Should the Nationals actually trade Bryce Harper? It was a question we half-jokingly posed on Twitter earlier this week, figuring such a thing could never actually happen. Then they proceeded to run their losing stretch to five in a row and eight of nine, before Trea Turner powered an incredible comeback on Thursday night.
Maybe that's the start of it, that Thursday's wild comeback was the jolt they needed. Maybe it was just a nice night, given that allowing 12 runs to one of baseball's weakest offenses is still a problem. Either way, even with the win, the Nats are just a .500 team, with a worse winning percentage than Tampa Bay, Colorado or Oakland. They're in third place in the National League East, six games out and looking upward at six teams in the NL Wild Card race.
Washington has lost 21 of 31 since May 31, a .323 winning percentage that's better than only the Mets, Orioles and Royals in that time span. Maybe a question that sounds objectively crazy on its face actually isn't: Should the Nationals, in the face of a tremendously disappointing season, trade the man who was expected to headline one of the best free-agent classes of all time this offseason?
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The answer is clearly, "Not yet, obviously," and not just because the Nationals certainly aren't going to do anything this wild before they host the baseball world at the All-Star Game later this month. This is not something that could or should happen soon. But what if that answer changes in the next few weeks? Let's try to find out what would need to happen for the Nats to completely change the face of the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The Nationals would need to completely fall apart
For this to happen, the Nationals couldn't be on the fringes of the race. They'd need to be out of the race. If this were the American League, that would have already happened. Fortunately for them, they're in the NL, where no team has more than a 1 1/2-game lead in their division.
The Nats can point to a 20-7 May as evidence they can pull it together when they need to. They can say that they've added Kelvin Herrera and Juan Soto, that Daniel Murphy is finally healthy, and that Stephen Strasburg could return soon as well. They can point to a relatively difficult recent schedule full of the Red Sox, Phillies, Rays and Yankees, and note that only six of their remaining July games come against winning teams, when they face Atlanta and Milwaukee after the All-Star break.
That's all fair. There's a ton of talent here. But this isn't just bad luck, either. Since June 1, the Nats' offense has scored the ninth-fewest runs, thanks to the 14th-best OBP and 23rd-best slugging percentage in the Majors. Their pitching staff has a 4.96 ERA, the third-highest, due in large part to an NL-high 50 homers allowed and baseball's highest slugging allowed, .466. Other than Soto and the continued excellence of Max Scherzer and Anthony Rendon, this has been a team-wide effort.
Then again, time is short. In the nearly five decades since divisional play arrived in 1969, only three teams that were 10 or more games back at the Trade Deadline came back to win their division, most recently the 2006 Twins. Only two teams that were eight or more games out of a Wild Card spot came back to make the postseason, and the '11 Rays and Cardinals each required what was essentially the wildest day in baseball history to get there. (In the era of two Wild Cards, it's 7 1/2 games.)
So that's where we'll set our boundaries. If the Nats are coming up on the Trade Deadline at 10 games out in the NL East and at least eight out of an Wild Card spot, this is plausible.
Harper would need to turn around his slump
At first, you'd think this is the hard part: If Harper starts hitting, then the team would be more likely to start winning, negating the entire question. Right?
Well, it's actually the easy part. Harper has started hitting, and the team still isn't winning. Over his previous 15 games before going 0-for-3 with two walks Thursday, Harper was hitting .229/.415/.521. That's not an impressive batting average, but it's also the least important number there. That line is a .930 OPS, or a .390 wOBA, or a 146 wRC+. No matter which number you prefer, it's strong production.
Fifteen games doesn't guarantee anything, but there's plenty of evidence Harper's skills are intact. He has baseball's second-highest walk rate, behind only Michael Trout, and a Top-20 hard-hit rate, better than Javier Baez or Paul Goldschmidt. Harper isn't hitting more grounders, though he is pulling the ball 10 percentage points more than he did last year, leading to his shift issues -- and he's being shifted 60 percent of the time in 2018, up from 22 percent last year.
If you care about batting average, Harper's low mark is a deal-breaker. Most teams won't. It won't be hard to find a team in love with his skills.
The Nats would need to buy into the idea of a "reload," not a "rebuild"
If you trade Harper, you're admitting you're not likely to make a run in 2018, and that means you can make some noise. Murphy will be a free agent after this season, and so will Giovany Gonzalez, Matt Wieters, Herrera, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Adams and Mark Reynolds. Not all of those names have trade value, but several do, and they could be packaged in groups.
But that doesn't mean that the Nationals would be entering a rebuilding phase. For 2019, they'd still have Scherzer, Strasburg and Rendon. They'd have Turner, Soto and Sean Doolittle. They'd have Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman, Tanner Roark, Victor Robles and Brandon Kintzler.
Throw in whatever would be brought back via trade, and 2018's embarrassment could turn into '19's excitement -- if the team was willing to buy into that point of view.
So, if all that happens, and the Nationals are willing to make a move …
Where would Harper fit?
This is the fun part. It would have to be a playoff contender, obviously, and it would have to be one that could seriously use outfield help. That probably rules out the Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, Cubs and Dodgers. Let's throw in the Braves, too, given Nick Markakis's season and now that Ronald Acuna Jr. is healthy again.
Then there's the "maybe, but probably not" teams. You could maybe see the Astros wanting to add Harper to fill left field next to George Springer and Josh Reddick, but it feels unlikely. That's probably true for Arizona and Philadelphia too, each likely preferring Manny Machado.
One team that would be a good fit but probably doesn't have enough to trade is Seattle, which could slide Harper next to Mitch Haniger in the outfield. But the best fit is indisputably in Cleveland, where the Indians still haven't fixed the outfield problem that was glaring entering the year. They have baseball's fourth-worst outfield hitting line (.257/.310/.380), as Michael Brantley has been the only useful bat.
"The Indians have bigger issues in the bullpen," you might say, and they do. But that's what makes it so perfect. If Washington is going to do this, it might as well do this -- and package Harper with Herrera for a larger prospect return. Whatever it takes to get catching prospect Francisco Mejia, really; no team has received less offense from their catchers this year than Washington.
Again: This is phenomenally unlikely. It still sounds a little nuts in the first week of July. But if the Nats don't turn this around soon, and the post-All Star run through the Braves and Brewers goes poorly? We might not be asking how they could do it. We might be asking how could they possibly not do it.