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The Nationals must think about the unthinkable: Trading Bryce Harper

For the first time in seven summers, the Nationals may be sellers at the trade deadline, and that means they have to think about trading star outfielder Bryce Harper, who will be a free agent after the season. (Morry Gash/Associated Press)

Forget what you expected of these Washington Nationals when the season began, and consider this over these four crucial games in Miami against the built-to-lose Marlins: After Thursday night’s 10-3 win, the Nationals are a flat .500, they have won as many as three straight games once since the end of May, Stephen Strasburg is back on the disabled list, and both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves are ahead of them in the National League East.

The wild card? Don’t even talk about the wild card, because the Nats look up at six teams in that race, of which they are not a part.

So, then, for the first time in seven summers, we face the serious question: With the nonwaiver trade deadline coming up Tuesday, should the Nationals sell?

You can’t ask that inevitable question before the next one roars up like a freight train: Should they try to trade — gulp — Bryce Harper?

Back away from the ledge. Let’s walk through this.

Strasburg is back on the disabled list with a pinched nerve

First, this kind of assessment has to be internally honest, and that means abandoning hope that’s tied more to emotion than to fact.

Some facts: Neither the current Braves nor Phillies have been postseason participants. Neither is infallible. Washington has outscored its opponents, meaning it should have a winning record, not a losing one. The lineup the Nationals roll out each day looks, when it’s written from top to bottom, as if it can flat rake.

And yet, there are more facts to offset all that. The Nationals entered Thursday 11th in the National League in runs. Strasburg is on the disabled list. Closer Sean Doolittle is on the disabled list. Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton all have missed at least two months with injuries. The average on-base-plus-slugging percentage for a major leaguer entering the day was .726. The Nationals’ team OPS was .722. They are below average.

Below average means they’re not a playoff team. To win 90 games — a good threshold for reaching the postseason — they have to play .650 baseball the rest of the way, more than two months.

The realistic, honest assessment is that’s unlikely. That has to be hard for General Manager Mike Rizzo to admit because since he and his team built the Nationals into an annual contender, he has spent July adding, not subtracting. Last year, it was Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler to steady a wayward bullpen, but in past years it was Kurt Suzuki or Asdrubal Cabrera or Mark Melancon or (sorry) Jonathan Papelbon. Shoot, just last month it was Kelvin Herrera.

Help walks into the home clubhouse at Nationals Park. It doesn’t walk out.

But it’s time to send some of that talent out the door. The list of Nationals whose contracts are up at the end of the season includes Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Madson, Herrera, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Adams, Mark Reynolds and Matt Wieters.

Nats’ veterans represent best hope for a turnaround

To varying degrees, those are assets. The way Rizzo has run the Nationals, from a personnel standpoint, is to employ a rolling plan for the current year, for three years ahead and for five years down the road. For a franchise that has traded away so much minor league talent in recent seasons, one way to be responsible to the three- and five-year view would be to bring in prospects — who could help the big league team in future seasons or be dealt for players who can help in pennant races to come.

Now the Harper question. It’s a big one.

“It would have to be a spectacular set of circumstances for us to do that,” Rizzo said in an interview this week on 106.7 The Fan. “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.”

Right there, Rizzo hit on the heart of the conundrum: This is personal. It’s more than just a baseball transaction. This gets to the core of the sport here. When Harper first came to the majors six years ago, he helped spark an upstart team to its first division title. Just last week, he won an emotional Home Run Derby in the only home park he has ever known. This is fabric-of-the-franchise stuff.

But isn’t it possible there could be, as Rizzo said, “a spectacular set of circumstances”?

Manny Machado, the other franchise-changing free agent on the market this offseason, already was traded, and his presence in Los Angeles makes it feel as if the Dodgers are now the team to beat in the NL — unless another team were to make a serious play for Harper.

Nationals-Marlins series preview

Is he having a lousy year? Yeah, by his standards. But he’s maybe the only player in the game who could have a “lousy” year and still be leading the league in both home runs and walks. His mere presence could reshape a playoff lineup.

I don’t think it’s a no-brainer that Harper will sign elsewhere in the offseason. Indeed, if you handicapped the field, maybe the Nats would have the best odds to land him — say, a 15 percent chance, as opposed to the Dodgers at 12 percent, the Phillies at 10 percent, the Yankees at 8 percent, etc.

But I also think, in an honest assessment, it’s more likely Harper lands with one of the other 29 teams than he does back in Washington. There’s a better than 50 percent chance he’s gone.

And if that’s the internal calculation, too, then the responsible thing — for the future of the franchise — is to see whether there’s a spectacular set of circumstances out there.

Rizzo didn’t return messages Thursday, which isn’t surprising. He has work to do, and the four games against the Marlins might determine which way he peddles. The remaining schedule includes seven games against the Braves and nine against the Phillies. Maybe, just maybe . . .

No, no. Take emotion and expectations out of it. We’re so used to the Nationals being buyers at this time of year, it’s hard to say it: They have to think about selling, and that means thinking about the unthinkable — trading Harper.

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