be “untouchable”:  one thinks GM Mike Rizzo would need the world (or at least a moon or two) to part with pitcher Lucas Giolito and shortstop Trea Turner.  AJ Cole and Wilmer Difo?  Probably acquirable.  Drew Ward?  Another potential chip.  Would Joe Ross be in the mix as well?

Potential Playoff Matchup– Pittsburgh owns the second best record in the NL…and they showed why over the weekend.  The Pirates bats produced 26 runs while taking 3 of 4 games at PNC Park against the Nats.  They got to Max Scherzer Friday…and did just enough to showcase the Nationals deficiencies over the four game series.  Can the Bucs catch St. Louis?  Just as important, can they hold off the Chicago Cubs for the #1 Wildcard spot?

Dissecting the Division– the New York Mets moved within 2 games of the first-place Nats thanks to their 3-2 win in ten innings over the Los Angeles Dodgers– a game that saw the end of Zach Greinke’s scoreless innings streak at 45 and 2/3 frames.  The second place team that just won’t go away has a home series with sub-500 San Diego before hosting the Nationals this upcoming weekend.  Third place Atlanta (six and a half games back, 4-6 over last 10 games) continues to drift downstream.  Fourth place Miami has the worst record in the National League (3-7) since the All Star Break and last place Philadelphia owns the worst run differential (-139) in the Majors.  Eagles training camp begins when?

The Mild, Mild West– so they don’t hate each other like the Giants and Dodgers.  The AL West is just as close– 1 game– as their NL counterpart.  They’re somewhat used to being overlooked:  the division leading Angels, despite having Albert Pujols and Mike Trout on their roster, remain the other team in LA.  Despite having the more recent World Series title (2002 as opposed to 1988), they’ve had more names than World Series appearances (LA, California, Anaheim and the current “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” that smacks of the American Dodgeball Association of America).  One game back is Houston– who until just a few years ago not only played in the National League Central but was also racking up 100-loss seasons with numbing regularity (and a 100-loss campaign is most certainly numbing).  Texas?  The former Washington Senators are ruing their near misses in the Fall Classic from earlier this decade as they rebuild and Seattle is still recovering from never getting to the World Series despite having Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. on their roster 20 years ago.  The division outhouse is currently occupied by Oakland–somewhat fitting as the A’s home stadium regularly has sewage issues.  Maybe one day they’ll know the way to San Jose…

Last Week’s Heroes– Ian Desmond has had a 2015 to forget.  The April errors gave way to May strikeouts…followed by a June swoon.  Making his current tear of .478 with 4 HR and 7 RBI plus 8 runs scored the kind of sequence that raises the eyebrow.  Is this an isolated incident or the beginning of a breakout?  Gio Gonzalez is also on a roll, going 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA while posting a 9-3 K/BB ratio over 11.1 innings pitched.  On a staff with Scherzer and Zimmermann, we don’t expect the world from the plucky lefthander.  But the fact he’s posting the best month on the staff (3-0, 1.88 ERA) this month is nice when the likes of Scherzer and Doug Fister are a combined 1-6.

Last Week’s Humbled– Matt den Dekker is currently filling the void in leftfield…and last week he hit .158 (3-19).  Let the record show he’s not exactly filling in for Jayson Werth– den Dekker is filling in for fill-in Michael A. Taylor as he fills in for the injured Denard Span.  And den Dekker is also not filling in for the “true” Werth– even though he was beginning to heat up the Nats projected leftfielder was hitting .208 when he went on the DL.  Max Scherzer after winning consecutive NL Pitcher of the Month awards was decidedly less than awesome in July– he’s 1-3 with an era of 4.23 this month.  While one has no doubt Scherzer will bounce back, allowing 5 earned runs over 5 innings in a showdown against the playoff contending Pirates was not the most encouraging sign for a team that’s pointing towards October.

Game to Watch– with apologies to fourth place Miami, all eyes are on the weekend series with the Mets.  The Nationals are 6-4 against NY this year– but two of those losses came against Friday’s starter Matt Harvey.  He did have a somewhat rough outing in DC last week– and gets another showdown with Gio Gonzalez (2-0 with a 1.38 ERA against the Mets this year). Will Jayson Werth be back in the lineup by then?

Game to Miss– Wednesday Doug Fister (3-6, 4.50 ERA) starts against the Marlins Tom Koehler (8-6, 3.16).  It’s not a bad matchup– it’s just the least compelling (Zimmermann pitches Tuesday while Scherzer’s on the hill Thursday.  Perfect evening to take a walk on the Custis Trail near I-66.