The Case for Trading Bryce
This week, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper won the Home Run Derby and is batting sixth in the All-Star Game, all in a city he’s called home since 2010.
And since his 2012 debut, across seven years, Harper has put up some impressive stats in D.C.: 855 hits, 564 runs, 173 home runs, a .277 career average, and a .384 OBP. His average 162-game slash line, through age 25, is .277 (AVG)/33 (HR)/89 (RBI). That is, indeed, All-Star level stuff.
Despite all this, I’m going to douse Harper’s All-Star week with a cold-water take: the Nats should trade him.
Are you crazy?
Probably. After all, Harper may be a future Hall-of-Famer. If he continues his pace of 33 home runs a year for, say, 12 more years (bringing him to age 38), he’d rank among baseball’s all-time home run leaders (specifically, tied for 13th with 569).
But Harper — despite his lackluster year, hitting .214 and worth 0.0 WAR so far — is more likely than not to leave Washington after this year, for the bright lights of Chicago or New York or even Philadelphia. If 2018 ends up being his least productive year, maybe he’ll sign a one-year extension with the Nationals. Then, if 2019 is another 2015 (MVP) year, expect Harper to bolt to a bigger city.
The Nats could trade Harper now, to a team pursuing a playoff run and in need of outfield help, and their outfield would still be set from 2019–2021:
- 19-year-old Juan Soto is raking, and is under team control through at least 2023
- 21-year-old Victor Robles, one of the game’s top prospects, is close to Major League-ready and is likely under team control through 2024
- 29-year-old Adam Eaton is on a team-friendly deal (with club options) through at least 2021
Despite the bright future, the Nats haven’t been getting much outfield production this year (-2.0 WAR, ranked 24th in MLB). Other positions, though, are in even worse shape:
- Catcher productivity is dead-last in the league (-2.4 WAR, ranked 30th in MLB)
- Their starting-pitcher WAR, 4.2, is sixth-best in the league, but betrays broader problems: team ERA ranked 13th in MLB in April and 1st in May, but an ugly 26th in June and 25th in July
If the Nats can trade Harper for a major upgrade at catcher or starting pitcher — someone who’s under team control for a few years, at least — it would be well worth the pain of losing a franchise face early.
So…who gets Harper?
Surely, most of the 29 teams would want 25-year-old Bryce Harper and his star power, even if just for a few months. But figuring out who would be willing to give up a worthy package for a slumping, contract-year Harper is tough.
The original criteria — a team pursuing a playoff run and in need of outfield help — eliminate a bunch of teams.
- 14 teams (9 AL, 5 NL) are no longer in serious playoff contention
- The Nats would be very unlikely to trade Harper to either of the NL East playoff contenders (Phillies, Braves)
- Four other contenders don’t need outfield help: Boston (7.0 WAR from outfielders), the Yankees (6.4 WAR), Milwaukee (5.3 WAR), and Chicago (3.1 WAR)
That leaves nine teams: the Dodgers, Houston, Seattle, Oakland, Arizona, St. Louis, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Colorado.
What do the Nats get in return?
If the Nats are to make a serious playoff run in 2018, they need a solid fourth starter (beyond Max Scherzer, an injured Stephen Strasburg, and a slumping Gio Gonzalez) and a reliable catcher.
They won’t find a Harper trading partner among the teams with the best catchers in baseball. Miami (#1 in catcher WAR) is in their division, Pittsburgh and Chicago (tied for #2) are not good fits, and it’s unlikely the Nats would trade Harper for an aging Buster Posey from the Giants (#4).
So a major-league ready starter it is. Which teams need outfield help and have WAR to spare when it comes to starters? Try four: the Indians (7.6 SP WAR, #2 in MLB), the Rockies (6.5 WAR, #4), the Astros (5.1 WAR, #5), and the Dodgers (3.7 WAR, #8).
Possible pickups for the Nats from this bunch? (NOTE: FIP below stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, which MLB calls “arguably a better tool than ERA for evaluating a pitcher’s effectiveness.”)
- Cleveland’s 27-year-old Mike Clevinger (3.47 ERA, 3.31 FIP this year; under team control through 2022)
- Colorado’s 26-year-old Jon Gray (5.44 ERA this year, but 3.03 FIP; under team control through 2021)
- Houston’s 24-year-old Lance McCullers Jr. (3.77 ERA, 3.63 FIP this year; under team control through 2021)
- The Dodgers’ 30-year-old Kenta Maeda (3.12 ERA, 2.76 FIP this year; under team control through 2023)
One-for-one trades don’t happen too often in baseball anymore, but a young starter under team control would give the Nats more of a return for Harper than seeing him depart in free agency this winter. It’d be an unpopular move in 2018, and maybe beyond, but one the Nats should consider to save this fall, 2019, and the 2020s.
August and everything after
If the Nats make another big, but necessary moving — trading SS prospect Carter Kieboom, who plays a position firmly occupied by Trea Turner, for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto — the lineup and rotation could look like this:
- Turner, SS
- Soto, LF
- Rendon, 3B
- Murphy, 2B
- Realmuto, C
- Adams/Reynolds/Zimmerman, 1B
- Eaton, RF
- Taylor, CF
- Scherzer, RHP
- Strasburg, RHP
- Gonzalez, LHP
- Clevinger/Gray/McCullers Jr./Maeda
That’s a team that could make a playoff run, even without Bryce Harper.