Whether Bryce Harper returns to Washington for 2019 is a pivotal question, but it’s just one issue the Nationals will face this offseason. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

All that’s left for the Washington Nationals is to announce the date pitchers and catchers report next February. In the hours before the in-the-thick-of-things Philadelphia Phillies arrived Tuesday at Nationals Park for what was supposed to be an intense series that would help determine the National League East champion, the 2019 season began.

By trading Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams to, respectively, the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals — two of the nine NL teams that entered play Tuesday with better records than Washington — the Nationals’ front office signaled that their next meaningful games will be in West Palm Beach, Fla., where they will assess next year’s team. In a matter of hours, the meaningful question flipped from “Can the hugely disappointing Nats sweep the Phillies?” to “Who will fill out the rotation next April?”

“I know what the standings say,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “and what the calendar says.”

That’s the grim reality: A team that was the easy favorite to win a third straight division title entered the final five-plus weeks of the season under .500. Its most recent performance — a 12-1 disaster of a loss to Miami on Sunday — “said a lot,” according to Manager Dave Martinez. Making moves that might, even in a tiny way, help for the future is responsible. This isn’t the front office waving the white flag. This is the players, after 125 indifferent games, waving it for them.

“It’s nobody’s fault but the players,” Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National, said after the trades but before the first Phillies game. “We have to play better, and when we don’t win games, it’s because of us. It’s not because of Davey or Rizz or any of those guys. Those guys get the blame all the time, but at the end of the day, if we want to win games, we got to play better.”

That’s slightly refreshing, to hear some accountability. The problem: For too long, those players didn’t play better. And so Murphy goes to the Cubs, who beat the Nats in the 2017 playoffs and effectively ended their 2018 with a jaw-dropping walk-off grand slam just more than a week ago. And Adams goes to the Cardinals, who finished the job by taking three of four from the Nats last week.

The return here in prospects — one Class A player from the Cubs and another to be determined— isn’t important. This is a salary dump by a team that has been above the $197 million luxury tax threshold, one that has been taxed on every dollar over that number. Getting only money back for Adams — the Cardinals will pay his salary — isn’t satisfying for fans, though it will provide relief on the Nats’ tax situation. So hold Rizzo to the words he uttered Tuesday: “The money that we are making from the cash considerations goes directly into procuring talent for us to compete in the future.”

Which leads us to pull out that depth chart, gather up a few tea leaves and try to figure out what this team might look like in 2019. That now matters more than the next several weeks.

Any evaluation, of course, has to be built around whether Bryce Harper stays or goes. This season — like so many of his seasons here — has been all about him. His free agency has hung over the clubhouse since spring training. It’s an inescapable baseball story in bars and on talk shows. So it’s hard for it to just evaporate from the clubhouse, even if Harper doesn’t talk about it.

There will be plenty of time and ink devoted to that topic, so stay tuned. But for argument’s sake, let’s say Harper signs elsewhere. It’s an easy argument to make, because 29 other teams will be able to vie for his services, and as much as he likes Washington — and it says here that he likes Washington — getting a deal done is a two-way street. This is a complex and fluid situation, and I wouldn’t be completely blown away if Harper ends up a Nat for life.

A front office, though, has to have if-this-then-that scenarios to build a team. And the Nats, for certain, have a scenario in which they account for Harper’s departure. That would be to have an outfield of Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton, with Michael A. Taylor as the fourth guy. Soto will be 20 and Robles still 21 on Opening Day, and in 2019, they will make less than $1.2 million — combined. Eaton is due just $8.4 million. There simply aren’t competent starting outfields in the majors for less than $10 million, but that might be one. It’s certainly one with intriguing upside.

Go around the infield. They don’t need a third baseman (Anthony Rendon) or a shortstop (Trea Turner) or a right-handed-hitting first baseman (Zimmerman) for 2019, though it makes sense to acquire a left-handed hitter who can spell Zimmerman.

The offensive holes are obvious: second base, where Murphy was due to depart as a free agent anyway, and catcher, where free-agent-to-be Matt Wieters has been an offensive liability for his two seasons in Washington. (Of the 31 catchers with at least 500 plate appearances since the start of 2017, Wieters’s .648 on-base-plus-slugging percentage ranks, um, 29th. Thanks for your service, Matt.)

“There are a ton of second basemen on the market next year,” Zimmerman said. “I have a year or so left here. Two big horses at the top of the rotation who are here for a while. A closer that is really good. I can keep going . . .”

The big horses: One is Max Scherzer, who seems otherworldly and wholly reliable. The other is Stephen Strasburg, who Wednesday against Philadelphia is due to start for just the second time since June 8. Like it or not, any conversation about the future of the Nats includes Strasburg, who is only in the second season of a seven-year deal. Yes, he has questions to answer about his ability to show up and pitch. But there’s no chart in Rizzo’s office that doesn’t show him in the rotation for 2019.

Other rotation pieces: Tanner Roark will be here, and Gio Gonzalez won’t. Both of those facts are positive for Washington. Joe Ross should return from Tommy John surgery, and Erick Fedde will get another opportunity. Sean Doolittle will be the incumbent closer.

So the primary offseason needs, whether Harper re-signs or not: catcher, second base, two starters and the bullpen. It’s not nothing. But it’s not impossible.

“We keep hearing about this window that we have that is closing that I could never understand with the talent base that we have, with the youth that’s being infused into this ballclub, with the veteran presence we have,” Rizzo said. “We like the team we have in 2018. We like the future rosters we have in place beyond that.”

Rizzo’s chief tool: bravado. It was on display again Tuesday. But even as the general manager puffed out his chest and reminded everyone that his team is the reigning division champ until it’s eliminated, the thrust of this season changed.

Summer is over. Check on those February flights to West Palm.