There was once a thought that Bryce Harper was going to have a monster 2018 season before finally reaching his long-awaited stint in free agency. That didn't happen.
While Harper was still an All-Star in 2018 and won the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park, his final season as a Washington National was relatively underwhelming. In his age-25 season, Harper slashed .249/.393/.496 with 34 home runs, 100 RBIs and a 3.4 fWAR. For most, the numbers would have been very strong. But three years after putting together one of the most dominant seasons in modern history, it was an underwhelming contract year for the former National League MVP.
What's more, Harper struggled so much defensively that it made some wonder about his long-term viability as an outfielder. Not only did he struggle when forced to slide to center field, but he posted a career-worst -15 defensive runs saved in 860.2 innings in right field. A year after recording eight outfield assists, Harper had just one assist in 2018, and it came while he was playing center field.
To top things off, the Nationals didn't get a chance to win the first playoff series in franchise history, as they finished at a disappointing 82-80 mark, eight games back of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
However, an underwhelming season from a team perspective opened up another consideration at the deadline, one that could have changed how Harper was viewed heading into free agency - what if the Nationals seriously weighed trade offers for Harper?
As it turns out, general manager Mike Rizzo was willing to. In fact, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic later reported that the Nationals actually did agree to the framework of a deal that would have sent Harper to the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros. Then-Astros' general manager Jeff Luhnow later confirmed the validity of this report, but said there was no point in dwelling on the past.
So what went wrong? According to Rosenthal, Nationals' ownership nixed the deal when it came time to sign off. That's not especially surprising when you consider that the Nationals would make two more offers to keep Harper after the July 31 trade deadline. Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post would later report that heavy deferrals in the two offers turned Harper off, but it stands to reason that Nationals' ownership was hesitant to move the player that was arguably the most popular player in their young franchise's history at a time when they thought there was still a chance they could re-sign him.
While it's possible that he could have gone on a run similar to that of Carlos Beltran in 2004 if he was acquired by the Astros, it's hard to tell exactly what Harper would have changed about how the 2018 playoffs ultimately played out. As is, the Astros swept the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS. While they would win Game 1 of the ALCS, the Boston Red Sox would rally to win the next four consecutive games. The Red Sox won 108 games that regular season and would ultimately defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Would the addition of Harper have been enough for the Astros to change the course of history and win - or at least reach - a second consecutive World Series? Probably not.
It is possible that a strong second half with the Astros could have helped improve Harper's eventual free-agent market. For as much as the free agency of Harper was long anticipated, he spent over 110 days as a free agent before ultimately agreeing to a 13-year/$330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies and San Francisco Giants seemed to be the only teams that made serious offers.
The Los Angeles Dodgers monitored the situation by all accounts, but weren't willing to approach the amount of years Harper wanted. The New York Yankees sat things out, something that probably could only be changed by if they could undo the the December 2017 trade that netted them Giancarlo Stanton. The San Diego Padres became a surprise player in free agency, but instead invested in a 10-year/$300 million deal with four-time All-Star infielder Manny Machado. The one team you really wonder about is the Los Angeles Angels. Would a monster second half have convinced owner Arte Moreno - desperate to put a contender around Mike Trout - to splurge on Trout? After all, a year later, the Angels signed Harper's former Nationals teammate Anthony Rendon to a lucrative seven-year deal after he helped the team to win their first World Series title.
As for the Nationals, Rosenthal says that if the deal with the Astros had been agreed to by ownership, RHP J.B. Bukauskas would have headlined their return. After a very impressive 2018 season, Bukauskas struggled at Double-A, posting a 5.44 ERA in 22 games, 16 of which were starts. Rosenthal says that while he wasn't a certain piece to be involved in the deal, catcher Garrett Stubbs may very well have been involved as well. Stubbs hit .240 at Triple-A a season ago, and underwhelmed in a very limited sample size at the major league level.
It's funny, but Harper being acquired by the Astros may have had more of an impact on the 2019 World Series than the 2018 one. While there's no evidence that the Astros would have mounted a serious attempt to retain Harper after the 2018 season, if they traded Bukauskas, he couldn't have been used in a future deal. As it turns out, he was part of the package that went to the Arizona Diamondbacks in July of 2019 to acquire six-time All-Star Zack Greinke. Though the Astros ultimately lost, Greinke was impressive across 6.1 innings in Game 7 of the World Series. With Gerrit Cole having exited in free agency, Greinke will take on an even bigger role for the Astros once the 2020 season ultimately begins.
Now 27, Harper is preparing for his second year in Philadelphia. And what the Astros could have done if they acquired Harper two seasons ago is the least of their concerns as an organization.