Separated by less than 40 miles, and only two games in the win column, albeit across leagues, the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals are right in the thick of things in their respective divisional playoff races. This is exactly where the Orioles were expected to be, thanks to questions surrounding the health of several All-Stars and a shaky starting rotation. The Nationals, however, were expected to be about 15 games clear of the rest of the National League East by this point of the season, but thanks to inconsistent offense and injuries find themselves only 3.5 games ahead of the struggling New York Mets. Both these teams have glaring needs. For the Orioles, the biggest area of need is starting pitching — Chris Tillman, the presumptive staff ace, has a 6.22 ERA and Bud Norris, who went 15-8 a year ago, also has an ERA over 6.00. For the Nationals, it’s offensive production at first base — Ryan Zimmerman has batted just .209 with only five home runs. Tyler Moore hasn’t been much better in subbing for the injured Zimmerman.
So, with those facts established, let’s make a deal!
The Nationals and Orioles both have a significant amount of salary coming off the books at the end of the 2015 season. Two of the players that will be free agents following the 2015 season, starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann of the Nationals, and first baseman Chris Davis of the Orioles, fill a need for their Beltway rival. With the trade deadline still over a month away, is there any real possibility that these two teams can get together and make this deal that could potentially offer huge upside by the time the postseason rolls around?
Chris Davis has rebounded quite nicely from a disappointing 2014 season that saw his batting average dip below .200 and end early due to a positive test for Adderall. Davis may never flirt with the .300 level as he did in his MVP caliber 2013 season, but that does not make him an unproductive player, despite his still sky-high strikeout totals. The 29-year-old free agent-to-be had a rough month of May, batting only .196 with 40 strikeouts in 29 games. The month of June has been kinder to him, at least strikeout-wise, as he has only 24 strikeouts in 23 games. The power that Davis showed in 2013, 53 home runs if you’ve already forgotten, is still there, and if he can make more consistent contact the rest of the season, an uptick in home runs will follow. The shift will continue to rob Davis of base hits, but there has not yet been a shift invented that can keep the towering fly balls Davis hits in the yard.
Jordan Zimmermann has been one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the National League the past three seasons, registering two sub-3.00 ERA seasons. Realizing the ERA is not the be all and end all it once was, Zimmermann’s 2.68 FIP in 2014 very nearly matched his 2.66 ERA. So far this season, the 29-year-old right-hander has rebounded from a rocky start that left him with a 4.88 ERA at the end of April. The high ERA appears to be a function of bad luck more than poor performance, which is reflected by his 3.13 FIP. Zimmerman has allowed hits on balls in play at a .330 clip this year, well above the league average of .297, a figure his .299 career BAbip nearly matches on the dot. The drop in strikeout rate from 8.2 to 6.2 and rise in walk rate from 1.3 to 1.9 seem troubling on the surface, but this season’s numbers are very much in line with Zimmermann’s career numbers.
Deals between contending teams, especially deals that involve starters are exceedingly rare. It is very difficult to justify breaking up a batting order or rotation in the middle of a pennant race. Make no mistake, such a move could pose problems to both the Orioles and Nationals in the short-term as they break in replacements for Davis and Zimmermann. That, however, should not kill the potential blockbuster on the spot.
The Nationals have flamed out in the first round of the playoffs in their past two appearances. Last season, they scored nine runs in four games while going down to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Scoring runs has not been a huge problem for the Nationals this season. Their 4.56 runs per game ranks eighth in the entire league. There are still significant holes in their lineup, however, and they will continue to depend on Bryce Harper playing like the second coming of Mickey Mantle the rest of the year as well as Danny Espinosa and Yunel Escobar exceeding expectations. Adding a high upside power bat like Davis could cover the hole in the lineup currently being filled by Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond. It’s not insignificant that Davis has hit 25 home runs in 84 career interleague games. National League pitchers may not have a book on Davis, as he has spent his entire career in the American League, and that could allow him to explode onto the scene in his new league.
That the Orioles do not have a bonafide ace has been the elephant in the room over their past three winning seasons. Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez have all delivered better than expected results over the course of their careers in Baltimore. Until this season, all four were very dependable, but none truly stood out as an ace. Advanced metrics screamed for a regression, but Chen and Gonzalez have continued to buck the odds this season, despite giving up more than their fair share of home runs. Tillman and Norris, however, appear to have real problems, be they physical, mental, or both. The Orioles have been rapidly ascending the standings after bottoming out at 23-29, but there are real questions surrounding their rotation. Adding a frontline starter like Zimmermann could make the difference between catching the Tampa Bay Rays or missing the playoffs. With a lineup loaded at nearly every other position, perhaps the Orioles can afford to part with Davis in return for an ace.
If this trade does occur, and I believe it is highly unlikely to actually come to pass, it will not come until the very last hours before the trade deadline. The Nationals may not be able to part with Zimmermann if Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister continue delivering results far below their 2014 performances. Health has also been a question for Strasburg and Fister. If either of those two goes down again, this trade is out of the question. The Orioles do have options to take Davis’s place in the lineup — Chris Parmelee, Steve Pearce, Nolan Reimold, and even Matt Wieters all come to mind. Pearce was a key performer for the Orioles last season, especially in light of Davis’s struggles, but he has only now been able to lift his average clear of .200. Parmelee and Reimold may be defensive liabilities at first base, and the Orioles cannot even be sure if they can sustain the hot offensive starts they have enjoyed since being called up from Triple-A. If Pearce stays hot — .314/.351/.429 June line with four doubles — the Orioles may feel comfortable handing him the keys to first and trying to get a return on Davis.
To complete the deal, the Orioles may be forced to add in a prospect or a middle reliever. In a straight up Zimmermann-for-Davis trade, the Orioles likely blow the Nationals out of the water, so Washington would likely need another piece to be willing to pull the trigger. The Orioles, with a surplus of middle relievers like Tommy Hunter, Brad Brach, and Brian Matusz, have plenty to offer the Nationals, who are in the market for bullpen help. Since Zimmermann would likely only be a rental for the Orioles, they would most likely prefer to avoid parting with a high-level prospect. A mid-tier prospect like Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson, who both have big league experience this season, could also be attractive to the Nationals.
Trading players with looming free agency dates is not an uncommon occurrence in Major League Baseball. It’s just not something typically done by teams fighting to make the playoffs. Conventional wisdom states that you hold onto those players and take draft pick compensation at the end of the year and avoid running the risk of upsetting your roster as the Oakland Athletics did last season when they traded Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester. It’s doubtful the Orioles or the Nationals will be able to resign Davis or Zimmermann, for various reasons. The Orioles may not feel comfortable committing to a mercurial slugger like Davis or paying him a Scott Boras ransom, while the Nationals may not be able to afford the likely $20-25 million per year Zimmermann is likely to command. The Nationals, of course, have the impending free agencies of Harper, Strasburg, and Rendon to look forward to, and by the end of Zimmermann’s next deal or the start of Harper’s, will be paying Max Scherzer upwards of $37 million per season. Things are going to get expensive for the Nationals, and with young pitchers like Joe Ross and A.J. Cole waiting in the wings, Zimmermann may be seen as expendable if the Nationals are confident enough in the rest of their staff this season.
Fans of both teams should not hold out too much hope for this deal to actually go down, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. This trade would fill a huge need for both teams involved, and both sides would likely at least listen should the phone ring. It is still more likely than not that both Chris Davis and Jordan Zimmermann finish the season wearing the same uniforms they started the it in, but it would not come as a complete surprise to this writer if a blockbuster deal involving them shakes up the playoff race.