1. MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline is today, Tuesday July 31, at 4 p.m. Eastern. The Nationals are in one of the most fascinating positions that I can remember a team being in approaching a non-waiver trade deadline. You could argue strongly that they should be aggressive buyers. You could also argue strongly that the Nats should be aggressive sellers.
What has become clear is that the Nats at least have been thinking about selling. We had two prominent national MLB insiders reporting on this as far back as last Thursday in Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan and Joel Sherman of The New York Post. But those guys indicated that the Nats were only really interested in trading away walk-year relievers like Kelvin Herrera, Shawn Kelley and Ryan Madson. Well, the bombshell came on Monday night: the Nats reportedly have informed teams that Bryce Harper is available via trade. What more than a few people said would not happen or insisted shouldn’t happen – but something we talked about as far back as February – now may in fact go down.
Before we get to Bryce, let’s first deal with the issue of whether the Nats should be buyers or sellers.
The Nats enter Tuesday 52-53, having gone just 19-31 since their 33-22 start. The latest was going just 2-2 in a four-game series at lowly Miami to conclude a very disappointing 3-4 road trip. The Nats are 5 1/2 games behind National League East-leading Philadelphia and 5 1/2 games behind Arizona for the NL’s second wild-card spot; the Nats are one of six teams within 5 1/2 games of the Diamondbacks. Whatever reasons there are for why the Nats are where they are, this is their situation.
I actually would be fine with the Nats being buyers or sellers. The Nats are right on the border, and there are compelling arguments for both sides. What I do not want is the Nats going only partially in either direction or, even worse, doing nothing.
If the Nats believe that Stephen Strasburg isn’t going to miss that much time with this cervical nerve impingement, have potential doable deals for key pieces in place and want to look at the remaining schedule (eight games vs. the Marlins, nine games vs. the Mets, seven games vs. Atlanta, nine games vs. Philadelphia, four games vs. Cincinnati) as a sign for optimism, then I get that.
Conversely, if Strasburg’s health can’t be trusted, the Nats believe that Bryce will not be re-signing with them and believe that they can’t get back prospects for Bryce and the team’s many other pending free agents (Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Gio Gonzalez, Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley) good enough to replenish a farm system that has taken some major hits in recent years thanks to multiple win-now trades, then selling makes a lot of sense.
But what absolutely can not happen is the Nats do nothing or next to nothing. You can’t have one foot in and one foot out. No, no, no. That’s not how ya do this. If you’re gonna sell, sell. Sell all of your major free agents-to-be for this coming offseason, not just a few, as was indicated in those reports on Thursday. If you’re going to deplete your bullpen in trading away walk-year relievers like Herrera, Madson and Kelley, then trade away the likes of Bryce, Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams and Gio Gonzalez. It does you no good to sell a little. Winning 83 games is no better, and is in fact worse, than winning 75 games. As I like to say, if you’re not winning 100, then you need to be losing 100. The worst place you can be is the middle. The Nats are in a unique position, not unlike the Yankees two years ago, where the Nats could engage in a quick rebuild, retool and be contenders again as soon as next season. The Yankees traded away two relievers in July 2016 in Aroldis Chapman (to the Cubs for second baseman Gleyber Torres and reliever Adam Warren) and Andrew Miller (to Cleveland outfielder Clint Frazier and pitcher Justus Sheffield) and the hauls that were gotten back were tremendous. And the Yankees very quickly were back to being a super power. The Nats need to keep this in mind.
And if the Nats are not going to sell, then they need to buy. Their season is 105 games old. The sample now is large enough to where you can’t just count on this team kicking things into another gear. The Nats have major concerns in the rotation and at catcher. Both have got to be addressed (Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, the Mets’ Zach Wheeler, Miami’s J.T. Realmuto) if the Nats are not going to sell.
Furthermore, take a look at what contending teams in the NL have been doing recently: buying. Big time. Philadelphia acquired infielder Asdrubal Cabrera from the Mets on Friday night. Atlanta acquired reliever Brad Brach from the Orioles on Sunday and outfielder Adam Duvall from Cincinnati on Monday. Milwaukee acquired third baseman Mike Moustakas from Kansas City on Friday night and got reliever Joakim Soria from the White Sox on Thursday. The Cubs acquired starter Cole Hamels from Texas on Friday. The Dodgers, of course, acquired shortstop Manny Machado from the O’s the night after the All-Star Game at Nationals Park. All of these NL contenders have been loading up. You’re telling me that the Nats might just continue to give it the ‘ol college try with their current cast of players who are 52-53 through 105 games? Boy is that risky.
In baseball these days, you are either in or you are out. Whatever the Nats decide, they must go full-force in that direction.
2. Now to Bryce Harper. We have two reports regarding him to be thinking about.
The big one came from Mark Feinsand of MLB.com on Monday night: “According to a source, the Nationals have let it be known that All-Star Bryce Harper is indeed available via trade, setting up what could be a wild race for the superstar with the non-waiver Trade Deadline less than 24 hours away. To be clear, this by no means says that the Nationals are committed to trading Harper on Tuesday, though their willingness to listen to offers is a clear indication that general manager Mike Rizzo could become a major seller in the final hours leading up to the Deadline….Four executives all said that they believed Harper would remain in Washington for the rest of this season, though two said that if the offer was big enough, they could see the Nationals making a deal.” The report was confirmed by ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian.
But also on Monday was what MLB insider Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported in a lengthy piece that detailed a fractured Nats clubhouse. Said one source whose account was corroborated by three others who spoke to Yahoo Sports: “The clubhouse is a mess.” Passan said that some of this falls on Dave Martinez, who “has forged good relationships with a number of the Nationals’ stars, including Bryce Harper, a number of players feel marginalized, according to sources.” Passan cited Bryce’s comments after the 2-1 10-inning loss at Miami on Saturday night, during which Nats trade target J.T. Realmuto had a walk-off single: “If that guy was on our side, it wouldn’t have happened. Tough luck.” Continued Passan, “A number of people inside the organization saw Harper’s comment as unprofessional and potentially divisive among his teammates, according to sources.”
I have made my stance on Bryce very clear. I think that he is a supremely gifted player who actually has come through in big spots (2014 NLDS, 2017 NLDS Game 2, 2018 Home Run Derby) more than he gets credit for. And I have long believed that the stuff about Bryce being a bad guy is overrated, even though I do concede that some of his defensive comments over the last few months (think the “walking out the door” comments at Nats spring training) have made for a really bad look.
All of that said, I also believe that Bryce’s overall production has not matched his talent. Yes, injury has been a big part of this. But so too has underperforming. And I’m not just talking about his .220 batting average this season. Bryce’s career bWAR (Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference, which measures all that a player does on the field – batting, baserunning and fielding) entering Tuesday was 26.6 over seven seasons. Mike Trout’s, for comparison’s sake, was 62. Manny Machado’s was 31.4. Mookie Betts was at 30.9 bWAR over five seasons. Kris Bryant was at 21.3 bWAR over just four seasons. Jose Altuve was at 34.2 bWAR over eight seasons. All of these guys have out-produced Bryce on a per-season basis, and it’s not even close in some cases.
If the Nats are willing to spend whatever it takes to re-sign Bryce and believe that he has genuine interest in re-signing with them, then fine, don’t trade him. An outfield in the coming years of Bryce, Juan Soto and Victor Robles could be spectacular.
But if the Nats aren’t willing to spend the $300 million or more that might be necessary to re-sign him or believe that he doesn’t really want to re-sign here, then you have to trade him and use that as a compelling reason to be sellers and not buyers. I have been saying this for months: the Nats can’t get Kirked by Bryce. They can’t lose a guy who is going to be worth a ton of money on the open market in free agency for next to nothing. And next to nothing is what the Nats would get if they lost Bryce in free agency, because the Nats would only get a fourth-round compensation pick as a luxury-tax-paying team (which is believed to be their predicament) opposed to a first-round compensation pick (and by the way, these are picks tacked onto the ends of these rounds, so the picks really are sandwich picks).
3. I mentioned Victor Robles. We had a fascinating development regarding the Nats potentially being buyers on Saturday. MLB insider Jon Heyman of MLB Network and Fancred, Marlins insider Joe Frisaro of MLB.com and Craig Mish of Sirius XM radio all reported that the Nats have become willing to trade Victor Robles for the man they have been trying to pry from Miami since at least last offseason: catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Marlins have been asking for either Robles or Juan Soto in a deal, and the Nats, at least according to these reports, finally have relinquished at least on Robles. I would not do this. And I say this as someone who loves Realmuto as a player. He is the best catcher in baseball, as he can hit, defend and even run – seriously, he is among the fastest and most athletic catchers of the last 20 years. But he is a catcher. Catchers almost never age well. And Robles, like Soto, is a potential superstar who you have under team control for years to come. Yes, Realmuto doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season. But two years of team control are not the six years of team control that the Nats will have with Robles once he becomes a full-time major-leaguer. I totally get the temptation to trade for Realmuto, especially given how putrid the Nats have been at catcher for the last two seasons. But I wouldn’t part with Robles.
Also regarding Robles, he is back. He suffered a scary-looking left-elbow injury while attempting a diving catch for Triple-A Syracuse on April 9, had been on a rehab assignment in the lower levels of the Nats’ minor-league system and made his return to the Chiefs in a 10-8 win at the Durham Bulls on Friday. What happened? He had a homer, a double, a single and a walk and went 1-for-2 on stolen bases. Robles in an 11-10 13-inning win over the Pawtucket Red Sox on Monday had three singles and a walk. Not bad. MLB Pipeline came out with its mid-seasons prospects rankings on Thursday July 26. Robles, even with this injury, is the no. 5 prospect in baseball and the no. 1 prospect in the Nats’ farm system (shortstop Carter Kieboom is no. 2 and shortstop/third baseman Luis Garcia is no. 3).
4. Is it possible that the Orioles are done selling? Boy I hope not, but that is possible. The O’s on Sunday dealt Brad Brach to Atlanta for international-signing-bonus-slot money, which represents a stunning fall in value for a guy who had an ERA+ of 210 in 2016 but who has really fallen off the last two seasons. So Brach, Manny Machado and Zach Britton are gone. But it doesn’t look like Adam Jones will be, as he appears to be unwilling to consent on a trade as he must as a 10-5 guy (10 seasons in the majors, at least five with the same team). I must say, I’m disappointed by this. And I say this as someone who believes that Jones is at worst the second best center fielder in O’s history (Paul Blair is first, but there’s certainly an argument to be made for Jones). But if Jones truly wanted to do what’s best for the O’s, he would agree to a trade, as they reportedly had received strong interest from especially Philadelphia. Jones wanting to stay with the O’s is admirable, but he is a free agent after this season; where is it written that they’ll want him back, as they’re in rebuild mode? I don’t like this as an O’s fan. It’s not like Jones would have brought back some great haul, but he is having a decent offensive season, and getting something for him is better than getting nothing for him.
What remains fascinating for the O’s is whether they’re willing to trade guys with team control remaining like Jonathan Schoop, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman. I say yes, as there should be zero untouchables on the O’s. I’m not saying that you give these guys away, but you certainly should be open to dealing them given what you could get back for them. And Schoop, off a horrendous start to his season, is in another universe right now: seven homers in nine games, during which his OPS for the season has gone from .652 to .720. He in the 15-5 win over Tampa Bay on Friday night had a one-out solo homer off Chris Archer on an 0-2 pitch and two RBI singles. Schoop in the 11-5 win over the Rays on Sunday afternoon had a two-out three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh. And Schoop was robbed of a home run in the 11-2 win over the Rays on Saturday night. MLB insider Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic tweeted on Friday night: “#Brewers engaged in serious discussions with the #Orioles, sources tell The Athletic. Unclear if MIL’s focus is Schoop, Gausman or a package including both.”