It's never too early to start thinking about deals, even if major trades rarely happen before July. Let's start with an obvious hole.
The need: A closer for the Nationals
The Washington Nationals need a closer. Heck, some would argue they need a whole new bullpen. Entering Thursday, they ranked 27th in the majors in bullpen ERA, 20th in win probability added and 16th in strikeout percentage minus walk percentage, while five different relievers have picked up saves. It's enough to make a modern manager's head explode.
With a commanding lead in the terrible NL East, the Nationals have time to sort through the guys on the roster. Veterans Shawn Kelley and Joe Blanton have each surrendered six home runs in 23⅔ combined innings, and if those two don't figure things out, the Nationals will be looking for more than just a closer. One possible addition: Erick Fedde, the 2014 first-round pick, who has been moved to a relief role at Double-A Harrisburg.
Still, the surest move that will happen this season is the Nationals acquiring some relief help.
Let's look at some of the options:
3.21 ERA | .208/.288/.321 | 33.9% strikeout rate | 10.2% walk rate
His command has deserted him a bit the past couple of seasons, but Robertson still owns an elite strikeout rate, and he's a proven closer with playoff experience. He is signed through 2018, making $12 million this year and $13 million next year, so if the White Sox want a better prospect in return, they'd probably have to include some cash to offset the salary.
3.38 ERA | .217/.254/.500 | 20.6% strikeout rate | 4.8% walk rate
Herrera is off to an odd start: His strikeout rate is down 10 percent from last season, and he has already allowed four home runs. He's averaging 97.6 mph on the fastball, so although he's no longer hitting 100 mph as he was a few seasons ago, his velocity appears to be fine. He is arbitration-eligible next season and becomes a free agent after 2018.
1.62 ERA | .279/.372/.382 | 16.7% strikeout rate | 9.0% walk rate
The lefty was one of baseball's best setup men from 2013 to 2015 and took over as the Pittsburgh closer last year after Mark Melancon was traded to the Nationals. But Watson hasn’t been as dominant in 2016 and 2017: He served up 10 home runs last year, and has a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio in '17. He’s a free agent at season's end.
1.88 ERA | .165/.260/.282 | 32.0% strikeout rate | 9.3% walk rate
Hand isn't San Diego's closer, but he has developed into one of the most dominant relievers in the game the past couple of seasons after struggling as a starter with the Marlins. The emergence of Jose Torres in the Padres' bullpen means they have three outstanding lefties, so they could cash in on Hand while his stock his sky-high. He is making just $1.3 million this year and is under team control through 2019.
Best trade match: Kansas City
I'd say Watson is out because of his so-so numbers, although the Nats could look at him as a setup guy. Robertson's salary complicates a possible deal, and Hand -- he's the guy I'd go after -- doesn’t have that proven-closer label the Nationals likely prefer. Herrera makes sense, and there's even the possibility of working Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain into a bigger deal.
Herrera isn't in the Aroldis Chapman-Andrew Miller class, and no, the Nationals won't trade outfield prospect Victor Robles, one of the top prospects in the minors. Would the Nats consider dealing Juan Soto, an 18-year-old outfielder who is hitting .360 with more walks than strikeouts in low Class A ball? The upside on him suddenly looks very high, but flags fly forever, and the window with Bryce Harper might just be 2017 and 2018.
The trade: Soto and a second-tier pitching prospect for Herrera and Cain. As good as Soto is, he's also just 18 and a few years from the majors. He's probably a left fielder in the long run since he lacks a prototypical right fielder's arm. The Nationals make a huge upgrade in center field with Cain (who is a free agent) to replace the injured Adam Eaton and acquire Herrera for this season and next. The Royals get a premium hitting prospect in a system that lacks one, which they'll need as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas hit free agency.