The state of the Washington Nationals, ahead of Tuesday’s 4 p.m. nonwaiver trade deadline, can best be explained by the mere fact that anyone was asking about it at all. Once a World Series contender, this team has looked so utterly incapable of convincing contention that one could argue for selling off free agents-to-be. So the question — should they buy or sell? — lingers.
As of late Monday afternoon, that question had no answer. People familiar with the Nationals’ plans said the team was fielding calls on players, such as their veteran relievers, who could be jettisoned for salary cap relief. A person involved with their dealings with the Miami Marlins said the teams had extensive talks about catcher J.T. Realmuto but that the Marlins continue to ask a “king’s ransom,” even as the Nationals offered what they believed was a strong package.
And, as of late Monday, the sense from people around the team was that the Nationals had not ruled out trading Bryce Harper. What no one seemed willing to clarify was whether the Nationals were simply doing their due diligence by listening to offers or actively soliciting them. The gap between picking up the phone and actively negotiating is wide, and no one with the team gave any indication of whether they had bridged it.
If the whole picture seems muddled, it should be. Consensus around the majors this past weekend held that the Nationals’ series against the Marlins would determine their status moving forward. The Nationals made a statement, losing two of four to a last-place team and doing so without much scrappiness. And yet, because they are trailing two inexperienced teams — the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves — in a relatively weak National League East Division, they will reach the trade deadline just 5½ games out of first despite being a game under .500.
In other words, even when it comes to deciding whether to buy or sell, they are not making it easy on themselves. The Nationals left General Manager Mike Rizzo to determine his 2018 team’s fate while perched in an unexpected purgatory. Do the Nationals, surrounded by clouds of negativity they can’t seem to shine through, sell off their future free agent relievers Shawn Kelley, Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera, attractive veteran bats such as Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams, and their superstar Harper? Do they pass, holding their hand to see how the cards play out in the end? Could they choose to add, deciding that a piece here or there could change their fortunes?
One way to discern the team’s intentions would be to use history, which suggests Rizzo is not one to throw in the towel. His public message — as disseminated in radio and television interviews because he has not been traveling with the team — has changed little over the past few weeks.
Trading off pieces, particularly the larger-than-life Harper one, would require extraordinary circumstances. Like much of this season, even their circumstances do not seem to qualify as extraordinary. If the Nationals were to pick up a game per week on the Phillies and Braves over the rest of the season, they would win the division. They are not at all out of it yet.
Besides a lack of precedent, the Nationals seem highly unlikely to trade Harper after years of cultivating a relationship strong enough to foster a graceful exit from their franchise. Over the past few years, the team has tiptoed around Harper, rolling out red carpets, finalizing arbitration deals a year in advance so potentially hostile negotiations wouldn’t taint his final year before free agency.
When Trea Turner didn’t run out a groundball, he got benched. When Harper didn’t run out a groundball, one example in a larger pattern, he got spoken to behind closed doors and played the next day. When he called out his catchers in a comment suggesting the Nationals wouldn’t have lost Saturday had they upgraded at the position by trading for Realmuto, he suffered no consequences.
As he has struggled to boost his average about .220, his manager and general manager and everyone in between have been relentless in their defense of the 25-year-old. Internally, they see these disconnects, and players see the organization holding Harper to a different standard. This team is trying to make Harper comfortable, and if the Nationals are taking calls, they are almost certainly asking for a king’s ransom of their own in return — despite Harper’s struggles this season.
And therein lies one baseball argument against selling. Almost everyone they have to sell has hurt his value. Almost every veteran in a contract year has played like a man feeling the pressure. Not only are the Nationals still within striking distance of two unestablished teams, but they do not have much to sell. Kelley, Herrera and Madson would all net something, and the Nationals have a good history of plucking diamonds from the rough grass of minor league back fields. But all three of them have struggled at times this season, and none is the kind of can’t-miss piece the Yankees sold in Aroldis Chapman two years ago. Murphy is not the player the Nationals signed when he got here. Gio Gonzalez, whose numbers suggest he could help a contender, is only just finding himself again. Even Harper’s value feels less clear now, and the Nationals would never sell him for just anyone.
Then again, getting something for players such as Kelley, Madson, Herrera, Murphy and Adams is better than nothing, particularly with this front office’s player development track record. Even if they make a qualifying offer to Harper, the Nationals would get only a draft pick for him. Selling off pieces as the Yankees did in 2016 would allow the Nationals to infuse their system with more young talent while not at all conceding 2019 as a lost cause.
In other words, the window remains wide open, and Rizzo could have a chance to remodel this roster with plenty of money to spend. Add even the modest return of young talent he could secure in selling off pieces, and the Nationals could maximize their value and be dangerous again next season.
But could they still be dangerous this season? And if so, would selling steal their best chance yet?
These are the questions Rizzo and his team must answer decisively before 4 p.m. Tuesday, decisions that will determine the fate of this disappointing season and perhaps seasons to come. Injuries won’t let this team materialize as intended. The firing of a veteran manager after back-to-back 95-win seasons set a rookie manager up to answer questions about whether he belonged in the first place, then continue answering them as his team could not duplicate its previous winning pace. The underperformance of several key players has left the Nationals unable to stay above .500. And the relative weakness of their division means they are still not quite out of it yet, and that their front office’s decisions about what to do now are about as difficult as they could be.