The Washington Nationals took Major League Baseball by storm last season when they had the best record in baseball of 98-64, the National League Rookie of the Year in Bryce Harper and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft, Stephen Strasburg, had a 15-6 record.
While Washington exited the 2012 playoffs in the divisional round, the Nationals' stock rose in the offseason, as there was no shortage of baseball writers who picked Washington to make the World Series, Harper to win the N.L. MVP or Strasburg to win his first Cy Young award.
However, injuries to Harper and Strasburg have forced Washington to take a step backwards in the early months of the 2013 season. The Nationals' best baseball is in the rear-view mirror (from 2012, when they won their first N.L. East title), and it will stay that way until their young stars can stay healthy.
The Nationals were in the top 10 in nearly every offensive statistical category last season.
The wheels started coming off of Washington's dream season, or perhaps the start of the franchise's dream era, when Strasburg reached his season innings limit of 160 innings on Sept. 7.
He was shut down for the season by the Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo. Strasburg's innings limit was put in place in an attempt to prolong his career after he underwent Tommy John surgery in September of 2010.
By the second week of October, Washington's season ended in the divisional round against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Harper was just 3-for-23 against the Cardinals with eight strikeouts.
In five games, Washington's starters threw for only 24 innings and failed to earn a win in the series.
Despite the Nationals' shortcomings in the 2012 playoffs, 29 of ESPN's 43 MLB experts picked Washington to make the World Series in the network's 2013 MLB Preview.
Four of Sports Illustrated's seven baseball experts proclaimed the Nationals the 2013 World Series champions online before the start of the season; two tabbed Harper as the N.L. MVP and two writers predicted that Strasburg would take home the N.L. Cy Young honors this season.
However, through June 4, the Nationals are at .500 with a record of 29-29 and they sit seven games back of the N.L. East-leading Atlanta Braves. Despite a 1.06 WHIP and 2.54 ERA, Strasburg has just a 3-5 record this season.
At this point in time last season, Washington was 30-22 and Strasburg was 6-1 as a starter.
Harper is currently on the 15-day disabled list after dealing with knee injuries resulting from collisions with outfield walls. Where Harper is fearless in the outfield and exciting for fans to watch when he hustles to run down fly balls, he is also endangering the long-term success of the Nationals.
Harper told the Washington Post that his injuries originate from running into the wall at Turner Field in Atlanta; he then re-aggravated his knee at Dodger Stadium in mid-May.
Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post wrote that Harper was the one with the most control over his playing time since his injuries, and Harper said that he should have gone on the DL a month ago.
I thought hopefully my body could have got past it. I think after I hit the wall here [in Atlanta], I think I should have went on the DL, just try to get better and came back 15 days later. With a lot of guys out, I wanted to stay in the lineup the way I was swinging it. Of course, I want to play every day. It’s something that, maybe I’ll learn more in my career to take off 15 days instead of lose the month or whatever it is.
Harper did not play in seven games after the initial collision before going on the 15-day DL.
Harper, who only missed three games last season, had the 26th best WAR (wins above replacement) of 4.5, in 2012 according to Fan Graphs.
Without the reigning N.L. Rookie of the Year in the lineup this year, Washington is 3-9. The Nationals are 11-6 with Harper in the lineup since his initial injury, but he held back his team when he did play injured.
He had more strikeouts (14) than hits (11), more errors than outfield assists and he has been picked off just as many times as he has stolen a base in the last month.
Harper's offensive numbers have significantly declined since he ran into the outfield wall in Atlanta. His batting average has declined 50 points, OPS by .159, slugging percentage by .118 and on-base percentage by 41 points since May 1.
Harper is still early in his career and while he has shown great upside (.270 batting average, 22 home runs, 59 RBI and 18 stolen bases as a rookie), he needs to learn to judge the importance of one leaping catch into an outfield wall vs. his health as one of the main contributors on one of the contenders in the National League.
Right now, Harper is only doing harm to the Nationals' season whether he plays or sits on the bench.
Strasburg has also dealt with a recent injury. He left his last start after only two innings due to a right oblique strain, according to the Washington Post. The right-handed pitcher said that the injury had been "nagging" him in his past few appearances and he is currently listed as day-to-day.
Just a little tight back there. It is what it is. I battled with it for a little bit the last few starts. Davey and Lee, they thought it was a good decision to get out of the game and not let it progress anymore.
Kilgore wrote that the Nationals need to be smart about deciding when to send Strasburg back to the mound.
First, like a hamstring injury, it can sideline a pitcher for far longer than originally expected if he returns too quickly and aggravates the strain. Second, returning with the muscle still strained enhances the risk Strasburg would overcompensate and risk damaging his shoulder or elbow.
While Washington needs to be smart about letting Strasburg recover from his injury, keeping him out of the starting rotation could only jeopardize the Nationals' season even more.
The Nationals are already without starting pitcher Ross Detwiler, who was retroactively added to the disabled list for an oblique strain according to the Washington Post, and Washington is calling upon rookie Nathan Karns to replace Detwiler in the rotation.
If Strasburg has an extended stay on the DL, then Washington will have to find another player from its farm system to fill the void in the starting rotation.
While Strasburg's record has been impacted by his lack of run support this season (2.9 runs per game that he starts), his statistics indicate that he is a different pitcher this year.
Also, nearly 10 percent more of his opponents' outs come from ground balls than last year. In 2012, Strasburg had 178 ground-ball outs. This year that number is 105 in less than half the number of innings pitched.
After the Washington Nationals had the best record in baseball last season while being led by young, star players, they entered this season as the N.L. East favorites and a popular pick to win the National League pennant, if not the World Series. However, injuries to Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg have put the Nationals' season in jeopardy.
Washington, who already has two other starting position players and three pitchers on the DL, has struggled due to injuries for its pair of young All-Stars. In a division led by the streaking Atlanta Braves, who have won four consecutive games and 14 of their last 18 contests, making the playoffs appears less likely by the day for Washington.