In a baseball year that was about ending droughts, the Washington Nationals had to sit back and wonder why they were left out.

They have a good team. They won 95 games, the third time in the last five years they’ve won at least that many (no one else has done it more than twice).

All it got them was another chance at October frustration. The Nationals didn’t win a postseason series. The Nationals have never won a postseason series.

You want to talk about droughts? That’s a drought.

They can ask why, or they can do something about it. They can ask why, or they can ask the question Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein famously posed after his July trade for Aroldis Chapman, per

“If not now, when?”

Now is when for the Nationals, and it’s clear they understand it. A National League executive who knows the Nationals well said early in the offseason they would make Chris Sale a priority, and sure enough, reporting by FanRag‘s Jon Heyman and Fox Sports‘ Ken Rosenthal suggests they are among the front-runners for the Chicago White Sox ace. Rosenthal also reported on Twitter the Nationals are among at least two teams with a four-year, $60 million offer for Mark Melancon, the closer they acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in July.

Then there’s Andrew McCutchen.

This is the time for the Pittsburgh Pirates to trade their star center fielder, and this is the time for the Nationals to go get him.

Trea Turner did a fine job in center field the second half of the season, but the best way for the Nationals to make the most of his talent is to put Turner back at shortstop. Bryce Harper could move to center field if the Nationals acquired another corner guy, but Harper is best if he’s playing one of the corner spots.

McCutchen isn’t the all-around threat he was in 2013, when he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player and helped end Dusty Baker’s tenure with the Cincinnati Reds (after McCutchen‘s Pirates beat Baker’s Reds in the NL Wild Card Game). But his subpar 2016 ended with enough improvement in August and September to convince scouts he can still be a star.

He’d be a fit in the Nationals clubhouse, and he’d be a great fit in the Nationals lineup, a right-handed force for Baker to mix with the left-handed hitting Harper and Daniel Murphy in the middle of the order.

As‘s Jayson Stark reported, the Pirates and Nationals “ramped up” talks about a McCutchen deal last week. Stark suggested pitchers Joe Ross and Reynaldo Lopez as possible Pittsburgh targets in a deal. Other speculation has centered on 19-year-old outfield prospect Victor Robles, who Rosenthal identified as a Pirates target in a possible Pirates-Nationals McCutchen deal that fell through last summer.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is notoriously hesitant to part with his best prospects. Rizzo has shown a willingness to make trades—he got Melancon from the Pirates and has made other deals for Gio Gonzalez and Denard Span in recent years—but he has also been conscious of the future.

The future is fine, and the Nationals’ future remains bright, but they also understand they have a window to win big that might not remain open that long. Harper and Murphy have two years to go to free agency, and while ace Max Scherzer is signed through 2021, he turns 33 next July.

In other words, if not now, when?

Like Sale, McCutchen has the added attraction of carrying a reasonable contract. That’s significant for a Nationals team that has more than $100 million committed to six players for 2017. Sale would add just $12 million to the 2017 payroll, a true bargain for a left-handed ace.

McCutchen will make $14 million in 2017, with a club option for $14.5 million the following year.

As I wrote last month, he’s a bargain if he comes anywhere near the form that put him in the top five in MVP voting four straight years from 2012-15. The risk would come if last year’s decline was a sign McCutchen‘s age (30) has already robbed him of the speed that made him such a dynamic force with the Pirates.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told me he expects “he’s going to come to camp and be Andrew McCutchen again,” but Huntington also admitted the Pirates have had discussions about whether to move McCutchen out of center field. They don’t totally agree with the defensive metrics that painted McCutchen as the worst defensive center fielder in the game (as detailed in the column I did on McCutchen last month), but scouts said the eye test also showed a decline in his defensive skills.

The Nationals would be betting on a bounce-back, but it would be a smart and worthy bet. And a timely bet, too.

After all, if not now, when?


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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