By Cliff Corcoran
The Washington Nationals have been heavily involved in trade talks this offseason. After trying to acquire Pirates star Andrew McCutchen and Cy Young contender Chris Sale, before the White Sox and Red Sox agreed to a blockbuster swap on Tuesday, it looks like the Nats have completed a deal for the White Sox's Adam Eaton with a package reportedly headed by prospect Lucas Giolito. Regardless of whether they make any more big moves or not this offseason, the Nats have made it clear that they are willing to use their farm system in pursuit of a title.
Why the urgency? Some of it is likely frustration from an organization that has made the playoffs three times in the past five years but never advanced past the Division Series, repeatedly falling short of expectations in a city that hasn't seen a pennant winner since 1933 or a World Series champion since 1924. More practically, however, the ticking clock is the one marking the time until Bryce Harper becomes a free agent after the 2018 season.
It has long been a given that Harper, under the direction of his agent Scott Boras, would test the market rather than sign an extension with the Nationals. One very good reason for that is that Harper is a good bet to land the largest free-agent contract in the game's history. Indeed, one Nationals executive recently told USA TODAY Sports' Bob Nightengale that Harper is seeking a 10-year contract worth "at least" $400 million, a figure which would indeed be record breaking, but is also surprisingly easy to justify given Harper's age and potential and Major League Baseball's booming economy.
That said, there are concerns. Even if we accept that a right shoulder injury was to blame for Harper's drop in production in 2016, something neither Harper nor the Nationals have officially confirmed, that would still mark the third time in the past four seasons that his performance has been impacted by injury. In 2013, he developed bursitis in his left knee after repeatedly running into outfield walls, spent all of June on the disabled list and, after a red-hot April, hit just .254/.351/.420 over the remainder of the season. In 2014, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb on a head-first slide into third base in late April, missed two months, then hit just .268/.342/.424 after his return. This year, he got off to a blazing start again, but despite avoiding the disabled list, hit just .235/.367/.392 after April.
Given that history, it suddenly seems possible that the promise of Harper's last two team-controlled seasons could prove to be more valuable than Harper's actual on-field performance in those seasons. With the Nationals clearly intending to make a big splash on the offseason trade market, one avenue they should be exploring is what kind of return they could get for Harper.
The trick is that Harper is a win-now player, and the Nats, even if they were to trade Harper, are a win-now team. NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is 32. NL MVP Award runner-up Daniel Murphy will turn 32 on April 1. Stephen Strasburg is 28. Anthony Rendon will be 27 in June. Only the world champion Cubs exceeded Washington's 95 wins during the 2016 regular season. There's little doubt that the Nats could land an impressive prospect haul for Harper, but that's not what they need. Even if they were to trade one of their other top prospects -- such as center fielder Victor Robles -- for a big-name veteran, dealing Harper to re-stock the farm system would make little sense given the hole it would create in their outfield.
A Harper trade would thus have to be a star-for-star swap with a fellow contender, ideally for another outfielder, and the only way even that would make sense for Washington would be if the player they acquire has more years of team control remaining than Harper. That sounds like a stretch, but there are still a few players the Nats should ask about.
Might Harper be enough to pry Kyle Schwarber away from the Cubs given that Schwarber is a man without a position in Chicago? Schwarber has five years of team control remaining, could capably replace Harper's left-handed power bat in the Nationals lineup, and would not be blocked by an MVP-quality first baseman or a young stud catching prospect in Washington. Would the Astros, who have been going big on veterans this offseason, adding Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick, be willing to swap George Springer for Harper? Springer has four team-controlled years remaining and was a five-win player in 2016, but he's already 27 and doesn't have Harper's ceiling.
Would the Red Sox be willing to fork over Andrew Benintendi's future, which includes all six team-controlled seasons, to put Harper in their lineup for the next two years? The Sale trade was just the latest evidence that Dave Dombrowski, Boston's president of baseball operations, is not shy about trading prospects, and while Benintendi impressed as a rookie this past season, he has just 127 Major League plate appearances (postseason included) under his belt and likely many adjustments to come. If the Red Sox are going big, why not go all in with Harper?
Might the Rangers be similarly tempted to surrender Nomar Mazara's five years of team control in an attempt to fend off the Astros and get back to the World Series? Mazara was an elite prospect and won't turn 22 until April, but hit just .227/.286/.370 from June 12 through the end of the 2016 season.
None of those players is going to put up a 10-win season like Harper did in 2015, but they're all solid bets to match or exceed the two Wins Above Replacement Harper averaged in 2013, '14 and '16. They would all slot directly right into the Nationals' 2017 lineup, and they would all be cheaper than Harper and come with at least twice as many remaining years of team control.
I don't typically traffic in trade speculation, but given Harper's injury history and rapidly approaching free agency, the Nationals would be doing themselves a disservice not to at least find out if they could get more for Harper's final two team-controlled years than two more seasons of frustration and a compensatory Draft pick.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.