Bryce Harper's knee may not improve this season. Is the same ahead for the Washington Nationals?
The season may be barely 50 games in, but that's also nearly one third of the season -- enough to make a reasonable analysis of where the expected World Series contender rates this season. And it's barely a C-plus nearing June.
Apologists and optimists gladly explain there are more than 100 games remaining, plenty of time to overcome a small deficit to the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves. The schedule gets easier, so the Nats should look better over coming weeks.
But there are nagging worries. Injuries can just steal any momentum from a team and turn a long season into a grind.
Harper says his knee, first injured in during a run-in with an outfield wall, may not significantly improve until he gets to rest over the offseason. That is not good news.
Harper is the catalyst to whatever the Nats will be this season. His .287 average (entering Wednesday) after a torrid start is probably where he'll spend the season, but a bad knee will cut down on his power no matter what anyone says.
Jayson Werth's hamstring/dehydration issue is confusing. He's as important as Harper in the lineup. When Werth's been healthy over his two-plus seasons in Washington, he's worth the $126 million deal he signed. Too bad that hasn't been more often.
Wilson Ramos has been hamstrung by a hamstring for most of the season. At least the Nats now know Danny Espinosa's .163 average was partly due to a bone chip in his wrist. Maybe rests helps him, too. And Ross Detwiler, a real safety net at the bottom of the rotation, is now on the disabled list.
Then there's Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg combining for a 6-8 record and an unsettled bullpen. After 21 wins last year, Gonzalez is 3-3 and his ERA is one full run higher. Sometimes it sounds like he's overthinking, which good coaching fixes. Strasburg is 3-5 with some bad run support. Some days he looks unhittable, including three straight quality starts in his last three games. The wins should come.
Overall, the Nats are a good team but not the great one so far that fans expected. Then again, maybe fans expected too much after a great season last year. Carryover success is never guaranteed, and the Nats look like they'll have to earn a 95-win season more than last year.
It's easy to say that when the Nats are healthy, they'll plow through the division. However, it's harder to say whether that will happen this season. Sometimes it doesn't.
Manager Davey Johnson signed on for a farewell tour ending in late October. Maybe retirement comes a little sooner. Then again, who says Johnson leaves if injuries cause the team to underperform?
There's always next season for a coach and fans if this one doesn't succeed. For now, there's plenty of time to find out if the Nats will.