Three weeks ago, at the MLB nonwaiver trade deadline, the Washington Nationals were five and a half games out of first place in the NL East and faced with a decision. This year’s Nats had a bumper crop of free-agents-to-be, most notably Bryce Harper, but also Matt Adams, Daniel Murphy, Kelvin Herrera, and Gio González. Washington could either concede the 2018 season and sell off one or more of those players in the hopes of contending in 2019 or trade for big league reinforcements now and make one last run before Harper hit the open market. A five-and-a-half-game gap with two months to go is big, but the Nationals were talented, and neither the first-place Phillies nor the second-place Braves looked like an insurmountable opponent. Either selling or buying would’ve been a defensible course of action.
But faced with this shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment, Washington GM Mike Rizzo did neither, to the great confoundment of the baseball world. He traded reliever Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs but added no big league reinforcements and traded none of his pending free agents. (Kintzler has a team option for 2019.)
On August 21, the Nationals are still one game under .500, now 7.5 games out of first place. Nationals owner Mark Lerner issued what amounted to a concession letter on the team blog, and Rizzo began to offload his free agents. Now, Murphy is en route to the Cubs for minor league infielder Andruw Monasterio and Adams is heading to St. Louis after being claimed on waivers. The Nationals also put Harper on waivers, but were unable to work out a trade with the Dodgers, who claimed him. The hirsute 25-year-old Home Run Derby champion will stay put.
MLB’s trade deadline is something of a misnomer — strictly speaking, there is no trade deadline. July 31 is the last day that 40-man-roster players can be traded without passing through waivers, while a player must be a member of a given organization by August 31 to appear for that club in the postseason. But transactions between those two dates are not only common, they follow a familiar pattern.
In August, most teams place the bulk of their big league rosters on so-called revocable waivers. Once a player is so designated, the other 29 teams have 47 hours to place a claim on him. If more than one team claims a player, waiver priority is given to the teams within the player’s current league in reverse order of record, then to teams in the other league; in this case, the other NL teams got first crack at Murphy, Adams, and Harper. If a player passes through waivers, he can be traded to any team for any other player who cleared waivers or any player not on the 40-man roster. This is how Justin Verlander made his way from the Tigers to the Astros last August 31.
If a team claims a player, his old club could let him go for nothing, with his new team simply absorbing his remaining contract, as the Cardinals did with Adams, or the two clubs can work out a trade over the next 48.5 hours, as the Cubs and Nationals did with Murphy. Failing that, the player’s original club retains the right to pull the player back, after which the player effectively cannot be traded until season’s end.
That the Nationals waived at least Harper, Murphy, and Adams signals that they are finally giving up on a season that has left them behind — Baseball Prospectus gave Washington about a 1-in-9 chance of winning the division on July 31, but now their odds are about 1-in-50.
Under the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the Nationals could not tender Murphy a qualifying offer, since the Mets already did that after the 2015 season. So even though nobody’s ever heard of Andruw Monasterio, a 21-year-old who’s hitting .263/.359/.336 in high-A, he’s better than nothing, which is what Washington would have received if it had kept Murphy until the end of the season. Letting Adams walk for nothing to save the less than $900,000 left on his deal sounds petty, but it must be tough to drum up a satisfactory return for a 29-year-old first baseman with a 118 OPS+ when he’s a free agent after the season and you can negotiate with only one team.
Both players should benefit their new teams: Murphy struggled to get on the field after offseason knee surgery, but he’s hitting .300/.341/.442. The Cubs already have Javier Báez, David Bote, Tommy La Stella, and Ben Zobrist to play second, and Ian Happ can play there, too, even though he’s done so only once this year. But Chicago’s positional flexibility makes it easier to find space for Murphy in the lineup — as long as one of Báez or Addison Russell is in the lineup to play shortstop, Chicago manager Joe Maddon should be able to find a formation in which he can get any seven non-catcher bats in the lineup.
For St. Louis, Adams will be a nice left-handed bat off the bench (he’s hitting .283/.335/.500 against righties for his career) or an alternative to first baseman José Martínez or starting corner outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Marcell Ozuna, all of whom are right-handed, though Ozuna is the only one exhibiting any severe platoon split this year. Adams isn’t a game-changing bat, but he should be a worthwhile addition for the Cardinals at just six figures’ worth of salary.
Harper’s situation is more complicated. Unlike Adams, who’s fine but replaceable, and Murphy, who turns 34 next April, Harper is a franchise player. That means the Nationals have to be just as interested in maximizing their chances of re-signing Harper as they would be in any prospect return they’d get for trading him. Keeping Harper put, if nothing else, prevents him from going to Los Angeles and finding out that he really likes being a Dodger. That might not sound like much, but considering how good Harper is, and how young, even a marginal negotiating advantage would be worth more than most prospects. Even more so when you factor in the public aggravation of dumping the face of your franchise to a rival during a lost season.
From the Dodgers’ perspective, claiming Harper kept him away from their own rivals in the NL West and wild-card races. By virtue of trailing most of the other wild-card contenders in the standings, the Dodgers had first waiver priority, and while they might not have made Rizzo an offer he couldn’t refuse, the Rockies or Phillies or Diamondbacks might have. The Dodgers and Nationals never held serious negotiations on a Harper trade, but keeping him away from rivals down the stretch would be worth the effort it takes to file a waiver claim.
It’s possible that Murphy could go on another postseason tear like he did in the 2015 NLCS, but these transactions probably matter more optically than materially. The Harper waiver claim might be the most significant, even though he stayed put, because it ensures that he’ll go into free agency with the Nationals. But after seven years and four division titles, with no playoff series wins to show for it, these moves all but close the book on Harper’s pre-free-agency career in Washington. If he signs elsewhere, Washington will have to find a new path to contention, and there’s no ignoring that reality now.