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February 21, 2014

Fantasy Team Preview

Washington Nationals

by Craig Goldstein

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It should surprise no one that the Nationals, despite a disappointing 2013 season, are absolutely loaded when it comes to the fantasy front. Six of their eight starters are worth owning, even in shallow leagues, and the same goes for four-fifths of their rotation. The team in general lacks speed, with Denard Span as an option, but Ian Desmond is the guy to own for that category. They’ve got power in spades, and if Anthony Rendon wins out, they should be near the top in team batting average as well.

Their rotation is quite possibly the best in baseball, boasting impact and depth in reality to go with strikeouts and control in fantasy. While the season was a letdown for many in the DC area, the nucleus of the team remains (for the most part) both immensely talented, and on the good part of the aging curve.

Projected Lineup

1. CF Denard Span
2. 3B Ryan Zimmerman
3. LF Bryce Harper
4. RF Jayson Werth
5. 1B Adam LaRoche
6. SS Ian Desmond
7. C Wilson Ramos
8. 2B Anthony Rendon
9. Pitcher

Harper. Harper Harper Harper Harper. Sorry‑got struck with a bit of mutated Hodorism there. I’m not sure Bryce is getting enough credit, be it in real life or in fantasy circles. It’s not that Harper doesn’t get attention‑he does, in spades—but he just submitted an age-20 season in which he produced at 37 percent above the league average, good for a .311 TAv. That’s an astonishing figure and we all rightly assume there’s plenty more in the tank. He hit for a better average, walked more (significantly), struck out less, and hit for more power than in his previous season, and yet he didn’t take the step we all thought he could. I guess what I’m saying is… watch out in 2014.

As for the rest of the lineup, Span should be better than he was last year, showing signs of coming out of his funk late last season. Werth had an incredible campaign and while the skills are still fresh, his health is a concern and he’s already in his mid-30s. Zimmerman tends to get harsh treatment thanks to the decline of his once superlative defensive skills, but he’s still able to bring it with the bat. He might be looking at a transition to first base starting in 2015, but he should retain his 3B eligibility for at least the 2014-15 seasons. Ramos and Rendon are really nice upside plays, health permitting while LaRoche is likely to bounce back yet still earn scorn and derision.

Projected Bench

Espinosa is obviously the most interesting guy here, especially with freshman manager Matt Williams indicating that the starting job is available. He’s a better defender than Rendon, which could help him secure those offensive at-bats. He’ll never hit for average but he’s got some pop and can swipe a base. McLouth is the other valuable bench bat and presumably will see the most time as the fourth outfielder. The Nationals outfield isn’t exactly filled with iron men, so it’s likely he’ll see some stretches where he’s an everyday player. Still, it’s a disappointing landing spot for someone who has held value the last few seasons.

Lobaton was a nice addition for the Nationals because their other backups were beyond atrocious and he can switch-hit, which is pleasant. He’s a low, low-end catcher if Ramos gets hurt and he gets playing time. Moore has power, and is neither as bad as his 2013 stats nor as good as his 2012 stats. His path to playing time is obstructed at every turn though, so his value is close to nil, with the same going for Scott Hairston.

The long shot position players from the farm system are Brian Goodwin and Zach Walters, with Walters the more likely to contribute meaningfully in 2014. Don’t mistake that to mean he’s the better prospect though, as Goodwin is the top position player in the system. Walters is a great athlete who can hit for power, play shortstop and that’s about it. Goodwin could be a multi-category contributor but requires more seasoning, having never played above Double-A.

Projected Rotation

Strasburg is a fantasy ace, and should face virtually no restrictions this season. Word is he’s been tinkering with adding a slider to his arsenal, which is definitely what one should do after elbow surgery. Gonzalez took a step back in 2013, due mostly in part to an increased HR/FB%, coupled with allowing slightly more fly balls in general. His BABIP allowed also returned to his career norm – a 19 point bump from the prior season. There’s nothing wrong with Gonzalez, he’s just more of a 3.30 ERA, high strikeout type than he is a sub 3.00 ERA guy. Zimmermann also saw a superficial step back, but that was just regression playing out. He submitted a 3.51 FIP but got a 2.94 ERA in 2012. In 2013, he got a 3.25 ERA from a 3.36 FIP, so the peripherals were actually better (more ground balls, fewer line drives, fewer walks), and you can expect more of the same from Zimmermann this season.

Fister became the latest in a long line of things heisted from Detroit, when the Nationals acquired him in early December. His ERA has trended the wrong way since a breakout 2011, but Fister as actually done well to strike more hitters out, and is extremely adept at limiting free passes and keeping the ball on the ground. He’s better in real life than fantasy, but don’t underrate the value of bulk innings and solid peripherals. He’s worthwhile as a stabilizing force in a fantasy rotation.

Detwiler is the nominal fifth starter, and while he’s been good when healthy, his health has been an issue. There are plenty of viable options if Detwiler can’t make it through a full season, including call ups from last year Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan. All of these pitchers have value if they’re starting and are worth snagging either very late or via the waiver wire.

Projected Bullpen

There’s not nearly as much security for Soriano as you might think for a guy coming off a 43-save season. He blew six save opportunities and has two viable closers right behind him in the bullpen. He was still effective if you judge by ERA, but he lost six percentage points in his strikeout rate, and saw his fastball velocity decline, which is concerning.

Storen has closing experience but has experienced some nightmare scenarios in Washington that the fan base (reasonably or not) refuses to let go of. There’s also the fact that he was brutal last season, though his FIP was considerably better than his ERA. He’s retained his dynamic stuff and if he can get back to a good place mentally, he should have no problem as a dominant set up man (or seventh inning man). Clippard has handled the eighth inning duties with aplomb and has even had a spin or two as an effective closer. Given that he’s the primary set up guy in DC, it’s tempting to give him the nod as the primary back up, but if Storen can get back on the horse, they might not want to mess with an effective Clippard in the eighth.

Position Battle: Second Base: Danny Espinosa vs. Anthony Rendon
It’s the only position battle the Nationals have, and the winner should have plenty of value either way—Rendon with batting average and Espinosa with steals, as both should show plenty of pop for the position. It’s yet to be seen exactly what type of manager Matt Williams is, but if he prefers a veteran presence and defense, Espinosa has the advantage. If he prefers upside and contact rates, Rendon is his man. It’s possible Rendon’s contact rates will work against him as they’d likely be more valuable as a pinch hitter compared to Espinosa’s swing and miss. Then again it’s entirely possible that Rendon would be sent to Triple-A for regular at-bats if Espinosa wins out, which means the Nationals would have more options (good), but a weaker bench (bad).

Player to Target: Wilson Ramos
There’s no truth to the rumors that Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” was forward thinking commentary on the likelihood of a Ramos breakout, but I choose to believe anyway. The signs are there. They’re there in that he has pretty much broken out already and needs only to stay healthy to give his owners considerable value. Banking on an injury prone player to buck that trend is a risky endeavor of course, but of course that very same history that gives him his value. He’s able to hit for power despite impressively low fly ball rates, while using his high groundball rates to retain a solid average. That combination of skills and production from the catcher spot should be highly coveted. There’s enough risk to drop him behind the first grouping of catchers, but a full season should see him jump to the fore of the second grouping.

Player to Avoid: Denard Span
Adam LaRoche is the obvious answer, but I actually think there’s some bounce back potential from his brutal 2013, even if it is a dead cat bounce. Span should bounce back as well but the issue is his ultimate fantasy utility. He’ll hit atop a potent lineup, which definitely helps his cause, but there is no power, limited batting average upside and enough stolen bases to make him okay, but not great. This isn’t to say he’s not useful, but if he’s a top-four outfielder for your team, it will only end in disappointment.

Deep Sleeper: Zach Walters
The aforementioned Zach Walters isn’t likely to help in fantasy whatsoever this year. It’s likely the Nationals’ sincere hope that they don’t require his services at the major-league level. He’s a deeply flawed hitter, in that he produced a wretched .286 OBP in a full season at Triple-A last year. Given his position (shortstop) and power (29 home runs, .517 SLG), though, he’d be a useful player to both the Nationals and fantasy owners if he did receive regular at-bats.

Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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