Ryan Wormeli: Hello Cam! It's been a few weeks, and that means it's time for another debate. This is one that's been had in our newsroom before, and a few other national publications have started asking similar questions. Should the Nationals consider trading Bryce Harper? You and I actually brought this up as a possible topic in the offseason, with the caveat that it only really works if the Nats are struggling. We didn't expect that to be the case, but here we are in early July and the team sits below-.500.
So, the initial question is two-fold. First off, is there a point where the Nats should even consider trading their biggest star? And, if there is, how close are we to reaching it?
Cam Ellis: I can't imagine that the Nats' brass are too thrilled that heading into their week of national spotlight, most of the conversation surrounding the team is rooted in the struggles of their cornerstone and *extremely Darren Rovell voice* most marketable players.
Quick aside: We've already touched on what's been plaguing him and how the numbers have always pointed towards a positive regression sooner or later. There's no point in relitigating his early season struggles; he's had a bad year. Bryce Harper is not, though, a mendoza-line hitter, regardless of what his first-half results have been. Even if his highs never catch up to his lows in 2018, it's hard to imagine that he stays this bad for this long.
To answer your first question - yes, that point absolutely exists. Whether or not you think there's a realistic chance Harper signs long-term in D.C., Rizzo would be doing the team, the fans, and his job security a disservice if he doesn't have those conversations. Sports are, at the end of the day, a business and if the smartest business decision involves trading Bryce Harper, you trade Bryce Harper. Manny Machado was the face of the Orioles' future until he wasn't.
Secondly, I don't think the Nats are that close to that point. I don't think they should be, either. Being in third place -- seven games out of first -- at the All-Star game is certainly disheartening given this team's expectations, but it's not insurmountable. Trading Harper in the next month would be punting on 2018, and I don't think you punt on 2018 with a team this talented. Is that naive?
Ryan: I don't think so, and I do want to clarify this as a discussion about what should happen, and not what could. I don't think there's even a remote chance that this happens. It just doesn't seem like prematurely breaking up a star-filled team like this one is in their DNA, and I can't exactly fault them for that. Plus, pointing to the major injury struggles is legitimate, and provides an easy excuse for management when evaluating the rocky first half of 2018. Rizzo himself has said he views returners like Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton as pseudo midseason acquisitions, so this team rightfully expects to be much better than .500 post-All-Star break.
Still, it's hard to stomach the idea of a guy as legendarily talented as Harper walking for nothing. Yes, the Nats still *can* win, but is it likely? Just making the Wild Card Game probably isn't worthwhile, since a one-game playoff is essentially a coin flip. The Braves are young, and we've talked before about how we expect them to fall off a bit, but they are still supremely talented and will probably make valuable additions of their own before the trade deadline. Not to mention, that seven-game lead with three months left is nothing to sneeze at. The Nats may have an easy schedule moving forward, but the Braves (and Phillies) will have plenty of chances to beat up on the Mets and Marlins too.
Cam: Yeah, that’s assuming the Phils and Braves continue their pace, which I’m skeptical about. But I’ve been saying that for 2 months now, so who really knows.
I think it’s impossible to answer this without knowing Harper’s interest in staying here long term. So with that in mind - what does a trade for Bryce Harper look like? And who off the top of your head would be buyers?
Ryan: That's definitely a big part of the equation. It's easy to say the team should trade a departing free agent if they are getting back multiple elite prospects, but I don't know how realistic that is given the rental nature of a trade for Harper, coupled with his struggles at the plate this year. I trust most GM's to understand he's been more unlucky than bad, but his numbers would certainly be held against him during trade negotiations, and it would be highly disappointing to sell low on a guy like Harper.
It's tough to narrow down the potentially interested teams for Harper. The Phillies are one obvious team with a need at corner OF, but we can almost certainly rule out a trade within the NL East. The Brewers already have a glut of outfielders, and the Yankees and Red Sox are also already stacked at the positions Harper would play. The Angels would love to team Harper with Trout, but Calhoun and Upton are the least of their problems right now. The Astros, believe it or not, could use an update in left field, but they've already got a future OF stud in Kyle Tucker waiting for his opportunity.
That leaves three or four real possibilities. I don't think the Dodgers are a fit, but they have a quality farm system to draw from and are proven to be aggressive. My three favorite matches are the Indians (running away with their division, but still need more talent to match up with the Yankees/Red Sox/Astros triumvirate), Mariners (have a great record, but a bit of smoke-and-mirrors with their record in one-run games, and they have plenty of incentive to break playoff drought), and the Diamondbacks (who have some appealing pitching prospects, are trying to hold off the Dodgers in the NL West, have expressed interest in acquiring a star position player, and have a real need in the outfield).
Obviously, we can't know Harper's actual interest in staying, but I have to believe the Nats will at least be strongly considered come October. If they do pursue a trade, though, what sort of package do you need to see in return in order to feel comfortable? And how likely do you think it is that a team would offer it?
Cam: I think that regardless of Harper's value, it's a bad time to be selling off major talent. Just look at what the Nats had to give up for Kelvin Herrera. Having two fringe Top-10 prospects headline the return is a far cry from even two years ago, when teams were trading their top prospects for mid-season relief rentals.
Obviously Harper would still garner more of a return than even the best bullpen options, but the market is strongly learning towards buyers right now. If I'm the Nats, I don't pick up the phone unless the other team is starting the offer with a bonafide player and a Top 2 prospect. His impending free agency probably means you can't get full, farm systyem-gutting value that stars like Harper usually go for, but trading away a team cornerstone without getting a potential one in return isn't something Mike Rizzo is going to do.
Ultimately I don't think there's any real chance the Nats trade Harper this year. I think the front office is too invested in this core's championship window and throwing in the towel of all towels this year wouldn't make much sense. I think even if the Nats are nine, 10 games back at the All-Star break, they don't sell.
Ryan: I'm inclined to agree with you. I don't foresee any scenario in which the Nats elect to trade Harper. Part of that is what a sea change it would represent; it's never been in their nature to give up on a potentially great season, and I have to believe they still think 2018 can be great.
It's also important to note that they surely plan on making a competitive offer to keep Harper in D.C. long term. There's an intrinsic value to be had in terms of not uprooting Harper in the middle of the season, in addition to the exclusive negotiating window they'll enjoy. If there was a less than zero chance of keeping Harper beyond 2018 (think Manny Machado in Baltimore) then it would be more reasonable to think the front office should take an objective look at the roster/standings in making this decision. The fact is, though, that there is a real legitimate chance that the Nats keep their superstar in town, even if it's not currently clear who the favorite will be come the offseason. And not trading him away for two months could (emphasis on COULD) end up being the difference in not seeing him walk this winter.
If the Nats do hold onto him, yet fail to make a World Series run, it will be disappointing, and there will surely be a segment of fans who retroactively complain that the front office failed to read the tea leaves. Still, there's something to be said for being aggressive and just plain going forward. If you told me three months ago that we'd be having this conversation in July, I would have laughed you out of the room. While the Nats have struggled, they just haven't been bad enough to make such a drastic move.
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