Initial X-rays came back negative and the team seemed to downplay long-term concern. On Monday, however, it was revealed that Harper will need surgery and is out until July. This is obviously a big blow to the team.
Harper, 21, has hit .289/.352/.422 (118 OPS+) with one home run in 22 games around the thumb and a quad injury this year. He hit .274/.368/.486 (135 OPS+) with 20 homers in 118 games while dealing with a knee injury in 2013. Despite manager Matt Williams' complaints, Harper hurt the thumb and knee because he plays so hard and recklessly.
Anyway, the Nationals figure to use Nate McLouth on an everyday basis while Harper is on the DL. If Harper is going to be out for months rather than weeks, they might find themselves looking for another outfielder at some point this summer. Here are the team's options if he does miss an extended amount of time.
Stick with McLouth
The Nationals gave McLouth a two-year contract worth $10.75 million this offseason for a reason, and that was to be their fourth outfielder and injury replacement. The 32-year-old hit .258/.329/.399 (99 OPS+) with 12 homers in 30 steals for the Orioles last season but is off to a 4-for-34 (.118) start this year. I doubt McLouth forgot to play baseball over the winter, and I think it's only a matter of time before he starts putting up some more decent numbers. Sticking with him is the easy choice.
Other Internal Options
Outfielder Steven Souza was called up to replace Harper on Sunday and fellow outfielder Eury Perez has some big league time under his belt, but just a handful of games. Utility man Kevin Frandsen has seen time in left field as well. The team's Triple-A squad doesn't have any interesting outfielders other than Perez, so there isn't some veteran stashed away to call up, like the Mets had with Bobby Abreu. Souza has hit at every level in the minors and he is by far the best non-McLouth internal option.
Mine Free Agency
It's a little late in the game for the Nationals to find a quality outfielder in free agency. The two best still available free agents are Stephen Drew (a shortstop) and Kendrys Morales (a DH/first baseman), neither of whom is in position to help Washington. Guys like Juan Pierre and Vernon Wells are both free agents and I'm sure they'd come very cheap right now, but are they an upgrade over McLouth? Eh, maybe in a short sample. Is it worth the money and the roster spot -- their 40-man roster is full, so the Nats would have to cut a player to sign a free agent -- to find out? I don't think so.
Because of the second wild-card spot, more teams remain in contention until later in the season, and that means fewer sellers at the trade deadline. The Astros and at this point the Diamondbacks are safe bets to be awful, but do they have any outfielders that make sense for Washington? Would the Nats have interest in someone like Cody Ross or Gerardo Parra given their salaries and the fact that they'll only be a fourth outfielder once Harper returns?
The Cubs have two prime pieces of trade bait in Nate Schierholtz and Justin Ruggiano, and just last year these two teams hooked up for a Scott Hairston trade. (Hairston is currently on the DL himself.) Schierholtz is a lefty hitter like McLouth but Ruggiano is a righty and would make a lot of sense as a platoon partner for McLouth. That assumes Hairston continues to battle injury/be unproductive. Maybe the Blue Jays would make Melky Cabrera available if they don't claw back into the race. There are some trade candidates out there, but another few weeks need to pass before we can know who is truly available.
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It is still only April and while the Nationals are already four games back of the Braves in the NL East, they can afford to be patient and see how McLouth works out. If Harper does indeed need to miss significant time and McLouth isn't getting the job done, the trade pickin's might be slim. The market is going to take time to develop. For now, the Nats need McLouth to get back to his 2013 form.