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What happens to the Nationals if Harper fears become reality?

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper, center, is helped in the dugout after he was injured during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

So let’s say Bryce Harper, who suffered a knee injury Saturday night, can’t walk until next year. What does that mean?

It doesn’t mean much to the Washington Nationals’ chances of winning the National League East. Barring a truly cosmic alignment of misfortune, the Nationals will be NL East champions by a considerable margin. They’re 14.5 games ahead of the Miami Marlins, 17 games ahead of the New York Mets, and preside over a division where literally every other team has either suffered a hideous collapse or was already so deep in the middle of one it made no real effort to compete this year.

The only team safer than the Nationals in their division is the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lead the NL West by 17 games … over the two teams which likely will be playing each other in the wild-card game.

That, also, is good news for the Nationals. Whoever comes out of the wild-card game will be a better team on paper than whoever wins the NL Central — as of this writing, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals are tied for the division lead, followed by the Milwaukee Brewers two games back and the Pittsburgh Pirates three games back.

Since a hard-and-fast rule of seeding in the playoffs is that the No. 1 seed (here, the Dodgers) gets to face the wild-card game winner, in effect the Nationals will get to play the actual worst playoff team by facing the No. 3 seed instead of the No. 4. It’s not a circumstance that comes up often, but it does come up, and Washington would benefit from it here.

This is about where the good news ends for the Nationals. With Harper possibly headed to the disabled list, the Nats are down to four of their ideal starting nine position players: Matt Wieters, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon. The silver lining in there is that Murphy, Rendon and Zimmerman are Washington’s three best position players after Harper and are all having elite seasons.

But the cloud is that you still need to field nine men to form a lineup, and before Harper’s injury, the three men already filling in represented pretty much the limit of Washington’s depth. Now, in addition to new lineup mainstay Howie Kendrick, either both Adam Lind and Brian Goodwin are everyday players or — perhaps more likely — the Nationals will make a move to promote a minor-league outfielder to the major-league roster.

With prospect Victor Robles still a year or so from being a realistic call-up option, the Nationals have guys like Clint Robinson, Brandon Snyder and Alejandro de Aza to choose from — players who have been decent enough in the past in limited action, but who represent a major step down from Harper (and probably a step down from Lind without his platoon split, too).

Harper was likely going to be the NL Most Valuable Player before the events of Saturday night. He might still be if the injury he suffered by hyperextending his left knee is much less severe than it seemed in the moment. Until the results of his MRI are known, it doesn’t remain outside the realm of possibility that he’ll be back by September, or miss little to no time at all.

The real thing — the most important thing — is whether or not he’ll be back for the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if the Nationals play out the rest of the season with de Aza or whoever you want to promote in right field. They have already won the division in every way that matters except the math itself. What matters is if the Nationals have their best player — and in a more holistic sense, their best lineup, with Trea Turner, Michael Taylor, Stephen Drew, Ryan Raburn and Stephen Strasberg all still out with a possibility of returning, while Adam Eaton, Jayson Werth and Joe Ross are all done for the year — for when they begin a playoff run that has high expectations.

We won’t know until we know. And until we know, Nationals fans have every right to be distraught and worried.

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