Dismal in D.C., the Nationals abruptly put the brakes on Bryce Harper trade inquiries on the last day of the deadline. But the issues in Washington, when added up, run deeper than its decision to stand down.

By Tom Verducci
July 31, 2018

The story of the baseball trade deadline, if it’s not the Pirates daring to trade prospects or the Brewers turning their infield into a facsimile of the Packers’ defensive front, is what didn’t happen. The Washington Nationals didn’t trade Bryce Harper. If you’re a fan of drama, or take a cold, hard look at this team, the most disappointing team in baseball disappointed again.

A clinician’s view of the symptoms would have prescribed change. The Nationals should have at least shopped him. They have played lousy baseball for four months and Harper is a (take your pick) .213 hitter or 0.4 WAR player who is a free agent at the end of the season.

GM Mike Rizzo, hoping to keep any shred of re-signing Harper, made the unusual move early in the day of announcing Harper “is not going anywhere”—but only after days of allowing his name to be in vigorous circulation.

So now the Nationals essentially announced that they believe in this group to rally for a playoff spot—except the one move they did make was to shed a veteran reliever, Brandon Kintzler, and when they needed a catcher, they watched the one they used to have, Wilson Ramos, go to one of the two teams they are chasing, the Philadelphia Phillies. Philadelphia’s acquisition of Ramos may stand as one of the most influential deals of the day. 

The Nationals have chemistry problems. The sum is less than the parts. Harper and Trea Turner have failed to hustle, Max Scherzer and the perpetually hurt Stephen Strasburg bickered in the dugout, and rookie manager Dave Martinez keeps talking about sunshine when he is standing in a downpour without an umbrella. When the team needed a clubhouse meeting because of indifferent play, it was left to a starting pitcher, Scherzer, to call it. That’s never a good sign in a game where everyday players must be the accountability police.

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But this deep into a season—the Nats had only 57 games remaining at the deadline—Washington has math problems, too. Such as:

* The Nationals’ rotation is perilously thin, which prevents teams from getting on the kind of run this team needs. Washington is 36-47 when anybody other than Scherzer starts—the equivalent of a 92-loss team on non-Scherzer days.

* The non-Scherzers are 5-21 since May 31.

* Strasburg’s last win was May 27. One start after coming back from a shoulder injury, he is back on the DL with an injury in which getting a shot in the neck was considered good news.

* The defense is 23rd in the majors in defensive runs saved.

* The Nationals are 19-31 in their last 50 games.

* They are 28-38 against winning teams, including 9-13 against the Phillies and Braves.

* To get to 88 wins, they need to finish 36-21, which would be better than they’ve played all year.

It doesn’t add up, but think of yourself in Rizzo’s position. You drafted Harper and have watched him develop. If you trade him, you are cutting a connection with a player that might not be repaired in free agency—although we know the bottom line for the next connection will be money, and not the kind of deferred money the Nationals gave Scherzer and Strasburg. You could not get the kind of package the Orioles got for Manny Machado because Harper’s production has been less than his reputation. You think the only shot you have of not consigning a $188 million team to the dustbin of classic underachievers is if Harper not only stays but also gets molten hot the way he is known to do.

Since the All-Star break, when Harper found balance and timing in his stroke at the Home Run Derby, he is slashing .286/.417/.536—a nine-game teaser of a sampler, but those were the last nine games before Rizzo had to decide whether to trade him.

The Nationals could have been okay without Harper the way the Mariners have been fine without Robinson Cano. They could have turned over centerfield, where Harper has been miscast, to Michael A. Taylor and Victor Robles, with Juan Soto and Adam Eaton on the corners. 

But the boldness of such a move—trading Harper, and either thinking you get to the postseason without him or give up on the idea—was just too big for Rizzo and the Nationals. The easy decision to make was to do nothing. The default decision now is the same as it’s been for four months: to keep waiting and waiting for a team that shouldn’t possibly be this bad to reverse course.

Now to the other Deadline Day highlights …

* Give the Pirates credit. In an age when teams over-protect prospects, Pittsburgh packaged outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Tyler Glasnow to get almost four years of control of Chris Archer, a durable, proven starter. Glasnow, who turns 25 next month, is a perpetual project who has been in the Pittsburgh system for seven years and still can’t command the baseball. But because he’s 6-foot-8 and throws hard, the scouting services are wowed by him. Archer has been overrated, a guy with a career ERA+ of 99 and an ERA over four over his past 84 starts, but lately has found the touch on his changeup, the pitch that will get the slider-happy Archer to the next level. Hitters are hitting .095 against it the past two months. A rotation of Archer, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Jose Musgrove and Ivan Nova can keep the Pirates in the playoff hunt.

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* The fallout will continue for the Astros. They took a huge risk and gambled with their community goodwill by trading for closer Roberto Osuna, who is serving the last days of a 75-game suspension for violating baseball’s domestic abuse policy. Of all the relievers that changed teams, this is the guy the Astros bank on? A guy charged two months ago with assaulting a woman? A guy who was never going to throw another pitch for the Blue Jays, where the GM, Ross Atkins, said, “We ultimately work for the fans”? Houston traded for toxicity – manager A.J. Hinch will have to call a team meeting upon Osuna’s arrival, a rarity upon a trade acquisition - and Jeff Luhnow looked silly talking about his team’s “zero tolerance” policy, as if assault is tolerable when in the employ of another team.

And the toxicity is not going away. The criminal matter is still pending, and details or evidence that might emerge could blow up the issue further. And if you’re an Astros’ fan, do you cheer for this guy simply for wearing the laundry?

* The Brewers have been one of the best defensive teams in baseball, largely on the work of their outfielders. But this infield? Really? Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop, Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar? If they hit their weight they’ll be okay.

* The Dodgers got even deeper. Brian Dozier over Logan Forsythe is an upgrade that gives the NL’s most home-run dependent team even more pop. And reliever John Axford, while not having a superlative season for Toronto, is at least the kind of power righthanded arm they sought. Axford tends to be all over with his 96 mph fastball. Watch the Dodgers turn him into a high fastball specialist.

* The Indians (just 18-26 against winning teams) have the easiest path to the postseason of any team in baseball, but Leonys Martin is the best they could do when they needed an outfielder? Martin is useless against lefthanders, is hitting .154 with runners in scoring position and has never started a postseason game. He’s fine enough as outfield depth, but does nothing to get the Cleveland closer to the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros, their real measuring sticks.

* Here you go, the Verlander Rankings: the players who changed teams thus far that most likely will influence the outcome of the World Series:

1. Manny Machado to the Dodgers

2. Brad Hand to the Indians

3. Cole Hamels to the Cubs

4. Zach Britton to the Yankees

5. Nathan Eovaldi to the Red Sox

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