The Nationals Acquire…Jonny Gomes?

The Washington Nationals became the first team to make a notable deal in the final week before the Major League Baseball trade deadline, but it was not one that many could have seen coming. Instead of making a move to bolster their minor league contingent by moving one of their aging veterans, the club did the opposite, trading two minor-leaguers for a struggling 30-year-old outfielder with one distinguishable tool.

The deal, which was completed by the club just before game time on Tuesday, sent minor leaguers Bill Rhinehart and Chris Manno to the Cincinnati Reds for journeyman Jonny Gomes.

Gomes is currently in the midst of his worst season since 2008 when he managed to play just 77 games with the Rays. In 265 plate appearances in 2011, the right-hander has hit just .211/.336/.339 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI. In the two previous seasons the free-swinging outfielder had managed to post a batting average in the .260’s, albeit with a similar on base percentage.

The California native’s real value comes in his ability to absolutely mash left-handed pitching. In his career Gomes has hit .281/.376/.510 against left-handers, and has posted an even more impressive .333/.439/.537 line against southpaws this season. His splits make him a perfect match to platoon with righty-specialist Laynce Nix. Despite struggling mighty against left-handers in 2011, Nix has hit .287/.321/.517 against righties this season while posting 12 homers in just 209 at bats.

This deal would make complete sense for the Nationals if they were gearing up for a playoff push to close out this season. By bolstering their lineup to provide a true offensive threat against left-handers in the outfield and in a way combine the best of both Nix and Gomes to create a better aggregate player, they would have put themselves in a strong position for a push. However at 49-53 and in last place in the National League East, the point of this move leaves many scratching their heads.

Under the hood, the trade could provide value this winter if Gomes signs elsewhere as a free agent. The 30-year-old projects to be a Type B free agent which means that the club could possibly receive a compensation pick after the first round if he signs a contract with another team. These picks are undoubtedly valuable but whoever they do draft will likely be further away from the majors than the pair of prospects the team traded to acquire the pick.

Rhinehart, while just in Double-A, was showing outstanding improvement, hitting .280/.375/.579 with 20 homes in just 88 games before the deal. He is, however. Manno, just 22, had collected 12 saves and posted a 1.04 ERA in 34 Single-A appearances. While his talent was promising, the club has a good deal of solid young relief pitching prospects.

For this deal to pay off, two things will have to happen over the course of the next six months. First, Gomes will have to continue to hit at a high level against left-handed pitching, and his presence will alleviate some pressure off of Laynce Nix, which will in turn help his performance against righties. Second, whomever the Nationals draft with their compensation pick (assuming it is one they score), will have to prove to be a Major League talent in the next three years, as that was likely the timeframe for both Manno and Rhinehart.