Thursday July 28th, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman patiently took questions Wednesday night about the Washington Nationals' second-half slump, and, then after his giving his final answer, he perked up with a question of his own for the reporters standing around his locker.

"So, why wasn't B.J. Upton in the (Tampa Bay) lineup tonight?'' Zimmerman asked.

The Rays were giving Upton, 26, a night off because they felt he needed to rest, but, as Sunday's non-waiver trade deadline approaches, Zimmerman's question is pertinent. Any time a player is not in the lineup it fans the speculation that a trade is just about done. And, the Nationals, who need a centerfielder, preferably one that can bat leadoff, have been linked to a trade for Upton.

"It's kind of like our fantasy football,'' Zimmerman says.

At a time when teams are becoming either buyers or sellers, the Nationals, who have plummeted to their familiar position of last place in the National League East, are taking a middle-of-the-road approach.

"We're buyers and sellers,'' Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo says. "If we think there's a good trade out there that helps this team, we'll make it.''

In other words, they aren't holding a fire sale to save money. They aren't trying to trade an unhappy player. They'd like to get a centerfielder that can bat leadoff, but with Roger Bernadina, the answer could be in their system. Like most teams, the Nationals want to add pitching, especially at the top of the rotation.

"I told my guys (before the game Wednesday) that I'm comfortable with what we have now,'' manager Davey Johnson said after the Nationals were beaten by the Florida Marlins 7-5. "But our organization is looking to get better, and that's no different than any other organization.

"We have teams that are interested in our players and some minor leaguers who could be ready to play. The older players have more to worry about than the younger guys.''

Two weeks ago, the Nationals were a .500 team and coming out of the All-Star break with a chance to move from the fringe to the middle of the NL wild card race. But then they went 3-6 on a road trip to Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles to start the second half, and are now trying to dig themselves out of last place.

Even so, the strategy before Sunday's deadline hasn't changed. Rizzo has options for trades, but no pressure to make them.

"We're in it to win,'' Rizzo says. "We want to win every game.''

Then, a few minutes later, he says, "Definitely, every deal we consider has to work with the long-term vision of the club. We will make a trade if it improves our club. I think we are going to be busy this weekend.''

He might not come up with one deal. But, he could make a trade for the future, or one that helps this season and possibly next, such as the deal he made Tuesday when he upgraded his bench by acquiring Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jonny Gomes, 30, and having him replace 43-year-old Matt Stairs and his .154 average.

When Johnson took over as manager on June 26, a right-handed power hitter was near the top of his wish list, along with a pitcher that could work in long relief. Gomes, who has 115 home runs and a .330 on-base percentage, is capable of coming off the bench and playing left or rightfield, giving Washington more double-switch flexibility than Stairs.

Gomes is also protection for the Nationals if they trade utility player Jerry Hairston Jr. And if Washington doesn't sign Gomes as a free agent after the season, it will get an extra pick in the amateur draft in June. "We might keep him or it could mean we get a solid draft pick,'' Rizzo said.

The Nationals have players that are drawing interest from contending teams. This weekend, Rizzo might be able to sort through offers for starters Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny. Teams could also ask about setup guy Tyler Clippard, the Nationals' lone All-Star, or check the price tag on a cheaper option, such as inconsistent reliever Todd Coffey.

Closer Drew Storen has been linked to any team that has a centerfielder, including Tampa Bay and Upton, the Houston Astros and Michael Bourn, the Los Angeles Angels and Pete Bourjos and the Minnesota Twins and Denard Span. The Twins are looking for a long-term answer at closer and Span, though he's been sidelined with a concussion, is a leadoff batter.

Media reports suggest that the Nationals would be willing to trade shortstop Ian Desmond, who has regressed offensively to .229 after averaging .269 last season. Rizzo has heard the speculation, but says it is not true.

"That never came from me,'' Rizzo said. "We are not trading Ian Desmond.''

That statement could be a ploy to drive the price up on Desmond. The St. Louis Cardinals made similar statements two weeks ago about outfielder Colby Rasmus, but traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays Wednesday.

Why trade the 25-year-old Desmond? The Nationals have a red-hot second baseman, Steve Lombardozzi, at Triple-A Syracuse (N.Y.), who by all accounts, is heading for a solid big-league career. Washington could trade Desmond, put Lombardozzi at second and move Danny Espinosa, who has 17 home runs going into Thursday and is a candidate for the NL's Rookie of the Year, back to shortstop, his natural position.

Lombardozzi, 22, is the son of former big-league infielder Steve, a second baseman with the 1987 World Series champion Twins, and a switch-hitter who has hit .314 with an OPS of .816 combined at Double-A and Triple-A.

Of Lombardozzi, Rizzo would only say, "I don't know what we are going to do with him at the end of the year.''

The players, meanwhile, are aware they are being rumored about.

"I just play hard because it is out of my control,'' Desmond says. "I try my best not to pay attention (to the speculation), but word gets out. We have families and friends and they tell you. What can I do? You can't help but hear it.''

Storen agrees. The Nationals made him a first-round pick out of Stanford in 2009 and he signed immediately and worked his way up through minors. He took over as closer last season when Washington traded Matt Capps to the Twins and this year has converted 25 of 28 save opportunities.

Now Storen might already be traded himself. He wants to stay in Washington, but he understands.

"It's a compliment that other teams might want me,'' Storen says. "I understand it is a business. Mike has a job to do to make this team better. And, if that involves me leaving, that's out of my control. It is what it is.''

Marquis, an established veteran starter who has been a productive this year, going 8-5 with a 3.95 ERA, says, "I don't worry about getting traded. Whatever uniform I'm wearing, I will try to pitch well and win. I just hope it is in a Nationals uniform this year and for years to come. This is where I want to be.''

In the midst of all this trade talk, the Nationals have been in such a funk that on Wednesday Johnson had a closed-door meeting with the team. He told them to expect lineup changes because he thinks the regulars have been tired and that he was going to use his 25-man roster.

The only question now is: Which players who heard that speech will still be on the roster this time next week?

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