The Washington Nationals are five and a half games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. They are struggling to maintain consistency in every facet of their game, and this offseason, they are likely going to lose the player who is arguably the biggest star in baseball this offseason to free agency, Bryce Harper. Since the Nationals can’t see to put anything together to make a serious bid for the postseason this season, it may be best to see what sort of return they could get from trading Harper, instead of letting him go in free agency.
This is where the Chicago Cubs come in. The club is looking to shore up some of the holes in their team in order to make a push for the playoffs this season. One of the more discussed holes to be filled for the team is their need for more stable arms in the rotation and the bullpen, but there will never be a team that can’t use one more solid slugger in the lineup. After all, given Harper’s fascination with the Cubs, they are a contender for picking him up this offseason, so by picking him up at the deadline, they have a headstart in negotiations, while also letting Harper get used to being a Cub and actually competing for a World Series title. But what could Harper bring to the Cubs other than his star power?
Harper is in the middle of a struggling season when it comes to consistent contact with the ball, as he is hitting just over the Mendoza line at .213, with an OPS of .837. The batting average doesn’t exactly do Harper justice though, as he has still hit 22 home runs and driven in 51, while also working 78 walks so far this season. His defensive play has never been spectacular, but it’s not atrocious either, as shown with his .981 cumulative fielding percentage over his career. He can play every outfield position at a major league level and has even started to show interest in learning how to play first base, as well, so if the Cubs have interest in him, they can find a place to put him.
As discussed before, Cubs’ star Kris Bryant and Harper have a long history with each other, dating back to playing against each other back in high school, so there is already a personal connection with one of the core stars of the team for Harper to attach to. The biggest argument for the Cubs pursuing this trade is that, with the addition of Harper, on paper, the Cubs have one of the fiercest lineups in baseball for at least the next three seasons. This is when their stars either become free agent eligible or in the case of Anthony Rizzo, their contracts expire.
In order to acquire Harper, the Cubs will need to trade their best prospects to the Nationals and may have to attach one of their young stars in the trade, as well. Prospects like pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Oscar De La Cruz, with shortstop Aramis Ademan would have to be on the table for the Nationals to even consider selling Harper at the halfway point. Then the Cubs would need to add in a current star to help the Nationals as soon as possible, so someone like Albert Almora or Kyle Schwarber would need to be added to the list, which would have the additional benefit of creating an opening in the lineup for Harper to fill.
The Cubs could reasonably acquire Harper at the deadline. They have the resources needed to convince the Nationals to trade him, while also having the supporting cast around him to make sure that his talent isn’t wasted like it was with the Nationals. But what could hold them back from pushing for this deal? The main issue with this potential trade would be that the Cubs would have to find a way to avoid being hit with the dreaded luxury tax if they add Harper. Harper would bring in an additional $21 million salary to the team, which would almost assuredly put them over the luxury tax limit of $197 million, as they are currently estimated to be at $184 million.
The next obstacle for this trade is that, by dealing away Harper mid-season, the Nationals are sending the message to their fans that they aren’t serious about competing for the playoffs this year. They aren’t that far behind the Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, so it isn’t that unlikely that they make a late-season comeback to clinch a spot in the playoffs. The only reason why the Nationals are in the position to where they should listen to any conversations involved in dealing away Harper is that they have been so inconsistent throughout this first half of the season. But if the team isn’t made an offer that they can’t possibly refuse, suitors will be hard pressed to convince them to abandon their chances at the postseason this year.
The final obstacle with this deal is that by making this trade, the Cubs would absolutely have to come to terms with a long-term contract extension with Harper before he hits free agency this offseason. To deal away all the required prospects that they will have to send only to lose Harper to another team in the offseason would be a massive blow to both the team, and to its fanbase.
Overall, the Cubs are in a unique position when it comes to Bryce Harper. They can compete with every other team in the league this offseason to acquire Harper, or they can make a quick move now and use him as they chase their second World Series title in the last three years. Neither choice is without its risks, so the Cubs have to figure out if the reward is worth it or not.