WASHINGTON -- The Nationals are in first place, six games ahead of the Marlins and Mets in the National League East, and they'd like nothing more than to increase that lead after the All-Star break.
Before the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Nationals will look to improve their bullpen, and maybe even add a bat to the starting lineup. If they do add a position player, it would likely be a corner outfielder. That would also mean that Bryce Harper would move to center field, a position he has played 121 times in his career. The last time he played the position was last year.
"We have some areas we can improve on, but overall, we feel good about the team that we have," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We like the feel and the chemistry on the ballclub. I want to see us be consistent and play good fundamental baseball. Defensively, we made a lot of improvements this year, so we are giving ourselves a chance to win baseball games. We are a pitching, defense, athleticism-type of organization. That's how we win our games. We have to continue to play that way."
The Nationals are trying to acquire bullpen help. As one baseball source put it, "Bullpen help is the top priority before the Deadline." The Nats have interest in Yankees relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, who are dominating left-handed relievers. The Yanks are likely looking to replenish their farm system, so it wouldn't come as a surprise if they asked for prospects such as Lucas Giolito and Trea Turner.
The source also said the Nationals could be looking for another bat. Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran and Reds slugger Jay Bruce have been mentioned as players who could help improve the Nats' offense short term. They are both free agents after the 2016 season.
Beltran is one of the best October players in baseball history, hitting .332 with 16 home runs and 40 RBIs in 52 postseason games. Bruce had his best years under Baker, but he doesn't have the postseason pedigree that Beltran has. The Reds are also looking to replenish the farm system.
WHAT ARE THEY PLAYING FOR?
The Nationals want to win the World Series for the first time since coming to D.C., after the 2004 season. The Nats thought they had teams that were good enough to win World Series titles in '12 and '14, but they couldn't get past the NL Division Series in both years. The team hopes its luck changes under Baker.
THE ROAD AHEAD
After the All-Star break, Washington plays 17 of the next 26 games at Nationals Park. Four of the Nationals' six opponents -- the Pirates, Dodgers, Giants and Indians -- have records over .500. The other two -- the Padres and the D-backs -- are having disappointing seasons, but San Diego showed it is not easy picking by splitting a four-game series against Washington last month.
First baseman Ryan Zimmerman is on the 15-day disabled list for the sixth year in a row, this time for a rib cage injury. He is also off to the worst start of his career. Once he comes back, Baker expects him to be the run-producer that he was in the past. If he continues to slump, however, it wouldn't come as a surprise if Zimmerman is in a platoon situation with Clint Robinson at first base.
PROSPECTS TO WATCH
It has been a disappointment at the top of the batting order. Nats leadoff hitters, which included Ben Revere and Michael Taylor, were batting a combined .211 with an on-base percentage of .255. Turner, the No. 2 prospect in Washington's system according to MLB.com, is having his best year as a professional. He could see time at the leadoff spot. Turner has experience in center field in the Minors, but Baker is not quick to give up on Revere, who has a good track record in the big leagues.
Domination is the best way to describe right-hander Reynaldo Lopez's performance this season. Check out these numbers: In 16 starts, Lopez, the Nationals' No. 5 prospect, has a combined 109 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings with a 3.19 ERA for Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. Lopez could be on the fast track to the big leagues. While Washington sees him as a starter long term, he could be a perfect fit in the bullpen later this season.
Bill Ladson has covered the Nationals/Expos for MLB.com since 2002 and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.