Breaking down the Washington Nationals
This offseason has not been fun. I had planned this series looking at which teams had spots to be filled, the rosters most likely to shift and change. The hot stove has been so ridiculously cold that it has made writing these pieces especially difficult. I had hoped that, by this time, rosters across the league would have begun to solidify as free agents sign and teams’ needs are filled. But, that hasn’t happened. Until free agents begin to sign and rosters fill, articles in this series will involve increasingly more conjecture, inference, and good ol’ guesswork. I still plan to write about the rosters that seem most finished, and hopefully, those will become clearer as free agents sign (please Scott Boras).
Onto the Nationals.
The Washington Nationals are often regarded as one of the best teams on paper and one of the worst in the playoffs. Having never won a series in the Postseason, the Nationals have disappointed fans in Washington since the team’s relocation in 2005. With Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Sean Doolittle, and others set to hit free agency after the 2018 season, this may be the last year that the Nationals will be primed to cruise to an easy NL East title, especially considering how quickly the Braves and Phillies are improving. It’s now or never for the Nats, so don’t be surprised to see them make a big trade or signing to truly push them into the top echelon of teams in the league.
Top Player – 2017
In 2017, the Nationals top player, according to ESPN’s Player Rater, was RHP Max Scherzer. One of the top starters in the game over the past five years, Scherzer has solidified himself as one of the top four starting pitchers in drafts this season, along with Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber. Of those four pitchers, each of them has had at least some injury concern, save for Sale, who may have been erroneously tagged as an injury risk due to his erratic and violent mechanics. Scherzer himself saw time on the 10-Day DL last August due to neck inflammation, though that DL stint was bookended by two 10-strikeout performances, so I am not too concerned about the neck injury flaring back up or negatively affecting Scherzer in 2018.
Mad Max represents a dying class of starting pitcher, the workhorse ace. Scherzer logged 200.2 innings in 31 starts in 2017, for an average of 6.46 IPS (innings pitched per start). In today’s environment of strong bullpens, long men, and quick hooks for starters, there were only 35 pitchers that totaled more than 80 IP in 2017 and achieved an IPS over 6. This means that Scherzer will log more strikeouts and quality starts, as well as put himself in line for wins more often. He is a frontline ace pitching in front of a strong offense and ought to be drafted no later than second round.
On a team full of all-stars on both sides of the ball, finding a value pick can be difficult. Every competent batter boosts the value of every other batter in the lineup, improving the chances of runs and RBI totals increasing. On the Nationals squad, in particular, batters like Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner will cost you an early round pick (though Rendon being drafted at 57 overall is pretty solid value). My favorite value target on the Washington squad is CF Adam Eaton. After missing nearly all of the 2017 season to an ACL tear, Eaton, now healthy, is being drafted as the 38th OF, the 151st player overall in NFBC drafts.
Eaton has been a very consistent player for the last three years, playing in 153 games in 2015 and 157 in 2016 before having his 2017 season cut short by injury. In 2015 and 2016, he hit .286/.361/.429, averaging 14 HR, 16 SB, and 95 runs, hitting at the top of the White Sox lineup. Now in one of the best offenses in baseball, Eaton should see plenty of opportunities to score runs and provide a solid average, along with double-digit home runs and steals. A four-category provider in the middle of drafts is a fantastic pick. I hope to have a few shares of Eaton this year, assuming his price doesn’t increase more than a round or two.
This one was very easy: you should not draft Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals 32-year-old first baseman had a great season, hitting 36 home runs, .303 average, and a .930 OPS. However, nearly all of this production was logged in the first few months of the season. In April, Zimmerman hit .406 with 11 HR. His monthly AVG between April and September is less impressive: .406, .319, .283, .234, .233, .325. When you pair the in-season decline with a completely unsustainable 26.5% HR/FB rate and a .335 BABIP (.304 career BABIP) it is clear that Zimmerman got pretty lucky in 2017.
As of now, Zimmerman is being drafted as the 17th first baseman, 127 overall in NFBC. This spot, just between phenoms Rafael Devers and Ronald Acuña, is too high for my taste. I’d rather wait two rounds for Greg Bird (ADP=153) or four rounds for Carlos Santana (172) or Matt Carpenter (184).
On a team full of studs, every player in the starting lineup will be drafted along with almost every pitcher in the starting rotation. One pitcher that has slipped through all the cracks is Erick Fedde. Once a highly regarded prospect, Fedde had a rough 2017. He pitched well in Double-A, posting a 3.16 ERA in seven starts. Then the Nationals front office asked him to move to the bullpen, hoping to address a weakness at the major league level. After trading for three solid relievers, Fedde was back in the rotation then promoted to Triple-A, where he posted a 4.76 ERA in 34 innings. During three spot starts with the big league club, Fedde struggled, posting a 9.15 ERA and 2.15 WHIP, injuring his forearm in the third start.
I think that despite a step back in 2017, Fedde could easily secure the Nationals’ fifth rotation spot, currently held by A.J. Cole. The best part about the 24-year-old righty is that he is essentially free. NFBC draft data has Fedde going off the board as the 280th pitcher, usually undrafted. Coming into Spring Training healthy, Fedde will be one pitcher I will be watching carefully.
While Ronald Acuña may be getting all the hype in the fantasy community right now, there is another equally talented young outfielder nearly ready to take the big leagues by storm. Victor Robles spent 2017, his age 20 season, at High-A and Double-A, where he posted .872 and .883 OPS respectively. The exciting part for potential fantasy owners is his plus speed. Across both levels of the minors, Robles stole 27 bases in 37 attempts. For a 20-year-old, that’s pretty good. The Nationals have shown a willingness to let Trea Turner run wild, and, even with a new manager in Washington, I can’t see that changing anytime soon. If Robles is given the green light nearly as often as his speedy teammate, a 30-35 steal season is not out of question.