The Washington Nationals will lose Bryce Harper for at least 15 days, but a thumb injury could be much worse. Given the mechanism of injury and his size, the biggest concern was that he'd done exactly what Josh Hamilton had, tearing a ligament. For now, the injury is listed as a bruise, and the move to the disabled list is purely precautionary, according to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post.
Harper will see a hand specialist in the near future to confirm the diagnosis. However, excessive swelling may make a clear diagnosis impossible at this time. The current sentiment is that there's a bruise in the vicinity of the base of the thumb, but sources tell me that the thumb is unstable and necessitated the use of a brace to protect and stabilize the area, as seen in the dugout on Saturday.
Harper was injured in a manner similar to what we have previously seen with this type of injury, on a head-first slide into a base. The left fielder showed immediate pain and was taken for X-rays. Neither the Nationals nor Harper felt the injury was serious at that point, but the persistent pain, swelling and instability have led to further concern.
Past studies have shown that head-first slides are, on the whole, no more dangerous than foot-first slides. While more injuries occur with head-first slides, they tend to be minor, such as broken fingers and bruises, while foot-first slides lead to more severe fractures and sprains. Given the injuries to big, athletic players like Hamilton and Harper, their elite skills may tip that balance.
Harper is expected to see Dr. Thomas Graham at the Cleveland Clinic in the next few days. Graham is considered one of the top hand specialists in sports. In recent years, he has worked on Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and others with comparable issues. While Graham is a surgeon, don't read into this; it's simply a top player going to a top specialist rather than any solid indication of a more major issue.
If surgery is necessary to reattach the ligament, Harper will miss eight-to-10 weeks before going on a minor-league rehab assignment to get his swing back. Anything less severe will grade downward, simply requiring 15 days as the swelling clears up and Harper retests the thumb for function. Players tend to bounce back from this easily, and in the case of Pedroia last season, he was able to play through a damaged ligament.
Upon a return to the field, it is normal for a player to experience a weaker grip. Someone like Harper with big bat speed is going to require a lot of grip strength to hold the bat, especially on check swings. Also, a player uses his grip and wrists to make fine alterations to the swing plane as he tracks the ball.
If Harper doesn't have his normal strength or feel, he'll have more swing-and-misses. Pedroia was able to make adjustments, but sacrificed power to preserve contact. Harper may have to do the same thing, but it will be tougher for him, as he's expected to drive in runs for the Nats offense.
The Nats called up Steven Souza Jr. to take Harper's place on the roster, but he's likely to be used as a bench player or spot starter. While Harper is out, Nate McLouth will take over in left field, with Souza and Kevin Frandsen filling in as needed. McLouth isn't a great fantasy choice, but he's capable of getting hot and stealing bases, and could produce some value if you're looking for a fill-in. Souza becomes more of a consideration if Harper misses extended time.
The Nationals have ranked at or near the bottom of injury stats for most of their existence, but have seen some improvement in the last two seasons. However, keeping Bryce Harper healthy remains their biggest challenge. Losing key players like Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann for long periods have kept the Nats from taking the step forward many expected in past seasons, so this injury is not a good start to their quest in 2014.