Just three years ago the Washington Nationals led the NL East by 3-games on the day before the non-waiver trade deadline. While the Nationals felt good about the team they had, they ignored their shortcomings and the New York Mets made a franchise changing move on July 31st of 2015 acquiring Yoenis Cespedes for Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer. While Cespedes caught fire for the Mets, the Nationals turned into a dumpster fire. From that point forward, the lead in the NL East changed hands quickly and the Nationals 3-game lead turned to a 3-game deficit to a 7-game deficit when it was all said and done. That’s a 10-game lead change in the standings
There is a history lesson at-hand if general manager Mike Rizzo is open to get creative because this non-waiver trade deadline is not like any other the Washington Nationals have encountered. The team almost has to be simultaneously buying and selling. Analysts see Bryce Harper and Kelvin Herrera as the two pending free agents who would bring back the most return.
The Nationals have been classic under-achievers this season when healthy. Just on Tuesday they blew a 4-run lead to the Brewers. That loss was a 1.0 game swing in the standings from the 6.0 game deficit the Nationals are staring at in reality this afternoon.
If you believe the pressure will get to the young Phillies and Braves, it might happen with these young teams who only have a few who have been there before like the Phillies have with Jake Arrieta. They added Arrieta before the season and he has a World Series ring, and the Braves have a few who have been the playoffs but both look like even if they make it to be an early exit against the other teams. The Braves are 5-12 in their last 17 games which has put the Nationals within 3 ½ games of overtaking them for 2nd place — but let’s get real — finishing 2nd place in the NL East is like being the runner-up in a chess match as you are still a loser. First place is the prize. In 2015, nobody remembers or cares that the Nationals were in 2nd place. Get your participation ribbon and go home. The Mets only won 90-games that season and made it to the World Series. It seems 90-wins is once again the goal for the NL East this season. The Nationals need to finish the season at 38-21 to achieve the 90-game wins total.
The way the Nationals can go for it might be a little addition from subtraction with a twist and some creativity. This is not to pick on Bryce Harper but he has been near a negative overall when you consider his offense with his poor defense for this team since April 16th when Harper owned baseball and was slashing .315/.487/.778/1.265 although he has shown a spark since the Home Run Derby which should get some teams willing to trade for him. What has Harper done since April 16th? Well, he’s batting .202 with a .291 OBP and .421 SLG and only a .712 OPS and he was below .200 as of last week in that time span. You could replace Harper with Victor Robles or Michael Taylor and upgrade with better defense.
Now for the secret sauce. The Nationals can upgrade their weakest position which is catcher. The combined catcher’s contribution to the team has been a net negative WAR (-0.8) to make this all work. For Matt Wieters, he is at a 0.0 WAR and there is a catcher who can be acquired with a +3.6 WAR in just 76 games played. The greatest net gain the Nationals can hope for is to upgrade catcher and the target is J.T. Realmuto. The prospect(s) that Rizzo gets when he trades Harper needs to be enough to place in an existing package for the Marlins to trade Realmuto without insisting on Robles.
Can this be done? Probably not — but it makes the Nationals better for today and in the future as Realmuto will remain under team control through 2020. The bonus if you believe in Bryce Harper long-term, the Nationals can pull an Aroldis and sign Harper after the season as a free agent. Don’t expect a “home town” discount from Harper as we might see this perceived loyalty tested as he goes to break baseball’s record for the largest contract. Maybe that seems cynical but this is the player who said “the skies the limit” after his 2015 MVP season when he responded “don’t sell me short” when a $400 million number was suggested. We could see the Nats offering over $300 million — but you could kill your franchise just the same by paying that much to one player. Consider trading Bryce now for a strong package.