Harper to Houston in 2018? The Deadline deal that wasn't

October 28th, 2022

At some point on Friday night, Bryce Harper will dig into the batter’s box at Minute Maid Park and kick off his World Series career against Justin Verlander and the Astros. If former Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow had his way, Harper’s World Series career might have started four years prior for the very team he’ll be facing in this year’s Fall Classic.

On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle shined some more light on the Astros’ pursuit of Harper at the 2018 Trade Deadline, a move that has since become one of the biggest “what if” moments in recent baseball history. In speaking with the Chronicle’s Chandler Rome, Luhnow said that the Astros had agreed in principle to acquire Harper -- a pending free agent -- for then-prospects Abraham Toro (ranked No. 24 in Houston's system at the time), Randy César (No. 30), Josh James (No. 6), J.B. Bukauskas (No. 8) and Kent Emanuel (unranked) -- an unprecedented haul for a rental player. While Luhnow had previously confirmed that the two teams had an agreement in place, the hypothetical trade package had never been reported in full.

Luhnow said that his discussions with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo started over reliever Kelvin Herrera before Luhnow brought up Harper, to which Rizzo responded they’d be open to moving Harper “for the right package.”

While Luhnow said that Houston owner Jim Crane gave approval for the deal, he said that Rizzo had a much harder time convincing Nationals ownership to deal Harper, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 and won Rookie of the Year and an MVP Award in Washington. Luhnow said Rizzo phoned him later that day to tell him the trade hadn’t been approved. Harper finished 2018 with a .249/.393/.496 slash line to go along with 34 home runs and 100 RBIs before signing a record-setting 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies that winter.

After not getting Harper, the Astros pivoted that Trade Deadline, acquiring catcher Martín Maldonado, reliever Ryan Pressly and closer Roberto Osuna en route to winning 103 games and losing to the Red Sox in five games in the ALCS. After the Astros lost to Harper’s former team in the 2019 World Series, Luhnow was let go as a result of the Astros’ illegal scheme to steal and transmit signs.

Toro was the lone player from the Nationals’ hypothetical return to appear in the Majors in 2022, as he hit .185 for the Mariners while playing all over the field. Emanuel spent all of 2022 in the Phillies' Minor League system and is currently on the 60-day IL; Bukauskas spent all season in the D-backs' Minor League system after suffering a muscle strain in Spring Training; James had a 7.01 ERA across 25 2/3 innings with the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate this year. César hasn’t played affiliated ball since 2019.

The road to Harper’s first World Series has been paved with a postseason for the ages that will live on in Phillies lore. That being said, it’s not hard to imagine an alternate universe where he smashed his way into Astros fans hearts four years ago. Luhnow’s comments were just another reminder of how close that fantasy was to becoming reality.