Non-Trade Gives Bryce Harper One More Chance to Rewrite Nationals Legacy

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 1, 2018

MIAMI, FL - JULY 28: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals is congratulated by teammates after scoring the tying run in the ninth inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on July 28, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Eric Espada/Getty Images

On a deadline day when there was much more quantity (15 trades) than quality, the guy who could make the biggest impact on the rest of the season was the guy who didn't get traded.

The teams that made moves concentrated on incremental upgrades that may or may not help them win a championship. The team that made almost no moves showed belief in a team and a star who have so far badly underachieved.

The biggest move of the month was the Los Angeles Dodgers trading for Manny Machado, but that happened nearly two weeks ago. The biggest move Tuesday was a non-move, with the Washington Nationals not trading Bryce Harper.

The Nationals could look bad—if their 53-53 team doesn't rally to make the postseason and if Harper leaves as a free agent and they are stuck with only a draft pick in return.

Harper's Home Run Derby performance was magical, and the Nationals will need that magic in August and September (and perhaps October).
Harper's Home Run Derby performance was magical, and the Nationals will need that magic in August and September (and perhaps October).Rob Carr/Getty Images

But look at it the other way. They could look great—if the team responds to win a division that is still ultra-winnable, and especially if Harper is the one who leads them into October and perhaps past the first round for what would be the first time since the franchise moved from Montreal.

With any other 53-53 team, you'd say they were dreaming. In any other division, you might say that, too.

But when I contacted a group of major league scouts after Tuesday's deadline to ask about the Nationals' decision to keep Harper, every one of them agreed they did the right thing. And so do I.

"They [think they] aren't out of it," one American League scout said. "And I agree with them."

The Nationals are 5.5 games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies and five games behind the second-place Atlanta Braves. The Phillies (with catcher Wilson Ramos) and the Braves (with starting pitcher Kevin Gausman) both made moves Tuesday, but neither was an obvious "this wins it for them" kind of move.

Put it this way: If the Nationals had traded for Harper, that would have been by far the biggest move any National League East team made this month—even with his .223 batting average.

The Nationals could have justified trading him away instead. Ken Rosenthal made an interesting proposal Monday on The Athletic, suggesting the Nats trade Harper as part of a remake that would also include adding catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins.

It's not clear whether moves like that were even realistic. The Marlins put a high price tag on Realmuto, according to sources, and in the end did not trade him to anyone.

Besides, soon after Rosenthal's column hit the internet, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told Harper he was going nowhere.

"I only got in touch with him when some information came out that we were in the midst of looking to trade Bryce Harper," Rizzo said, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. "And I thought at that time, it was probably a good time to say that was false information and he wasn't going to be traded."

By Tuesday morning, Rizzo was telling everyone else the same thing, with multiple tweets quoting him as saying Harper wouldn't be dealt. The first was this one from Janes:

Chelsea Janes @chelsea_janes

Mike Rizzo just reached out with this message: "Bryce is not going anywhere. I believe in this team."

We may never know exactly what the Nationals could have gotten back in a Harper trade, or what they heard from other teams before deciding to keep him. But the scouts surveyed by Bleacher Report suggested the return would have been underwhelming.

"It's not like they could get a haul for him," the AL scout said.

"They probably wouldn't get enough for Harper to justify moving him," a National League scout agreed.

Not when they still have a realistic chance to win. Remember, they're not chasing the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees or Houston Astros. They just have to make up ground on the Braves (29-30 over the last two-plus months, entering play Tuesday) and the Phillies (30-28 over a similar span).

They can do it, if Stephen Strasburg (pinched nerve in his neck) doesn't spend too much time on the disabled list. They can do it, if Harper can be the most valuable player of the final two months of the season.

In Harper's first post-deadline at-bat, he rocketed a double to right-center field to drive in a run Tuesday night against the New York Mets. It was his ninth RBI (and fourth extra-base hit) in 10 games since he lit up Nationals Park and won the Home Run Derby. He added another run-scoring double later in a 25-4 Nationals win that—at least for a day—made the Nationals look like a team on the way up.

You wouldn't call it peak Harper, as in the 1.109 OPS he had when he was the 2015 NL MVP, but maybe it's just the start of something big. Maybe this can be the start of something big for the Nationals, who spent 16 days in first place in the first half of the season but never really got going.

Maybe instead of putting the NL East away early, as the Nats did when they led the division by 14 games at the end of July 2017, this year can be the season they win it with a furious two-month charge.

"I honestly think it might be good for us [to do it the tough way]," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said just before the All-Star break. "The last few times we won the division, we clinched early. You're thinking about days off. It's not that you stop playing, but it's not the same intensity down the stretch.

"Don't get me wrong, I'd take that, but I think this might be good. Maybe if we get in, maybe we'll go into the playoffs on the upswing."

Harper and Rizzo celebrated a division title last September. Less than 11 months later, Rizzo kept Harper and hoped for more celebrations.
Harper and Rizzo celebrated a division title last September. Less than 11 months later, Rizzo kept Harper and hoped for more celebrations.G Fiume/Getty Images

What they've done before hasn't worked in October. The Nationals have been in the postseason four times since 2012, which was Harper's rookie season. They've lost in the division series each time, each time in excruciating fashion, three times in a decisive fifth game.

This year shouldn't be the last chance for a team that has Max Scherzer signed through 2021 and has one of baseball's brightest young stars in 19-year-old Juan Soto. But it could easily be the last chance with Harper, whose Washington future beyond this season remains uncertain.

Because of that and because of their sub-.500 record, the Nationals could have justified trading Harper and beginning to rework their roster for 2019. Instead, the only trade they made Tuesday was to send reliever Brandon Kintzler to the Chicago Cubs, a move that opened a spot for other relievers they like as much and according to the Washington Post, "because the Nationals believed he was responsible for anonymous reports that painted Washington’s clubhouse culture as iffy."

"I believe in this team," Rizzo said, in the text to Janes.

I'm not sure I do, but I believe Rizzo believes. He believes in the Nationals. He absolutely believes in Harper.

And now Harper and his team have two (or maybe three) months to justify that belief.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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