The Nationals were only one September rain-out from posting their first non-losing season in six years. They enter 2012 as a dark horse for the National League Wild Card. With the right infusion of youth and veteran leadership, they could make some noise this season. Here are the five pressing questions facing this Washington team this year:
5. Is Stephen Strasburg the next coming of Cy Young?
Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last three years, the hype surrounding him would have you believe it. Since his Major League debut, when he struck out an impressive 14 batters, Stephen Strasburg has not disappointed. He finished his 2010 debut prematurely with Tommy John surgery, but with a sparkling 2.92 ERA and 92 strikeouts in only 62 innings.
Upon return last September, he didn’t miss a beat, posting 24 strikeouts and only two walks in 24 innings. For his career he has posted a 11.35 K/9 and a 1.86 BB/9. Those are elite numbers, folks. If it weren’t for his 160 innings cap imposed by the Nationals’ brass, we could be talking about a top five starting pitcher. Those in head-to-head leagues may downgrade him a few notches knowing he won’t help you during the playoffs. Don’t let that sway you from drafting him. Expect elite numbers this year, even with a partial season. Next year, we may be looking at the top pitcher in fantasy.
4. Is this the year Ryan Zimmerman sheds his injury-prone status?
Last year Ryan Zimmerman underwent surgery for an abdominal injury, causing two months of missed action. However, if you look closely at Zimmerman’s record, the injury-prone label may be a bit unfair. In 2008, Zimmerman was sidelined for over 50 games with a labral tear and still returned to post a .306 average after the All-Star break, then averaged 150 games in the next two seasons.
No one expects Zimmerman to complete a full 162-game schedule, but there is no recurring injury here either. Upon return from his 2011 surgery, Zimmerman bounced back in the second half with no lingering effects. The similarities seem eerie and he looks poised for a strong year. According to Mock Draft Central, Zimmerman is currently the fifth third-baseman off the draft board. That seems about right, but there is upside potential to return value. Expect him to post a season closer to his 2010 campaign and reap the benefits of his perceived downgrade in your league.
3. How will Gio Gonzalez adjust to the National League?
Whatever A’s General Manager Billy Beane was thinking, the Nationals’ Front Office isn’t asking why. They received a significant upgrade to their rotation when the 26-year-old Gio Gonzalez landed in Nationals Park. While with the A’s, Gonzalez impressed with 16 wins, a 3.12 ERA and 197 strikeouts. Now he switches to the National League and fantasy owners are drooling.
There is a trade off with this move. Although Gonzalez arrives in the pitching friendly NL, he leaves a notorious pitchers’ park in Oakland. His low 2011 ERA can’t be sustained with this move, but we can expect to see a small spike in his win total due to increased run support. Likewise, he could easily eclipse 200 strikeouts while facing pitchers at the plate as opposed to designated hitters. If there is only one area of concern, it is his control. His 91 walks last season was the worst in the majors and that brought his WHIP to a pedestrian 1.32. If you draft Gonzalez, make sure you compensate with control pitchers to even out the risk. You can then enjoy a potential breakout season from this young dominant pitcher.
2. Can Jayson Werth rebound from his disappointing 2011 season?
Last we saw of Jayson Werth, he signed a seven-year deal worth $126 million, then proceeded to post career lows across the stat sheet since becoming a full-time starter in 2008. Nationals’ fans have to be wondering if they can receive a refund for that horrific first year. Of course Werth gave his own excuse; that his assessment videos arrived late to Nationals’ spring training and it caused an uncomfortable stance in the batter box. He’d receive more sympathy stating his dog ate his homework.
But there is a silver lining to his 2011 season. Despite the disappointment, he was only one stolen base away from posting a 20/20 season. Only 12 players accomplished that feat last year and most are currently drafted in the first three rounds. Closer inspection reveals a career low .286 BABIP (.324 average), indicating a bounce back could occur. His fly ball rate improved as the season went on, his batting average rose and he claims that he’s regained his composure.
Perhaps Werth had a tough adjustment to a new ball club. Perhaps he started the season out of sync and couldn’t regain his confidence. Excuses aside, feel free to draft Werth and feel confident that he will perform closer to his vintage 2008 breakout year.
1. What happens when Bryce Harper gets called up?
The Nationals are going to have a decision on their hands. When Bryce Harper finally gets some Major League at-bats, what will happen with the outfield positions? Michael Morse is comfortable in left field and Jayson Werth should enjoy a better year in right field. Eliminating the time share in center field between Rink Ankiel and Roger Bernadina seems to be the logical answer.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, when will Harper finally get called up to the big leagues? At only 19 years old, this kid is raw. He has only completed one full season of minor league action and was only successful during his Single-A stint. It’s hard to imagine that he’s ready for major league pitching. The Spring rumors have already swirled that he may break camp with the Nationals. But after we saw this front office micromanage Jordan Zimmermann’s playing time and now Strasburg’s innings it seems illogical that the Nationals would hurry Harper along.
He’ll get playing time this year, but don’t expect anything before late summer. That gives him little value in single year leagues. If you’re in a dynasty or deep keeper league you don’t need me to tell you to pick him up.