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10 Degrees: How the underachieving Nationals reached the point where trading Bryce Harper could make sense

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

One look at the Washington Nationals roster, and it’s almost impossible to understand how they’re below .500 and considering selling their free agents-to-be as Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline approaches. In terms of pure talent, the Nationals might have the most in the National League. What went wrong? Plenty, actually, beyond the injury issues that have been cast as the prime culprit.

“The clubhouse is a mess,” said one source, whose account was corroborated by three others who spoke to Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity out of fear the organization would punish them for speaking publicly. While the sources pinpointed a number of causes for the internal acrimony, they agreed that it was not purely a function of the Nationals’ underachievement but something that has festered throughout the season.

Some of the blame, they said, falls on first-year manager Dave Martinez, who replaced the popular Dusty Baker when Nationals ownership declined to renew his contract after back-to-back NL East championships. While Martinez has forged good relationships with a number of the Nationals’ stars, including Bryce Harper, a number of players feel marginalized, according to sources.

One recent example, they said, was following Saturday’s loss to Miami. J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins’ All-Star catcher and a player coveted by the Nationals all winter, blooped a bases-loaded single down the right-field line for a walk-off victory. Harper’s response after the game: “If that guy was on our side, it wouldn’t have happened. Tough luck.”

A number of people inside the organization saw Harper’s comment as unprofessional and potentially divisive among his teammates, according to sources. Though all acknowledged the seed of truth in it, they also wondered why the Nationals would need Realmuto to win when they haven’t done so with a surfeit of talent already.

Leadership beyond Martinez remains a question, too. While starter Max Scherzer engenders enormous respect inside the clubhouse – enough to dress down the team during a players-only meeting he called July 4 – he does not cut the classic veteran-leader figure. Whether that role is even necessary is arguable, though for a franchise breaking in its fifth manager since 2011, such a guiding hand could have helped intercede with Harper or the dugout kerfuffle last week between Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

It’s been a rough first season for new Nationals manager Dave Martinez. (AP)

Whatever frustration Scherzer may harbor is understandable. He leads the NL in innings, strikeouts and wins. The Nationals are 16-6 in games he starts. They are 36-47 in ones he doesn’t. For a team with Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, rookie sensation Juan Soto, Matt Adams, Mark Reynolds and even the injured Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy, with practically the same rotation from the Nationals group that went 97-65 last year, with a bullpen that boasts five players who have closed games in their careers, that is staggering, almost unbelievable.

It may be enough to keep the Nationals from a wholesale sell-off, even though they’re loaded with pending free agents and could mimic the Yankees’ 2016 reload. At 52-53, the Nationals are six games back of NL East-leading Philadelphia. Atlanta is 4½ games in front of Washington. The Nationals are also six games back for the second wild-card spot, with four teams ahead of them and one tied with them. There are success stories from this position. The 2014 Kansas City Royals were 53-52 through 105 games, five games out of first and 3½ back of the second wild card. They went to Game 7 of the World Series.

The Nationals haven’t won a playoff series since moving to Washington and the franchise has just one win in its 50-year history, in the odd playoff format of the strike-shortened 1981 season when they were the Montreal Expos. Since Harper arrived in 2012, they’ve lost four division series – three of them in a win-or-go-home fifth game. And considering …

1. Bryce Harper is slated to hit free agency and seek hundreds of millions of dollars this winter, the idea was for one last hurrah with this core that looked so good on paper and played so well in reality. Which made the weekend packed with far more urgency than any typical July games: Internally, the Nationals wanted to win at least three of four against the Marlins to remind themselves this was a team worth keeping together.

Washington won the first two games of the series. Then came Saturday’s walk-off. And Sunday, they got an infield hit from Harper in the first, went seven innings without another and walked off the field in Miami victims of a two-hit shutout and oodles of uncertainty.

Already earlier in the week, when Yahoo Sports first reported the Nationals were engaging other teams in case they decided to sell, Harper had wondered whether he would be among those leaving. The 25-year-old asked friends and confidants whether they thought the Nationals might trade him, sources said. His uncertainty was telling: Even the franchise player was confused about the Nationals’ tack.

Bryce Harper is slated to hit free agency and seek hundreds of millions of dollars this winter. (AP)

With less than 48 hours to go until the deadline, putting together a deal for Harper would be difficult. The Nationals have shown no indications that they might consider dealing him, no matter how prudent a move it would be. Even with his .220 batting average, Harper would draw massive interest on account of his NL-leading 84 walks and his 25 home runs, second best in the league.

Though the Dodgers have been connected to Harper, they almost surely would exceed the competitive-balance tax threshold by doing so, which would scuttle nearly a year of maneuvering – and would only highlight other opportunities they missed by trying to do so. The Dodgers make sense baseball-wise, and other teams believe them to be the favorite if the Nationals choose to move Harper, but it simply doesn’t add up.

With Aaron Judge out for at least three weeks with a chip fracture in his wrist, the Yankees will be connected to Harper, too. Their situation resembles the Dodgers: too close to the $197 million CBT threshold to absorb Harper’s $21.25 million hit, too much to lose by not dipping under when it’s an achievable goal.

Of all the teams, the Cleveland Indians make far and away the most sense. They desperately need outfield help. They could absorb the remaining $7 million or so of Harper’s salary. The issue would be the prospect cache the Nationals would demand. They could ask, rightfully, for something similar to what the Dodgers gave the Baltimore Orioles for Manny Machado – and the Indians, an organization that thrives because of its ability to produce homegrown talent, almost certainly would balk at mortgaging some of its future for a rental in a league with the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and Yankees playing as well as they are.

Of course, all of this could be moot because, as one source put it: “He’s the face and ownership writes the checks.” And as the Nationals consider trading …

2. Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson and Shawn Kelley – not to mention Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Hellickson and Reynolds and Adams and Murphy and maybe even those under contract for 2019 and beyond, too – ownership is expected to play a big role.

Longtime owner Ted Lerner has helped shape the Nationals for better and worse, spending lavishly on players while facilitating the managerial carousel. He yielded control of the team in June to his son, Mark, who’s expected to continue playing a far more hands-on role in baseball operations than most owners. It could mean shedding Herrera, the reliever for whom they traded June 18, or Madson and Kelley, two other veteran bullpen arms.

The others could be more difficult to move, particularly if they hold onto Harper in hopes that perhaps they can sell a reliever or two and still have enough to catch the Phillies if they go on a run. If the Nationals wanted to get truly creative, they could consider packaging Herrera with Rendon, who is going to be a free agent after the 2019 season and will demand well over $100 million.

That sort of creativity could allow the Nationals to quickly reboot around Scherzer, Strasburg, Turner and an outfield of Soto, Eaton and top prospect Victor Robles, a major league-ready 21-year-old center fielder. If the Nationals want anything substantive from this deadline, it might be the best route to take, seeing as the supply in …

3. The relief market is way, way, way outstripping the demand. Alongside Herrera, Madson and Kelley are rentals Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo, Jake Diekman, Bud Norris and Zach Duke. And if none of those tickle your fancy, pay a premium for players under control beyond 2018 and consider Raisel Iglesias, Keone Kela, Kirby Yates, Jose Leclerc, Craig Stammen, Jared Hughes, David Hernandez, Shane Greene, Blake Parker, Jerry Blevins, Fernando Rodney or even Roberto Osuna.

The New York Mets were criticized for their return on Jeurys Familia when they dealt him to the Athletics, but they foresaw this glut of relief pitching and didn’t want all their leverage to get cannibalized. There could be a flurry of deals for relievers over the next day and a half, but buying teams are trying to do exactly what they did with free agents this winter: wait as long as possible, hope that prices drop and steal productive pitchers for next to nothing.

With Familia, Zach Britton, Brad Hand, Ryan Pressly and Joakim Soria among those dealt already, the crème de la crème are off the board. Maybe a few true impact, late-inning sorts are there to be had. Which is better than the group of starters, where only …

4. Chris Archer inspires teams to consider offering top prospects. And that’s as much due to his contract (three years, $27.5 million) as it is his performance, which is two-thirds of the way to a third consecutive season with a 4-plus ERA.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer’s name is in the middle of trade rumors once again. (AP)

His peripherals tell another story, and it’s the hope that Archer can be another Gerrit Cole that intrigues the San Diego Padres, New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves, all of whom have shown interest in Archer, according to sources. The Padres have been especially engaged though have yet to accede to the Rays’ demands, leaving Archer in limbo. The source who last week said he would be “completely stunned” if Archer was dealt doubled down this week. Despite what others deemed advancement in talks and a greater willingness from Tampa Bay to deal Archer, he remained confident the Rays would hold onto him.

Of course, this is the deadline, and things change in an instant, and …

5. Zack Wheeler could be the newest Milwaukee Brewer. Remember, he was supposed to be one already, with a 2015 deadline deal agreed upon to send him and Wilmer Flores to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez. Then Flores broke into tears on TV, the Mets said they saw something in Gomez hip and the deal went kaput.

Now, Wheeler is a 28-year-old putting together a nice comeback season. He threw six shutout innings Sunday. He’s not a free agent until after the 2019 season. There are other similar starters the Brewers could pursue – Minnesota’s Jake Odorizzi, Detroit’s Mike Fiers – but Wheeler has far and away the best stuff and highest upside.

The biggest roadblock is that Wheeler’s employer is the Mets, the team still trying to figure out whether it needs to rebuild or try to win with this core. When it dealt …

6. Matt Harvey that wasn’t an indication either way. It was simply a recognition that he needed to get out of New York and go somewhere he could rekindle his career without the distractions, pitfalls and microscope of the city.

Matt Harvey has sat around 95 mph for his last eight starts. (AP)

Cincinnati was the perfect proving ground, and Harvey has more or less done just that. His fastball velocity in his most recent start hit its highest point in more than a year, right around 98 mph. He has sat around 95 mph for his last eight starts. He is no longer the Dark Knight. At best, a team can hope that he would settle in as a No. 4 starter. Truth is, with free agency on the horizon, he won’t – and shouldn’t – cost much to rent.

The paucity of available starters is enough to at least pique some pitching-poor teams’ interest in Harvey. If he happens to land on a contender, it will be due to good fortune, whereas …

7. Adrian Beltre and Adam Jones can guide their way, should they so desire. The 39-year-old Beltre and 32-year-old Jones are two of the most fascinating deadline cases because both are in demand and both have the ability to thwart any attempt at trading them.

They have 10-and-5 rights – 10 years in the major leagues, five with the same team – that allow them to veto any deal. The Phillies made a run at Jones, according to Fancred’s Jon Heyman, but any potential deal fell apart when Jones indicated he would rather stay in Baltimore, where has spent the last 11 seasons.

Like Jones, Beltre will hit free agency this winter – and like Jones, his affinity for his current team does not match its record. Jones’ Orioles are an MLB-worst 32-74. Beltre’s Texas Rangers are last in their division, at 45-62. And while Beltre desperately wants another shot at a World Series after reaching it with Texas in 2011, he’s weighing the potential of reaching it elsewhere with the benefits of perhaps finishing his career in the uniform that defines it as much as any.

It’s quite simple: The Rangers will do what Beltre wants because the respect for him runs so deep. It’s a unique situation, not entirely dissimilar to the one …

8. Brian Dozier and the Minnesota Twins face. The market for second base is not nearly as robust as it was last week. The Cleveland Indians might consider an upgrade over Jason Kipnis, though Dozier hasn’t been a whole lot better this year. Depending on the severity of Rafael Devers’ hamstring strain, perhaps the Red Sox would consider grabbing Dozier to allow Brock Holt to move to third. No other contender has an obvious hole at second – and that includes San Francisco, which isn’t over .500 and has Joe Panik returning soon.

Minnesota Twins’ Brian Dozier bats against the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning of a baseball game Friday, July 13, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP)

So where does that leave Minnesota? Something could crop up because it’s the deadline and it always does. Absent that, though, the Twins face a very interesting decision: If they do have to hold Dozier, do they tender him a qualifying offer this winter?

It’s expected to be somewhere in the $18 million range for one year. That would nearly double the career earnings of the 31-year-old Dozier if he accepted. If he rejected it, the offer could saddle him as he hits free agency, as it has plenty of others in their 30s. Fearful a hitter coming off a season in which his OPS is .716 might accept, the Twins could hesitate to offer it at all. That would mean losing Dozier for nothing, which could prompt them to lower the trade cost so much that a contender acquires him for depth and figures it will find a good role for him somewhere. Contrasting the imminence of a Dozier decision is the case of …

9. J.T. Realmuto, whom the Nationals still covet enough that they’re reportedly willing to make Robles the centerpiece of a deal. Which is funny, seeing as during offseason talks between Miami and Washington, Robles was off-limits and the Nationals were trying to build a package around Juan Soto. Yes, the same Juan Soto hitting .310/.418/.567 as a 19-year-old.

The 27-year-old Realmuto would make a great addition for any team, which is why it makes sense for the Marlins to wait until the winter to shop him more aggressively. It’s understandable, too, that with the number of relievers available, they’re not trying to sell Kyle Barraclough, Adam Conley and Drew Steckenrider, their high-quality, under-control bullpen arms. At the same time, the Marlins doth protest too much in their vehemence to running an organization well by saying that holding onto relievers constitutes them doing such.

“Things have changed in Miami,” president Michael Hill told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. “There is a plan and a commitment to building something sustainable.”

Miami Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto watches after hitting a two home home run during a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants. (AP)

If the Marlins’ plan and commitment consists of holding relief pitchers through years in which they plan on slashing payroll and supplementing the major league team with one of the worst farm systems in the major leagues, it is a spectacularly boneheaded play. Relief pitchers are far and away the most volatile asset in the game. If they are good and you are not, there’s not just an impetus to trade them. There’s an imperative.

Barraclough? Bye-bye. Conley? Ciao. Steckenrider? Sayonara. That can extend to others, like Derek Dietrich, whose versatility and bat could bring a hefty return. If things really have changed in Miami, they will finish the teardown they started by trading Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna and go full-on tank instead of where they are now, slated to pick seventh in the draft. Dirty though it may sound to suggest a franchise so used to losing does it even more, picking early does more to facilitate a rebuild than anything. Just ask the Nationals, who were in the playoffs two years after they took …

10. Bryce Harper with the first overall pick in 2010. It’s odd to consider their marriage could end in the next few days – because that seems to be the only chance the Nationals have to move him.

It’s wrong to compare Harper’s situation to Justin Verlander, who was dealt Aug. 31 last year to Houston. Here’s how it would work: Harper would be put on waivers. Every team can place a claim on a player. The team with the highest priority wins the claim. Waiver priority is in reverse record order by league, meaning the Padres would get first crack. Harper almost certainly wouldn’t get past the Phillies or Braves – and if he did, some contender somewhere would jump on it, because the best-case scenario of a claim is you get the player and pay the rest of his contract.

This is why Verlander went unclaimed last year: more than $60 million remained on his deal. Going unclaimed meant he could be traded to any team. If Harper were claimed, the Nationals could pull him off waivers and negotiate a trade only with the team that won the claim. Should they not be able to work out a deal, he would remain with Washington for the rest of the season.

Which leaves until 4 p.m. Tuesday to get something done. And that’s on the long shot the Nationals’ ownership even considers such a thing. The likelier scenario is that Harper plays out the rest of the season in Washington, with the only team he ever has known, the one for whom letdown has become a defining feature. Yes, the injuries were tough to weather, and yet Soto wouldn’t be thriving in the major leagues if not for them, and Adams wouldn’t have mashed nearly as much as he did without them, and Reynolds wouldn’t have done his thing.

It’s not injuries that made the Nationals a 52-53 team. It’s the injuries and the culture and the bad luck and the mismanagement and the confluence of things that must mix together to render talent this impressive practically inert. It’s almost impossible to understand. And it’s a mess of their own making.

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