Who likes a good “what-if” game in November? I know I do.
The Astros won 103 games this season and made a second-consecutive trip to the ALCS. Although the Red Sox would eventually eliminate Houston in five games in the said ALCS, it was an all-around successful season when taken in the right context.
But how different would the 2018 season have ended if the Astros acquired superstar outfielder Bryce Harper from the Nationals back in July? According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, a deal almost happened.
Harper-to-Houston would’ve changed the dynamic of the season’s second half. While the result may not have changed, the Astros could’ve been viewed as the favorite in the AL heading into the postseason. The 2018 Red Sox were a historic team, so a 1-A and 1-B scenario may have been more appropriate. At the same time, it is unlikely that Harper would’ve closed the gap in the standings.
Regardless of Boston, the Astros could’ve used Harper’s bat in the lineup. Josh Reddick, a fine right fielder on any team, finished his season slashing .242/.318/.400 with 17 home runs and a 99 wRC+. His second half, in particular, was disappointing when he had a 91 wRC+. For comparison, Harper slashed .249/.393/.496 with 34 home runs and a135 wRC+ in 2018. But the star slugger had a 159 wRC+ in the second half following a first-half “slump” when he had a 118 wRC+. Going into a postseason with a hurt Jose Altuve and a less effective Carlos Correa, Harper would’ve paired nicely with Alex Bregman and George Springer atop the lineup. Maybe the Red Sox don’t try to pitch around Bregman as much in the ALCS, which was one reason, albeit small, why the Astros didn’t succeed.
Rosenthal reports right-handed pitcher J.B. Bukauskas, catcher Garrett Stubbs, and a low-level prospect would’ve been sent to the Nationals as the return. By MLB Pipeline, Bukauskas is currently ranked as the club’s eight-overall prospect, and Stubbs listed as the fifteenth-overall prospect. Astros’ top prospects, Kyle Tucker, Forrest Whitley, and Yordan Alvarez, were not included in the proposed deal. While Bukauskas and Stubbs have promise, it was definitely an enticing gamble by Houston’s front office if the trade came to fruition. It is the definition of a win-now trade versus the long-term hopes (and control) from prospects. The package from Houston is more than what the Nationals can recoup from a single draft pick if Harper leaves the nation’s capital.
Alas, Washington’s ownership vetoed the trade before the non-waiver trade deadline in July. Washington, as you may recall, had their sights set on resigning Harper during the offseason, so ownership perhaps felt a trade would damage relations. However, the free-agent superstar rejected a ten-year, $300 million contract offer from the Nationals in late September, which was reported by Chelsea Janes and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post. The rejection should come of no surprise, though, as it is worth mentioning that Giancarlo Stanton‘s thirteen-year, $325 million contract is currently the largest in the sport.
There is no telling if the proposed trade translates into potential interest from Houston during Harper’s free agency. Team management has indicated a willingness to increase payroll, but the age-26 outfielder will likely command an annual value of at least $30 million. In today’s era of opt-outs, though, I wouldn’t count the Astros out, although the odds are not likely.