Will they or won’t they? That was the question hanging over the MLB trade deadline as the Nationals mulled moving superstar Bryce Harper. Reports late Monday night from MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes, and the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal all suggested that the team was open to dealing the face of its franchise amid a disappointing 2018 season for both him and the club. But with mere hours to go before the deadline, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo doused the flames Tuesday morning, telling Janes, “Bryce is not going anywhere.”
It’s easy to understand why Rizzo and company wanted to hang on to Harper even despite the abrupt signal that maybe they wouldn’t. Despite a long slump that has Harper’s batting average sitting at an unsightly .220, he still leads the National League in walks with 84 and ranks second in homers with 25. Plus he’s, you know, Bryce Harper, former MVP and still just 25 years old—a phenom who, if and when he gets hot, is arguably the best non-Mike Trout player alive and more than capable of carrying a team into October.
That’s not something you lightly give up, even with the Nationals struggling and even with the team facing the prospect of Harper walking in free agency come season’s end. Washington has done itself no favors by stumbling to a 52–53 record, good for third place in the NL East. Trailing the Phillies by 5 ½ games for first place, things are no better for the Nats in the wild card, where they’re also 5 ½ games out of the second spot and need to leapfrog five different teams to get there.
A team with a collection of talent like Washington has—beyond Harper, there’s Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, 19-year-old wunderkind Juan Soto, All-Star closer Sean Doolittle, Daniel Murphy and on and on and on—shouldn’t be in this position. You can argue that the Nats have been unlucky, as their 57–48 Pythagorean record suggests, or that injuries have stymied them, with Strasburg, Doolittle and Murphy all missing time.
Whatever the reason, though, this is where the Nationals are. But Rizzo and team ownership apparently want to go for it with what they have, refusing the temptation to sell pending free agents and call it quits on 2018. Any trade of Harper would have been a waving of the biggest white flag ever made, and might spur clubhouse mutiny or a fanbase revolt. It’d also be a vote of no confidence in first-year manager Dave Martinez, who has struggled to win over his players after replacing the popular Dusty Baker last winter, according to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan.
But there was sound logic to moving Harper, and it’s not just this season’s poor results. Should Harper walk in free agency, the Nationals will get virtually nothing in return, as they’ll be limited through the qualifying offer’s many terms and conditions to a single draft pick after the fourth round as compensation. Almost any offer any team could make would beat that. There’s also the fact that Harper would bring back a haul of prospects that would make Washington’s young, strong core even deeper. That creates a hedge against the prospect of him not returning to the nation’s capital: The Nats, as currently constructed, are in good shape going forward even without him.
In that sense, a trade could have been a calculated gamble on the part of both Harper and the Nationals: Move him now, reap the rewards and bring him back to lead an even stronger team. Harper could depart knowing that his trade would make his team better going forward and make his task of bringing a championship to D.C. that much easier. And should he walk, the prospects received for him will only help Washington going forward, far more than any measly draft pick ever could. Rizzo may not want to envision life without Harper, but it’s not the nuclear wasteland that you’d think.
It’s a risky choice either way, but it makes sense that Rizzo would err on the side of seeming caution. Just as likely is that he and his front office made it known that Harper was available, listened to offers, and decided to play out the string instead. Even with the team underachieving, there’s probably a feeling that the Nats can still run down the young Phillies and Braves, and that all the talent on that roster is enough to do so. This is still a team that’s never even made it to the NLCS, much less won a World Series. Pulling the plug on that in what could be Harper’s final year would be a radical move. Keeping him is a sensible call, but one that may come back to haunt the Nationals if they do fall short of the postseason and Harper says sayonara this offseason.