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Bryce Harper and other Nationals were claimed on revocable waivers. Here’s what that means.

Daniel Murphy was claimed off waivers, then dealt to the Cubs. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Update: The Nationals traded Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and Matt Adams to the Cardinals, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. Bryce Harper was not dealt. (Full story)

On Friday, the Washington Nationals placed Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Gio Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds on revocable waivers, according to people familiar with their plans. Teams had two days to put a claim on the players. Of the group, at least Harper, Murphy and Adams were claimed. The winning teams were notified Sunday and have until Tuesday afternoon to work a trade with the Nationals.

None of that is surprising. Most teams place most of their players on waivers at some point in August, and the Nationals have never been the exception. It does not mean they want to trade Harper, Murphy or Adams, or even that they would. It does not mean they are about to sell off, though they still could. That a team claims one of those players — Murphy, for example — does not mean that player will be leaving. The Nationals have 48 hours to work out a trade with the claimant, or just pull him back. They can also pull him back immediately.

Confused? Hopefully this helps:

When people refer to the July 31 trade deadline, they often drop the “nonwaiver” part of the title. July 31 is the last day teams can exchange players without first putting them on revocable waivers. After that, teams have until Sept. 1 to acquire players who would be eligible for the playoffs. To acquire players in August, teams must navigate the waiver wires.

Those wires are ordered based on a team’s position in the standings and the team’s league. Since the Nationals are in the National League, the NL’s worst team on the day the players were placed on waivers has the first crack, followed by the second-worst team on up through the best team. The priority then shifts to the American League, beginning with the league’s worst team through the best team. So it is harder for winning teams to claim elite talent late in the season unless that talent is owed so much money that no other team wants to inherit the salary commitments, which is what happened when the Detroit Tigers placed Justin Verlander on waivers last August. He passed through unclaimed and was traded to the Houston Astros.

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The Nationals have always placed their top talent on waivers, so nothing they have done in the past week is unprecedented. Placing players on waivers is a no-risk way to assess the market. For example, had the Nationals considered trading Harper last offseason (they didn’t), placing him on waivers in August would have given them a sense of who might be interested. Similarly, with a soon-to-be free agent the team wants to keep, placing a player on waivers allows teams to see who might be interested in paying for his services in the offseason — in other words, who might be their competition.

One reason for heightened vigilance this season, however, is that the Nationals are 7 1/2 games out of first place on Aug. 21 and considered a sell-off at the trade deadline three weeks ago. At that time, ownership and management agreed this team deserved a chance to pull things together. Three weeks later, it hasn’t.

Trading Harper seems out of the question. Trading Adams would only save the Nationals less than $1 million, so unless the team that claimed him is willing to part with an elite prospect, a deal seems unlikely. Flighty as Gonzalez has been, the Nationals need him for innings now — again, barring some explosive potential return. As for Murphy, exactly how Washington would handle that situation remains to be seen. Selling Murphy would alleviate some salary obligations, about $4 million, and perhaps get the Nationals some return for a player who is ineligible for a qualifying offer this year.

Still, with six games coming up against the Philadelphia Phillies over the next eight days, the Nationals still have some mathematical hope of a miracle turnaround, and General Manager Mike Rizzo has never been one to surrender. At this point, that $4 million isn’t much in the grand scheme of a team likely to watch a half-dozen free agents depart without any major compensation. Trading Murphy as part of anything less than a total sell-off would seem a wishy-washy approach, which has never exactly been Rizzo’s type. Then again, when it comes to saving money, ownership might have the final say. At this point, anything seems possible.

What remains unclear is how many other players the Nationals placed on waivers, and how many of them got claimed. The return for veteran relievers such as Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera would be minimal given their recent injuries. Trading Harper seems an absolute impossibility at this point. In other words, trading Murphy would not be part of a larger sell-off and would not save the team much, but it would signal surrender in a way this team never has. Barring some exorbitant prospect return, the Nationals still seem unlikely to deal him, either.

This season has brought recently unprecedented calculations for a franchise used to being, as Harper put it Sunday, “super far ahead” this time of year. The Nationals’ approach to waivers could change because of their place in the standings, but no one has given an indication that it has, and as of right now, rumblings about who was claimed and who wasn’t, who is on waivers and who isn’t, do not necessarily mean anyone intends to dismantle the team’s roster just yet.

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