Bryce Harper ruled the All-Star Home Run Derby, but it has been an up-and-down year for Washington's slugging free-agent-to-be. Given the Nationals' struggles, we asked our experts if the Nats should consider doing the unthinkable in trading their star player before he hits free agency, just as the Orioles are on the verge of doing in nearby Baltimore.
Now that Manny Machado is on his way out of Baltimore, how crazy would it be to consider trading Bryce Harper?
David Schoenfield: Absolutely crazy. They're 5 1/2 games out of first place. Why would they trade a player who -- while having a disappointing first half -- could be the best hitter in the National League in the second half? The Nationals have too much talent to punt and trade Harper. Plus, with Juan Soto already here (in the majors) along with Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, and Victor Robles coming next season, it's not like the future is grim.
Eddie Matz: 100 percent looney-bins. If they trade Harper, it would seemingly torpedo whatever relationship they have with him and agent Scott Boras, which would dramatically decrease their chances (to, like, zero) of re-signing him in free agency this offseason. Beyond that, given Harper's meh first half and the fact that it would just be a two-month rental for whoever gets him, the return wouldn't justify it. Besides, odds are that Harper heats up going forward -- just ask Manny Machado, who had a poor first half of 2017 that nobody seems to remember now.
The Nats are 5 1/2 games out in the NL East and five out in the wild card at the break. Is there a number that could grow to before July 31 that would make you change your mind?
Schoenfield: I think they could lose every game and still not trade him. Their goal -- aside from winning this year -- is to re-sign him. Those odds go way, way down if he's traded.
Matz: Hate to keep completely agreeing with Dave, but ... I completely agree with Dave. Even if Washington loses all 11 of its games between now and the end of the month, the Nats have to hoard Harper (see: relationship, torpedo whatever). Even if they hold on to Harper and he ends up leaving via free agency, the Nats will get some draft-pick compensation, so there's that.
How much did this week's Harper showing at the All-Star Game factor into your opinion?
Matz: I'm going to go against the grain here. Instead of saying "none" like Dave did, I'll go with "zero."
Which should be a bigger factor on deciding to trade Harper: Winning in 2018 or impact on re-signing him?
Schoenfield: Well, winning now when you have the chance should take priority over something that may not happen. But they're not mutually exclusive. You can do both!
Matz: Winning in 2018. Again, let's look at Machado (since everyone's spent the past few weeks doing nothing but looking at him). Last year, he rebounded from a rough start (.230 with 72 strikeouts before the break) with a big second half (.290 with a .500 slugging percentage). If Harper can do that, along with a healthier Daniel Murphy and Stephen Strasburg, there's no reason the Nationals can't claw their way back and reach the postseason for a third straight year. Once they're in, anything can happen.
Harper has had an up-and-down season, do you think the HR Derby could give him a lift in the second half? Prediction for his final batting average and total homers.
Schoenfield: He's got a big hole to climb out of in the batting average department, and the increased strikeout rate is as concerning as all the 4-3 grounders. I'll say he gets up to .235 with 41 home runs.
Matz: I'm all-in on the "Derby could turn Bryce's season around" theory. Harper had nothing to lose by doing the Derby, and everything to gain. He'll finish at .249 with 43 bombs, one more than his previous career high.