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Pressing Questions: The Washington Nationals

Andy Behrens
Roto Arcade

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The Nats' kids are alright (US Presswire)

The Washington Nationals may not have had baseball's best off-season, but it was perhaps the busiest. It began with a November kidnapping, followed by a dramatic rescue (involving heavy gunfire), and it concluded with the unsuccessful pursuit of a $214 million free agent. Along the way, the Nats managed to assemble a decent 2007 fantasy roster — Brad Lidge, Mike Cameron, Mark DeRosa and Chien-Ming Wang each signed one-year deals — and they completed a six-player trade with Oakland, acquiring Gio Gonzalez.

So this team has not been idle. Even if Washington can't improve on last year's 80-win finish, no reasonable observer would argue that the Nats have had a boring winter.

The fantasy community has a few burning questions about this squad in advance of spring training, so let's dig in...

Please tell us there's no chance that Lidge will challenge Drew Sto—

Shut up. No. Next question...

Well, OK then. Will Stephen Strasburg have an innings-cap this year, as Jordan Zimmermann did in 2011? And if so, how will it affect his draft position?

Better question. The assumption is that Strasburg will be limited to something like 160 innings in his first full season following Tommy John surgery. He was his usual brilliant self during a September cameo in 2011 — 24.0 IP, 1.50 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 24 Ks, 2 BBs — so you can expect his innings to be of the highest quality in the year ahead. Let's hope the Nationals give him a mid-season break in 2012, so he can contribute in the head-to-head playoffs. But the truth is that you can't count on Strasburg finishing the season, which means he could be a non-factor in the most important weeks on the H2H calendar. He'll likely pitch 70-80 fewer innings than our game's most valuable starters.

Bottom line: If there were no innings cap for us to fret about, I'd make a case that Strasburg should be a top-5 or top-6 fantasy starter. The kid has posted a 0.98 WHIP over 92.0 career MLB innings, with 116 Ks and just 19 walks. But with a workload limit likely in place, I think his current Mock Draft Central ADP is just about right. He's the No. 16 starting pitcher selected in an average draft at the moment (pick 62.1). Strasburg obviously becomes a trickier asset in head-to-head, where the final month of the season means everything. In that format, you basically draft him knowing that you'll eventually toss his name on the trade block.

Let's discuss the other Nats phenom. Is there any chance that Bryce Harper will make his major league debut on opening day?

Well, sure, I suppose there's always a chance. In December, MLB.com's Bill Ladson tweeted that the Nationals hadn't dismissed the possibility that Harper, at age 19, could be the team's opening day right-fielder. Just this week, Jon Heyman offered a similar report.

Let's please try to remember that Harper hasn't yet visited Triple-A, he scuffled in the Eastern League last season (.256/.329/.395), and he won't turn 20 until October. Despite the rare power potential and well-documented upside, it would seem reckless and unnecessary for the Nats to advance him multiple levels right now. Yes, he was terrific at Single-A Hagerstown last year (.318/.423/.554, 14 HR, 19 SB), and he was similarly great in the Arizona Fall League (.333/.400/.634). But again, he's 19. It would be almost insane (and certainly negligent) to burn through Harper's service time now, when there's no reason to believe he could do anything more than tread water in the majors. Most of you are already aware of the financial considerations involved in an early Harper call-up — and if you aren't, here's a quick review via the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore. When establishing your pre-draft price on Harper, think of him as a guy who might contribute in the second half.

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Vote Morse! (US Presswire)

So if Harper's name isn't on the lineup card for the opener, what will this outfield look like?

The corners are set, with Michael Morse in left and Jayson Werth in right. Morse delivered an impressive second-half performance in 2010, and he was an absolute beast last season: 31 HR, 95 RBIs, .303 AVG, .910 OPS. We should note that he's also eligible at 1B, which is suddenly a talent-scarce position in the N.L. following the Pujols and Fielder defections. Joey Votto is clearly the top first base option in N.L.-only formats, but Morse is no worse than No. 3. (Remember, Ryan Howard tore his left Achilles on the final swing of the Phillies' season and Lance Berkman is entering his age-36 season). Werth was a significant disappointment during his first year in Washington, hitting just .232/.330/.389. But he still managed to clear the fence 20 times and he swiped 19 bases, so he wasn't completely useless for fantasy purposes. He performed a bit better after the All-Star break last season (.255/.345/.426), although he never resembled a $126 million player.* If Werth just has a bit more luck on balls-in-play this season — last year's .286 BABIP was nearly 40 points below his career average — then he'll likely deliver a profit to fantasy owners selecting him at his current ADP (99.5).

*In fantasy, there's rarely any reason to care about a player's contract. After all, none of us are on the hook for Werth's seven-year mega-deal (though the Nats fans among us are expected to contribute). But I'm still stunned whenever I'm reminded of this crazy contract, an agreement that only Scott Boras could have negotiated. Werth inked a backloaded deal when he was 31, with a full no-trade clause. He'll earn a total of $63 million dollars for his age 36-38 seasons. This is an aging corner outfielder with a career OPS of .824 and just one 30-homer season on his resume. Just...whoa.

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Ken Singleton (Kelloggs)

At the moment, center field responsibilities are unclaimed. The in-house options aren't so appealing: Cameron, Roger Bernadina, maybe one of the racing presidents. The Nationals aren't thought to be among the favorites to land Cuban bomber Yoenis Cespedes, but you never really know with these things. There's always a mystery team. When Harper arrives in Washington, he'll likely bump Werth to center.

Don't you kinda feel obligated to mention middle infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa?

Meh. Sure, OK. I suppose we have to do it. Espinosa is the more interesting fantasy asset, as he's a younger player who offers more power (21 HR in 2011). Both guys can provide modest speed, both will pile up Ks, both will be liabilities in batting average. If you intend to roster either of these guys, please do it on the cheap. These are not players who should tempt you to throw down an extra dollar at the auction table.

Desmond's name occasionally pops up in trade rumors, we should note, because the Nationals have other middle infield options in the system. Switch-hitting Steve Lombardozzi is just 23 and coming off a respectable year at Double-A and Triple-A (.309/.360/.430, 8 HR, 30 SB). The Nats also used the sixth pick in the 2011 draft on Anthony Rendon, a 21-year-old from Rice University who could potentially transition from third base to second. Rendon was considered a top-of-draft talent, but he fell to the Nats at No. 6, due to injury concerns (and perhaps due to Boras concerns). He's a prospect of interest for dynasty gamers.

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