Nationals' injuries will cost in NL East race


Remember 2012, when a Nationals-Braves series was a baseball jamboree to be highlighted in yellow weeks in advance? When the teams combined for 192 wins? When each went to the playoffs? The future was bright then, and full of stars. You’d see Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel suit up for Atlanta, or see Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann for the Nationals.

The bright future past gave way to a somewhat mediocre 2013. Zimmermann and Gonzalez experienced slight regression while Strasburg and Harper were merely excellent rather than otherworldly -- with Harper missing 40-plus games to boot -- leading to a disappointing 86 Nats wins, four games back of even the second wild-card slot. The Braves did everything right and ran away with the division by 10 games, but it wasn't the same, at least for nonpartisans, as a fully competitive, hard-fought division.

Then, before 2014 really got going, the baseball gods found some excuse to punish the Braves, sending Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgery while afflicting Mike Minor with shoulder tendinitis. Suddenly, with a back end of their rotation made up of Alex Wood, David Hale, and Aaron Harang, the team was going to have to overcome the free-agency loss of Brian McCann through the sheer force of will of Justin Upton and Heyward. Good as they are, neither guy is Barry Bonds, capable of bearing alone the burden of elevating mediocrity to respectability.

So the hoped-for two-team division race was down, realistically, to just the Nats ... except for those pesky baseball gods, who apparently want to see the Marlins make the playoffs with 82 wins and therefore decided to strike down the Nationals’ big winter trade acquisition, Doug Fister, and snakebit catcher Wilson Ramos, each of whom has star-level talent and mediocre backups (Tanner Roark/Taylor Jordan and Jose Lobaton, respectively).

Worse yet, Saturday's pregame announcements featured the news that Denard Span had to head to the disabled list with a concussion suffered in a weird collision with Dan Uggla. Concussions being what they are, Span could be back in a week or a month or not at all. This leaves Nate McLouth in the Nationals’ outfield, which is something other than a disaster, McLouth having experienced an unpredictable renaissance over the last two years, hitting .252/.324/.393. That line plays fine in this low-offense era, but the likely two-position defensive drop, from Span to Harper in center and from Harper to McLouth in left, won't make many Nationals hurlers happy. Strasburg and Gonzalez don't have much to worry about, both being strikeout pitchers with solid-to-good ground-ball rates, but pitchers less apt to miss bats may find themselves frustrated by doubles in the gap that Span would have run down.

All of this, bad as it is, could be overcome, except that suddenly, as of the fifth inning of Saturday's loss to the Braves, Washington finds itself without Zimmerman for the next four to six weeks after the third baseman broke his thumb diving back into second base on a pickoff. (He was out, adding insult to literal injury.) The Nats' depth was sorely tested last year, with “tested” serving as a euphemism for the fact that the non-regulars were completely awful. Danny Espinosa, a handy example because he will have to cover second base in Zimmerman's absence while Anthony Rendon shifts back over to his original position at third, somehow hit .158/.193/.272 in 2013. Sure, Espinosa probably isn’t that bad, as he broke his wrist early in 2013 after managing a low-contact, high-power .242/.319/.408 line from 2011 to 2012. Combine that with good defense and Espinosa was once and might still be a nice above-average player. The possibility remains, however, that he is exactly as bad as he looked last season.

If the 2011-12 Espinosa is who the Nationals get in their lineup now, and if Zimmerman returns in the time expected, and if Fister recovers in good order from his lat strain, and if Ramos can come back at full strength after hamate bone surgery, and if Span makes a complete recovery from his concussion, and, as long as we're here, if Harper's wall-smashing approach to the sport doesn't result in his missing any time, then the Nationals should be fine. Indeed, given the maladies faced by their competition, Washington should still be the favorite in the NL East even if only half of that list works out.

But that's a lot of ifs, ones that this team isn't built to deal with, ones that, should the Nats wend their way through the darkness and despair of an injury-riddled season, could before we know it lead to the Dinger Machine in Miami lighting up the October skies after a series-winning 480-foot walk-off homer by newly minted playoff hero Giancarlo Stanton. The prudent fan will begin preparing mentally and emotionally for this possibility posthaste.

Jason Wojciechowski blogs for Beaneball, the SweetSpot network's affiliate dedicated to covering the Oakland Athletics.