The 2013 Washington Nationals epitomized the plexiglass principle, giving back 12 of their 98 wins from the previous season.
Fans and Fantasy owners alike suffered whiplash from the inevitable regression, ill-timed injuries, and the inability to catch a break. Meanwhile, the young stars who were supposed to make up for it had their own problems.
Bryce Harper avoided the rookie wall and a sophomore slump, but crashed into a literal wall. Stephen Strasburg scuffled with pitch counts and survived an elbow scare. Jayson Werth only put up his monster numbers after he’d hit the waiver wire in many leagues for countless nagging injuries.
The only true bright spot was SS Ian Desmond, who posted his second consecutive 20/20 season at a thin and fragile shortstop position.
In Fantasy, as in reality, the 2014 Washington Nationals will trust improved health and more timely production to push the pendulum swing back in their favor. Fantasy Baseball owners will want to come along for that ride.
Projected 2014 Washington Nationals “Go-To” Lineup
- Denard Span, CF
- Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
- Bryce Harper, LF
- Jayson Werth, RF
- Adam LaRoche, 1B
- Ian Desmond, SS
- Wilson Ramos, C
- Anthony Rendon, 2B
- SP1: Stephen Strasburg, RHP
- SP2: Gio Gonzalez, LHP
- SP3: Jordan Zimmerman, RHP
- SP4: Doug Fister, RHP
- SP5: Ross Detwiler, LHP
- Setup: Tyler Clippard, RHP and Drew Storen, RHP
- Closer: Rafael Soriano, RHP
Fantasy Studs: Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond
I like to compare Bryce Harper’s career trajectory to a pair of superstar outfielders from the early ’90s — Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr. Comparisons are dangerous exercises, but I want you to get three things from this one:
- Harper generates the same buzz, hype, excitement, #sparkle
- Harper has the same easy 80 power, and for his age-20 season, better peripheral stats
- There’s a good chance the hype is a little premature.
While I think Harper has an excellent chance to live up to those comps, I can’t tell you which one it will be. Griffey put up Fantasy stud numbers almost right away. Bonds needed five seasons to get there. If it’s Griffey, you can justify a first-round pick. But in a redraft league, I’m more inclined to hedge by going late second or early third.
With Strasburg, I think you’re getting more of a finished product. Despite “scuffling” last year, his overall numbers didn’t change much as he essentially traded a few strikeouts for groundballs (30-26 K%, 44-51 GB%) and got screwed repeatedly by the left side of his infield. You can make a tenuous argument that Ryan Zimmerman alone cost the Nationals four or five wins with his bum shoulder and Knoblauchitis, and no Nationals starter was hurt by more airmailed throws than Strasburg. The narrative said he struggled with his pitch count, but I’m telling you there were several first innings where he had to go to 35 pitches to get four or five outs. The only people lacking mental toughness here are the ones insisting they still have a franchise third baseman who doesn’t need to move to first base.
As for Desmond, it’s OK to draft him as a top-three shortstop, but don’t be shocked if his batting average (21% career strikeout rate) and home runs (just 285 feet worth of batted ball distance) take a slight hit.
Breakout Candidates: Sandbagging
As Denny Green would say, the Nationals right now are who we thought they were. There are only two Fantasy starters on this team with significant untapped potential, and I already wrote about them in the previous section.
If you draft Harper in the third and get a 40-HR season with 15 steals and top-of-the-order counting stats, that’s a breakout. If Strasburg defeats his pitch count demons and gives you 300 strikeouts with a 1.05 WHIP, that’s a breakout. But you’re not getting first-round value out of Gio Gonzalez, Werth’s Beard, or either Zimmerman.
Sleeper Candidates: Doug Fister, Wilson Ramos
Spoiler alert: Player A is Jordan Zimmermann. Player B is Doug Fister.
Jordan Zimmermann enjoyed a .271 BABIP against in 2013. Fister and the corner butchers, Miggy and Prince, endured a .332 BABIP against. That explains the gap in WHIP. The other peripherals are nearly identical.
Fister is due for some serious progression to his three-year baseline, will face a pitcher two or three times per start, and will face the anemic Mets and Marlins two or three times each. Guess which one comes cheaper?
Battery-mate Wilson Ramos, who finished fourth in the league with an average HR/FB distance of 309 feet, will also come cheap. The Nationals think his abductions, torn ACLs, and recurring hamstring woes are behind him. With his raw power, a secure spot in the lineup, and a steady .270/.325/.445 career slash line, he could challenge Wilin Rosario for the league lead in catcher dongs and drive in 75-80 runs.
Bust Candidates: Ryan Zimmerman, Rafael Soriano
Even before Werth redeemed his standing with a truncated .318/.398/.532 season, he didn’t possess the worst contract on the Nationals roster. That honor rests with Ryan Zimmerman, who did his time as the franchise player in the lean years and was rewarded two years early with an extra six years and $100M when he already had serious shoulder problems and seemed unlikely to stick at third base.
Zimmerman already can’t make the throws, and one of these years the annual round of cortisone shots isn’t going to work at the plate, either. The risk just isn’t worth it for a guy who is turning 30, peaked four years ago, and has settled in as a .285/25/85 player.
As for Soriano, the only thing worse than paying for saves is paying for saves and getting nothing else. He was never a traditional power reliever, but his K/9 cratered at 6.89 and most of his peripherals went with it. You can blame his 3.78 SIERA on sample size, or you can be risk averse and let someone else scramble for Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen when he loses the job in June.
Top (Almost) Rookie: Anthony Rendon
The Nationals have too much established depth for any rookie to make the team out of camp and no prospects will come close enough to make an impact later. Rendon isn’t actually a rookie any more, but he entered last season as a top-30 prospect with a rave hit tool. So far that profile has translated to a pop-gun .265/.329/.396 slash line in half a season.
Technically, his most exciting skill is that he plays second base (despite repeatedly demonstrated glass ankles). If he can add some extra-base pop this year, while adjusting to the big league curve, he’ll be a cheap and versatile Fantasy asset in deeper leagues.
What Should You Know?
The Nationals might be one of the two or three most talented teams in the league, and will be well represented on Fantasy Baseball squads. Denard Span is their only offensive starter not worth rostering (with apologies to his defensive value).
Fourth outfielder Nate McClouth will be useful in short stretches if anyone gets hurt.
Former 20/20 threat Danny Espinosa is on a BSOHL marketing campaign after playing through a torn labrum and a broken wrist. He’s unlikely to displace Rendon for his old job, but his glove alone would play at close to 2 WAR over a full season at either second base or shortstop. He’ll hang around.
The rest of the 2014 Washington Nationals’ lineup is full of known quantities at reasonable costs and acceptable risks, and that holds for the starting rotation, as well. I made the case for Strasburg and Fister above, but don’t forget about Gio Gonzalez. His 8.83 K/9 was the 20th-best in baseball (minimum 150 IP), in company with Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander. Use that as a tiebreaker when drafting your second and third Fantasy starters.
Daniel Archer (@danielarcher) wields a pizza cutter and any other sabermetric implement he can borrow from better minds to make weekly Fantasy projections for LeagueSafe Post, (@LeagueSafe). He also takes a lot of determined hacks at Cut On And Missed. LeagueSafe Post, a site created by Fantasy Football pioneer Paul Charchian, is dedicated to top of the line Fantasy Baseball, Football, and Golf opinions and analysis. LeagueSafe Post offers in-depth content for both season-long and Daily Fantasy players, and offers a free, soon-to-be award-winning podcast (we haven’t held our office podcast awards show yet).