Starting Monday evening, as Tuesday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline inched nearer, Bryce Harper-mania seized the baseball world. Word spread that the Washington Nationals were listening to offers for the six-time all-star, and news trickled out that other teams might have legitimate interest. By late Monday night, people familiar with their plans said Harper was still available and, as things tend to do this time of year, momentum for a deal appeared to be building.
Then General Manager Mike Rizzo, who said he went sleepless Monday night, sent a text message to The Washington Post at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.
“Bryce is not going anywhere,” it read. “I believe in this team.”
When 4 p.m. came around, Rizzo backed his words with actions. The only move the Nationals made was to send reliever Brandon Kintzler to the Chicago Cubs for right-handed pitcher Jhon Romero, a move that will save them at least $6 million over the next two seasons. Harper was in the Nationals clubhouse and in their lineup, playing right field and hitting third. Nothing else had changed. The Nationals were standing pat, hoping this roster can play to its potential enough to overcome two inexperienced teams ahead of them in the National League East standings.
“We had several discussions with teams about a whole litany of our players. Bryce was one of them. Several teams had more than passing interest,” Rizzo said. “We did our due diligence on Bryce, and about five or six other of our players, and couldn’t come up with a deal that made sense for us for the 2018 season and beyond. So we didn’t make a deal until really late this afternoon when the Cubs came to us with a deal that made sense, and we reacted by trading Kintzler.”
The reason Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez gave for that move was that the Nationals have enough depth to spare a veteran, and wanted to find room for the more versatile Wander Suero, who can provide multiple innings at a time. “We felt that Suero has earned the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues. He’s shown us flashes of brilliance up here,” said Rizzo, who acknowledged that with now-healthy Koda Glover at Syracuse, the Nationals have plenty of depth. Rizzo also cited “financial flexibility” moving forward as partial motivation.
The Nationals could also have cleared more money by trading Kelvin Herrera or Ryan Madson, both of whom are free agents after this season, while the 33-year-old Kintzler has a complicated club and player option that meant he was controllable for two seasons. He was not the obvious choice to move. Some within the organization speculate the deal was as much about Kintzler’s willingness to speak his mind in the clubhouse as his performance. Kintzler was open about the effects his usage and workload had on his performance, though he was pitching to a 3.45 ERA in 45 appearances this season. He was a major presence in the clubhouse, leaned on by veteran starters and less-experienced relievers alike for advice on mechanics and approach.
“I thought they were joking,” Kintzler said of the deal. ” . . . They called me and I said, ‘Am I traded?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ I thought they were joking. Pretty shocked.”
In the days leading up to the deadline, the Nationals also fielded calls and gauged interest on high-priced relievers such as Herrera and Shawn Kelley, while continuing to pursue Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. According to people familiar with the talks between those teams, the Nationals upgraded their offer for Realmuto this week, but Miami still rejected it.
But the bulk of the Nationals’ concerns over the past two days centered around Harper. One team that spoke to the Nationals late Monday night said the Nationals told it they had multiple deals in the works for multiple players, including Harper. That team got the sense the Nationals got cold feet later that night. Rizzo said they never got the right offer.
“It would’ve had to have been a spectacular set of circumstances for us to move a player of Bryce Harper’s ability level,” Rizzo said. “and we didn’t get anything that met those qualifications.”
Harper said Rizzo called him “earlier” Tuesday to tell him he would not be traded, but later said that call came Tuesday morning. Rizzo said he called Harper “later [Monday night]” which would be in keeping with what people familiar with the Nationals’ talks said: Until Monday night, they were listening and considering offers. By the early morning hours, they had decided against a deal.
“I only got in touch with him when some information came out that we were in the midst of looking to trade Bryce Harper,” Rizzo said. “And I thought at that time, it was probably a good time to say that was false information and he wasn’t going to be traded.”
“I think whenever you hear your name or see your name on stuff you always wonder but I think that’s just the business end of the game, it’s part of the game and other teams are trying to get better and it’s just something that came up,” Harper said. ” . . .[I’m] glad I’m still inside this clubhouse.”
By trading Harper, the Nationals would have a) guaranteed a handpicked return for a player who could leave in free agency, yielding only a draft pick; b) freed up a place in the outfield for top prospect Victor Robles, giving the Nationals a dynamic outfield rotation of Robles, Juan Soto, Michael A. Taylor and Adam Eaton; c) relieved that ever-present cloud of speculation about where Harper will go after this season. Harper has always qualified as polarizing, and comments like the one he made Saturday night — when he said the Nationals would not have lost had Realmuto been on their side — alienate teammates who take silent notice.
Rizzo has been a staunch, outspoken defender of Harper. He saw the benefits in getting an arbitration deal done with Harper two years ahead of this tense free agent season. When an anonymous executive criticized Harper this spring, Rizzo found a reporter to whom he could defend Harper vehemently. The Lerner family, which owns the team, has gushed over Harper like one of its own, and Harper himself got emotional when speaking about his Nationals tenure after his victory in that hometown Home Run Derby. So while trading Harper may have made baseball sense if the Nationals did not think they could sign him, it also would have represented a seismic emotional shift in the franchise.
“I’m very happy to write Bryce’s name in the lineup still,” Martinez said, “and I’m looking forward to writing his name every day.”
Jorge Castillo contributed to this report.