Bryce Harper held a State of Bryce Harper press conference every spring. It occurred inside the cramped clubhouse in Viera, Florida, outside in the sunshine of a new facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, then, for the final time in 2018, in the bland press conference of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Harper threatened to walk out that day if asked about his pending free agency.
No matter the location, New York reporters showed. Year after year, they asked Harper about the prospect of playing for the Yankees -- he, apparently, was the only person to ever like Mickey Mantle -- in order to produce new churn about the possibility of Harper to New York. It happened so frequently, and irked him so much, Harper managed his time accordingly when a New York team was in Washington or he was in New York. He was not around during those times, if he could help it.
This is how it goes with the Yankees, a truth earned by decades of titles and lore, as the preeminent franchise in baseball. Big-name player A is attached to the Yankees by thread or whim because they are the Yankees. This process was kickstarted last weekend for Max Scherzer via a report which said New York would do “whatever it takes” to acquire Scherzer. Ignore it. He’s not being traded.
Scherzer crept back into the National League Cy Young race by pitching with a damaged face last week and showing supreme command his last six starts: 0.88 ERA, 41 innings pitched, 27 hits, .179 batting average against, 59 strikeouts, eight walks and 70 percent of his pitches thrown for strikes. He leads the National League in strikeouts and FIP. He’s third in walk-to-strikeout ratio, fourth in ERA, sixth in WHIP and 11th in batting average against. Like the Nationals, Scherzer recently turned into something to take further notice of.
And even if the recent team surge is a mirage, Scherzer is unlikely to be traded. He’s the black-and-blue face of the team. Multiple other parts -- an unextended Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, Yan Gomes, even Michael A. Taylor -- could be moved out for several prospects. Trading those players does not necessitate a rebuild or rule out Rendon’s return. Trading Scherzer with two years remaining on his deal means the spine of the team is removed when his contract cost is about to modestly recede as the competitive balance tax threshold goes up.
The lone wrinkle is Scherzer’s current service time status: At the close of 2019, he will hold 10 and five rights -- meaning he has been in the league at least 10 years and five with the same team -- enabling him to veto any trade. He can’t do that now. However, it’s hard to envision that has enough onus to send him anywhere this season.
So, believe the Yankees would want to acquire Scherzer. Then envision a line with 28 other teams, scoff and move on.
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WASHINGTON -- How’s this for a week? Five hours of rain delays, two postponements, Max Scherzer breaks his face, Max Scherzer dominates while on the mound with said broken face, a sweep, a rally, a bullpen blowup, a key roster piece dismissed, a Sunday extra-inning loss.
Welcome to the last week at Nationals Park, where the local nine have gone from finding their bearings to hopping into the fray. Washington went 4-2 against Philadelphia and Atlanta during the rain-stalled week, and it was lamentable. A perfect 6-0 was possible. A more likely 5-1 was quite attainable. But, 4-2 will be acceptable, especially in light of the early-season wandering through the darkness.
“Hey, we played two pretty good teams,” manager Davey Martinez said. “With everything said and done, we came out 6-4. We got a day off [Monday], which the boys need. We come back, we got Miami for three. So let's have that day off, come back, and play Tuesday.”
The National League East division has enjoyed convulsions even before the midpoint of the season. Atlanta stands 14 games over .500 and firmly in first. Philadelphia has caught all of the Nationals’ former ills -- injuries, bad bullpen pitching, poor base level play -- during its tumble. It has lost seven in a row, 16 of 22 and was swept by Miami over the weekend. New York fired its pitching coach, then went into Chicago and split a series from the first-place Cubs before manager Mickey Callaway swore at a reporter and a starting pitcher charged him. Philadelphia and New York start a four-game series Monday to determine which is more in disarray.
Washington, meanwhile, is 18-9 in its last 27. Baseball Reference says its odds to reach the playoffs went up 17.9 percent in the last seven days. The Nationals now have a 31 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to fivethirtyeight.com. Fangraphs paints a similar picture: It pegs Washington with a 28.8 percent chance to reach the postseason.
The season’s midpoint arrives Friday following three games in Miami. Washington will be in Detroit that night, taking on one of the league’s worst offenses, before another homestand opens against Miami. Woeful Kansas City follows. Those three clubs are math boosters. They could also deliver the final impetus for general manager Mike Rizzo to deploy a strategy he used last season: find early help to keep pushing.
June 18, 2018, Rizzo dealt for Kelvin Herrera to aid a not-quite-there bullpen which was at least an arm short. Herrera was pitching well when he arrived. The cost was three players, two of which remain in the minors, one of which is with the Royals this season.
Herrera failed in Washington, but the strategy was sound. Rizzo did not wait to fix the clear gap in his club -- yes, this seems an annual adjustment -- by lagging until the trade deadline. He instead aggressively attempted to solve a problem in a manner which carries risk and reward. The risk is overpaying because the work is being done well ahead of the market deadline. The reward is an extended benefit by acquiring help six weeks before running out of time to do so.
The Nationals remain at least one arm short in the bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal was released Sunday morning. Kyle Barraclough continues to watch from the bullpen railing. His right arm no longer hurts. It’s also not ready to throw pitches at full force. He remains weeks away from a return.
Until then, the Nationals have an open 40-man roster spot to tinker with. Among the numerous restrictions suffered because of Rosenthal’s failures was the inability to move a piece not on the 40-man easily up to the 25-man roster. His departure offers a clean entrance.
The last week provides ammunition for further moves. Even Martinez bent to the idea these recent seven days mattered. Two postponements stalled outcomes before Washington handled free-falling Philadelphia and tussled toe-to-toe with the Braves. Atlanta outscored the Nationals 20-16 in the three-game series. Three of those runs came because of a Rosenthal meltdown. In essence, it was a draw.
“We know we’re capable of keeping up with any of these guys,” Yan Gomes said. “We’ve said it since the beginning: Eighth inning, ninth inning comes around, we’re going to battle ‘til the end. We gave ourselves a chance to win [Sunday], it just didn’t come our way. But no shame, no hanging our heads. We’ve still got to look forward.”
Gomes went back to packing when he was done with reporters. Going on the road with all the equipment is a team which has proven its baby steps toward course correction were not a fluke. Three weeks of good play have been compiled. The two coming weeks offer another trampoline. Expect Rizzo to look for even more bounce.
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