For the Washington Nationals it’s World Series or bust. Those aren’t the media’s expectations. Those aren’t the fans’ expectations. Those aren’t my expectations. They’re the expectations the Nationals set in place three years ago when they decided to forego an all-in run at a title by shutting down Stephan Strasburg before the playoffs, despite having the best record in baseball. When you sit your generational phenom, sacrificing short term success to preserve his long term outlook, you better make up for it when the opportunity presents itself. Opportunity… welcome (back) to DC.
Not only are the Nationals the overwhelming favorites to win the NL East, they’re the odds on favorite to make and subsequently win the World Series. And as you’re about to find out, they’ve got the pieces in place to do so, including one of the most formidable rotations assembled in recent memory. But nothing in sports is guaranteed and we’ve already seen a chink in Washington’s armor early on as multiple projected starters will be sidelined when Opening Day rolls around on Monday. Might this require a Natitude adjustment, or is Washington still poised to pay off its ultimate futures bet?
For my money, the fantasy MVP of 2014 was none other than Anthony Rendon. A guy who wasn’t even among the top 200 draft picks, Rendon turned in a top-20 caliber effort and was the most valuable 3B in the game (even though you probably used him at 2B). The community believed a repeat performance was in order, requiring a second round pick for his services, until what looked like a minor tweak in his left knee refused to disappear. It’s been weeks since we’ve seen Rendon on the field and a DL stint to start the season looks almost inevitable at this point. Word out of our nation’s capital is that he’s gone to see the (in)famous Dr. James Andrews and he’s likely to only miss the first three weeks of the season. This isn’t a definite though, so consider that when you decide how far down the ranks to drop him. I can’t value him as greater than a top-40 asset at this point, so I’ll probably be out on Rendon. Look for Ian Stewart to fill in while Rendon is sidelined.
Rendon’s double play partner has long been a favorite of mine and someone I’ll again be targeting this year. You can have your Tulos and Hanleys. I’ll take Ian Desmond and book another 20/20 season. 2014 marked the third consecutive season Desmond achieved the feat and despite the steep drop in AVG to .255 (a zip code he might just reside in again), he knocked in a career high 91 and again scored 70+ times. I don’t buy into the contract year theory, but with Desmond you simply don’t need it when you can rely on all that consistency, making him a slam dunk third-round pick.
One of my favorite targets in 2015 (and not because he’s a Virginia Beach product like myself) has to be new Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. With Adam LaRoche gone, Zimmerman is freed up to move across the diamond, no longer having to make the long throws that his shoulder could no longer handle. Still, there is risk as he’s dealt with various other afflictions including a hamstring issue that limited him down the stretch last year. I’ll still take the chance considering every season Zimmerman has played at least 140 games, he’s also hit 20+ homers. If I don’t get a top tier third baseman for my fantasy lineup, Zimmerman’s the pick in the middle rounds.
“If Wilson Ramos could only stay on the field…” I can’t tell you how many times that thought has run through my head. The kid’s got a ton of talent, but has only appeared in 90+ games in a season once in his big league career. Even if we got just 120 games out of him, based on his career averages that would still project out to .269/.317/.432 with 18 HR and 65 RBI. I’d have no problem taking that from a catcher I can draft after the top ten at the position are gone. In one catcher mixed leagues, you can take a chance on Ramos because the dropoff to replacement level is a small one. Other formats, sorry to say, you have to be a little weary of tying yourself to such a fragile commodity.
Not that you’ll find much in the way of offensive production at second base, but it looks like Yunel Escobar will escape the jumbled mess for Washington as the starter. You might get a few homers out of him, but likely nothing else, and who knows for how long? Escobar still has to compete with the likes of Danny Espinosa and Dan Uggla, yes Dan Uggla, for playing time. Uggla is of particular interest considering he’s handled the bat fairly well this Spring, but it looks unlikely that he’ll accept a reserve role. I think that makes drafting Uggla in deeper leagues a little easier considering you’ll know before the season even starts if he’s got a spot in one of the strongest lineups in the NL, or if he’s outright droppable.
I won’t mince words. I’m out on Bryce Harper in 2015. I just can’t keep sinking a high draft pick or those elite auction dollars waiting for his production to catch up to his potential. Realize that Harper has never hit more than 22 HR, he’s never reached 60 RBI, he’s never stolen 20 bases, and he’s never hit .275 in a season. What about that screams third round pick? Toss in that his style of play has caused him to miss over 100 games the last two seasons combined and I have to pass. Harper is a very good player who will one day be a great player, but I’m not willing to pay the price to see if that jump will occur this year.
Like Rendon, Jayson Werth is also slated to start the season on the DL, but it could be a quick trip. Werth, who’s recovering from a shoulder injury, could be in the lineup before the end of the first week, making him an interesting target, especially for those in OBP leagues. It’s been three years since Werth didn’t post at least a .380 OBP and he’s a quality source of runs and RBI as well. Don’t let the injury status or age scare you away from a solid contributor.
Those in need of a cheap source of runs had to be loving Denard Span until news broke of his core muscle injury. Span will have a very juicy spot atop Washington’s lineup upon his return so look to add him if you need to make up some runs early on. In the mean time, Washington’s outfield got turned upside down by the additions of Matt den Dekker and Reed Johnson recently. They’ll fit in with incumbents Michael Taylor and Tyler Moore, fighting over the two open spots until Werth and Span return.
It can’t be stated emphatically enough how good this assembled Nationals rotation is or how much I love just about every piece of it, but let’s start plain and simple: I am all in on Max Scherzer this year. ALL. IN. Is there a player in fantasy baseball whose circumstances improved more than his? Not only does he jump from the AL to the NL, where he sheds the DH and instead gets to face a pitcher 2-3 times a game, but Scherzer landed in the suddenly offensively inept NL East. Thanks to the great sell-off in Atlanta, the only team with even a formidable offense is the Marlins, and it’s far from nightmare inducing. Toss in that Washington’s defense is an upgrade from that of Detroit and I have no problem seeing career highs, or close to it, across the board from Scherzer in 2015.
The kid gloves are finally coming off when it comes to the Nationals’ treatment of Stephen Strasburg and we’re beginning to get an indication of just what is possible from the phenom. Last year was his first surpassing the 200-inning plateau and he rewarded owners with 242 K, a 3.14 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 215.0 innings. Maybe more importantly, Strasburg also dropped his BB/9 from 2.8 in 2013 to 1.8 in 2014. He’ll turn 27 this year and I expect those numbers to improve yet again, even if just slightly. The one negative that surrounds Strasburg is the trade chatter now that Washington has brought Scherzer into the fold. But I have a hard time believing, after the way the Nats massaged him early in his career, that they would be willing to close shop and deal him off now when their championship window is open the widest.
The Nationals pitcher I do think is more likely to be traded isn’t Strasburg, it’s Jordan Zimmermann. Personally, I wouldn’t dare ship a player out the quality of Zimmermann when making an all-out push for the World Series, but the reality is that he is a pending free agent who almost assuredly won’t be back in D.C. next year, so I understand the team’s desire to move him now. Unfortunately, moving Zimmermann probably won’t do any favors for his fantasy stock. As we discussed earlier with Scherzer, pitching in Washington is one of the best gigs out there. The uncertainty of Zimmermann’s future does make his ranking a little more volatile, but his skill set ensures he’ll have plenty of value wherever he ends up, although I still think he plays the full year in DC.
There aren’t too many pitchers who can go from winning 21 games three years ago to being the fourth-best option on their own staff, but that’s exactly the case for Gio Gonzalez. A shoulder scare cost Gonzalez six starts last year and put a damper on what many hoped would be a return to 2012 levels. Still, his 3.02 FIP suggests there’s still plenty left in the tank and his 2015 numbers should be as steady as we’ve come to expect.
Did I mention the Nationals are loaded? Doug Fister gives the Nats five starters in my top 30, and one could argue that Fister was the best of the bunch last season. He built that sterling 2.41 ERA on the back of a career-low 1.3 BB/9 and a .265 BABIP, which comes in 30 points below his career mark. It was a remarkable pitch-to-contact season that saw Fister fall short of even reaching triple digits in strikeouts. Naturally, his numbers are due for a market correction, but he should still provide strong ratios and plenty of win potential.
I ranked Tanner Roark as my 65th best starter for fantasy this year, and normally when you’re that far down in the ranks, there’s some question about the pitcher’s skill level. With Roark, coming off an incredible 2014 with a sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.10 WHIP, those questions really don’t exist. The problem is he’s the sixth best starter on a team with a loaded rotation. Almost all of Roark’s value is tied to the trade rumors of Jordan Zimmermann and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Strasburg. If you sink a draft pick into Roark, you’re banking on one of those two guys getting moved or a significant injury opening up a spot. It’s one of the biggest gambles in the draft, but one where the payoff could be monstrous.
I don’t want to call the bullpen of the Nationals a weakness, but compared to the rest of the team, this unit does have a few more question marks. Gone are Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano, although Soriano lost his mojo in the second half last year, allowing Drew Storen to take over the closer role. It’s a role Storen will have exclusively this year and, with the win projections being as high as they’ve been, one that could result in a huge number of saves racked up. He was supposed to be the stopper years earlier as the other half of the dynamic draft duo of 2009 alongside Strasburg, but it hasn’t played out so smoothly. Storen regains the role this year and is a sound target for those wanting saves and nothing but.
The Nats did make a wise move by adding former Blue Jay Casey Janssen as insurance. He’ll take over the 8th inning duties and should make for a solid, but not spectacular add for those in search of holds. After Janssen’s shoulder surgery last year he lost a little off his fastball and saw his K/9 dip under six. He’ll need to make up some of that ground to be more than just a handcuff to Storen.
Washington should win this division by a landslide, with only Miami possibly creeping up to challenge them in my eyes. Ultimately, a division title is just the tip of the iceberg and won’t satisfy fans who’ve been foaming at the mouth to kick off 2015. As we’ve already seen this Spring, health will play a big part in dictating if this team can meet their lofty expectations and make a deep October run. It would be great to see Rendon and Desmond carry over their strong play, a return to form by Zimmerman, and the next step forward taken by Harper, but this team is defined by their starting pitching. If they pitch as well as they are capable of, there’s not a team in baseball that can compete.
2015 NL East Projection:
- Washington Nationals (94-68)
- Miami Marlins (83-79)
- New York Mets (78-84)
- Atlanta Braves (76-86)
- Philadelphia Phillies (70-92)