The MLB nonwaiver trade deadline is 4 p.m. Tuesday, and it’s time for the Washington Nationals, who are 52-53 and six games back in the National League East, to face reality and turn free agent contracts into future assets such as prospects and draft picks — and, yes, that includes six-time all-star outfielder Bryce Harper.
Harper’s expected contract demands are well-known by now — his price tag projects to be north of $300 million — and with Washington so far in the rear-view mirror of true playoff contenders, it would make a lot of sense for the Nationals to convert Harper into future value. But General Manager Mike Rizzo seemed hesitant to commit to such a move when asked Wednesday by the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan.
“It would have to be a spectacular set of circumstances for us to do that,” Rizzo said during the segment. “We’re going to do what we have to do to better this team for 2018 and beyond. That’s one of the superstars in the game and he’s a guy that is near and dear to my heart personally, and in Washington D.C., and is one of the great players in the game.”
“Great” may be stretching it. Sure, Harper was the unanimous NL MVP in 2015 after an out-of-this-world campaign in which he hit .330 with a major-league leading 1.109 OPS and a league-leading 42 home runs, but that year has been the exception, with his other six seasons in the majors a mixed bag. Injuries limited him to less than a full season in 2014 and 2017, and he hit just .243 with 24 home runs in 147 games in 2016. He did add 21 stolen bases that season, but when looked at through the lens of wins above replacement (3.0 WAR, as calculated by FanGraphs) Harper was just the 12th-best NL outfielder that year. And that’s the kind of production the Nationals can expect if they hold on to Harper beyond Tuesday, at least according to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections and Steamer’s estimates for the rest of the season.
According to those estimates, adjusted for projected playing time, Harper will hit .270 with 12 home runs, producing an additional 1.6 or 1.7 fWAR through the end of 2018. And that might be optimistic, considering the reasons Harper is struggling this season.
|2018 regular season||G||PA||HR||R||RBI||SB||AVG||OPS||fWAR|
|Bryce Harper (through Sunday)||103||450||25||63||62||8||.220||.842||1.6|
|ZiPS projections (rest of season)||50||215||12||33||33||4||.268||.923||1.6|
|Steamer projections (rest of season)||51||223||12||34||33||3||.271||.929||1.7|
Harper has been struggling with fastballs, striking out in a career-high 25 percent of his plate appearances ending on that pitch. His walk rate this season is near where it was in 2015 (19.0 percent), but he is having trouble making contact on pitches up and away, lowering his overall OPS on these pitches to .994, compared with 1.117 last season and 1.196 in 2015.
It’s conceivable that Harper makes an adjustment and lays off these pitches entirely during the rest of the season, but there is a more pressing issue: how often the defense has been using an infield shift when Harper is at the plate. The soon-to-be free agent has faced an infield shift in 192 of his 450 plate appearances (42.7 percent), resulting in a batting average on balls in play of .240, leading him to create runs at a rate that is 58 percent lower than the league average after adjusting for league and park effects (42 wRC+). The league average for BABIP against the shift is .298 this year, so it’s easy to see how much the shift is costing Harper.
With results like that, you can expect the shift to be used against Harper more, not less, making 1.7 fWAR over the next few months an optimistic projection. That also suggests the Nationals won’t get the boost they may be anticipating by keeping Harper on the roster. It also puts their playoff chances in serious doubt.
Heading into Monday night’s games, Washington has a 42.5 percent chance at making the playoffs — not nearly high enough to justify keeping Harper on the roster past Tuesday’s deadline. It surely would take a lot for Washington to move Harper, and the team probably would only do so if it was certain it would not be able to re-sign him. But if the Nationals get a good enough offer, the smart move probably is to get a solid return on a slugger who more than likely won’t be able to lift his team into the postseason.
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