Decision day for Nats, with Harper at the center of it all

Four months of ups and downs, encouraging moments and discouraging moments, reasons for hope and reasons for despair come to a head today. It's July 31, and the time has come for the Nationals front office to make some big decisions.

And the biggest decision may well involve the biggest name in their organization: Bryce Harper.

What would have sounded like a hoax in early April - or, shoot, even in early July - is at least within the realm of possibility today. The Nationals could deal Harper before today's 4 p.m. trade deadline.

To be clear, the Nats have not committed to trading Harper, sources familiar with their thinking said. But they are considering the possibility, and multiple reports Monday night that they have let other clubs know they're open to talking about it only underscore the reality of the situation.

Bryce-Harper-catching-ASG-sidebar.jpgNow, it's a long way from letting other clubs know they're open to talking about a Harper trade to actually trading Harper before 4 p.m. Again, they're not just dumping him. They'd have to be blown away with an offer.

Mike Rizzo has long since established a track record for refusing to budge on trade negotiations. He sets the return he deems appropriate for a deal, and then he sticks to it, ultimately passing on plenty more potential trades over the years than he has consummated.

So if another team isn't willing to meet Rizzo's price for a two-month rental of Harper, nothing's going to happen today except for a whole lot of rumor-mongering without any payoff.

But here's something else to consider as the day begins: A potential Harper trade wouldn't necessarily signify a concession on the 2018 season for the Nationals.

On Monday, I ran through six possible scenarios for how the Nats might approach the trade deadline, from big-or-small buys to big-or-small sells to standing pat. And then there was the sixth and final scenario, what I termed a "culture-changing blockbuster."

Using the Red Sox's July 31, 2004 shocker of a four-team deal that shipped Nomar Garciaparra out and brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientiewicz to Boston as an example, I wondered if there was some sort of similar possibility for the Nationals now.

What if instead of seeking big-name prospects in exchange for Harper, Rizzo seeks multiple major leaguers who could help them try to win right now? If the conclusion after watching 105 games is that this team as currently constructed isn't good enough to win, why not try a bold shakeup with players who might actually improve the Nats' chances of winning in 2018?

The Phillies lost their fourth straight game Monday night, falling in extra innings to the 75-33 Red Sox, who they'll again play tonight at Fenway Park. So the Nationals, despite all their issues and their sub-.500 record, open the day 5 1/2 games back in the National League East.

You can argue the odds of them making up that ground in two months and leapfrogging not only Philadelphia but also Atlanta aren't great. But they're also not implausible. Based on everything we've seen from Rizzo and the Lerner family over the years, would you really expect them to concede defeat when they're 5 1/2 games back on July 31?

That's why, in spite of all the bluster, a Harper trade still doesn't seem all that likely. But it's also why a Harper trade - if it did somehow happen - might not be the kind of traditional sell of a soon-to-be free agent that's typically common this time of year.

One way or another, it's time for the Nationals to make the call on what could be one of the most significant days in club history.

Nationals acquire right-handed pitcher Jhon Romero...
MASN brings Fan Challenge back to Nats fans

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to