Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals came into the 2014 season showered with predictions of October glory. Before the start of May, plans of National League East dominance have been put on hold for the foreseeable future due to a thumb injury that will keep Harper out until at least early July.
That news, per Keith Law of ESPN.com, takes one of baseball's brightest stars away from the Nationals until around the All-Star break, adds another injury to a growing list in Washington and changes the narrative in one of the most interesting divisions in the sport.
When spring training began, the Nationals looked poised for a special season. Led by a deep pitching staff, a fresh approach from the managerial seat and all-around stars such as Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Harper, Washington profiled as a team that could run away with the National League East.
Furthermore, the Atlanta Braves suffered through high-profile starting pitching injuries and teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Miami Marlins were either poorly constructed, in the midst of a rebuild or simply a year or two away from serious contention.
As May approaches and Harper exits the spotlight, it's time to reconsider the Nationals' place in the NL East hierarchy.
While it would be a fool's errand to simply hand the division to the red-hot Braves or classify Washington's entire 2014 season as a lost cause, the Harper injury has the potential to hold back the Nationals for the entire first half of the season—if not longer.
Bryce Harper leads #nationals position players with 8.9 WAR since 2012. Ryan Zimmerman next (8.0), then Ian Desmond (6.9).— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) April 29, 2014
Despite a slow start (.289/.352/.422, 1 HR, 21 SO), Harper's talent and potential were key to a quick and steady rise atop the division. Since the then-19-year-old arrived as an April call-up in 2012, Harper has been one of the most valuable outfielders in all of baseball. Typically, Harper's star power and accolades are put into context with current or former young major league players.
In this case, there's no need to classify Harper's peer group as anything but fellow outfielders. The following chart shows how valuable Harper has been to the Nationals. Losing the left-handed slugger for two months is nearly the equivalent of taking Jose Bautista away from the Toronto Blue Jays or Giancarlo Stanton away from Miami.
Despite a big payroll and win-now roster, don't expect the Nationals to look for a high-profile replacement for their lost outfielder. Last month, Nationals owner Mark Lerner was asked about payroll flexibility, per Bill Ladson of MLB.com.
"We're beyond topped out," Lerner said. "Our payroll, as you know, has skyrocketed to about $140 million. I don't think we can go much farther with the revenue stream that we have."
Of course, good teams should be able to overcome injuries without the help of major in-season additions. While the Nationals fall into that category, the team has been dealing with ailments to Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos and starting pitcher Doug Fister. The latter hasn't thrown an inning yet this season.
It's possible that the Nationals could survive and thrive without Harper and complementary players, but one more injury to an impact performer—such as Werth, Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann—could hold a formerly loaded roster down for a long period of time.
With the NL East looking better by the day, simply playing .500 baseball through the All-Star break might not be good enough for Washington.
If Harper's injury had been sustained during the first few weeks of spring training, the narrative around the Nationals likely wouldn't have suffered because of a division that looked to have just one team—the perennially competitive Braves—capable of winning more than 85 games. With four weeks of the 2014 season in the books, the story is evolving.
Atlanta has won 17 of 24 games, shrugged off pitching concerns and thrived when it seemed it was likely to fall from the 96-win perch it sat on last season. With young, ascending stars such as Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons leading the way, the Braves should be able to stay in the race all summer long.
Where will the Nationals finish in the NL East?
More surprising: Solid starts by the Phillies and Mets, teams that last posted winning records during the same season in 2008.
With the core of a formerly dominant team—Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins—healthy, the Phillies just need solid production from complementary pieces in order to surprise baseball and stay in the race.
Heading into play on April 29, Mets starters own a 3.46 ERA. That mark is good for ninth in baseball, per ESPN. If that type of stingy pitching continues throughout the summer, competitive baseball could return to Queens, New York, for the first time in six years.
Although the last-place Marlins look more feisty than competitive, Washington will miss Harper's .918 career OPS against Miami during three head-to-head games in late May.
Harper's 2014 season had the potential for greatness. Along the way, the Nationals had the potential to run away and hide in a below-average division. Four weeks and one major injury can't derail everything once thought, but it's more than enough to usher in doubt.
Eventually, Harper will return to reprise his role as one of the best young players in the world. When he does, the Nationals will look to make a move in a suddenly competitive division. Over the next two months, anything goes in the NL East.