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2012 Nationals Preview: Nationals 2012: Big Expectations in D.C.

Eric Nehs

Eric Nehs

Eric Nehs writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

2012 Washington Nationals Team Preview

The Nationals finished 80-81, third place in the NL East, in 2011. The organization was active in free agency this winter, adding Edwin Jackson, and being part of the discussion on C.J. Wilson and Prince Fielder. However, the biggest move of the offseason was trading three top prospects in Derek Norris, A.J. Cole and Brad Peacock (along with Tom Millone) for Gio Gonzalez. The additions Gonzalez and Jackson demonstrate the organization doing what is necessary to make a playoff run. Unlike years past, pitching is the Nationals overall strength heading into 2012. This is the best rotation since the move to Washington, and the bullpen has a collection of above-average arms that have high swinging-strike rates. A questionable lineup in terms of OBP and strikeouts in addition to poor defensive unit should keep Washington from the wild card. The hole in center field has hovered over the franchise for years, and general manager Mike Rizzo did not make any moves of note to fill the crucial role. However, the Nationals should be in the thick of it for most of the season and finish second in the division.

Offseason moves:

Re-signed pitcher Chien-Ming Wang.

Wang will battle John Lannan for the last spot in the rotation if Lannan is not dealt by the start of the season. His low strikeout rate (career 4.11 K/9IP), limits any value, but look for a stronger ERA as he is another year removed from shoulder surgery.

Traded pitcher Colin Balester to Detroit for pitcher Ryan Perry.

Despite featuring a fastball that averages more than 94 mph, Perry's strikeout rate has decreased in each of the last three seasons. With his inability to limit walks (career 4.57 BB/9IP), Perry is destined to stay in middle relief for 2012.

Signed outfielder Mike Cameron to a minor league deal.

Cameron is still a solid outfielder who can grab a spot on the Nationals' 25-man roster because of club's lack of depth in center field. His batting average took a hit in 2011 because of a unlucky .228 BABIP, despite producing line drives at a 20 percent rate.

Traded catcher Derek Norris and pitchers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone to Oakland for pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Robert Gilliams.

Gonzalez followed his 2010 breakout with a nearly identical 2011 season, adding nearly 30 strikeouts to his already impressive strikeout rate. His ERA should increase slightly because of a poor outfield defense, but his strikeout rate should improve with a move in the NL.

Signed infielder/outfielder Mark DeRosa.

DeRosa posted a .653 OPS over 86 at-bats last season, hitting zero homers as he continued to battle wrist problems. DeRosa's health could end his career a bit sooner than it might have concluded otherwise, but he'll get a shot to stick with the Nationals because of his versatility.

Signed pitcher Brad Lidge.

Lidge will help anchor a strong Nats bullpen in the seventh and eight innings. Arm and shoulder problems have taken a toll on Lidge's velocity (89 mph in 2011) and forced him to rely heavily on his slider. His control is still a problem, but he did maintain a strong swinging-strike rate last season (14.5 percent).

Signed pitcher Chad Durbin to a minor league deal.

Despite having similar peripherals, Durbin did not have a successful 2011 season with the Indians because of a high BABIP (.336) and HR/FB rate (13 percent). He is exactly the type of pitcher an organization should take a chance on with a minor league deal.

Signed pitcher Edwin Jackson.

Jackson is a safe bet to make 31-plus starts and to contribute another 2011 type of line for fantasy owners. The Nationals get a much-needed upgrade in the lower half of the rotation without falling victim to a long-term deal. He still averaged more than 94 mph on his fastball, but his slider usage has increased in each of the last three seasons.

Re-signed outfielder Rick Ankiel to a minor league deal.

Ankiel struggled through the 2011 season for the Nationals producing a wOBA of .294 (second lowest of career) and a .127 ISO (career low). His career strikeout rate is too high (25.5 percent) and OBP is too low (.309) for him to be considered an everyday player, and at best will be a fourth outfielder if he makes the 25-man roster.

Signed infielder/outfielder Mark Teahen to a minor league deal.

If DeRosa cannot stay healthy, Teahen has the ability to fill his spot as a corner infielder and outfielder. However, it has been a few years since he has done anything at the plate, and Teahen is considered below average defensively at every position.

Lost outfielders Laynce Nix and Jonny Gomes, pitchers Livan Hernandez, Doug Slaten and Todd Coffey, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and infielder Alex Cora via free agency.

These moves were expected this offseason with Jonny Gomes heading to Oakland, Livan Hernandez moving to Houston and Laynce Nix signing a multi-year deal with the Phillies. The loss of the underrated Coffey to the Dodgers is softened with the addition of Lidge. Doug Slaten signed with Pittsburg in January, and as of now the rest of the group has yet to find a landing spot.

Projected Lineup/Rotation:

Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Ian Desmond SS
2. Jayson Werth RF/CF
3. Ryan Zimmerman 3B
4. Adam LaRoche 1B
5. Mike Morse LF
6. Danny Espinosa 2B
7. Wilson Ramos C
8. Roger Bernadina/Mike Cameron/Bryce Harper CF/RF

This lineup will look very different depending on Harper's success in spring training. If Harper does not make the team this group's success depends on whether LaRoche can stay healthy and return to his .270/.340/.480 line, and whether Morse can sustain his production despite a OBP that relies heavily on batting average. Additionally, the Nationals cannot afford the two key sophomores, Espinosa and Ramos, to take a step back offensively like Desmond did in 2011.

Rotation:

1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Gio Gonzalez
3. Jordan Zimmermann
4. Edwin Jackson
5. John Lannan/Chien-Ming Wang/Ross Detwiler

The additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson allow the Nationals to have the second best rotation in the NL East behind the Phillies. The first four spots are officially set, but it is unclear what order manager Davey Johnson is going to use. Lannan, Wang and Detwiler will compete for that last spot in the rotation, but it would be surprising to see Lannan still on the roster by the beginning of spring. Wang seems like the safe bet to take the fifth slot even though Detwiler has more upside.

CL: Drew Storen

Storen improved upon his rookie season by ditching his curveball in favor of more sliders, improving his walk rate and inducing more ground balls. One of Storen's great qualities as a closer is his ability to handle left-handed hitters as well as righties. Both his FIP and xFIP were lower against left-handed hitters than right-handers by striking out more and allowing fewer home runs.

Notes of import, fantasy and otherwise

Will Bryce Harper make the club out of spring training and how will that impact the lineup?

It is only a matter of time before Bryce Harper makes his major league debut, and all indications are that it will happen sometime in 2012. Throughout the offseason both the front office and manager Davey Johnson indicated that Harper will have every opportunity to break spring training on the Nationals' 25-man roster. The 19-year old spent most of 2011 in Low-A Hagerstown putting up an impressive .318/.423/.554 line with a .436 wOBA and 14 home runs. He finished the season playing 37 games for Double-A but was not as successful, posting a wOBA of .332. It would be in the Nationals' best interest to let Harper spend another year in the minors to gain more experience and to keep another season of eligibility before becoming a free agent at 25. If he were to break camp with the team, Jayson Werth would move to center field with Harper handling right field. That would result in the Nationals possibly having the worst outfield defense in baseball unless general manager Mike Rizzo could trade Adam LaRoche, which then would mean Mike Morse would have to handle first base. Look for Harper to start the season in Triple-A, but it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see him with the big club by the start of July.

Can bullpen surplus bring offense by the trade deadline?

The Nationals greatest strength is a fully stocked bullpen, and there were various rumors during the early part of the offseason that the Twins considered a Drew Storen-for-Denard Span swap. Young quality relievers are hard to find at the trade deadline, and the Nationals might be able to swing one of the young relievers for an impact bat at first base or outfield, specifically if Bryce Harper is not ready for play everyday. Tyler Clippard has averaged 79.2 innings pitched out of the bullpen the last three seasons, and it might be wise to move him before his eventual breakdown. Storen would be harder to part with, but if there was any lesson learned during the offseason, it's that it is usually a buyer's market in terms of closers. Brad Lidge is the other key to this equation. Lidge has closer experience, and if he can stay healthy while producing numbers similar to his 2010 season, the Nationals would be more willing to deal their closer or top setup man.

Strengths:
Entering 2012, the Nationals might have their best bullpen since the franchise moved to the nation's capital. Whether the Nationals can stay in the race beyond July is questionable, but either way the bullpen will be a major strength or be able to bring in top prospects before the deadline.

Weaknesses:
The lack of a center fielder will hurt this team heading into the 2012 season both offensively and defensively. Bernadina is best suited in left field, and there are real doubts whether Cameron can contribute anything this season.

Rising:
Jordan Zimmermann - In his first full season coming back from Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann displayed impeccable control (1.76 BB/9IP) and regained his velocity throughout the season. With another season under his belt, look for Zimmermann to improve upon his strikeout numbers and finish closer to his 7.7 K/9IP career strikeout rate. Zimmermann's velocity improved over the season, and he finished with a 93.4 mph average fastball for the season (up from 92.3 mph in 2010.) Strasburg and Gonzalez will get a lot of the attention in 2012, but Zimmermann should follow his 2011 season with a 3.30-3.50 ERA.

Falling:
Jayson Werth - Werth was not expected to be an elite player in 2011 despite his new contract, but his sharp decline was a surprise to many. His wOBA of .323 was the third lowest of his career and worst since 2005. Despite his decline, look for Werth to finish with a better slash line in 2012. His 24.7-percent strikeout rate was inflated considering he had a career-low 6.9-percent swinging-strike rate, but his ISO will probably stay below .200. Werth's ability to steal 15-20 bases continues to add extra value despite his 2011 struggles.

Sleeper:
Henry Rodriguez - If the Nationals fall out of the playoff race before the trade deadline, GM Mike Rizzo may deal his surplus bullpen talent. Rodriguez would be the most obvious candidate if Storen, Clippard and Lidge were not with the club down the stretch. Rodriguez averaged 98 mph with his fastball and has struck out more than a batter per inning for his major league career. His control is suspect, 6.17 BB/9IP in 2011, but his ability to keep the ball in the park and generate swinging strikes are two very attractive qualities.

Supersleeper:
Steve Lombardozzi - Ian Desmond took a step back at the plate and in the field in 2011, and there are some concerns whether he can be the starting shortstop on a contending team. Danny Espinosa could shift to shortstop with Lomardozzi playing second base if Desmond fails to show any improvement during the first few months of the season. Lombardozzi won't reach double-digit home runs, but he hit .310/.354/.408 with 14 stolen bases in Triple-A last season.

Top Prospects

Bryce Harper: Harper spent most of 2011 in Low-A Hagerstown putting up an impressive .318/.423/.554 line with a .436 wOBA and 14 home runs. He finished the season playing 37 games for Double-A but was not as successful, posting a wOBA of .332. His strikeout rate of 19.2 percent needs to improve as his batting average might fluctuate due to BABIP. Davey Johnson said he would compete for time in left field at the expense of Roger Bernadina. It will be interesting to see how fast Harper can adjust to advanced repertories once he gets the call to Washington.

Anthony Rendon: Rendon was the Nationals' top draft choice in 2011 as the sixth pick overall. He is considered an above average defender at third base with a plus-arm when healthy, but he should be making the switch to second base because of Zimmerman. He has a terrific batting eye, leading the nation in walks at Rice, and he should be a good on-base threat and power hitter if he can stay healthy. He should be a factor by 2013.

Alex Meyer: With A.J. Cole out of the organization, Meyer gets the title as the Nationals number one pitching prospect. He features a fastball that clocks in routinely from 93-96 mph and some scouts have seen him top out at 99 mph. He also features a strong slider (84-87 mph), and change-up that is a work in progress. Command continues to be a problem, but there is no doubt that Meyer has front of the rotation kind of stuff if he can limit the free passes.

Sammy Solis: Solis spent all of 2011 at Low-A and High-A where he posted above-average peripherals (8.65 K/9IP and 2.14 BB/9IP) along with a 3.26 ERA. The left-hander throws from a three-quarter angle featuring a 91-93 mph fastball with a good curveball and strong change-up. His command is major league ready, but he needs to show that he can get more swings and misses. He should begin the season in Double-A, and doesn't look like he will be a factor on the major league level in 2012.

Brian Goodwin: Goodwin was the Nationals' sandwich-round pick in the 2011 draft and is ready to start his pro career at Low-A or High-A in 2012. There is some debate as to whether he would be best suited at the top or in the lower half of a batting order, but there is no doubt that his bat speed and plate discipline could allow him to develop into an above average hitter.