Well nothing will quite get me out of a “I’m not writing about baseball” Post-Post-Season funk like a ridiculous trade rumor. Indeed, this rumor is ridiculous enough that it barely merits a post-but I’ve heard it from more than one person quoting one that different source. In addition to the MLB Trade Rumors/Baseball Prospectus “anonymous source” saying there is interest from the Red Sox to acquire Bryce Harper (and that the Nats are not opposed to it), I had my very own Nats source (who heard it from someone who heard it from someone…) confide a similar sentiment being passed around the inside the halls of 1500 South Capitol St. SE. Now the story I heard first hand was brought to me in a questioning “do you think they could do this capacity?” The second source, of course, was speaking off the record to…someone.
Now we’ve got plenty of review of the 2014 seasons, Free Agency previews, and other baseball items coming down the pipeline that are far more salient than the article I am about to write. But you know after the NLDS, I need an easy one folks. So allow me to rip this one up pretty good for you in case you have any worry that this could happen.
A “Major League Source” could be anyone from a GM to a janitor, and given that there is no indication where the source is from or what they do it is just as likely that they are a janitor or a GM for Arizona as they are Boston or Washington. I could get an anonymous source to say anything, and if I happened to speak with him outside of Fenway Park I could legitimately start a sentence “A source close to the Red Sox…” (Note: you could do the same thing if you were sitting behind the Red Sox dugout when the visited Baltimore).
Still, Baseball Prospectus does an OK job so we shouldn’t dismiss the source out of hand. Let’s look at their version of the quote:
He’s only 21 years old and there is a lot of talent there, but we are starting to reach the point where there may be cause for concern. He has not had a good year, and his hitting mechanics are all screwed up. It’s as if he is almost jumping at the ball. He comes out of his swing so hard and fast. He plays out of control all the time, in every facet of his game, and it’s clear he has become a distraction to Matt Williams. It would not surprise me if they end up trading Harper for a young arm and hold on to Denard Span.”
The Scott Allen article above (link) does an excellent job of dispelling the idea that there is some “young arm” out there that the Nationals covet, let alone one that belongs to a team like the Red Sox. We’ll come back to why the scenario, on its face, doesn’t make any sense in a moment. For now let’s focus on the characterization of Harper.
The description of Harper as a wild, uncontrollable menace fits far more with the idea of SportsCenter caricature of Harper than the actual person and player. Fans in Washington, the people who’ve watched him day in and day out, know the player is not nearly the wild card others make him out to be. While Williams and Harper may have had some friction earlier this year, bench-gate was more or less the end of it. When push came to shove, Williams acknowledged and defended Harper as a quality part of the team.
The flippant “I know he’s 21, but…” attitude of the source further erodes its credulity. There are 15 players in the MLB in that are 21 or younger and only three of them played 100 games or more this year (Machado would have if he hadn’t been injured). Any 21 year old that makes the majors is going to have flaws in his game-this is what comes of roughly being the age of a Potomac National. Everyone in the Nationals organization likely understands that Harper’s best years are many, and they are all ahead of him.
The characterization of Harper seems ridiculous, incendiary, and over the top from the get go. It writes off a player who has been in the league for three years when most players are only just getting into a farm system. It plays into what most people think of Harper, not what people who actually watch him think.
Even if you are skeptical of Harper’s worth (and that sort of makes you insane, btw), why would you trade Harper for prospects now? In an injury plagued season, Harper did put up a lackluster 1.9 fWAR in total contribution to the Nats. Even if you don’t believe in fancy things like WAR, it is one way that people calculate how good a player is-and it’s been pretty consistent that the going rate for 1.0 fWAR is roughly $6 million. Even if we give the Nats a steep discount down to $4.5 (for no real reason, let’s just do it) that’s almost $9 million worth of production out of a player they are paying a little more than $2 million for.
And he isn’t going anywhere or getting a pay raise anytime soon. Harper is under team control until at least 2018, and short of redoing a contract with extension, he’s going to be playing for the Nationals for no more than what his arbitration value is. Of course, you want to get those types of things resolved as money can make relationships contentious, but the Nats are in the driver seat.
Also, look at the chart in think above. FA means Free Agency. The overwhelming majority of this team is in tact for 2015, a team, I hasten to remind you, won 96 games this year. A healthy Bryce Harper may be asked to step up as the preeminent left handed hitter on a team losing Adam LaRoche. Forget other teams that need left handed hitting, the Nationals are a contending team that needs left handed hitting.
And for prospects? Pitching prospects? The Nationals have arguably the best rotation in baseball. Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann may be free agents in 2016, but not next year, and I’m sure the Nats will be trying to secure the services of one, if not both, of them. If the Nats want prospects, they can wait until they know a guy like JZ or Fister won’t resign with the Nats and trade one of them (who they will lose anyway) and get prospects.
Prospects don’t help a team on the cusp. Also, Lucas Giolito.
What to Get Back?
Even if there are teams who would be interested in Bryce Harper (and to be fair, who wouldn’t be?), what precisely would someone send back to the Nationals anyway? A pitcher (why? The Nats have starters and bullpen arms are much cheaper than trading away Harper.) An infielder? An outfielder? Several players?
That’s just it-the Nats don’t need a bunch of players. They may not even need one player. Any player the Nationals could use to help them right now, in the immediate window they have to be successful, is already a cornerstone of any team they would send Harper too. Why would a team trade a McCutchen or Stanton or a Trout (players that would be a step up from Harper in the maturity of their play) when it would be a step down for them? These are all young players that play well, and at best would represent a wash, or a slight gain, for either team.
Maybe you think you could replace Harper with a guy like Souza Jr., a young star that shined this September. But is he going to replace Harper’s (left handed!) bat? Likely not, and certainly not likely away. You can hold on to you “I liked what I saw” and “he just needs a chance” prognostications, but let’s be clear- you don’t monkey with a 96 win club unless you’re undoubtedly sure its a step in the right direction.
“Put Ryan Zimmerman in left field” you yell. But why? He’s going to be a solid first baseman, you have a stud third baseman in Rendon who you can move to second (if you want to sign a guy like Pablo Sandoval in the off season) or keep there (if you want to retain the services of Asdrubal Cabrera). Putting Harper in left barely fixes the outfield, and creates more problems than it solves in the infield.
The problem is that Harper is a large piece on a good team. You move him, and you need to fill the hole he leaves behind. Anyone who can fill that hole is going to be roughly worth what Harper is worth. If the Nats were a terrible team and wanted to get a handful of quality prospects, or if the Nats had a ready to go replacement to step in and wanted to address another problem on the team (Ask the Oakland A’s how that worked out by the way), it might make sense.But for now, even an unruly, unmanageable Bryce Harper is going to produce more than nearly anybody the Nationals could get back in return.
Mike Rizzo has made his bones on smart trades, not stupid ones. Nothing about this smells smart at all. You can never say never, I suppose, but I’d put this right around the risk of being struck by lightning