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2016 Fantasy Baseball Preview: Washington Nationals

2016 Fantasy Baseball Preview: Washington Nationals

With all the studs in Washington, try not to forget about Gio Gonzalez

If the Nationals were aiming to give “Young and the Restless” some competition in the Soap Opera circuit, they accomplished the feat with flying colors. Though, if they were trying to win the NL East, they failed their red pen riddled exam. From dugout brawls, punching walls, and untimely injuries to bold-turned embarrassing proclamations, puzzling managerial decisions and no-hitters, it was a tumultuous campaign for D.C.’s team. A spate of injuries to key pieces like Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth derailed what was supposed to be a seemingly breezy path to October baseball.

Seeking stability, at last, the Nationals have brought in veteran manager Dusty Baker to replace Matt Williams. Entering his 21st season managing in the big leagues, the 66-year-old is actually, between his playing and managing days, embarking on his 40th season in Major League Baseball. Ensconced in the intricacies of America’s Pastime, the well-traveled skipper has a reputation as a player’s manager and adroit communicator, having managed the volatile egos of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in San Francisco. Baker will serve as the third Nats’ Manager in the past four years. The off-season proved frustrating from a player procurement perspective for the organization. Despite signing Daniel Murphy and trading for  Ben Revere, Washington tangled with the likes of dynamic slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who ended up staying with the Mets for $35 million less than what Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo flashed in front of him. For Mike Rizzo’s sake, let’s hope the only drama brewing in the Washington this year involves the 2016 Presidential Race.

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Projected Lineup:

NOTES: The Nationals’ infield is baseball’s whimsical edition of Musical Chairs. Heading into 2016, not one of their infielders is actually placed at their natural position which, as we saw with the New York Mets in last year’s World Series, can brutally backfire at the most inopportune moments. Defense can be hidden for a large chunk of the year, especially when you have premiere pitching (once again see the 2015 Mets) but ultimately, you have to catch the ball and throw the ball at a level like Kansas City did last year in order to have success. As for the offensive side of the ball, off-season arrival Ben Revere should fill in nicely as a top of the order spark plug, paving way for a very capable duo of Rendon and Harper. I would bet on Rendon reclaiming his promising 2014 form and Harper duplicating his sensational 2015 season. While Murphy should be fine in the fifth slot, Zimmerman and Werth’s health are crucial to the depth of this lineup. Every team needs lineup lengtheners, particularly an injury-prone one like Washington.

Projected Rotation:

Projected Closer – Jonathan Papelbon

NOTES: Washington had very high hopes for its star-studded rotation last year only to see number two starter Stephen Strasburg befell by injuries, Gio Gonzalez continue to underwhelm, and Doug Fister moved to the bullpen. Heading into 2016, the departed Jordan Zimmermann has been replaced by burgeoning young hurler, Joe Ross, and Fister has been replaced by 29-year-old Tanner Roark. However, the linch pin that can catapult this rotation from potentially very good to great, once again, is the performance of Strasburg. While Scherzer will look to build upon his two masterful no-hitters from last year (one accounting for one of the most dominant pitching performances in baseball history), the 27-year-old holds a vice grip on all the cards.  Strasburg’s star has fallen somewhat since the much ballyhooed once in a generation hype that engulfed the spectacle that was his rookie year. He has battled ongoing injuries since but flourished in his return last season on August 8th, recording quality starts in 9 of his last 10 showings. Half of those starts featured double-digit strikeouts and four included 12 k’s or more. Maturation is the key for the imposing right-hander who must learn to consistently harness his command and execute with runners on base in tight games. Filling out the rotation, Joe Ross seems ready to emerge on the scene (as you will see later in this article) and Roark will look to re-capture his impressive 15 win form from two years ago.

Stud: Bryce Harper – OF
Contain your surprise. Calling Bryce Harper a stud is like calling Aroldis Chapman a power pitcher. No need to be repetitive. After his first few years in the league, the 2015 MVP battled a mix of injuries and, at times, impatience at the plate that saw him fail to reach his full, tantalizing potential on the big league field. Well, those two deterring factors were nullified in 2015 as Harper went on to play 153 games, reaching base at an MLB-best .460 clip. Simply put, he set the league on fire. If you need more evidence of Harper’s utter dominance last year, he led baseball in WAR and nearly 50% of his base hits were of the extra-base variety. Moreover, he finished the year with a .319 ISO. Harper was also baseball’s OPS leader as only about 12% of his hit balls were deemed “soft” according to FanGraphs. And did I mention he is just 22? So I think you can pencil him in for another 12 years or so in his prime. 12! That is if he doesn’t bolt D.C. for the Bronx Bombers (his favorite all-time player is Mickey Mantle) in 2018 when he becomes a free agent. The young outfielder actually experienced a power outage of sorts towards the later months last season (7 combined home runs in July and August) as teams flat out refused to give him solid pitches to hit, instead opting to take their chances with the Nats’ injury-riddled, depleted lineup. Though once again proving the maturation that has taken place in his game, the unanimous NL MVP remained patient, adjusted and proceeded to hit a whopping 11 long balls in the final month of the season.

Bounce-Back Candidate: Anthony Rendon – 3B/2B
It’s easy to forget, amidst their 2015 season of turmoil, that injury plagued infielder Anthony Rendon was, in fact, a legitimate MVP Candidate just two years ago, garnering a few 5th place votes and finishing 4th in the majors in WAR. Better yet, he was just 24 when he accomplished all this. Now finally healthy and switching positions to the hot corner to alleviate the pressure from his knees, the highly regarded former 6th overall pick will be a major factor in the squad’s prospects this season. Rendon is a well-rounded player (17 sb in ’14) and makes solid contact at the plate in addition to his impressive power stroke, to the tune of 21 home runs just two years ago. His breakout 2014 campaign saw the young slugger finish 6th in runs created and offensive WAR. However, the 25-year-old has had on and off again injuries dating back to his days in college. Yet if he keeps his simple, repeatable approach at the plate intact, the third baseman should bounce back this year. Plus, with imported spark plug, Ben Revere, wreaking havoc front of him and some guy named Bryce Harper conveniently slotted behind him, look for a healthy Rendon can portend doom for opposing mound dwellers.

Sleeper: Joe Ross – SP
Possessing an ideal pitching frame at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, the former 2011 first round pick has just begun to scratch the bubbling surface that is his potential (just ask Gio Gonzalez). Ross filled in seamlessly for the Nationals’ injury-depleted rotation last year by recording a 3.64 ERA in 13 starts. When executing his delivery, Ross appears so relaxed and at ease that teammates may feel compelled to frantically seek a nearby doctor to check his pulse. What’s even more encouraging is the fact that additional velocity could possibly be added to his low to mid-90s fastball as the “all-arms” 22-year-old learns to utilize his legs to drive his weight forward in his delivery. He also manages to hide the ball well behind his large frame, which makes his late breaking hook particularly devastating. With an off-season of confidence and a full spring training under the tutelage of accomplished vets like Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez, 2016 figures to be a bright year for the precocious 22-year-old. The polished hurler was actually, according to the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, one of the most sought after pitchers this off-season. This is not surprising considering the stoic, even-keeled demeanor that allowed Ross to navigate through a pressure-packed Washington season in what was his first taste of the big leagues. The horizon is promising.

Bust: Daniel Murphy – 2B
Daniel Murphy seemingly went from the revered title of the 2015 Playoffs’ Reggie Jackson to the mantle of “Mortal Man” in mere minutes. Coming off his Ruthian postseason performance that saw him break the all-time playoff record by going yard in an eye-popping six straight games, the newly minted Nationals’ second baseman had a precipitous fall, becoming a non-factor in the World Series. Actually, if anything, he was a net negative providing minimal offense along with two crucial defensive blunders in the Fall Classic. The wise choice would be to bet against the alluring vision of “Daniel Murphy, Home Run Threat.” going forward. While his overall power has most likely been given a moderate boost, rarely does a player at age 30 witness a significant spike in the power department (unless they call the BioGenesis Clinic). Despite an MLB-best one strikeout per 13.1 at bats last season, the former Metropolitan sits at an uninspiring 62 career home runs. Also, consider that Daniel Murphy “the slugger” was born, not coincidentally, soon after the arrival of offensive juggernaut Yoenis Cespedes who slotted into the four spot right behind him. Moreover, his defense will be exposed in more brazen fashion rather than being hidden for long stretches by the Mets’ surplus of young fireballers, who accounted for three of the top five hardest throwing starters in the bigs. Ultimately, Murphy is a streaky hitter who is a fan-favorite when he is hot but a source of begroaned shrugs when he isn’t. If you want a crash-course in Murphy 101, just watch the 2015 playoffs.

Late-Round Flier: Jayson Werth – OF
Turning 37 this May, Werth’s tenure in Washington has been somewhat underwhelming considering his hefty contract. He has failed to reach 85 rbi’s in his time here while accomplishing that feat twice in his more dynamic days in Philly. Last year, injuries limited him to only 88 games. GM Mike Rizzo would love for him to regain his ’14 form when he was second in baseball in “base-out runs added” which calculates the amount of runs a batter adds to the resulting play in a given situation. While his career .365 OBP has remained an exemplary trademark during his career, his slugging percentage (in 88 games last year) was his lowest in 10 years. Alarmingly enough, Werth himself isn’t even sure how long he can be a middle of the order force, much less an everyday player. Rather than offering the quotidian vote of confidence amidst his myriad injuries, the outfielder admitted of his prospect as an everyday player “At some point it’s not going to be the case. It’s just the reality of it…You can’t outrun Father Time. I know I’m at the end of my career, more so than the beginning…”

Prospect To WatchLucas Giolito – SP
The former 16th overall pick is considered by Baseball Prospectus to be the Nationals’ number one prospect. Better yet, he is considered by some to be the premier prospect in all of baseball, particularly due to Corey Seager and Byron Buxton’s promotions last season. Giolito is a physical specimen, standing at an imposing 6’5″ and 255 pounds. Equipped with a mid-90s fastball and devastating 12 to 6 breaking ball exerted without maximum effort, don’t be surprised if he introduces himself to the Washington faithful this year at Nationals’ Park. His lethal hook is an aesthetically pleasing seat filler and will surely have pupils fixated from dugout to dugout. Better yet, the 21-year-old has already endured his Tommy John “right of passage” so an auspicious career seems to be waiting in the wings.

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Anthony Castellano is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Anthony, check out his archive and follow him @AcasNY23.

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