Last night, Mark Feinsand reported that Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals had made Bryce Harper available. Chelsea Janes then reported this morning that Harper is not going anywhere. Considering the position of the Nationals, the Mike Rizzo should strongly consider trading Harper today, especially if the Nationals receive a couple of prospects they like.
The reasons to trade
If Washington wanted to contend, it would need to add several pieces to have a chance of sneaking into the playoffs. The Nationals currently sit 5.5 games behind the first place Philadelphia Phillies and five games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. FanGraphs projects them to fall just short of the division title. Outside of the division, the Nationals also sit 5.5 games back from the second wildcard spot. Five teams sit between them and Arizona, the current holder of that second Wildcard spot.
If the Nationals want to leapfrog all of those teams, the Nationals need to make some serious additions to the roster. The Nationals would need to add at least two relievers, a catcher, and maybe a second baseman to contend. Apart from the unhittable Sean Doolittle, the Nationals bullpen has pitched inconsistently, and it needs upgrades. Of all the teams ahead of them in the playoff race, only the Braves, Rockies, and Diamondbacks have a bullpen with either a worse ERA, FIP, xFIP, or combined WAR.
At catcher, the trident of Matt Wieters, Spencer Kieboom, and Pedro Severino has cost Washington about a win above replacement. Wieters has had the “best” season, but he still produces at 35% below the league average production at the plate. At second base, Daniel Murphy has struggled in his return from injury. But he has heated up since the All-Star break, slashing .323/.382/.484 with a 129 wRC+ and a .364 xwOBA. He appears to have found his form again, but the Nationals have to determine if he will keep hitting through August and September.
Harper has not played exceptionally well for the Nationals this year. His .220/.369/.473 slash and 121 wRC+ looks alright, but Bryce Harper has shown that he can be the second best hitter in the league. And while Harper has struggled to recreate his spectacular 2015 season, he has cost Washington a tremendous number of runs with his poor defense. UZR (-8.4), DRS (-12), and outs above average (-6) all agree that Harper plays terrible outfield defense. His poor defense offsets a sizable portion of his positive contributions offensively. Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto have all contributed more to the Nationals success this season than Harper. Washington could still contend with those three next season even without Harper; it might benefit most if the front office moves on from him.
Fortunately for the Nationals, the market for Harper has life, as plenty of teams would still enjoy adding Harper. Even after adding Leonys Martin, the Cleveland Indians still need another outfielder alongside Michael Brantley. The New York Yankees have expressed interest in adding an outfielder before the deadline. From a baseball universe standpoint, having Judge, Stanton, and Harper in the same lineup would be exceptionally fun to watch. The Colorado Rockies desperately need another outfield bat, though the Rockies seem content with an average Carlos Gonzalez and below average Gerardo Parra and Noel Cuevas patrolling the outfield. As Mike Petriello suggested and has kept suggesting (I highly recommend scrolling through his twitter feed), Oakland could use Harper, and Washington and Oakland have frequently traded with each other over recent seasons.
A situation where Rizzo should not trade Harper
If the Nationals do not receive prospects they and rate highly, the Nationals should not trade Harper. Even though Harper will not fetch another Harper-like prospect, he might fetch one or two average prospects. If teams do not give the Nationals somewhat desirable prospects, the Nationals can take a different route. Instead of trading him, the Nationals could hold on to him and then extend him a qualifying offer in November. If he leaves, which he very well could, the Nationals will receive valuable compensatory draft picks.
Harper could also, considering his somewhat middling performance this season, accept the qualifying offer. Harper could improve his market by playing better in 2019. The Nationals could benefit from Harper playing well either by making the playoffs in 2019 or by trading him at the 2019 deadline if the team under-performs. But the Nationals should do this if they receive an offer with some valuable prospects. Using the qualifying offer could help the Nationals, but if a team offers the right prospects, the Mike Rizzo should leap at the chance and trade Harper before 4 pm today.