D.C. in the NLCS? Hobbled Nats face great expectations at trade deadline

Avoiding another first-round exit in the playoffs could hinge on adding another arm, especially if Stephen Strasburg's health is in question. Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

With a mammoth lead in a putrid division, the Washington Nationals are sitting pretty -- at least as far as making the playoffs is concerned. As for the whole advancing thing, that's another story, a story with an ending that could very well hinge on the health of Stephen Strasburg.

As of now, the Nats are saying that Strasburg, who exited Sunday's start early because of nerve impingement in his right forearm, doesn't have any structural damage and might be fine to make his next scheduled start on Saturday. If that's the case, and if Strasburg can manage to stay healthy down the stretch, it's a huge boost to Washington's chances of winning a playoff series for the first time since coming to D.C.

If he can't, then the Nationals' odds undoubtedly take a hit. Regardless, Strasburg's news raises the following question: With five days left before the trade deadline, what (if anything) does general manager Mike Rizzo need to do to get his club over the hump?

Since the team moved to D.C., Rizzo and the Nationals have been bounced in the National League Division Series three times in three tries. Each time -- in 2012, 2014 and 2016 -- they came in as favorites, and each time they went home as shell-shocked losers. Although a ring is always the goal, this year there seems to be an extra sense of urgency in the District.

For starters, franchise face Bryce Harper becomes a free agent after the 2018 season, and he might or might not stick around. With a Cy Young front-runner (Max Scherzer) and no fewer than four position players who merit legit MVP consideration (Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman), this year's squad, which currently owns the second-best record in the NL, is arguably the best Nationals team yet.

In other words, anything less than an NL Championship Series appearance will be a disappointment.

To that end, Rizzo addressed his club's most glaring need by acquiring relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the A's earlier this month. Although the move beefs up a Washington bullpen that has been the worst in the majors for most of the season, and although Madson and Doolittle both have prior experience finishing games, neither was pitching the ninth inning in Oakland at the time of the trade, and neither is a no-brainer closer. That said, Doolittle has been solid as Dusty Baker's closer so far, converting both of his save opportunities, and Madson has been airtight, tossing three scoreless innings in three appearances.

"We feel comfortable where we're at," Rizzo said of his relief corps prior to Tuesday's series opener against the Brewers. "That doesn't mean we're done. We feel comfortable with the acquisition. We think that we've stabilized the bullpen. We got two reliable arms at the back end of the game."

That isn't to say that Rizzo is opposed to adding someone else from a pool of available arms that includes, among others, Detroit closer Justin Wilson and Philly setup man Pat Neshek. But the price would have to be right.

"If something came up that we see value in that makes sense, we certainly would think about addressing it, but we feel good about where we're at right now," Rizzo said.

Despite the news about Strasburg and the presence of some big-name arms who have been the subject of nonstop trade buzz (Sonny Gray, Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish), Rizzo doesn't sound like someone who is desperate to make major additions to his starting five, either.

"I feel great about the rotation," Washington's GM said of a group that entered Tuesday with the third-lowest ERA in the majors. "About 28 other teams would feel really good about this rotation."

It's a rotation that is anchored by Scherzer and Strasburg and features veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez, whose 2.83 ERA speaks to his sneaky-good season. Then again, it's a rotation that recently lost Joe Ross to Tommy John surgery, is missing the standout 2016 version of Tanner Roark and is lacking depth following a December trade in which Rizzo sent three top pitching prospects to Chicago in exchange for outfielder Adam Eaton.

Perhaps most importantly, it's a rotation that, in two of Washington's three postseason appearances, has been without Strasburg's services. For what it's worth, the prospect of another October without Strasburg -- a possibility underscored by his most recent health hiccup -- isn't enough to force Rizzo's hand, at least not yet. Said the Nationals GM: "We're not actively pursuing a starter."

Standing pat (if in fact that's what Washington does) would be a luxury that Rizzo can afford, given that his team enjoys a 12.5-game lead in the NL East, just like he can afford to pretend that Washington's lineup hasn't been decimated by injuries.

Leadoff hitter Trea Turner has missed one month and will likely miss another with a broken wrist. Left fielder Jayson Werth has been out since early July with a broken foot. Center fielder Michael Taylor, filling in since Eaton blew out his knee in late April, has a strained oblique. Reserve outfielder Chris Heisey is dealing with a groin problem.

It has gotten so bad that during his pregame news conference Tuesday, after being barraged with question after question about the medical status of all his ailing charges, Baker quipped, "You guys think I'm Dr. Baker, but I'm not. I'm the manager."

The good news for Dr. Baker is his offense is stacked, his lead is large, and with the playoffs more than two months away, there's plenty of time for his patients to heal.