Anytime you sit down to write a column on how your favorite team would not be entirely crazy to deal its cornerstone player despite being in first place, it feels weird. Now multiply that sensation by the ludicrous trade partner I am about to reveal, and things teeter on the brink of insanity. Still, given certain individual results (both in and out of the boxscore) during this weekend’s series against the Reds, I’d ask that you don’t strap that straightjacket on me just yet…
My former roommate was involved in a 6-way, mid-game Twitter conversation today about Bryce Harper that got fairly heated, especially given that the Washington Nationals were winning at the time. I’ll spare you the full recap, but essentially the two sides were split between never trading a player of Harper’s potential talent and those willing to consider exploring it. [For an in-depth look, you can play with this embedded feed here.]
— James O’Hara (@nextyeardc) July 27, 2014
It got me to thinking: is such a trade even conceivable? More accurately, would a team be willing to part with a face-of-the-game, #1 overall draft pick when they happen to be leading their division and are armed with arguably the best pitching staff in either league and no real obvious holes in the batting order outside of 2B? When it’s phrased like that, the answer would appear to be no. But let’s dig deeper.
Outside of the occasional highlight package, Harper hasn’t looked right for over a calendar year. He has only hit 11 home runs in the five full months he has played since returning to full-time duty on July 1, 2013. I could be wrong, but his lack of non-HR deep fly balls (both fair and foul) makes me wonder if and when he will recover that legendary prodigious power he once displayed. Hitting bombs in BP or against minor league hurlers is totally different than doing it on MASN, Fox, or ESPN. Obviously, the long ball is only one part of his game. But with it gone, his barely above league-average batting splits, far too common bad decisions on the basepaths and in the field, combined with rather frequent personal-performance-based outbursts make him a huge question mark in my mind.
If the Nats were a mediocre to awful team, it would be easy to sit back and let Bryce iron out the kinks. Unfortunately for him, they are not. What we have here is a textbook example of a baseball catch-22. The team doesn’t have the luxury of letting him develop when they are in the midst of an extremely tight playoff run. Yet they are gun-shy when it comes to dealing him because they don’t want to look bad if he later becomes an annual bonafide MVP candidate. Add to that the near-impossibility of a temporary tuneup in the minors (given the player’s psyche) and it’s more than a catch-22; let’s call it a catch-34. It’s a tough spot to be in, for sure. Yet, as ridiculous as it sounds, only one path allows everyone to move on, for better or worse. So it would be foolish not to at least see what the team could get for him, in spite of the front office and PR nightmares that could persist for many seasons.
I’m no expert on the ceilings of other teams’ minor league prospects, so I’m going to limit my search to guys who are already contributing on MLB rosters. As stated earlier, second basemen are the natural target for the Nationals given the makeup of their roster. I say this for two reasons: (1) When Ryan Zimmerman comes back, he can be slotted directly into Harper’s spot in LF. (2) Sure, the Nats could reinstall Zim at third and shift Anthony Rendon to second, but the chances of trading Harper for another outfielder seem minuscule, so I will not be examining that here.
Moving forward, I have identified four 2B who are worth exploring because of their superior play and presence on teams looking toward the future: Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Chase Utley. Despite Bo Porter’s familiarity with Harper, we can dismiss Altuve immediately because: (1) he is already the Astros’ best player; (2) he’s locked into a team-favorable contract situation for many years; (3) the Astros have a bunch of young stud OFs already.
Dozier was an all-star this year thanks to some impressive stats. He already has 19 HRs and 16 SBs and it’s not even August. His contract is tiny and he isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2016. He’s also the only guy on this list who plays in the American League, so Harper would have scant opportunities to deliver payback down the line. However, I would have a tough time pulling the trigger on a guy who has a lifetime batting average of .238. On the Nats, he’d likely bat eighth because of it, meaning he’d see fewer good pitches, thus increasing the likelihood his average and power would decline. Furthermore, the Nationals PR department would have to put in even more work justifying making a trade for an 8th place hitter.
Murphy presents an interesting case. He’s also a first-time All-Star this year for exactly the opposite reason Dozier was. He’s currently sitting at .291 but with fewer SBs and even fewer HRs than the Minnesota 2B. But he also has a lifetime average of .290 over twice as many seasons (.315 at Nationals Park), knows the pitchers in the division, and is also being actively shopped by the Mets. Plus, rumor has it that Bryce likes the New York stage, so he might be thankful. Of course, trading Harper to a divisional opponent is not ideal. Other than that, the two biggest knocks against him are his age (29) and the fact that he will likely get a bump up from his $5.7 million salary next year, which also will be his last year before free agency. This actually wouldn’t be the worst transaction in the world, but it could leave the Nationals empty-handed in a little over a year.
Which brings me to Utley. Yes, Chase Utley. It seems like heresy to even whisper his name in this context, but he is the guy. Anyone who follows baseball knows the Phillies are chomping at the bit to commence their going-out-of-business sale. And while Utley is continually mentioned as the one guy who wants to stay, something tells me that the right deal would allow him and the team to backtrack just a bit. He has virtually the same stats as Murphy right now, and could be a free agent at the end of next season, too. [If he piles up 500-AB seasons year after year, things would extend through 2018.]
He’s a World Series winner, has the marketing cache to mitigate that portion of the inaction argument, and seems to be past the injury bug that hit him at the start of the decade. That said, he is 35, plays for an NL East foe, and has a relationship with Jayson Werth that would need to be examined with a fine-tooth comb. He is also likely going to add $15 million to the payroll next year. Assuming the Lerners are willing to take on that money (or a portion of it, if the Phillies offer monetary relief), an even swap of Utley for Harper would help the Nationals win in 2014 and 2015. At that point, all parties could reexamine things… Utley could even opt to finish his career in Philadelphia.
In most cases, this outcome would be more than enough for me. But I think Philadelphia would need to sweeten the pot to help others get past the age and inherent contract discrepancies. And since Ruben Amaro is willing to trade virtually anybody he employs, why not make the deal contingent on the Phillies throwing in Ben Revere. All Revere does when he plays is hit around .300 (against righties and lefties) while swiping a ton of bags. For whatever reason, the Phillies choose to sit him twice a week or bat him 8th another two times a week. He makes under $2 million now, is only 26, and would be a great fill-in until Zimmerman comes back, and an even better insurance policy in case things go awry there. He’d also be a great value replacement for Denard Span (and his $9 million team option) going into next year.
Does a Harper for Utley/Revere trade still sound stupid to you? Comment below. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since it will never happen in real life. But maybe it should… [Unless the Werth-Utley rumors from a few years back were more than just rumors. In that case, this officially will have become the dumbest blog post in the history of the Internet.]
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that the Nationals should move Bryce Harper. This is merely a quick brainstorm on a deal that might actually make some sense if Mike Rizzo wants to roll the dice before Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline. Let me repeat: no one is advocating a Bryce Harper trade.