Should Nationals Pursue Max Scherzer Blockbuster Trade After Bryce Harper Bolts?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistNovember 2, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: Starting pitcher Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals acknowledges the crowd after recording his 300th strikeout for the year against the Miami Marlins for the second out of the seventh inning at Nationals Park on September 25, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

If Washington Nationals fans aren't prepared to see Bryce Harper wear another team's uniform, they haven't been paying attention. 

Pundits and prognosticators have speculated on his impending free agency for years. Now, finally, it's here. Someone is going to give him untold riches, and that someone might not be the Nationals. 

But what about a world where the Nats don't employ Harper or right-hander Max Scherzer? The mere thought would cause widespread panic in the nation's capital.

No, Scherzer isn't a free agent; he's under contract through 2021. But assuming Harper inks elsewhere, Washington could trade Mad Max for a king's ransom and hit the reset button after a disappointing 2018 season.

It sounds improbable bordering on ludicrous. Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young Award winner and may soon add another to his trophy case. He paced MLB with 220.2 innings and racked up 300 strikeouts with a 2.53 ERA. He's eclipsed 200 innings in each of his four campaigns with the Nationals and for six straight years overall.

Between 2013 and 2018, he's accumulated 36.8 WAR by FanGraphs' calculation, second only to Clayton Kershaw (37.9 WAR).

We could keep going, but you get the picture. Over the past half-decade, Scherzer has been an ace among aces. Losing Harper to free agency and trading their rotation anchor in one offseason would be a debilitating one-two gut punch for the D.C. faithful.

That stipulated, let's examine the merits of a Scherzer deal.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Even with Harper and Scherzer on the roster, the Nationals finished a ho-hum 82-80 in 2018, "good" for a distant second place in the National League East. After winning three division titles in four years between 2014 and 2017, they watched the playoffs from their La-Z-Boys. 

Maybe it was a blip and the Nationals will surge back in 2019. But they're competing with the fast-rising Atlanta Braves, who won the division behind a burgeoning young core and boast the No. 2 farm system in the game, according to Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter.  

Then there are the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished two games behind Washington but also have a solid stockpile of up-and-coming talent and tons of payroll flexibility. Hence the rumblings Philadelphia might try to land Harper and fellow 26-year-old superstar Manny Machado. 

Even if that's a pipe dream (and it probably is), the Phillies could easily spend enough to lure Harper away from the Nationals—as could other deep-pocketed suitors such as the Los Angeles Dodgers.

General manager Mike Rizzo said Harper was "in our plans" and "part of our family," per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. Those are warm and fuzzy words, but words don't pay record-breaking contracts, which is what Harper will demand and likely get. Odds are, the Nationals will wave goodbye to their brash franchise player.

If so, they'll be in a tough spot, even with Scherzer. 

Now, imagine the haul they could get for a pitcher of Scherzer's pedigree. It would start with any team's top prospect (or two) and go from there. They could probably demand top prospects and MLB-ready players.

The New York Yankees, to cite one example, desperately need starting pitching. What if the Nats pried away outfielder (and Harper's buddy) Clint Frazier, top New York pitching prospect Justus Sheffield plus ancillary pieces?  

That's wild speculation, obviously. But the Nationals could ask for the moon in exchange for Scherzer, and suitors such as the Yanks, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros would immediately start swinging their space lassos. 

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

It's worth noting Scherzer is 34 years old. He's also owed more than $126 million, though a portion of that is deferred through 2028. 

That said, if the Nationals made him available, Rizzo's phone would light up like a kerosene-soaked jack-o'-lantern. Washington would have its pick of gaudy packages. 

The short-term optics would not be great. The odds of this happening are low. But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.

The Nationals have exciting young players to build around, including left fielder and possible NL Rookie of the Year Juan Soto, center fielder Victor Robles and shortstop Trea Turner. Maybe they should follow the Braves' and Phillies' lead by shedding salary and going young. Their current course has yielded multiple playoff appearances, but they've never advanced past the division series round.

The road to success is frequently paved with difficult, unpopular choices. Trading Scherzer would fit that description. It might also be the way to go.


All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs