Revisiting Bryce Harper at the Trade Deadline

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

A few days before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, we heard for the first time that the Washington Nationals were actually listening to other teams on Bryce Harper. While this was discussed here fairly extensively for a long time before the trade deadline — to the outside world, the concept of the Washington Nationals talking about trading Bryce Harper was still universally considered as “heresy”.

Going back 16 days, one can see the conundrum that ownership and management faced. The team was under-performing badly, but due to the uninspired competition, the Nats were a mere 5.0 games out of a division lead with around 60 games left to play. When you invest $200 mil into a project, it is perfectly understandable that you are not inclined to throw in the towel. The team that every pundit considers to this day the class of the division was one hot streak away from claiming it’s rightful place at the top of the division.

At the same time, given the major investment and the disappointment ownership understandably mandated that there be absolutely no more salary added. We all wondered how the Phills were able to pluck Wilson Ramos from Tampa Bay for a song, well Ramos is still owed a chunk of change for 2018 and after throwing extra money at Kelvin Herrera the Lerners said ‘enough’. So the strategy was to sit tight and see how the team responds with one caveat, Mike Rizzo decided to take the hatchet to what he perceived as a leaky rebellious bullpen arm according to multiple reports and the reliever to be punted out of town was Brandon Kintzler (there are several versions of that story so we won’t go there).

Kintzler didn’t help his cause by producing a very forgettable year and the opportunity to deep six his $5 mil option for next year and $1.6 million this year was added incentive. The Nats also got an interesting prospect in the deal to trade Kintzler. Once Rizzo picked up the hatchet he was an executioner out of control so when Shawn Kelley had a meltdown on the mound (in a 25 – 4 win no less) Rizzo booted him out of town in a nano second. These moves coupled with subsequent injuries to Herrera and Madson (who brought with their injuries historical meltdowns) created a perfect storm and caused the bullpen to implode completely basically putting any comeback ideas to rest. If the Nationals won Sunday night in Chicago, the Nats would have been 4.5 games back — instead they left Chicago 5.5 games back and have fallen 3.5 games further with 3 additional excruciating losses.

Bryce Harper for his part has responded nicely since the All-Star break. He has raised his batting average by some 20 points in 2 weeks, the power has maintained coupled with a nice opposite field approach, and add to that hustle on the bases and on defense and — voila — Mr. Bryce Harper is back.

Today on August 16th, the Nats are 9.0 games back of the high flying division leading Atlanta Braves (also 7.0 games behind the 2nd place Philadelphia Phillies) with only 40 games left. The biggest optimists can point to historical collapses in previous years led by the Mets blowing a 7.0 game lead with 17 to play but let’s be real, this isn’t happening in 2018 with two teams in front of the Nats. We watch in painful amusement nightly as the Phills and the Braves take turns abusing Miami and the Mets.

For 2019, I think the plan needs to come into sharp focus for the owners and management. They will have to consider many major directional options such as the identity of the manager, coaches, minor league development staff etc. In addition there are clear and obvious holes that will need to be patched: 1 frontline catcher, 1 top starting pitcher, 2 additional starting pitchers for depth, 1 top set-up reliever, 2 depth relievers including a good LOOGY and a multi inning reliever, a 2nd baseman, and a left-handed 1st baseman.

As a starting point I think the Nats need to come to the realization that pursuing a long-term deal with Bryce Harper is a flawed idea because it will leave their hands tied financially with so many other needs and ever improving competition. I am not at all convinced that the ownership and management are on-board with this concept. It’s a very difficult choice to turn the page on a generational talent who has been the face of the franchise for 7 years. It’s the hard choice, but it’s the correct one in my opinion.

If the Nats are willing to take this leap with Harper, they should do this now. No one will blame them for doing a 180°. It’s perfectly reasonable for a team with their record and position to conclude that this year failed. It’s very important that this isn’t dragged into another year. If the Nats can obtain a young catcher for 6 weeks of Harper they should do so yesterday.

It was reported on TalkNats this morning that the Nationals will list players on the waiver wire. Whether they actually trade a player is to be seen. Whether Bryce Harper’s name will appear on that list is only the first step. You have to be committed to moving to that next step of actually trading him.

Finally, general manager Mike Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner need to have a serious heart to heart about their field manager Dave Martinez. This can’t be an easy conversation because they have swung and missed so many times with managers, but if they conclude that Martinez is part of the problem and if they don’t believe he will improve next year — they need to be honest with themselves and the fans and try once again to do this right (They should have a complete blueprint on how to do this wrong by now). I think dumping a coach or 2 is a cop-out and it’s just giving the fans a bone.

Let’s get to work Mike Rizzo, let’s get a head start of 6 weeks on all the other teams and come into 2019 prepared and hungry from day 1. No hump schticks, no World Series pronouncements, no spring training Zim drama.

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