Buy or sell? Washington Nationals face Bryce Harper dilemma

bryce harperThe Washington Nationals, with arguably the deepest roster in the National League, are under .500, and six games back of the upstart Philadelphia Phillies, with the trade deadline looming.

Question: are the Nats, World Series or bust when the season started in April, buyers or sellers this time around?

The issue comes at a head the most with superstar Bryce Harper, who becomes a free agent at the end of the season, and though the front office is hopeful that the team can sign Harper long-term, you do have to wonder.

And actually, you have to wonder two things: one, can you re-sign Harper, and two, do you even want to?

Mired in a near-season-long slump, Harper is second in the NL in homers (25), but is otherwise a lineup black hole, with a .220/.369/.473 slash line, an .842 OPS, and just a 0.4 WAR.

You have to begin to ask if the real Harper is the 2015 NL MVP – 42 homers, 99 RBI, the .330/.460/.649 slash line, the 1.109 OPS, the 10.0 WAR, or is it the one that has hit better than .274 just twice in his seven-year MLB career, with a career WAR of 26.6, which, did you hear that Mike Trout, the other best player in the game, just hit 62.0 in career WAR, and he’s barely 10 months older than Harper?

If you think Harper is going to test the market, maybe you think about getting something other than a draft pick in return, even if you’re not sure he’s worthy of the hype.

The problem there being, of course, if you trade your franchise player at the deadline, you’re signaling to the guys left behind that you’re throwing in the towel on the season, even if you wouldn’t necessarily be.

Victor Robles is currently rehabbing, and the notion of an outfield with Robles (age 21) and Juan Soto (age 19) with veterans Adam Eaton (under team control through 2020) and Michael A. Taylor (under team control through 2021) is far from unsettling.

If you can flip Harper into even a couple of prospects High-A level or above, you’re getting more than you’d get in free-agent compensation, and Plan B from the outfield perspective is pretty solid.

Move Harper, and then steal J.T. Realmuto from Miami (.311/.361/.531 slash line, .892 OPS, 13 HR, 51 RBI, 3.8 WAR in 2018, under team control through 2021), and this year’s team is better, and you’ve taken steps to restocking the farm systems.

And you still have a nice core – the youngsters in the outfield, Anthony Rendon (under team control through 2020) and Trea Turner (under team control through 2023) anchoring the left side of the infield, Max Scherzer (under team control through 2022) and Stephen Strasburg (under team control through 2024) as two top aces in the starting rotation.

And the big question the past couple of years in D.C. – will we be able to keep Harper? – will no longer be a millstone around this team’s neck.

They’re not going to do it, incidentally. The front office will go into the offseason thinking it will be able to sign Harper long-term, and honestly, if all you’re going to do is lose an unnamed prospect by going that route, it’s not that big a gamble to try to ride it out and see what happens.

Though, here is what is going to happen: this team will continue to underachieve into September, until it is eliminated from playoff contention, at which point the latest reconfiguring in terms of dugout and maybe even front-office management will commence.

Not a lot of good stuff to look forward to if you’re a Nats fan, in other words.

Column by Chris Graham


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