Would a Bryce Harper Knee Surgery Sink Nationals' 2013 Pennant Hopes?

Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterJune 6, 2013

And to think it all started out so promising.

On Opening Day, the Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins, 2-0, behind their two biggest stars, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.

Harper, the precocious 20-year-old lefty slugger, accounted for both of the Nats' runs with a pair of solo homers in his first two at-bats of the season. Meanwhile, Strasburg, the 24-year-old ace right-hander, hurled seven shutout frames.

Just over two months later, not only are both phenoms out with injury, but the Nationals have fallen under .500 at 29-30 and into third place in the National League East.

And now this.

Harper's swollen left knee, initially injured when he crashed violently into the wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13, hasn't gotten any better despite his being out of action since May 26, according to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.

The outfielder was initially expected to miss only a few games, but the left knee bursitis eventually forced the club to put Harper on the disabled list over the weekend.

Since the DL stint was backdated, Harper is eligible to return to action on June 11—except that's clearly not going to happen given the news that he'll meet with noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews on Monday, which is June 10.

As baseball fans know, these visits are almost never good news, but rather than speculate about any surgical procedure, let's figure that this injury is more serious than everyone initially expected.

The Nats are 4-9 without Harper in the starting lineup this season. That certainly doesn't bode well for their chances going forward, especially since Harper is likely going to miss, well, more than only another week.

Beyond that, though, the real problem is that, until the knee started hindering his play, Harper had been the only Washington hitter playing up to expectations through the first 59 games.

On the season, Harper owns a triple-slash line of .287/.386/.587, and the second-year stud leads the entire team in all three categories, as well as in runs scored with 29 and homers with 12.

As a whole, Washington's line is just .230/.287/.372—and that's including Harper.

That .287 on-base percentage? Only dead last in the sport.

Runs scored isn't any better, either. Only the Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins have tallied fewer. And if we convert to runs per game, well, only the Marlins are worse than the Nats, who are crossing the plate just 3.4 times on average.

Clearly, this offense has struggled for much of the season even when Harper has been a part of the lineup. So what's going to happen if he has to miss an extended period of time?

Obviously, we'll know more about his prognosis come early next week, but for a team that won the most games in baseball a year ago and entered 2013 with World Series expectations, it looks like the Nationals are going to have to figure out a way to stay afloat without Harper and Strasburg for a while.

That may mean aiming for the wild card, where they're 5.5 games back.

Washington's chances of winning the NL East—it's currently eight games behind the Braves—don't look good at the moment, especially considering that it'll embark on a stretch of 16 straight games against teams that are at .500 or better.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, that chunk of games begins June 11—the very day Harper is eligible to return from the DL.

If only that was the case.