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Nationals Should Learn from Manny Machado Haul and Consider Trading Bryce Harper

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2018

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper puts on his hat during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Saturday, June 23, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

For years, we've known 2018 was likely going to be Bryce Harper's swan-song season with the Washington Nationals before a much-hyped foray into free agency.

The assumption, though, was always that Harper would play out the entire '18 campaign with the Nats as they tried to finally get past the division series round and make a championship run with their franchise superstar.

Now, an intriguing, unexpected question has arisen: Should Washington consider trading Harper before the July 31 non-waiver deadline?

Before you scoff, let's consider some facts.

The Nationals entered play Sunday with a 48-49 record. That puts them six games behind the Atlanta Braves and 6.5 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East. They're also six games out in the wild-card race with seven teams ahead of them.

None of those deficits are insurmountable. The Phillies and Braves are young clubs blossoming ahead of schedule and could wilt under the glare of the pennant race.

The Nationals certainly have talent. Their rotation is fronted by Max Scherzer, who's on track to win a fourth career Cy Young Award. Speedy shortstop Trea Turner (12 homers, 22 stolen bases), third baseman Anthony Rendon (15 homers, .872 OPS) and young left fielder Juan Soto (10 homers, .944 OPS) form the foundation of a solid offensive supporting cast.

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 11:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals reacts in the dugout behind Max Scherzer #31 during the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 11, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Washington Nationals won 3-1.  (P
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

At the same time, second baseman Daniel Murphy, right-hander Stephen Strasburg, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Matt Wieters have all lost significant stretches to injury.

There's an argument in favor of the Nats being buyers at the deadline, adding a bullpen piece and maybe another bat and trying for a stretch-run surge. They already acquired late-inning reliever Kelvin Herrera from the Kansas City Royals in June.

If they try and fail, however, they could watch Harper walk away for nothing. If they trade him now, they'd get a head start building for the post-Harper future.

This is where we mention Manny Machado, another impending free-agent superstar whose career accomplishments hew closely to Harper's. 

Harper is 25. Machado turned 26 on July 6. Prior to 2018, each player had logged six big league seasons. Over that span, Harper compiled 27.3 fWAR; Machado's total was 23.8.

Recently, the Baltimore Orioles traded Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a package of five MiLB chips headlined by powerful outfielder Yusniel Diaz, who immediately became the Orioles' No. 2 prospect, per MLB.com.

The O's also netted bat-missing right-hander Dean Kremer and third baseman Rylan Bannon, who'd hit 20 homers at High-A this season. Toss in right-hander Zach Pop and infielder Breyvic Valera, both of whom have upside, and you have a nice haul for a few months of Machado.

The Nats were surely paying attention.

BALTIMORE, MD - JULY 10:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals and Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles talk during their game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 10, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

There are a couple key differences between the Machado trade and a speculative Harper swap.

First, the Orioles are buried in last place in the American League East and clearly need to shift into rebuild mode. Trading their superstar was a no-brainer. Second, Machado is having an unambiguously excellent season, while Harper's stat sheet is muddled.

The Nats right fielder has clubbed 23 homers and leads the Senior Circuit with 78 walks. He's also hitting a scant .215.

There are reasons for optimism. Harper's .229 batting average on balls in play is well below his career mark of .314. Meanwhile, his hard-contact rate of 40.8 percent is above his career average of 35.0 percent. That suggests a lot of loud, unlucky outs. 

To put it another way: The last time Harper finished the season with a hard-contact rate above 40.0 percent was in 2015, when he won the NL MVP Award.

"I was standing in the shower yesterday, and I'm like, 'Man, my body feels great,'" Harper said in June, per Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post. "Seriously. I'm strong. I work out every day. I haven't lost any weight, and I feel stronger than ever. When I barrel a ball up, I hit it hard."

If the Nationals made Harper available, surely prospective suitors would look past the low batting average, check the peripherals, add in the pop and pedigree and open the prospect vault. 

We could start rattling off contenders who could use Harper's power and brash infusion of energy, but it's basically as long as the list of contenders.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

CBS Sports' Mike Axisa posited two things that would have to happen for the Nationals to consider moving Harper: First, they fall out of the race completely; second, they determine it would be impossible to sign Harper to a pre-free-agency extension.

That seems right. If they keep their heads above water between now and July 31, the chances of Harper leaving D.C. before the winter are slim to none. As for the extension, well, that seems unlikely no matter what.

Even a modest winning streak over the next week could give the Nationals enough hope to go all-in. It would probably take a nose-dive losing streak to shift their thinking in the other direction.

Of course, the question of whether the Nats will move Harper isn't the same as whether they should.

To the first, the answer is probably "no."

To the second, it's a lot closer to "yes" than anyone expected this spring.

   

All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

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