In 2012, the Nationals seemed to be a year ahead of schedule. Last year felt like they were a year behind. They team missed the playoffs, going 86-76 one season after leading the majors with 98 wins. They made a late charge for a Wild Card spot, finishing the season on a 32-16 run after bottoming out at 54-60, but it was too late for them to catch the Pirates and Reds.
Having said that, there is plenty of reason for optimism in the nation's capital this season. The rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister is one of the best, if not the very best, in the National League. Bryce Harper is on the brink of stardom, and if Jayson Werth can perform at a 4-5 WAR level again, this offense will be dangerous. Ian Desmond is coming off his second straight 20-20 campaign, while Wilson Ramos blasted 16 homers in barely more than 300 plate appearances last year. In other words, they should hit much better as a team than the .251/.313/.398 slash they put up last year.
The Nationals have a ton to offer the fantasy community. Strasburg and Harper are stars at their respective positions. Harper is a first-round pick regardless of format, while Strasburg will likely be one of the first five starting pitchers off the board in most drafts. Gonzalez and Zimmermann are both in the composite top-20 starting pitchers over at FantasyPros, Desmond is considered a top-5 shortstop and Ryan Zimmerman keeps on putting up consistent numbers at third base, a position that seems to get shallower by the season. This is not only one of the best teams in the majors. It's also one that will be a favorite among fantasy owners.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
3. Bryce Harper, LF
4. Jayson Werth, RF
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Anthony Rendon, 2B
1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Gio Gonzalez
3. Jordan Zimmermann
4. Doug Fister
5. Ross Detwiler/Tanner Roark
Bullpen: Rafael Soriano (closer), Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus, Jerry Blevins
Is Bryce Harper the breakout stud of 2014? You may not realize because of all the time Harper spent on the disabled list last season, but 2013 was a superior year, at least individually, than 2012 for Harper. He raised his slash line across the board to .274/.368/.486. His walk rate jumped to 12.3 percent from 9.4 percent while his strikeout rate fell to 18.9 percent from 20.1 percent. His counting stats were down, but that's because he had 100 fewer plate appearances. He still managed to hit 20 home runs, steal 11 bases, score 71 runs and drive in 58 of his own despite playing in just 118 games. Harper was the runaway NL Rookie of the Year in 2012, and took a step forward last year. In 2014, get ready for Harper to truly become one of the best hitters in the league.
It's important to watch the growth curve of a player's power bat early in his career, especially one who is thought to have good pop, but still lives on this side of Giancarlo Stanton. Harper had fewer than 700 plate appearances in the minors before the Nationals promoted him to the big league club, so we didn't get a chance to see that develop before he was in D.C. If Harper is bound for superstardom, he'd likely post gains in the power department in year two. That's exactly what happened.
Starting with the surface numbers, he hit just two fewer homers last season despite getting to the plate 100 fewer times than 2012. His isolated slugging crept up six points to .212 from .206. His average fly-ball distance of 299.23 feet was an increase of nearly 20 feet from the previous season and was the 20th-longest in the league. You'll probably recognize a lot of the names in front of him on that last. Carlos Gonzalez. Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Hanley Ramirez. Troy Tulowitzki. Stanton. All among the most prodigious power hitters in the majors. His average true home run distance of 405.5 feet was better than Jay Bruce, Goldschmidt and Cabrera. Yes, those three all have more data points than Harper, which can help drive down an average. The point remains that Harper is on the cusp of being a top-tier power hitter.
It's always hard to project playing time, but if we conservatively estimate 600 plate appearances for Harper, we can project a .285/.370/.510 line with 30 homers and 15 steals. He's deserving of his current first-round status.
Can Jayson Werth's 2013 power surge continue this year? Two years into his seven-year, $126-million contract, Werth looked like an absolute disaster for the Nationals. He hit a respectable .300/.387/.440 in 2012, but he played in just 81 games and had a measly five homers in 344 at-bats. The batting average and on-base percentage made him a great No. 2 hitter, but you don't have to pay someone $18 million a year to be a table setter, least of all one who you play in right field. If the contract, ridiculous at the time it was signed, was going to have any chance of being justified, Werth would have to rediscover the power he had in Philadelphia.
The 34-year-old did just that last season, belting 25 home runs, putting up a .214 ISO, and slashing .318/.398/.532 for the season. While his fly-ball percentage remained flat, he had an 18-percent HR/FB ratio, heights he hadn't approached since 2009 when he had a career-high 36 roundtrippers. Most of his plate discipline numbers were in line with career averages last season, so a change in approach doesn't appear to be in play. Quite simply, Werth squared the ball up more consistently last season, and when he did so he hit it generally harder.
Werth's line-drive rate was a scorching 26 percent, the second-best total of his career. His true average home run distance was 410 feet, the ninth farthest of anyone with at least 18 homers. His average fly ball flew a touch more than 290 feet, an increase of 21-plus feet from the previous season. There isn't a big secret in the numbers, here. Werth traded ground balls for line drives last season. Still, outfield is the deepest position in fantasy baseball, making Werth a potential gamble given his previous stumbles and advanced age. I'm calling him the No. 26 outfielder.
Is Stephen Strasburg the lockdown ace he's expected to be? Strasburg had another strong season last year, though he may have come up short of his owners' expectations. A lot of that has to do with the 8-9 record that is out of his control. When you pay as high a price for a pitcher as Strasburg garnered last year, you probably expect better than 3.2 WAR. Still, no owner can be upset about 183 innings worth of a 3.00 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with 191 strikeouts. It's just that he has still yet to take the step from frontline pitcher to superstar ace. Will this be the year it happens?
In many respects, Strasburg was a better pitcher last year than he was in 2012. His K/9 dipped from an elite 11.1 to a great 9.4, which still had him in the top 10. He traded a decent chunk of those strikeouts for ground-ball outs, as his ground-ball rate leapt to 51.5 percent from 44.2 percent. His line-drive rate also plummeted to 17.5 percent from 22.7 percent. Strasburg may not have been missing as many bats as he had previously, but he was also inducing more weak contact than ever before in his career. That's a sign of a young pitcher who is really starting to get it.
Strasburg is able to be so effective as both a strikeout and ground-ball pitcher thanks to the way his secondary pitches play off a fastball that averages 95 mph. According to Pitch F/X, Strasburg had the fourth most valuable curveball and sixth most valuable changeup last season. Opposing batters hit just .135 with a .180 slugging percentage against his curveball. The story is even grizzlier for opponents when he breaks out the change. They hit .128 against the pitch without a single extra-base hit last year. Those offerings make him one of the hardest pitchers to square up in the league.
We're still a few weeks away from the true draft season, but Strasburg is currently in the same neighborhood as Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright. He may be coming off surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, but Strasburg's ceiling is higher than all three of those players. I'd still take him third among all starting pitchers, trailing only Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish.
Anthony Rendon, 2B -- Rendon took over for Danny Espinosa as the starting second baseman in Washington last year, and he's going to be at the keystone on Opening Day this year. He hit .265/.329/.396 in 394 plate appearances with the Nationals last year, but starred with Double-A Harrisburg before his promotion, hitting .319/.461/.603 with six homers. There's plenty of upside here, especially at the second base position.
Jordan Zimmermann, SP -- I'd be happy to have Zimmermann on my team if his expected price comes down by the end of March. Until then, though, I'm passing on a pitcher who struck out just 6.9 batters per nine innings last year and has only posted a K/9 of seven or better once in his career.
Wilson Ramos, C -- Ramos had 16 homers and 59 RBI in just 303 plate appearances last year. His average fly-ball distance of 309.51 feet was the fourth farthest in the majors. Assuming 500-plus at bats, he could push up toward the 30-homer plateau this season.
NL-only guys to know
Ross Detwiler, SP -- The Nationals are likely to be among the very best in the National League this season, and that could make Detwiler a cheap source of wins, assuming he is the team's fifth starter. That is enough to take a flier on him late in NL-only leagues.
Tanner Roark, SP -- The other side of the Detwiler coin. One of the two will be the fifth starter in Washington. Whoever wins the job would be worthy of a roster spot in NL-only leagues.