To trade Bryce Harper or not to trade Bryce Harper. It's no longer a joke. It's a valid question.
The Nationals are in an impossible spot. Trade the face of their franchise, arguably the most compelling face in all of Major League Baseball, before he hits the open market this fall? On the surface, with the Nationals only 5.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot in the National League, most fans would implore GM Mike Rizzo to go for broke and make additions as the trade deadline approaches. But when one looks deeper, the Nats are also behind five teams (the Pirates, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies and Cardinals) in the Wild Card standings (not to mention trailing the Phillies by 7 games in the NL East).
With the news Thursday that Stephen Strasburg was heading to the 10-day disabled list with a cervical nerve impingement, the Nats outlook gets bleaker. Tommy Milone, who was called up to start tonight against Miami, is certainly not the answer. Last year, in the 17 games he pitched for the Brewers and Mets, he posted a 1-3 record with an ERA above 7. Even if they hit the open market looking for a starter, are the remaining available targets such as Kyle Gibson or Marco Estrada going to carry them into the postseason? It seems highly unlikely.
Then take into account the Nationals' injury history. As of this writing, only Trea Turner has played in every game (101) this season (Harper has played in 98). However, the core talent around them has missed substantial time and is showing signs of age. Here's the list:
Anthony Rendon: 80 games played
Adam Eaton: 42 games played
Howie Kendrick: 40 games played
Ryan Zimmerman: 36 games played
Daniel Murphy: 33 games played
Matt Wieters: 32 games played
With the big picture in mind, the Nationals need to look towards the future. The Phillies and Braves are already ahead of their rebuilding plans and contending for the division crown at least a year ahead of schedule. The Mets, despite their struggles, still have a formidable pitching staff, while the Marlins should start to see signs of progress from their rebuild by 2019. If Harper is going to open up negotiations to other clubs in the fall and explore his free agency, the time is now for the Nats to use that trade chip and replenish their farm system.
Taking a queue from what the New York Islanders should have done with their homegrown star John Taveras — who left via free agency leaving the Islanders with nothing to show for it — trading Harper, especially if he is open to a return, makes the most sense. Remember what the Yankees did with closer Aroldis Chapman? Two years ago they traded the fireballer to the Cubs for three prospects, including Gleyber Torres. And after helping lead the Cubs to the title, Chapman re-signed in the Bronx. What's to say Harper and the Nats cannot come together, discuss this scenario and agree that they can discuss Harper returning in the offseason, while bolstering the team they can put around him for the future?
Given that framework, the question becomes: "What would it take in return to deal Bryce?" First, it is important to sort out the potential suitors. Assuredly, the acquiring team must assume he would explore his free agent options after the World Series. However, imagine the windfall of revenue over the final two and a half months of the season in ticket sales, merchandise and attention if your club acquired him? With that mindset, here are packages that may be enough for the Nats, while not back-breaking from the long-term plan of the acquiring club.
Dodgers: OF Alex Verdugo, LHP Caleb Ferguson and C Connor Wong. The Dodgers, considered to be one of the favorites to sign Harper in the offseason, could certainly look to add the slugger to their star-studded lineup with Manny Machado. Including their top position prospect (Verdugo), a talented arm that has already showed skills in 2018 (Ferguson) and a young catcher to replace the aging Wieters, this may be enough to entice the Nats to make a move.
Athletics: C Sean Murphy, SS Jorge Mateo and RHP James Kaprielian. When Billy Beane goes for it, he goes for it. Just like he did with the Jon Lester trade in 2014, acquiring Harper would provide a huge bat to compliment Khris Davis in the lineup, assuredly sell out the stadium for the rest of the year, and give the A's confidence in attaining one of the two Wild Card spots. By acquiring Murphy (a future starting catcher) and the two former Yankee prospects, the Nationals would acquire three of the A's top nine minor leaguers. Not a bad haul for a 2.5 month rental.
Yankees: C Gary Sanchez, RHP Chance Adams, OF Clint Frazier. Why not? Just imagine Harper in pinstripes and added to Murderers Row 2018. By trading Sanchez, the Yankees put their best defensive team on the field (by inserting Austin Romine into the lineup) and rid themselves of the Sanchez headache. Adams and Frazier are both top prospects. And just imagine, if Harper re-signs with the Nats in the offseason, you add an All-Star catcher and rotation piece moving forward. And for the Yanks, who would seem to stand a great chance of re-signing Harper if they want to, this is a no-brainer.
Indians: RHP Shane Bieber, C Noah Naylor, 1B Bobby Bradley. The biggest stretch among these teams is the Indians, who have a solid offense, yet could use an enormous upgrade over the Tyler Naquin/Rajai Davis/Melky Cabrera carousel they have played with recently. Bieber is the best pitching prospect for the Indians, while Naylor and Bradley are potential long-term solutions at positions of need. From the Indians perspective, imagine a top of the lineup that went Lindor, Brantley, Ramirez, Encarnacion and Harper? That's no easy outs, 1-5.
Giants: C Joey Bart, RHP Tyler Beede, OF Heath Quinn. Giants GM Bobby Evans should be doing whatever he can to acquire a big bat to jump-start his offense to close the 4.5 game deficit his team faces in the NL West and Wild Card races. Bart is the team's number one prospect, while Beede has been on scouts' radars for years. This package may not move the needle much for the Nationals, but would be a jumping off point for negotiations.
Make no mistake: This isn't an easy thing for the Nats to do. And if they do not trade Bryce, do not make the playoffs and fail to re-sign him, will the Nationals regret not acquiring a Manny Machado-esque package for their superstar? That's the one thing that truly does seem like a no-brainer.