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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Washington Nationals

Senior Fantasy Writer
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After making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history in 2012, at long last the Nationals were favored for something in 2013 -- and not just something, but everything. Several publications picked them to win the World Series.

So naturally, they won only 86 games and finished a distant second behind the Braves.

2014 Fantasy Outlooks
A.L. East N.L. East
Orioles Braves
Red Sox Marlins
Yankees Mets
Rays Phillies
Blue Jays Nationals
A.L. Central N.L. Central
White Sox Cubs
Indians Reds
Tigers Brewers
Royals Pirates
Twins Cardinals
A.L. West N.L. West
Astros Diamondbacks
Angels Rockies
Athletics Dodgers
Mariners Padres
Rangers Giants

From a Fantasy perspective, not too much went wrong. Jordan Zimmermann took another step forward, becoming a front-line starter with 19 wins. Ian Desmond put together another 20-20 season, solidifying his place among the top shortstops in Fantasy after a breakout 2012 that few saw coming. Wilson Ramos emerged as a legitimate power threat behind the plate with 16 home runs in only 287 at-bats. Jayson Werth returned from a broken wrist to perform at an MVP level, finally living up to his contract by putting up numbers much like he had in Philadelphia. OK, so Stephen Strasburg fell short of expectations with only a 9-8 record, but that was just an effect of the cause. He pitched as well as ever with a 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

The problem was in part timing. Other than Desmond, the Nationals didn't have a steady performer from start to finish, at least not on the offensive end. Ramos had a hamstring injury that cost him most of the first half. Werth had one that cost him almost all of May. Ryan Zimmerman finished with about his usual numbers but didn't really take off until September, when he hit 11 of his 26 home runs. And of course, by the time they got going, Bryce Harper was held together by duct tape and twist ties, his brilliant start muted by a collision with the outfield fence in early May. He, like Strasburg, has yet to put together a truly dominant season in Fantasy, for all the flashes of greatness.

So is this the year? No reason to bet against it. Harper had his knee surgically repaired in the offseason and is back to 100 percent. Strasburg just needs to keep doing what he's been doing, hopefully taking another step forward in terms of innings. They're the two most attractive Nationals for Fantasy purposes, but between them, Desmond, Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Werth, the Nationals have as many potential early-rounders as any team in baseball, with only Werth at risk of decline at age 34. And for what he's capable of delivering, his going rate seems perfectly reasonable, even with the injury risk.

In fact, excluding the bullpen, which typically doesn't matter in Fantasy, only three Nationals with prominent roles -- Denard Span, Adam LaRoche and Ross Detwiler -- figure to go undrafted in mixed leagues. And one of them, LaRoche, was a 30-homer guy as recently as 2012. Tanner Roark, who compiled a 1.74 ERA in five starts late last year, has sleeper appeal if he can beat out Detwiler for the fifth starter job (with Taylor Jordan also in the mix), but because he's capable of pitching in relief, he has an uphill battle.

Sleeper ... Anthony Rendon, second base

2014 projected lineup
Player Name Position
1. Denard Span CF
2. Ryan Zimmerman 3B
3. Bryce Harper LF
4. Jayson Werth RF
5. Ian Desmond SS
6. Adam LaRoche 1B
7. Wilson Ramos C
8. Anthony Rendon 2B
Bench Nate McLouth OF
Bench Danny Espinosa 2B/SS
With the sudden influx of mixed league-caliber talent at second base, Rendon has a chance to get lost in the shuffle. Whatever favor he earned with his .330 batting average and .830 OPS in June -- his first month as the Nationals' regular second baseman -- he lost with his .187 and .556 in July. But look what he did in August and September, hitting over .270 with an on-base percentage over .350 and a slugging percentage over .400. That's significant production for a second baseman. And that's in his first taste of the majors, at age 23, after only 260 at-bats in the minors. To perform as well as he did, the guy must have superior talent, but you already knew that from his pedigree. The Nationals selected him sixth overall in 2011 even after an injury-plagued college career. Second base has enough question marks, from Chase Utley and Brandon Phillips to Daniel Murphy and Brian Dozier, to thin the ranks in the year ahead. You may not draft Rendon as a top-15 second baseman this year, but he's a good bet to finish in the top 10.

Bust ... Rafael Soriano, relief pitcher

Soriano spent so many years as a setup man waiting for his opportunity to close that now that he's there, the unquestioned closer for the Nationals, he's on the downside of his career at age 34. That's hardly ancient by relief pitcher standards, but it's old enough for him to lose something in the way of ability. Sure enough, his average fastball velocity was the lowest of his career last year, continuing a trend of steady regression that began with the Rays in 2010, when his strikeout rate first took a noticeable dip. It held steady over the next couple years, but his rate of 6.9 per nine innings last year was straight-up Bob Wickman. And his 8.8 hits per nine innings were 26th-most among relievers with at least 60 innings. To put it bluntly, Soriano was too hittable for the ninth inning last year, and continued decline could mean serious trouble in 2014. Between Tyler Clippard, one of the game's top setup men, and Drew Storen, who did a fine job closing prior to elbow surgery in 2012, the Nationals have alternatives.

Buyer beware ... Doug Fister, starting pitcher

2014 rotation/bullpen
Player Name Throws
1. Stephen Strasburg RHP
2. Jordan Zimmermann RHP
3. Gio Gonzalez LHP
4. Doug Fister RHP
5. Ross Detwiler LHP
ALT Taylor Jordan RHP
Bullpen Breakdown
1. Rafael Soriano RHP
2. Tyler Clippard RHP
3. Drew Storen RHP
4. Craig Stammen RHP
5. Tanner Roark RHP
At this time last year, Fister was considered a top-30 starting pitcher in Fantasy. He was coming off back-to-back seasons with a low WHIP and passable strikeout rates for a finesse pitcher, which helped justify the ranking. His 2013 performance brought him down a peg, though. He allowed more contact, which resulted in more hits, neutralizing his greatest strength, the low WHIP, while making his strikeout rate no longer passable. A superior win-loss record helped mask those shortcomings, but Fantasy owners know better than to rely on that. True, his move from Detroit to Washington, where he'll have an improved infield defense and easy out in the nine-hole, could get him back to where he was: a top-30 starting pitcher. But so many Fantasy owners are so convinced of it that they continue to draft him there, leaving pitchers like Justin Masterson, Tony Cingrani, Johnny Cueto and Zack Wheeler -- ones with top-20 or even top-15 potential -- on the board. The speculation is the same for them as for Fister. Why settle for potentially good when you could have potentially awesome?

Prospects Report

The Nationals farm system has taken a hit with all the prospects they've graduated to the majors over the last few years, but they do have one surefire talent in Lucas Giolito. He dominated in his return from Tommy John surgery last year and could move quickly for a 19-year-old, but he's still more of a dynasty league option at this stage of his career. ... Back with the Nationals after spending a year in the Athletics organization, A.J. Cole's stock is on the rise again. He can hit 97 mph with his fastball and commands his pitches well, but with the surplus of rotation options at the big-league level already, he's a long shot to contribute in 2014. ... Nathan Karns got his first taste of the majors in 2013, and it didn't go well. He throws hard but has some command issues that should already be resolved at age 26. With his foot in the door, he could get an emergency start or two at some point in 2014 ... Brian Goodwin is the best of the Nationals hitting prospects and not far from reaching the majors at age 23, but he took a step back with his promotion to Double-A and probably isn't a threat to unseat Denard Span this year.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite .

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