2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Washington Nationals
After making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history in 2012, at long last the Nationals were favored for something in 2013 -- and not just something, but everything. Several publications picked them to win the World Series.
So naturally, they won only 86 games and finished a distant second behind the Braves.
From a Fantasy perspective, not too much went wrong. Jordan Zimmermann took another step forward, becoming a front-line starter with 19 wins. Ian Desmond put together another 20-20 season, solidifying his place among the top shortstops in Fantasy after a breakout 2012 that few saw coming. Wilson Ramos emerged as a legitimate power threat behind the plate with 16 home runs in only 287 at-bats. Jayson Werth returned from a broken wrist to perform at an MVP level, finally living up to his contract by putting up numbers much like he had in Philadelphia. OK, so Stephen Strasburg fell short of expectations with only a 9-8 record, but that was just an effect of the cause. He pitched as well as ever with a 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
The problem was in part timing. Other than Desmond, the Nationals didn't have a steady performer from start to finish, at least not on the offensive end. Ramos had a hamstring injury that cost him most of the first half. Werth had one that cost him almost all of May. Ryan Zimmerman finished with about his usual numbers but didn't really take off until September, when he hit 11 of his 26 home runs. And of course, by the time they got going, Bryce Harper was held together by duct tape and twist ties, his brilliant start muted by a collision with the outfield fence in early May. He, like Strasburg, has yet to put together a truly dominant season in Fantasy, for all the flashes of greatness.
So is this the year? No reason to bet against it. Harper had his knee surgically repaired in the offseason and is back to 100 percent. Strasburg just needs to keep doing what he's been doing, hopefully taking another step forward in terms of innings. They're the two most attractive Nationals for Fantasy purposes, but between them, Desmond, Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Werth, the Nationals have as many potential early-rounders as any team in baseball, with only Werth at risk of decline at age 34. And for what he's capable of delivering, his going rate seems perfectly reasonable, even with the injury risk.
In fact, excluding the bullpen, which typically doesn't matter in Fantasy, only three Nationals with prominent roles -- Denard Span , Adam LaRoche and Ross Detwiler -- figure to go undrafted in mixed leagues. And one of them, LaRoche, was a 30-homer guy as recently as 2012. Tanner Roark , who compiled a 1.74 ERA in five starts late last year, has sleeper appeal if he can beat out Detwiler for the fifth starter job (with Taylor Jordan also in the mix), but because he's capable of pitching in relief, he has an uphill battle.
Sleeper ... Anthony Rendon , second base
Bust ... Rafael Soriano , relief pitcherSoriano spent so many years as a setup man waiting for his opportunity to close that now that he's there, the unquestioned closer for the Nationals, he's on the downside of his career at age 34. That's hardly ancient by relief pitcher standards, but it's old enough for him to lose something in the way of ability. Sure enough, his average fastball velocity was the lowest of his career last year, continuing a trend of steady regression that began with the Rays in 2010, when his strikeout rate first took a noticeable dip. It held steady over the next couple years, but his rate of 6.9 per nine innings last year was straight-up Bob Wickman. And his 8.8 hits per nine innings were 26th-most among relievers with at least 60 innings. To put it bluntly, Soriano was too hittable for the ninth inning last year, and continued decline could mean serious trouble in 2014. Between Tyler Clippard , one of the game's top setup men, and Drew Storen , who did a fine job closing prior to elbow surgery in 2012, the Nationals have alternatives.
Buyer beware ... Doug Fister , starting pitcher
Prospects ReportThe Nationals farm system has taken a hit with all the prospects they've graduated to the majors over the last few years, but they do have one surefire talent in Lucas Giolito . He dominated in his return from Tommy John surgery last year and could move quickly for a 19-year-old, but he's still more of a dynasty league option at this stage of his career. ... Back with the Nationals after spending a year in the Athletics organization, A.J. Cole stock is on the rise again. He can hit 97 mph with his fastball and commands his pitches well, but with the surplus of rotation options at the big-league level already, he's a long shot to contribute in 2014. ... Nathan Karns got his first taste of the majors in 2013, and it didn't go well. He throws hard but has some command issues that should already be resolved at age 26. With his foot in the door, he could get an emergency start or two at some point in 2014 ... Brian Goodwin is the best of the Nationals hitting prospects and not far from reaching the majors at age 23, but he took a step back with his promotion to Double-A and probably isn't a threat to unseat Denard Span this year.