The Washington Nationals' playoff chances were dealt a devastating blow on Monday when it was announced that star outfielder Bryce Harper will miss at least two months recovering from thumb surgery. Can the Nationals swallow the loss of their best player?
Harper joins a growing list of injured Nationals' players. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is currently recovering from a broken thumb that will keep him on the shelf for at least another month. Catcher Wilson Ramos has played just one game this season after breaking his hamate bone on Opening Day (though he could be back as early as next week). And prized offseason acquisition Doug Fister has yet to make his debut for Washington due to a strained lat (he could also be back next week). Denard Span has also missed his fair share of games after sustaining a concussion earlier this month.
The Nationals entered the season with towering expectations, as many saw them primed for a deep playoff run (myself included). However, they have yet to capitalize on their lofty talent level, as they are currently 14-12, four games behind the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves.
Washington's pitching staff has been stellar so far, ranking second in the majors with a 3.16 FIP (fittingly, Atlanta is the only team better). Unfortunately, their offense has been worse than expected. They still rank in the upper half of baseball in most categories, but their performance has not been indicative of the clear-cut top 10 offense many thought they would be.
Harper's injury could also go a long way in showing off Washington's lack of depth. The Nationals are likely to go with a Nate McLouth/Steven Souza platoon in left, and while that certainly isn't inspiring, it may not be too bad of a tie-over considering McLouth's career .783 OPS against right-handers and Souza's strong history of minor league performances (he hit .297/.396/.548 in 81 games last season for whatever it's worth). However, with those two now thrust into a starting role, Washington's bench consists of Sandy Leon, Kevin Frandsen, Tyler Moore, Zach Walters, and McLouth/Souza. Not exactly an exciting group. There also isn't much in the minors, as a majority of Washington's top prospects are pitchers, and of their better hitting prospects, none should be expected to contribute until later this year.
Of course, in order to reach the postseason, Washington will have to fend off Atlanta, who is possibly the best team in baseball right now, with a 17-7 record and an all-around outstanding team. The Wild Card race should be no cake-walk either, with up to nine NL teams having realistic shots at reaching the playoffs this season.
Despite their shortcomings, the Nationals still look like a good bet to reach October, even without Harper for the next two months. They already exhibit one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and the offense has plenty of room to grow. They should also get Zimmerman, Ramos, and Fister all back within the next month or so. Barring another major injury, the Nationals just might turn out okay.