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Nationals getting healthy, yet still searching on offense

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After getting Adam LaRoche back from a quad injury on Sunday, the Nationals are getting increasingly close to full strength.

Though Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t have a specific timeline to return, he will begin swinging a bat on Tuesday. Once he takes the field again – as long as no one else goes down in the interim – the Nats will be without only one member of their Opening Day lineup.

All season the theory has been that once the Nats get their guys back, the offense will start clicking. But when, exactly, will that happen?

Wilson Ramos has been back for three weeks and LaRoche for two games, but neither has proven a magical solution to their offensive woes. Even with a nearly complete lineup, the Nationals still can’t score.

In the month of May, Washington has scored 72 runs through 23 games and gone 9-14 during that stretch. As a team they’ve hit just .223 this month, worst in the majors. Their .289 on-base percentage, .334 slugging percentage and .623 OPS in May: all worst in baseball.

Their problems continued on Monday where they mustered just one hit through their first 6 1/3 innings against Nathan Eovaldi. LaRoche hit a two-run homer in the seventh for the Nationals’ only two runs in a 3-2 loss against the Marlins.

It was only LaRoche’s second game back from the disabled list, and he looks to be rounding into the form he exited with. The first baseman was the Nationals’ best hitter in April and could be heating back up. For now, as manager Matt Williams explained, they have to take the good and build on it.

“Some positive signs today, certainly, from [LaRoche]. Back in the lineup and got one today. Some positive signs coming… regarding our health, out of our training room, which is good,” Williams said.

The Nationals have lost five of six with an average of 1.8 runs in those losses. In those six games overall, the Nats’ pitching staff has allowed an average of 2.7 runs per game. Though their rotation hasn’t been as advertised this season, it has not been their fault. The offense simply isn’t giving them a chance to win.

Williams is aware of that and spoke to it after Monday’s game.

“They expect more from themselves. We’ve got to give ourselves a better chance. And everybody knows that. It’s well-documented. Everybody’s been talking about it.”

Tanner Roark was the latest Nationals’ pitcher to take a tough loss on Monday, despite going seven innings with three runs allowed against the sixth best offense in the majors. Afterwards he said the mood in the clubhouse is remaining positive as they continue to search for wins.

“We’re fine. We’re still having more fun than ever and that’s the biggest thing. Morale is up. It will turn around, we just gotta keep plugging away and not dwell on anything.”

As LaRoche continues to play and as Ramos keeps improving, the Nationals should start showing progress on offense. They were the seventh best offensive team in April, so they have proven very recently they are capable of scoring. But at some point very soon, they’ll need to begin showing it.

Gerrit Cole set to begin throwing program

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 24:  Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates sits in the dugout in the second inning during the game against the Houston Astros at PNC Park on August 24, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
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During the Pirates’ FanFest on Saturday, right-hander Gerrit Cole announced that he is back up to full health after being shut down with elbow inflammation in September. Per Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Cole said he’ll start a throwing program on Monday as he works on regaining his form for the 2017 season.

The 26-year-old pitched through 116 innings for the Pirates in 2016, delivering a 3.88 ERA and 2.5 WARP before landing on the disabled list in June with a triceps strain and again in August with elbow inflammation. It was a steep drop for the right-hander, who saw a considerable spike in his ERA and BB/9 rate and struggled to strike out batters at the 8.7 mark he managed in 2015.

The upside? Inflammation was the worst of Cole’s issues in 2016, and while the newfound health issues didn’t help his case for an extension, a more serious injury doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

The White Sox wanted Astros’ top prospects for Jose Quintana

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 27:  Jose Quintana #62 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field on August 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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The Astros, Braves and Nationals came sniffing around White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana during the Winter Meetings, but each appeared to find the Sox’ asking price well beyond what they were willing to give up for the starter. On Saturday, Peter Gammons revealed that the White Sox had floated Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker and Joe Musgrove as a possible return for Quintana.

It’s a strategy that worked well for Chicago in the past, most recently when they dealt Chris Sale to the Red Sox for Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, among others, and flipped Adam Eaton to the Nationals for a trio of pitching prospects. Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow didn’t appear eager to sacrifice some of his core talent to net a high-end starter, however, and told the Houston Chronicle’s Jake Kaplan as much on Wednesday:

We’re prepared to trade players to improve our club right now. […] We’re just not prepared to trade away players that are core to our production in 2017, and those are sometimes the players that are required to get these deals done.

While Lunhow was speaking specifically to the inclusion of third baseman Alex Bregman in future deals, it’s not unrealistic to think that top prospects Francis Martes and Kyle Tucker would also be considered instrumental to the Astros’ plans for the next few seasons.

Martes, 21, currently sits atop the team’s top prospect list on MLB.com. The right-hander blazed through his first full season in Double-A Corpus Christi, posting a 3.30 ERA and career-best 9.4 K/9 over 125 1/3 innings in 2016. Tucker, meanwhile, profiles as the Astros’ second-best prospect and made a successful jump to High-A Lancaster last season, slashing .339/.435/.661 in 69 PA. Rookie right-hander Joe Musgrove is the only player left off the top prospect list, but he got off to a decent start with the club in 2016 as well, going 4-4 with a 4.06 ERA and 3.44 K/BB rate in 62 innings during his first major league season.