The Astros and Nationals share a Spring Training site, but there isn’t exactly a lot of shared history between the two franchises as they prepare to meet in the World Series. The Astros hold a 244-207 all-time record over the Nationals/Expos, and the no-hitter that Larry Dierker threw against the Expos back on July 9, 1976 is probably the most historically significant game to ever take place between the two clubs….until Tuesday’s Game 1, that is.
There isn’t even a lengthy or significant trade history to work with in finding links between the two clubs, as the last deal between Washington and Houston took place back in 2007. However, the reigning pennant winners came close to a much more significant trade in July 2018, when Bryce Harper almost became an Astro. As detailed by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal (subscription required) last November, the two teams had worked out the framework of a trade that would have sent Harper to Houston for a three-prospect package headlined by right-hander J.B. Bukauskas. The other two prospects were a pitcher in the lower minors and catcher Garrett Stubbs “was in play” to be the third piece, Rosenthal noted.
The swap was ready to go by July 30, the day before the trade deadline, though Nationals ownership stepped in to veto the proposal. The Lerner family was still hopeful of re-signing Harper to a new contract either in free agency or even before he hit the open market, and didn’t yet want to part ways with the star outfielder. For similar reasons, a potential August trade between the Dodgers and Nationals that would have seen Yasiel Puig head to D.C. and Harper go to L.A. was also a no-go.
The idea Harper going to the Astros is such an eye-opening concept that the entire baseball world would have been shaken up had the trade been completed. Here are four of the larger ripple effects that could have emerged if Harper had indeed donned Houston orange in July 2018…
Do The Astros Win The 2018 World Series?
Maybe the most obvious question of the bunch, as the Astros had a surprisingly middle-of-the-pack offense in the second half of the 2018 season. With Harper’s bat in the lineup, perhaps Houston (who won 103 games in real life) could have scored enough extra victories to overtake the 108-win Red Sox for home-field advantage throughout the postseason. If not, perhaps at least Harper helps the Astros generate enough offense to overcome the Red Sox in the ALCS. Astros hitters combined for a mediocre .219/.337/.385 slash line in Houston’s five-game loss, and while pitching (a combined 5.52 ERA) was the Astros’ larger problem against Boston, it’s worth noting that Sox hitters had only a .710 collective OPS.
In a short series, even a few hits could have swung the entire thing Houston’s way, and perhaps Harper could have also been a difference-maker in helping the Astros top the Dodgers in the 2018 Series. Stretching the butterfly effect out a bit further, maybe the Harper-led Astros only make it a round further, and it’s the Dodgers who wind up as the 2018 champions. Or, if the Red Sox fell short, perhaps president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is fired after the season (ownership was already considering a change late in the 2018 season), Boston has a new front office boss installed last winter, and the entire scope of the Red Sox 2018-19 offseason and 2019 season are also changed.
No QO, No Status Quo For Harper’s Free Agency
One can definitely fall down lots of different wormholes when exploring an alternate reality scenario, but one thing seems pretty uniformly certain — Harper would still have become a free agent after the 2018 season, and he wouldn’t have been an Astro in 2019. The Astros didn’t show interest in signing Harper to a mega-deal last winter, and even in a world where Harper magically carries Houston to a championship, it’s very likely that the two sides thank each other for the ring and part ways. As such, the Astros’ offseason decisions aren’t greatly impacted, so the team’s real-world moves (i.e. signing Michael Brantley and Wade Miley) probably still happen.
One wrinkle to Harper’s free agency is that, since he was dealt at midseason, he was ineligible to have a qualifying offer placed on his services. So the Nationals would’ve gotten the Bukauskas package but not the compensatory pick they received for Harper once he signed with Philadelphia. This comp pick ended up falling after the fourth round (since the Nats exceeded the luxury tax threshold in 2018) though Washington actually forfeited this pick regardless — the Nationals had to give up their second- and fifth-highest picks in the draft as compensation for signing Patrick Corbin, another QO free agent. So without the Harper pick to work with, the Nationals wouldn’t have had a fifth-round draft pick, and thus wouldn’t have been able to select hard-throwing Florida right-hander Tyler Dyson. Washington went well above slot ($346.8K) in signing Dyson to a $500K bonus, and MLB Pipeline ranks Dyson as the 20th-best prospect in the Nationals’ system.
So with Dyson still on the board, that single inclusion quite possibly shakes up a lot of movement in the draft. But, if Harper doesn’t have a rejected qualifying offer hanging over him, the Phillies wouldn’t have had to give up their second round pick in order to sign him. So this gives the Phils another high draft pick to add to their farm system — or maybe the Phillies end up using that pick anyway on another QO free agent. Harper was known to be on the Phillies’ offseason radar from day one, so it’s safe to assume they’d already earmarked losing that pick to ink him.
But if that wasn’t a consideration, perhaps Philadelphia looks at the other five QO free agents who hit the market (Hyun-Jin Ryu accepted his offer and remained with the Dodgers) and pursues one of them during its aggressive offseason. How does the 2019 Phillies season play out look if Corbin or Dallas Keuchel had been in the rotation, if Craig Kimbrel was closing games, if A.J. Pollock was in the outfield, or if Yasmani Grandal had been behind the plate? The latter three are particularly intriguing, since signing any of those players would’ve meant the Phils would’ve had to forego some of their other acquisitions (such as David Robertson, Andrew McCutchen, or J.T. Realmuto) at those same positions.
Tax Relief In Washington
It isn’t known whether the Astros would’ve absorbed all of the approximately $7.21MM still owed to Harper over the last months of the season had the Nationals trade gone through. But even if only a portion came off the books, trading Harper would’ve jump-started the Nats’ efforts to reload for 2019, and they might’ve dealt veterans like Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, and Ryan Madson on July 31 or earlier in the old August trade waivers period rather than wait until late August to unload the quartet.
The bottom line is that either by moving Gonzalez and company earlier, or in dealing Harper’s salary in its entirety, the Nationals would’ve been able to duck under the $197MM Competitive Balance Tax threshold and reset their penalty clock. In real life, D.C. had a $205MM luxury tax number, which resulted in a tax bill of $2,386,097 (which included a repeater penalty for exceeding the threshold in consecutive years).
The Nationals again slightly exceeded the $206MM threshold this season, as per both Roster Resource (just under $207.94MM) and Cot’s Baseball Contracts (less than $76K). These figures are estimations, of course, and given the small amounts involved, it’s possible the Nats managed to slightly sneak under the $206MM mark after all. Even with the 50% tax rate for three-time CBT payors, this small step over the threshold still means the Nationals won’t be facing a big tax bill. At Roster Resource’s number, the Nats will owe $969,309.50 in luxury tax payments, which is pocket change to a high-spending team.
Much more importantly than saving under $3.36MM in tax money, escaping the “CBT payor” designation would’ve impacted the Nationals in the 2018-19 free agent market. As per the qualifying offer rules, Washington’s compensatory pick for losing Harper would’ve come after Competitive Balance Round B rather than after the fourth round — a jump of roughly 60 slots. Also, signing Corbin cost the Nationals $1MM in international bonus money as well as their second- and fifth-highest draft picks, whereas if they hadn’t exceeded the luxury tax threshold, the Corbin signing would’ve cost only the second-highest pick and $500K in international pool funds.
Do The Astros Still Get Greinke?
This is the ripple effect that perhaps has the most clear and direct impact on the 2019 Series. If Houston trades Bukauskas in July 2018, it doesn’t have him in the organization in July 2019 to be dealt to the Diamondbacks as part of the four-player return for Zack Greinke.
It’s possible the Astros and D’Backs could’ve settled on another name rather than Bukauskas, though given how the Greinke talks were finalized just minutes away from the trade deadline, who knows how things play out with Bukauskas’ involvement. Bukauskas was the top healthy prospect in the deal, after all, given that Corbin Martin is sidelined due to Tommy John surgery.
Or potentially, in a reality where the Astros swing the Harper trade but it doesn’t work out, perhaps GM Jeff Luhnow thinks twice the next year about another splashy trade for a big name and foregoes a Greinke trade entirely, perhaps focusing on a lower-tier player or players instead.
It’s safe to assume that the Astros would have still acquired some kind of starting pitching help, and still go on to win the AL West even without an ace like Greinke in the mix. And while Greinke hasn’t been great in the postseason, does Houston still win Game Four of the ALCS without his 4 1/3 innings of one-run ball? Or, maybe without Greinke down the stretch, the Astros win fewer than 107 games and lose home-field advantage to the Yankees, which swings the ALCS in New York’s direction. Or, if the Yankees are the top seed, the American League bracket is flipped entirely and, who knows, we could’ve ended up with a Twins/Rays ALCS.