The Nationals just missed out on their first winning season in 2011, going 80-81 after finishing with a 9-2 flourish. Building on the momentum of that late push, the Nats had one of the more active hot stove seasons in the majors. They failed in their pursuit of Prince Fielder but made a pair of head-turning additions to their pitching staff. Bolstering a rotation that already featured a pair of phenoms in Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, the team acquired power lefty Gio Gonzalez from Oakland and nabbed Edwin Jackson off the free agent market.
The Nationals have assembled a set of hurlers that could rival that of the Braves and Marlins, if not the Phillies, but they made few moves to improve an offense that ranked 24th in the majors in runs scored. Even by standing still, the lineup could improve this season. Recovered from a series of injuries (including a surgically repaired abdominal muscle) that squelched his playing time and production last year, a healthier Ryan Zimmerman should provide the offense with some additional thump. The same goes for Adam LaRoche, who lost nearly three-fourths of his season to shoulder surgery. Along with Michael Morse, they should provide a formidable presence in the middle of the lineup, while youngsters Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond will each try to take the next steps in their development at the plate.
Meanwhile, one of the strongest parts of last year's squad -- the bullpen -- got a little more help this offseason. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard will return to pitch the final two innings, but the Nationals beefed up their middle relief unit by signing free agent Brad Lidge and trading for former Tiger Ryan Perry.
Though the biggest stories of the winter were the team's veteran acquisitions, the Nationals' future is tied first and foremost to its youth movement. Just two years ago, Washington was overtaken by Strasmania, but Strasburg himself will probably be overshadowed by outfield prospect Bryce Harper this year. While Harper could make the major league roster as soon as opening day, even more young reinforcements could be on the way as 2011 draftees Anthony Rendon and Matt Purke project to make quick work of the minors.
The Phillies have their rotation of aces, the Braves have their own surplus of young arms and the Marlins shored up their weaknesses, but the Nationals' recent moves will help them keep pace in an increasingly competitive National League East. It would be an upset if their pitching staff doesn't rank among the league's best but unless Zimmerman, LaRoche and last season's big addition -- Jayson Werth -- can all have bounce-back years, the Nats may not have quite enough to get them into the playoff picture this year.
Breakout...Jordan Zimmermann, SP
One could argue that in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery Zimmermann had already broken out. Last year the 25-year-old posted a 3.18 ERA and 1.15 WHIP and only an innings limit kept him from being a top 40 starting pitcher. This season, Zimmermann won't be curtailed in terms of his workload, and better yet, there is room for him to perform better even on a per-inning basis. He averaged slightly less than seven strikeouts per nine innings in 2011, not meeting the standard he set prior to his surgery but he started to miss a lot more bats over his final 10 starts. Over that span, Zimmermann got to strike three 53 times in 58 2/3 innings. With more innings and a higher K-rate likely this season, look for Zimmermann to emerge as a No. 3 starting pitcher in mixed leagues.
Bust...Jayson Werth, OF
Leaving a homer-friendly ballpark in Philadelphia behind, many expected Werth to have a down year in 2011, but the worst may be yet to come. Park factors may have worked against Werth with his move to Washington but even before he signed with the Nationals he was facing a steady decline in his home run per flyball ratio. While Werth's home run power seems to be evaporating the 46 doubles he hit in 2010 was merely an outlier as he has never hit more than 26 in a season barring that one year. He can still provide 20-plus steals with a decent on-base percentage but at this point in his career Werth is no more than a low-end No. 3 Fantasy outfielder.
Impact 2012 prospect...Bryce Harper, OF
As the top hitting prospect in all of the minors it's no secret Harper has a chance to be one of this year's highest-impact rookies in Fantasy. Manager Davey Johnson wants Harper to be on the opening day roster but even if he starts the year in the minor leagues it shouldn't be long before he is patrolling right field in Nationals Park. The bigger question is how well he can perform against big league pitching at the tender age of 19. While he could struggle, Harper has made quick adjustments at every level so far, most recently in the Arizona Fall League. He may not be drafted in many standard mixed leagues but Harper will be difficult to get off waivers once the season begins. It's worthwhile to draft him as a late-round flier now, provided you can stash him on reserves to start the season.
|Projected Lineup||Pos.||Projected Rotation|
|1||Ian Desmond||SS||1||Stephen Strasburg||RH|
|2||Rick Ankiel||CF||2||Gio Gonzalez||LH|
|3||Ryan Zimmerman||3B||3||Jordan Zimmermann||RH|
|4||Adam LaRoche||1B||4||Edwin Jackson||RH|
|5||Michael Morse||LF||5||Chien-Ming Wang||RH|
|6||Jayson Werth||RF||Alt||John Lannan||LH|
|7||Danny Espinosa||2B|| |
|8||Wilson Ramos||C||CL||Drew Storen||RH|
|Top bench options||SU||Tyler Clippard||RH|
|R||Roger Bernadina||OF||RP||Brad Lidge||RH|
|R||Mark DeRosa||3B||RP||Sean Burnett||LH|
|R||Jesus Flores||C||RP||Ryan Perry||RH|
|Even if Davey Johnson doesn't get his wish to have Harper on the opening day roster he is likely to make a Fantasy impact in 2012.|
|2||Anthony Rendon||21||3B||DNP||Class A|
|Rendon had shoulder issues at the college level last year but he's healthier now. A shift to second base is likely, allowing for a faster arrival.|
|Lombardozzi, an aggressive contact hitter, could fill a utility role this year. If so, he could be a source of steals in deeper leagues.|
|4||Matt Purke||21||SP||DNP||Class A|
|Purke has to overcome shoulder issues but he could be major-league ready within the next year or two, making him a solid keeper league target.|
|5||Brian Goodwin||21||OF||DNP||Class A|
|The Nationals chose the speedy center fielder with the sandwich pick gained from losing Adam Dunn to free agency. Could quickly become a long-term keeper league sensation.|
|Best of the rest: Alex Meyer, SP; Sammy Solis, SP; Destin Hood, OF; Robbie Ray, SP; Chris Marrero, 1B; Tyler Moore, 1B; Dan Rosenbaum, SP; Michael Taylor, OF; Eury Perez, OF; Dave Freitas, C; Rick Hague, SS; Matt Skole, 3B; Jason Martinson, SS; Jeff Kobernus, 2B; Cole Kimball, RP; Josh Smoker, RP.|
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