Nations: Window open for Orioles, Nationals

This should be an incredibly interesting week for the Beltway’s baseball fans.

Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline is fast approaching — Thursday is the last day to swing a deal without having to pass players through revocable waivers — and both the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles are right in the thick of the races and leading the respective divisions.

Now, right now, fans should be salivating over the potential impact acquisitions both these franchises can make happen to solidify their places in MLB’s postseason. Both the O’s and Nats are good, but this is the last, best chance to patch whatever holes seem to have developed over the first half of the season.

So far … nothing.

Sure, there are rumors, especially where the Orioles are concerned. Baltimore has been prominently linked to the top starting pitchers rumored to be in the market, namely Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester and (maybe) Tampa Bay Rays righty David Price. Those are both ready-made aces, there for the taking — and a hefty tab in prospects.

Of the two, Lester is easily the more attainable. Boston has opened for business as deadline sellers, and their ace is having a career year at just the right time. This is a walk year for Lester, and any team that lands his services is strictly getting a two-month rental before he tests the free agency waters. Multiple reports have the Red Sox looking for one impact prospect and some lesser talent as the starting point for a package. Baltimore would likely have to pay the division rival premium to get Lester, but since it is a short-term deal it probably wouldn’t require the O’s to empty the farm. Baltimore does have a healthy prospect base these days, especially with arms in the upper echelons of the minors.

Price, potentially an even better pickup, is getting more expensive by the day as the streaking Rays continue to win ballgames. Price has an extra year of control, which also drives up Tampa Bay’s asking price, and the Rays would have little inclination to deal within the American League East without a truly awesome haul of prospects.

Another possibility is Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, who is also having a terrific year on a terrible team. Hamels comes with a hefty long-term financial commitment, although that apparently hasn’t stopped the team from asking for an extravagant return in trade.

That leaves Lester as the top target, or does it? The vibe I get from reading the constant updates on http://www.mlbrumors.com is that the Orioles simply won’t part with their prized prospects, even for a real difference maker like Lester. Why? As it stands, it seems the O’s front office values the future retention and cost control of young hurlers like Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey more highly than a pitcher who can potentially greatly help this team, right now.

Would a rotation currently consisting of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Gausman, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez be greatly improved by adding Lester at the top? You bet it would.

There are secondary holes to fill, as well, especially at catcher with Matt Wieters out for the season. Minnesota Twins backstop Kurt Suzuki, having an All-Star season but also headed to free agency, is rumored to be available. The O’s reportedly have no interest.

The O’s entered Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Angels with a 2 ½-game lead in the AL East, with Toronto (also rumored to be after Lester), the New York Yankees and even the Rays still looking to make a second-half push. None of those teams are particularly imposing, which may be what Baltimore is banking on this season.

This is a window, make no mistake — it’s a rare season when both the Red Sox and Yankees are this flawed, and neither Tampa Bay nor Toronto has picked up the slack. The division is there for the taking, maybe even without raiding the farm system for some big-time help. Getting to the playoffs isn’t the ultimate goal, though — winning in the playoffs should be, and right now Baltimore is sorely lacking a real, honest-to-goodness ace at the top of the rotation to match up with the best.

Washington, by comparison, has an abundance of potential No. 1 starters — even if they haven’t pitched that way this season. Getting Doug Fister in an off-season trade with the Detroit Tigers has proven to be every bit the steal it was called at the time, Tanner Roark has been outstanding and Jordan Zimmermann gives the Nats a chance to win every fifth day. The two pitchers supposed to be at the top of that group, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, haven’t pitched to their previous levels but you wouldn’t mind seeing either one of those hurlers on the mound in a pivotal playoff game. The Nats entered Tuesday night with the NL’s best team earned run average (3.11)

The Nats could use a bat to bolster their pedestrian offense (.250 batting average). The only real glaring hole, outside of potential star outfielder Bryce Harper’s lengthy injury absence, is at second base. Danny Espinosa has been a drag on the offense, and moving Anthony Rendon from third base to that spot made perfect sense until Ryan Zimmerman hit the disabled list again last week. Zimmerman has been somewhat brittle, and finding another option at second might be the best move Washington can make. That could be a tall order, considering that many rival contenders are looking for the same thing.

Washington headed into Tuesday’s game at Miami with a scant half-game lead over the irrepressible Atlanta Braves, and a Wild Card is no sure thing for the runner-up. The Nationals still look like a team built for the postseason with that rotation, but getting there needs to be a priority right now and finding a way to put a few more runs on the board needs to happen.

The Nats’ window is right now, too, and worrying about tomorrow by hoarding prospects is no way to win today. If ever there’s a moment to be all-in for both the Beltway franchises, that time is now.

Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com