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The Washington Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, are one of the least successful franchises in Major League Baseball. The franchise’s first season was in 1969; the Expos/Nationals have made the playoffs just once. In the past 15 seasons the team has finished in either last or second-to-last place in the NL East 13 times. Clearly the organization has struggled to win in its 43 year history. Things are turning around though. The Nationals are on the upswing and are setup to be successful now and in the future.

(To see an explanation of 2012 MLB team previews and release dates click here)

Major League Baseball, like most other American sports leagues, rewards bad teams through the draft. In the Washington Nationals case, the team was so bad it had several opportunities to hit it big. The front office took advantage and has built up a nice core of players under the age of 30. The organization also has a potential once in a generation player waiting in the wings. The first three hitters in the Nationals projected lineup, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman were all drafted by the Nationals in the top three rounds. Three of the team’s starting pitchers were drafted by the team as well. Two of them, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman, could (and probably should) be excellent. That aforementioned potential once in a generation player, Bryce Harper, may even make the big league club if he shows he belongs in Spring Training (*). The Nationals had the good fortune of being bad at the right times. The team was in position to take Strasburg and Harper with the first overall pick in the 2009 and 2010 drafts respectively. The team also took Ryan Zimmerman with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft. Give the organization credit for developing them as well (**). Building up home grown talent (and acquiring additional players) has put the Nationals in a position to win.

(*) This is where I should mention that Harper is only 19 years old. 

(**) It also helps when the team is able to spend money – in the draft and free agency.

The team’s starting lineup by and large returns in 2012 as the Nationals did not add any players from the outside that are expected to start. The organization is certainly banking on Ryan Zimmerman. Just a few weeks ago the third basemen inked a 6-year, $100 million extension that runs through the 2019 season (***). Obviously that’s a big investment that certainly doesn’t come without risk as he has missed 50+ games in two of the last four seasons. When Zimmerman has been in the lineup consistently he has been a top five all around third basemen. Last season Jayson Werth started the first year of his ridiculous 7-year, $126 million on a worrisome note. His offensive production fell off considerably as he dropped over 200 points in OPS. Advanced statistics (such as BABIP) show that Werth may have been unlucky. Either way, everyone involved will be looking for the soon to be 33 year old outfielder to turn it around. Michael Morse may be a late bloomer. Having done nothing in the early parts of his career Morse showed in bits of 2010 and all of last year he can hit. He blasted 31 home runs last season and will be in the heart of the order. Two players the Nationals has to be hoping will improve this season are shortstop Ian Desmond and second basemen Danny Espinosa. Espinosa was solid in his first full year needing three stolen bases to go 20/20. He needs to cut down on his over 25% strikeout rate. Desmond needs to improve across the board to justify his place as the starting shortstop/lead-off hitter. And of course Bryce Harper is lurking. Even if he doesn’t make the club out of Spring Training he is expected to debut sometime this season. The Nationals were 24th in runs scored last season but should improve.

(***) The organization potentially could pay Zimmerman $132 million from 2012 through 2020 – $14.67 million annual average.

The starting rotation has a lot of potential. Stephen Strasburg, recovering from Tommy John surgery, made five big league starts in September. His workload will be monitored closely and limited in his first full season back from the injury. Still, with Strasburg’s skills he should get better and better. The injury clearly raises concerns but he has best-pitcher-in-baseball ceiling. I expect Strasburg to be healthy and be every bit as good as he has been so far in his career. The Nationals acquired two solid starting pitchers in the offseason in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. The front office must believe in Gonzalez because they dealt three top prospects for him and signed him to an extension through 2016 (possibly 2018). Gonzalez has been an above average pitcher over the last two seasons; in each season he started 30+ games and went over 200 innings. The Nationals gave up a lot for a pretty good pitcher. Edwin Jackson signed a one-year deal; he will be changing teams for the seventh time in seven years. It’s odd because Jackson has developed into a good starting pitcher. This was a nice move for Washington to make. Right-hander Jordan Zimmerman gives the Nats four quality starting pitchers. Zimmerman, like Strasburg is this year, was coming off Tommy John surgery last season. He was limited to a little over 160 innings, but they were effective. I expect big things from him this season. The projected rotation is rounded out by John Lannan, an innings-eater type. The Nationals also have some depth with Chien-Ming Wang, Tom Gorzelanny, and Ross Detwiler all capable of stepping in. Washington’s rotation could be one of the better ones in Major League Baseball this season. Injuries are a concern for Strasburg and Zimmerman (****) while Gonzalez and Jackson are adjusting to new homes.

(****) Though the way Tommy John surgery is handled these days, most pitchers are able to make it fully back to form if not exceed it.

Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg will be looking to put Tommy John surgery behind him and begin his ascent as one of baseball's best pitchers (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

The Nationals added two pieces to the bullpen in the offseason. The team signed Brad Lidge to a one-year contract and traded for Ryan Perry from the Tigers. Now in his third year, closer Drew Storen should establish himself as one of the best in baseball. After Storen, Washington has strikeout artists Tyler Clippard and Lidge to setup. Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, and Gorzelanny figure in as well. The pen should be decent.

The Washington Nationals are on the rise. The team has a decent core of position players and potentially four very good starting pitchers. The front office has made its most impact through the draft but has also infused talent into the roster through trades and free agent signings. With the moves Miami made and the place Philadelphia and Atlanta are already at, the National League East is going to be a tough division to navigate in 2012. The Nationals have the makings of a good team.

Offseason Moves:

Additions:

  • Gio Gonzalez (LHP) – trade with Oakland Athletics
  • Edwin Jackson (RHP) – free agent
  • Brad Lidge (RHP) – free agent
  • Mark DeRosa (IF/OF) – free agent
  • Ryan Perry (RHP) – trade with Detroit Tigers
  • Brett Carroll (OF) – free agent
  • Andres Blanco (IF) – free agent

Subtractions:

  • Ivan Rodriguez (C) – unsigned
  • Alex Cora (IF) – signed with St. Louis Cardinals
  • Jonny Gomes (OF) – signed with Oakland Athletics
  • Laynce Nix (OF) – signed with Philadelphia Phillies
  • Todd Coffey (RHP) – signed with Los Angeles Dodgers
  • Livan Hernandez (RHP) – signed with Houston Astros
  • Doug Slaten (LHP) – signed with Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Derek Norris (C) – trade with Oakland Athletics
  • Mike Cameron (OF) – retired
  • Collin Balester (RHP) – trade with Detroit Tigers
  • A.J. Cole (RHP) – trade with Oakland Athletics
  • Brad Peacock (RHP) – trade with Oakland Athletics
  • Tom Milone (LHP) – trade with Oakland Athletics

Projected Starting Lineup:

1. Ian Desmond – SS

2. Danny Espinosa – 2B

3. Ryan Zimmerman – 3B

4. Michael Morse – LF

5. Jayson Werth – RF

6. Adam LaRoche – 1B

7. Wilson Ramos – C

8. Roger Bernadina – CF

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Stephen Strasburg – RH

2. Gio Gonzalez – LH

3. Jordan Zimmerman – RH

4. Edwin Jackson – RH

5. John Lannan – LH

Projected Bullpen:

  • Drew Storen – RH
  • Tyler Clippard – RH
  • Brad Lidge – RH
  • Sean Burnett – LH
  • Ryan Perry – RH
  • Henry Rodriguez – RH
  • Tom Gorzelanny – LH

Projected Bench:

  • Jesus Flores – C
  • Andres Blanco – IF
  • Mark DeRosa – IF/OF
  • Mark Teahen – IF/OF
  • Rich Ankiel – OF

Projected Disabled List (start of the season):

  • Chris Marrero – 1B
  • Cole Kimball – RHP

Variables:

  • Jayson Werth’s offensive production – His offense took a big dip in 2011. The Nats are paying him to be a force in the middle of the lineup. If they are going to be in contention they need him to be that.
  • Stephen Strasburg’s right arm – The club will use caution and there is always the risk of another setback.
  • Bryce Harper – He will be up with the club at some point in 2012 I have to imagine. When he is, what type of impact will he have?
  • Ryan Zimmerman’s health – The third basemen has missed significant time in two of the last four seasons. With a brand new contract extension Zimmerman needs to be healthy and step up.
  • Run scoring – The lineup has some names to go along with some players that can put up numbers. If everything comes together it should be better than last season.
  • Ian Desmond – A disappointment to this point, he needs to improve this season.
  • Michael Morse – Has shown big-time power in his time with the Nats. Will his production prove to be sustainable?
  • Bottom of the lineup – The bottom four in the projected lineup – Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos (to a much lesser extent), Roger Bernadina, pitcher’s spot – is problematic. The offense needs more out of those spots this season.

Fantasy Implications:

  • Ryan Zimmerman is a borderline top five fantasy player at third base. Health is a concern as is his overall fantasy production. He doesn’t put up gaudy fantasy numbers but they are still pretty good. The highest ranked player for the Nationals in fantasy is an early fourth rounder. If he is healthy you’ll get decent value if you pick him there.
  • It’s only a matter of health and inning limitations for Stephen Strasburg because I think the skills are going to be there this season. He’s ranked as a top 20 starting pitcher but someone in your league will take him before that, I imagine. If you want him you’re going to have to reach.
  • Michael Morse has big power and can play at 1B or OF. He’s probably a sixth or seventh rounder but I’d probably wait on him.
  • I would be shocked if Jayson Werth continued a downward trend this season. As a ninth round or later player he has a lot of value. He can put up a 20/20 season but I don’t see the average coming up a ton.
  • Gio Gonzalez will be moving to a better hitting division and a better hitter’s park but is also moving leagues. Overall I see his numbers taking a slight step back but he’ll still get you strikeouts and a decent ERA.
  • As a starting pitcher ranked outside the top 30 at the position, Jordan Zimmerman has tremendous value in my opinion.
  • Closer Drew Storen should establish himself as a top-tier fantasy closer. Considering he is being drafted in that area, he probably won’t be on any of my fantasy teams.
  • Catcher Wilson Ramos turns 25 during the season and is on the right side of starter status as a fantasy catcher. He will go into the mid-to-high teens in home runs and be decent in runs and RBIs.
  • Second basemen Danny Espinosa is an interesting fantasy player this season. He is outside the starter rankings at the position but had 21 HR/17 SB last year and he’s only 25. The batting average is the major reason why as he only hit .236. I might sacrifice the average and take the other production if I’m looking for another infielder later in the draft.
  • Edwin Jackson has less fantasy value than you may think. He is a high WHIP pitcher and the ERA can jump up. He also doesn’t get a ton of strikeouts. He’s a late in the draft pickup. 
  • Only if I am looking for stolen bases and have a hole at shortstop am I looking in Ian Desmond’s direction.
  • Tyler Clippard is one of the better non-closer relievers in fantasy baseball.
  • Keep an eye on Bryce Harper. Whether it’s on Opening Day or later in the season whenever it is announced he on the Major League roster owners are going to flock to pick him up.