- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Consider these numbers: 123 homers, 646 RBIs, 69 steals.
Cumulatively speaking, these numbers paint the picture of a fairly unsuccessful baseball team, and the 2007 Washington Nationals were indeed unsuccessful (73-89). But that doesn't matter.
More playing with numbers: 673 runs, 931 strikeouts, 46 saves.
Yes, the Nationals were a particularly terrible offensive team, finishing 30th in runs scored, 26th in hits, 28th in homers, 29th in RBIs, 26th in batting average and 28th in slugging percentage. The pitchers struck out the fewest batters of any staff in the league. But that doesn't matter.
What does matter is that someone had to drive in the runs, and somebody had to score them, to reach the cumulative totals. Someone had to save games and strike out opposing hitters. Someone had to hit the home runs and steal the bases. That's what matters here. Even such an eminently undistinguished squad is of interest to fantasy players. You wouldn't say there's fantasy gold galore in the nation's capital, but we ignore any squad at our peril.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was and is the best fantasy entity this franchise has to offer. He has hit 20 and 24 homers, respectively, in his first two big-league seasons, driven in 110 and 91, played in every Nats game last year and is a terrific fielder. Plus, he's just 23. He'll deservedly go among the top 10 third basemen in drafts this spring, presuming the bone he fractured in his wrist while swinging a bat this winter is healed (which it's expected to be). Closer Chad Cordero has some red flags (more on that in a moment), but he did save 37 games in '07, his career ERA is just 2.79, and he has had at least 29 saves each of the last three seasons. Austin Kearns hasn't lived up to the hype since coming over from Cincinnati, but he's the starting right fielder, and in a new ballpark, he could post 20 homers, 80 RBIs and a .270 average. Dmitri Young (.320/13/74) was the NL Comeback Player of the Year in '07 and is on board for another season; he'll compete at first base with Nick Johnson, the team's former top hitter who is close to being fully healed from a badly broken leg. Then you have starting pitchers John Patterson and Shawn Hill, each of whom has a ton of ability, but injury questions to match.
The point is: This is largely the same cast of characters that yawned its way through 2007, so despite the opening of Nationals Park, it's tough to see spectacularly different results. The team should win between 70 and 80 games again, while prospects in the lower minors dig in and keep developing. Nevertheless, somebody must drive in and score the runs, and a few of these guys will jump feet-first into the fantasy party. True, many of their options are relegated to NL-only leagues, but there are a few interesting values in D.C. Let's examine.
Ballpark: Nationals Park is brand spankin' new, so we don't have any data to pull from. But we can at least judge what the new stadium isn't. It isn't RFK. There's 16 feet less foul territory around the lower bowl of the park, and the power alleys are 377 and 370 feet from home plate, compared to 385 and 385 at RFK. There are two parking garages beyond the outfield, with a 200-foot gap between them, that some claim could be a wind tunnel, yet it's unclear whether the wind would blow in or out through that space. The size of the place (just 41,000 seats) almost guarantees hitters will fare better here than at the monolith on East Capitol Street, yet team personnel has speculated that Nationals Park might still play slightly on the favorable side to pitchers. For the moment, though, let's give Nats hitters the benefit of the doubt and bump them up a little, thanks to the move.
Top sleeper: Lastings Milledge was a steal for Jim Bowden, a GM whose moves I don't often admire. Bowden gave up Brian Schneider and Ryan Church for the 22-year-old Milledge (he turns 23 in April), who'll start in center and hit second. Yes, he has questions about his maturity, and maybe getting out of the New York spotlight is the best thing for him. But that bat. It's really, really quick, and in a few years, I still believe we'll be calling him one of the better top-of-the-order hitters in the NL. In '08, I think a 15-15 season (15 homers and 15 steals) is a definite possibility. Of course, it's also possible he continues to act like an entitled doof and flames out like many of the athletic outfielders Bowden has coveted. Still, Milledge is a good-if-risky NL-only player, and he could be worth a late-round gamble in mixed leagues. The upside is certainly there.
Trainer's room: Nick Johnson didn't play in 2007 because of a horrifically broken leg, and he still has a rod and screws in there, but in a few early workouts this spring he has impressed the Nationals with his movement in defensive drills. Johnson has a tremendous batting eye (110 walks and 99 strikeouts in 2006), and can definitely be a .300-average, .400-OBP guy if he's right. But the broken leg isn't where Johnson's injuries begin and end; he's had back woes for a long time, and has accrued more than 378 at-bats just twice in his seven year career. Because he was never a big power hitter anyway, and because he has to be about the slowest player in the majors, mixed leaguers need not worry about Johnson. But if he does come back and play in games right away, it certainly affects the value of Dmitri Young. In mid-February, Jim Bowden claimed Young is still atop the depth chart at first base, and that if both guys prove healthy, one could get traded. If both stay in D.C., I think Young accrues more at-bats, but each player is downgraded by the presence of the other.
John Patterson pitched 15 big-league innings the last two seasons combined, and he's coming off a second surgery, this time to decompress a radial nerve in his pitching arm. Because of Patterson's excellent 2005 (3.13 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 185 K's in 198.1 innings), fantasy owners have been hot and heavy for him as a sleeper, but it's probably time for a little cold water. I absolutely think he's worth drafting as a late-round flier, but the days of considering him the kind of sleeper you "have to get" and therefore take in, say, the 15th round are, for the time being, over. Despite the fact that Patterson has said he feels very good throwing this spring, taking him earlier than the 24th round is nuts. And the same can be said for Shawn Hill, who had two surgeries last fall, one to repair a nerve problem in his right forearm, the other to fix a torn labrum in his non-throwing (left) shoulder. Hill's mix of a good sinker and decent off-speed stuff had NL hitters confused in '07, and the Canadian righty posted a 3.42 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 16 starts before getting hurt. He'll turn 27 in April and has yet to put together an injury-free season, which makes him as big a risk as Patterson, without the high-strikeout upside. There's no sense in selecting him as anything but a high-risk, high-reward late-round gambit.
Starting shortstop Cristian Guzman was actually having a very nice first half when he tore ligaments in his thumb on June 24, which kept him out till Sept. 21. Last year, I contended that Guzman's ridiculously low .219 average in 2005 was an aberration (Guzman missed all of 2006 with a shoulder injury), but even I have to admit that his .328 average in 174 at-bats last year is just as unrealistic. The truth, provided his thumb has healed, is somewhere in the middle. If Guzman really does stay the starter at shortstop (for the moment, Felipe Lopez is on the bench), he won't hit for power but probably will be around .280, and might even steal 10 bases. He's certainly not worth drafting in mixed leagues, but NL-only owners can consider him for their middle-infield slot.
Backup(s) to watch: Manager Manny Acta announced early this spring that Guzman will be Washington's starting shortstop, and Ronnie Belliard its starting second baseman. That leaves Felipe Lopez, who is just three years removed from a 23-homer, 85-RBI, 15-SB season in Cincinnati, on the bench. Lopez also stole 44 bases in 2006, which makes it hard to believe there's no place for him to play on a 73-win squad. In fairness, though, Lopez received a full season's worth of at-bats in '07 and posted a putrid on-base percentage of .308. That number was so out of step with the rest of his career (he hadn't been below .352 since he became a starter four years ago), I believe he'll come back toward that magic .350 OBP number in '08. Listen, the big-power season in Cincy was fluky, but Lopez's speed is real. It's hard to justify drafting reserves on bad teams, but even as a reserve, Lopez probably has more fantasy value than Guzman or Belliard. And if he does win a job and hit leadoff for the Nats in their new stadium, he could be a great fantasy story in '08.
Future closer: Chad Cordero has seen his walk and homer rates increase each of the last three years, which isn't exactly a recipe for success. He'll also make $6.2 million this year for the budget-conscious Nationals and is arbitration-eligible one last time in 2009. I know we've been predicting it for a couple seasons now, but one of these days the Nats are going to see a package they like and deal Cordero to a contender, where he'll likely end up in middle relief, bereft of fantasy value. That's why if you draft Cordero, it's important you also take Jon Rauch. It seems like Rauch has been around forever (it has been nine years since the White Sox drafted him and hyped him as the next great starter), but he's only 29, and would inherit the closer's role if Cordero leaves. Rauch's control improved dramatically last year (from 36 to 21 walks in similar innings), and his WHIP dropped from 1.25 to 1.10. Remember: This is a bullpen that received 73 save opportunities in '07 (and blew 27 of them).
To put it mildly, Elijah Dukes has a "checkered" past, which has included an alleged threat to kill his wife and children and fighting with minor league teammates. Dukes fits the profile of good outfield athletes that Jim Bowden enjoys collecting like bubblegum cards, and barring any spring training trouble, the 23-year-old should be the Nationals' fourth outfielder. He drilled two homers in Tampa Bay's first two games last season, and 10 in the first two months before getting suspended, so it's obvious he's a powerful guy. He also has a ton of speed, as evidenced by the 30 steals he amassed as recently as 2004 in the minors. If Lastings Milledge falters in center, Dukes presumably would get first crack to replace him, and let's also not discount the possibility that Wily Mo Pena proves thoroughly incapable of hitting righties (per usual), and Dukes also gets a shot in left. There are positive stats buried in that troubled body; Dukes just needs to let them see the light of day.
Fantasy stud: Ryan Zimmerman is the closest thing the Nationals have to a sure thing, even though he broke his wrist while training this winter. Most folks projected a big uptick for Zimm as he headed into his sophomore campaign, and thus were disappointed not to see him make that leap. But the kid played just half a season of minor league ball (in '05) and has been a big-league fixture since, so let's cut him a little slack. Zimmerman hit 25 doubles in the second half last year and hit for an .848 OPS after the All-Star break, after being at just .737 before. I believe his power is ready to take the next step, as he started hitting more fly balls toward the end of '07, while his batting eye also improved (37 post-break walks, compared to 24 pre-break). That's a very good combination, and could mean Zimmerman is ready to crack the top five of fantasy third basemen. As it is, he's already in the top 10.
Prospect(s) to watch for 2008: There's really no one in the Nats' high minors who looks like a big-league contributor right away. But two guys stand out as possibilities if injuries become a problem with the parent club. Jesus Flores, a Rule V pick from the Mets, stuck around as Brian Schneider's backup behind the plate last season, and showed decent peripheral skills despite never having played above Class A before '07. With Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada playing in D.C., it's unlikely Flores suddenly will earn the major league starting gig. But at just 23 years old, the kid might have a bright future. You might also keep an eye on outfielder Justin Maxwell, who posted good numbers against younger competition in Class A last season before homering twice in a 15-game call-up to the Nats in September. Maxwell likely will begin 2008 at Triple-A, and there's a lot of chaff in the Nats' outfield as it is (Ryan Langerhans? Rob Mackowiak? Willie Harris?), but if Maxwell stays healthy and produces anything close to his .968 OPS at Class A Hagerstown, maybe he'll become a mega-sleeper.
Prospect(s) to watch for the future: Lefty starter Ross Detwiler, the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, has a mid-90s fastball and a hard curve that served him very well in an abbreviated stop in rookie ball last season. The Nationals were concerned about Detwiler's college workload, so they limited him to just 34.1 professional innings in '07, and the kid probably will begin the year at high-Class A Potomac. If he stays injury-free and advances a level (or even two) this season, don't be surprised if Detwiler starts 2009 in the bigs.
Collin Balester doesn't quite have the same pedigree as Detwiler; he was a fourth-rounder in 2004 coming out of high school. But he pitched quite well at Double-A in '07 (3.74 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 77 K's in 98.2 innings), especially considering he was just 21. Balester has an excellent fastball, but his breaking pitches aren't major league-ready yet, and he should begin '08 at Triple-A (where he struggled a bit in 10 starts last year). If he makes his major league debut this season, it'll probably be only a cameo appearance, but Balester could start contributing for real in 2009, too.
First baseman Chris Marrero is also a name to know beyond 2008. He was the 15th pick overall in 2006, and he cracked 14 homers and drove in 53 runs at low-Class A Hagerstown in 222 at-bats. He wasn't quite as good at high Class A, but he doesn't turn 20 until July, and the Nationals think he's going to hit for a ton of power, as well as for average.
Base-running philosophy: The Nationals don't get on base a whole lot, which probably explains why they don't steal many bases. Well, that and the only two guys with real speed on the team last year were Felipe Lopez and Nook Logan. Logan has moved on to the Dodgers, and Lopez isn't a starter at the moment, so the main base-running mantle probably falls to Milledge, who tends to be a bit of a wild card on the base paths. In short, while manager Manny Acta would like to be more aggressive with his running game, you must wonder if he has the weapons. Lopez likely will get at least 20 steals, even as a bench player (with the potential for much more), while Milledge could get 15. That's probably about it.
Fearless prediction: Felipe Lopez will supplant Ronnie Belliard as Washington's starting second baseman, and soon. Belliard is an OK player, but I think his greatest value is as a utility guy who can fill in all over the diamond, hit 10 homers, drive in 50 runs and be a spark plug. Meanwhile, Lopez is making $4.9 million and Guzman is making $4.2 million (Belliard makes $1.6 million). I know every time a Nationals exec talks on or off the record, he says Belliard is the starter over Lopez, but maybe that's a motivational ploy for Lopez, who sometimes seems to need it. I mean, why offer arbitration to Lopez is you're not going to use him? Perhaps this is just a fantasy-focused writer hoping that a high-potential guy gets enough at-bats to remove the stench of last year's terrible effort. But I'm going with it.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.
Christopher Harris previews the Washington Nationals from a fantasy perspective. While he says the team is bad and probably will remain that way, it is not without a few interesting fantasy options.