Pressing Questions: The Washington Nationals

The Nationals finished with both the best record (98-64) and run differential (+137) in baseball last year, and they did so while playing in a division that featured a Braves team that won 94 games. The Phillies disappointed greatly, but they were hardly a doormat either, so it wasn’t like they were beating up on a particularly weak NL East division. Washington led the National League with a 3.33 ERA and also scored the fifth most runs in the Senior Circuit, finishing second in homers despite playing in a home venue that ranked neutral in Park Factors. Their season had to be viewed as a huge success, although it ended in extreme disappointment, as they were bounced in the Wild Card round as the No. 1 seed thanks to blowing a six-run lead in Game 5, including giving up four runs in the ninth inning with two outs.

The Nationals lost Edwin Jackson during the offseason but countered that by adding Dan Haren. They also traded Alex Meyer (a solid prospect) for Denard Span, who has a very reasonable contract and finished tied for 20th in WAR among all outfielders last season thanks in no small part to his terrific defense. Michael Morse has become expendable as a result (especially with the re-signing of Adam LaRoche), and while he has his flaws, there will definitely be suitors trying to acquire him, allowing for more possible upgrades. With a full season from Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen combined with the addition of Haren and a healthier version of Ryan Zimmerman, Washington might very well be the favorites to win the National League this season.

Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some pressing questions to address:

Q: How high should Stephen Strasburg be drafted?

A: Coming off a season in which he was controversially shut down before reaching 160.0 innings pitched, Strasburg enters 2013 with the most upside of any pitcher in the league. He may not be a huge workhorse, but the leash should be removed, and 200-220 innings can be reasonably expected. During his first year back from Tommy John surgery last season, had he qualified, Strasburg would have led MLB in K rate (11.13), FIP (2.82) and xFIP (2.81). He also averaged the highest fastball velocity (95.7 mph) among all starters. You could say it was a pretty successful return. Strasburg’s walk rate jumped a bit, which isn’t unexpected coming off Tommy John, so it’s safe to expect mild improvement there moving forward. Moreover, last year’s BABIP (.311) and HR/FB% (11.5) were both right around league average (if not worse), so it’s not exactly like he’s been a product of luck.

As with any pitcher, Strasburg carries more risk than hitters, but he’s the best bet to produce a truly epic, 300-K type line in today’s game. I’m sure most would disagree, but I think Strasburg is worth a top-10 pick.

Q: How high should Bryce Harper be drafted?

A: After receiving a surprise call up in late April, Harper held his own against a big jump in competition (he had a combined 203 at-bats above Single-A) for six weeks before slumping badly during the middle of the season. From June 12 to August 15, his OPS fell from .943 to .718. However, the phenom then adjusted to the adjustments the pitchers had made, finishing the year strong, hitting 12 homers over his final 162 at-bats. His slash line in September was .330/.398/.651. Harper’s defense also improved quicker than expected, as he’s already one of the league’s better defensive outfielders. And for fantasy purposes, he’s a sneaky bet to approach 30 steals as a sophomore, and his base running shouldn’t be overlooked, as he somehow scored 98 runs as a raw rookie last year while playing in fewer than 140 games.

The only players who even approach the type of season Harper had as a 19-year-old are inner circle Hall of Famers. While growth in baseball is hardly always linear, Harper is a truly special talent who not only looks poised to meet the excessive hype but quite possibly even exceed it. Like Strasburg, I’m fully on board with drafting Harper aggressively.

Q: What’s the deal with the closer situation?

A: Surgery to remove a bone chip in his elbow delayed the start of Drew Storen’s season last year, and when he finally returned in the middle of July, Tyler Clippard was pitching too well in the closer’s role to be removed. As a result, Storen finished with just four saves on the year. He pitched well though, getting a 2.37 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over 30.1 innings, earning back the closer’s role in the postseason. Even though his and the Nationals’ year ended on a sour note, with him giving up four runs in the ninth inning against the Cardinals, it’s safe to expect Storen to enter 2013 as the heavy favorite for saves in Washington’s pen. Clippard is terrific, but his ability to throw a ton of innings likely makes him more valuable in middle relief anyway.

Q: Will the real Ryan Zimmerman please stand up?

A: As of June 23, Zimmerman was batting .218/.285/.305 with three home runs over 55 games. After receiving a cortisone shot to his ailing right shoulder (an injury at the time that was feared to possibly need season-ending surgery), he went on a tear over the rest of the year, hitting .321 with 22 homers over his final 358 at-bats. Zimmerman has hit more than 25 home runs during just one of his seven seasons in the league and at times has been a bit overrated for fantasy purposes, but he’s still in his prime and should benefit from hitting in the middle of what could be a fairly loaded lineup. He had offseason surgery in hopes to fix the shoulder problem for good and is expected to be ready for spring training.

Q: How healthy is Dan Haren?

A: Haren missed multiple weeks last season with back/hip issues that concerned general managers so much, he had to settle for a one-year deal in free agency. Here are his average fastball velocities each season since his last year in Oakland in 2007: 91.7 mph, 91.1, 90.6, 90.6, 90.0, 88.5. It’s obviously a concerning trend, highlighted by his career-low mark last season. A return to the National League should help Haren’s numbers, and he will likely be cheaper than ever at draft tables coming off such a disappointing campaign, but there’s just no way of knowing how close to full strength he’ll be, so consider him a high risk/high reward fantasy option.

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