Now that we know Harper will be out until at least July after undergoing thumb surgery, Washington's status as one of the NL's elite teams is looking tenuous at best. In fact, this season for the Nationals has followed a similar script to the 2013 campaign that saw injuries and underperformance turn a potential World Series contender into a club that didn't even qualify for October baseball.
After suffering another slate of injuries early this year, are the Nationals in for the same disappointing fate? Can they cope without their young star for half the season?
There is no denying that Washington is a deeper team in 2014, at least in the outfield. General manager Mike Rizzo, likely motivated in part by the club's depth problems following its health issues in 2013, added Nate McLouth, Doug Fister, Jose Lobaton and Kevin Frandsen, among others, to the roster this offseason.
Rizzo hoped Harper and the rest of the Nationals would avoid injury, of course, but signed McLouth especially as insurance for just such a scenario. McLouth is no Harper, but the 32-year-old reinvigorated his career over the past two years in Baltimore. He can play all three outfield positions, is a decent base stealer and has performed well against righties throughout his career, batting .258/.345/.439.
Pairing McLouth with a player who can mash lefties might just help the Nats recoup some of the value they are losing with Harper's injury. Tyler Moore would seem the most likely candidate, but he hasn't exactly set the world on fire against southpaws during his brief time in the majors. Frandsen could probably hold up his end up of the platoon at the plate, yet considering his limited experience in the outfield, he might just give back that value on defense.
Another player to keep an eye on is Steven Souza, who the Nationals called up to replace Harper. Souza has never played in the majors before this season and has just 46 plate appearances above Double-A. Ranked No. 7 in Washington's system by MinorLeagueBall.com this spring, Souza does have an intriguing skill set and has hit at every level during his minor league career. He slugged .557 for Double-A Harrisburg in 2013.
Given the old-school tendencies of Nationals manager Matt Williams, though, Souza probably won't get much extended playing time unless he impresses during his brief chances in the lineup.
But even more troubling than Harper's extended absence are the other injury issues plaguing Washington. If Harper can indeed return to action by early July, the Nationals will probably only lose a win or two thanks to the depth they've added with McLouth and the others. Whether they can stay afloat if Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Fister continue to miss time on top of Harper's injury is another question.
With 17 wins in their first 24 games, a plus-31 run differential and a pitching staff that keeps excelling no matter who is on the mound, the Braves look primed to make a run at that 90-win mark again. Without a full roster, the Nationals will be hard-pressed to top Atlanta, much less reach 90 wins, especially if their odd struggles in head-to-head matchups with the Braves continue.
That leaves Washington in the wild-card mix, which is what you can say about roughly five or six other NL teams as well. At the very least, the Nationals won't be the toast of the NL, defying the expectations of many observers for the second season in a row.
They are better built to survive without Harper in 2014, but that doesn't mean the Nationals' outlook is rosy after all these injuries. The arrival of Anthony Rendon gives them another steady bat in the lineup, and both McLouth and Lobaton are better replacements than Washington had in 2013. Given all the injuries to Atlanta's pitching staff, one more starter going down might finally prove to be the breaking point for the Braves, so staying close in the standings during this down period could pay dividends for the Nats if circumstances change later in the summer.
Nevertheless, it's clear our initial expectations for Washington must be revised. Just losing Harper would have been one thing, but unless the Nationals can get their other veterans back quickly, that preseason vision of 95 wins, an NL pennant and a trip to the World Series is looking more and more unlikely.