It's hard to say which team has been more of a disappointment this season: the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Washington Nationals.
One club has a payroll north of $220 million yet sits in dead last in its division, while the other team racked up a Major League Baseball-best 98 wins a year ago yet can't seem to escape the magnetic pull of .500.
The one common denominator? The two squads have been without their most dynamic hitter—Matt Kemp for the Dodgers and Bryce Harper for the Nationals—for a large chunk of the season.
Kemp, though, recently made it back from being out just under a month with a hamstring injury, his second in two years. Harper, meanwhile, is on a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac, and nearing a return from a knee injury that's now cost him a month.
Another great night in Potomac! Thank you all for the hospitality, it's always appreciated! One step closer! #blessed— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) June 27, 2013
So as the Dodgers fight to get back to .500 and join the postseason race, and the Nats look to regain some of last year's dominance, which superstar's health and performance will mean more to his team over the second half of the season?
Considering both Kemp and Harper are middle-of-the-order hitters who play the same general position (outfield), the focus here will be primarily on their offensive impact to their respective lineups, which is kind of the point anyway.
The Case for Kemp
The Injury Issue
First let's get the injury out of the way.
Even though he sat out Wednesday after returning Tuesday, it was reportedly a precautionary move, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, and Kemp's right hamstring strain appears to be healed at this point. His game-saving catch against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday can be submitted as Exhibit A.
The good news is Kemp's previous hamstring problem from 2012 was on the other side. The bad news? He re-aggravated that one shortly after returning last year, so there's always that risk.
While there is a chance the hamstring could affect Kemp, it likely would be while running in the field or on the bases. A hamstring doesn't have much of an effect on a hitter in the batter's box—the stance, load, weight transfer, swing and follow through don't rely much on the use of either hamstring—so it's unlikely to harm Kemp's swing or take away his power.
To that last point, though, there is still the issue of Kemp's left shoulder, the one that was operated on last offseason. While everything there has checked out and appears to be normal, it's pretty clear that Kemp hasn't been quite the same hitter since hurting the shoulder in 2012.
Kemp has a 77 wRC+ and a .082 ISO (per FanGraphs), both of which are far and away career-worsts. We'll find out soon if that changes.
The Dodgers installed Andre Ethier, who was defensively-challenged in right field, as the primary caretaker of Kemp's duties in center while he was out.
Kemp himself isn't exactly a plus center fielder, but he shouldn't have a problem being better than Ethier.
Plus, pushing Ethier into a reduced role as more of a backup or platoon hitter should help on offense. Ethier isn't the hitter he used to be, which was a productive-but-flawed one. Still, he's not entirely inept with the stick, so it's not like L.A. had a nobody to plug into the lineup. Speaking of which...
With apologies to second baseman Mark Ellis, third baseman Juan Uribe and catcher A.J. Ellis, they're all "piece players"—guys who get the job done with some defense, a little pop or a solid OBP—but they aren't very impactful hitters.
Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, on the other hand, can be. In fact, he has been this year—when he's been healthy. Having missed the majority of the season due to thumb and hamstring injuries, Ramirez is sporting a .375/.414/.688 line, but he's played in only 22 of the Dodgers' 77 games.
At first base, Adrian Gonzalez remains an above-average offensive player (129 wRC+), but he's not the bopper he used to be (.173 ISO versus .210 for his career). He's a key member of the lineup, though, because he makes a lot of contact and, frankly, has been about the only Dodger who's been able to play every day. Hey, in a lineup that has been beset by injuries, and that counts for something.
Then there's the Dodgers outfield, which could soon become a game of musical chairs.
Rookie sensation Yasiel Puig continues to stay red-hot—he went 3-for-4 Wednesday to raise his average to .435—and his playing time shouldn't be impacted much by Kemp's return.
Veteran Carl Crawford has been out since the first of June due to his own hammy troubles, but he should be back around the All-Star break and will fit in nicely at the top of the lineup to help set the table for Kemp.
We already covered Ethier above, but it's worth mentioning here that, if the Dodgers are smart, they'll try to pick and choose how to use him both in the outfield (ideally in the corners) and at the plate (ideally against righties when either Kemp or Puig get a break) once all four outfielders are healthy.
The other factor to consider with Kemp is that he hits from the right side. Ramirez and Puig also bat from that side, so it's not like L.A. lacks for righties who can hit for power like Kemp.
Gonzalez, Crawford and Ethier, however, are all lefty swingers, and Crawford and Gonzalez are likely to hit in the top two or two of the top three spots once everyone's back, meaning Kemp brings balance to the heart of the order.
The Case for Harper
The Injury Issue
It's tough to say how Harper's left knee is going to affect his production. One would expect the back knee for a (lefty) hitter—the one that supports more of the weight and requires push-off for the weight transfer—to be pretty key when it comes to impacting a baseball with proper timing and force. Like so:
While Harper's results from his first two rehab games are promising—he's gone 2-for-4 with a home run—we don't have much of a sample size or history with this particular injury for this particular player to know for sure.
Barring any setbacks, though, Harper could be back with Washington as soon as Monday, according to Andrew Simon of MLB.com.
Harper's return is about all about addition by addition—and addition by subtraction.
To fill in for the 20-year-old phenom, the Nationals have been forced to use a combination of Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina and Steve Lombardozzi in the corner outfield positions.
If you just read those names and didn't recognize any of them, don't be embarrassed. None of that trio is more than a fringe major leaguer, so getting Harper back means not only do the Nats get his bat, they also no longer have to rely on any of those three on a regular basis.
That is going to be a major upgrade.
To say the Nationals have struggled this year would be putting it lightly.
The club is sporting a .235/.293/.378 triple-slash line—that's as an entire team—and ranks among the bottom five in baseball in each one of the three stats.
Like the Dodgers, they have had some extended injuries, including outfielder Jayson Werth and second baseman Danny Espinosa, but it's safe to say L.A. has had it worse.
In fact, ever since Espinosa and his .158 average went on the disabled list in early June, top prospect Anthony Rendon has been on fire as his replacement at second base. The rookie, who also helped fill in for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman earlier in the season, is hitting .354/.402/.485 in 107 plate appearances.
Rendon, who's been hitting second lately, is going to be tough to take out of the lineup, even when Espinosa is back.
Davey says he'll think it over, but I don't see how he can move Anthony Rendon out of No. 2 spot when Harper returns. He's always on base.— Amanda Comak (@acomak) June 26, 2013
Double-play partner Ian Desmond continues to be one of better hitting shortstops (115 wRC+), especially in the power department (.206 ISO), and Zimmerman has been fine (127 wRC+, .195 ISO), and still has it in him to get hot.
First baseman Adam LaRoche got off to a brutal start but has bounced back to a .256 average, with 11 homers and a .778 OPS.
The catching group of Kurt Suzuki, Wilson Ramos and Jhonatan Solano don't merit mention other than pointing out their collective .595 OPS.
It's in the outfield, though, where the Nats have had their biggest offensive failings, which means Harper can help. Like, a lot.
Werth's hamstring injury this year hasn't helped, but with a .268/.328/.423 line, he's clearly not the player he once was.
And offseason acquisition Denard Span? Just ooof: a .310 OBP and an 81 wRC+.
LaRoche has been the only true power threat from left side and isn't the kind of guy who can do that by himself. Don't discount the underrated fact that Harper's power comes from the left side, which this lineup sorely needs: Rendon, Desmond, Zimmerman and Werth all hit right-handed.
Rizzo on trade priorities: "We're looking for a big, left-handed bat. His name is Harper."— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) June 26, 2013
Once Harper's back, the real issue is how to jump start Span, a fellow lefty bat, at the top of the lineup. Especially since Harper, who's likely to regain his spot in the three-hole, will need someone to get on base ahead of him to drive in.
@jimmiebjr Who is the prototypical HR hitter? Harper is the best hitter, all around. He hits 3.— Amanda Comak (@acomak) June 26, 2013
Who Matters More
If we're scoring the four different aspects discussed for each player above—injury, lineup, replacement and side—Kemp would have the edge in the first two because his injury (at least his most recent injury) shouldn't affect his ability to hit, and his surrounding lineup has been and is better overall.
Harper, meanwhile, would win the third and fourth categories, because he's more of an upgrade over his fill-ins and what he brings to the table as a left-handed bat is so desperately needed.
What's more, in Harper's case, he actually may have the advantage on Kemp in the lineup factor, but in a different way. Harper, who had a 166 wRC+ and .300 ISO at the time he hit the DL, basically was the Nationals' offense before he went down, and assuming he can stay healthy and his knee doesn't hinder him much, he's likely to be more important to the success of his team's offense.
There's one other key element: the standings.
Currently, the Dodgers are seven games under .500 at 35-42, putting them six back of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West.
The Nationals are a game over .500 at 39-38, which leaves them five behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
In terms of the wild-card standings, obviously, the Nationals are the same number of games out (five) as they are in the division. The Dodgers, though, are nine out there, which pretty much means they need to win the West to make the playoffs.
Considering that would require jumping over four teams, it's not going to be easy for L.A.
Washington, though, only needs to catch one of two clubs: the Braves in their division or the Cincinnati Reds for the wild card.
That, then, becomes the tiebreaker.
Bryce Harper, the hopes of the Washington Nationals are on your shoulders.
Or maybe, more appropriately, your knee.