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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Washington Nationals

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Washington Nationals
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman


2013 Overview: 
Lots of things go wrong for a team that was supposed to have another easy 95-win season. Dan Haren isn’t the man for that job behind the aces in the rotation. Adam LaRoche regresses and fans miss slugger Michael Morse, traded last winter for prospects. Danny Espinosa implodes after consecutive seasons providing a nice power/speed combo. Bryce Harper misses some time. Their bench mysteriously hits a collective .209. And yet they still manage a late playoff run and 86 wins. This was pretty much their floor. This year, will they hit their ceiling?

Winter Grade:
Coming: Doug Fister, Nate McLouth
Going: Dan Haren, Robbie Ray (minors), Nate Karns (minors)
Last year the Nationals gambled on upside when looking for a fourth starter and got burned by Dan Haren. Now they’re not taking any chances, acquiring dependable control artist Doug Fister in a head-scratching deal with Detroit which costs Washington some extra bench pieces and second tier lefty Robby Ray. They also bolster the bench with Nate McLouth and backup catcher Jose Lobaton, and acquire a dependable lefty reliever from Oakland in Jerry Blevins. Those latter moves are attempts to polish the roster that was poor around the edges last year, a wise move considering the star power they already have on hand.

Wild Card(s):
A trio of pitchers view for the fifth starter role: Tanner Roark (1.51 ERA in 53 IP), Taylor Jordan (3.66 ERA in 51 major league innings, 9-1 with a 1.00 in 90 IP in the minors) and Ross Detwiler (10-8 with a 3.40 ERA in 2012) have all shown flashes now of big league success, but health and durability are concerns for all of them. Can someone step up and anchor the back of the rotation? Meanwhile, Anthony Rendon had a solid debut and offers breakout potential at second base this year. It was only 36 games, but he had a .452 OBP in AA last year.

Key Contract Years:
Adam LaRoche and Denard Span both have options, but neither is a lock to be picked up. They’ll have to improve on lackluster 2013 seasons. LaRoche in particular will need to justify a mutual $15 million option; plenty of guys can hit .237/.332/.403 at first base. Also, Rafael Soriano’s $14 million option will probably be declined, especially if he repeats his troubling 6.8 K/9 rate from last year.

Rookies:
Nobody significant stands to make an impact with the Nats this year. Their closest top prospect to the majors, outfielder Brian Goodwin, is blocked from full playing time until injuries occur, and first baseman Matt Skole could be Adam LaRoche’s replacement, but he missed all of last year so his readiness is up in the air.

Key Questions: 
Can Jayson Werth repeat last season, when he was healthy and productive for the first time since signing with the Nats? Where does Danny Espinosa fit onto this roster, and is he useful trade bait? How much rope does LaRoche have? Does Bryce Harper break out as an MVP candidate this year? Who wins the fifth starter job?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 
Top prospect Lucas Giolito wowed scouts last year, but he was in the GCL so he’s quite a ways away. Not having a first-rounder last year leaves them light on depth but luckily, snagging back AJ Cole (who they traded a year before) for Mike Morse was a coup, as Cole looks like a potential mid-rotation starter or better down the line. They have interesting prospects sprinkled around the diamond, including some speed demons in the outfield (Michael Taylor, Eudy Pena, among others), but they’re greatest strength may be in future second basemen/utility infielders. The Nationals reshuffled their prospect depth a little bit in a deal with Tampa which included Nate Karns and Jose Lobaton. For now, they’ll have to make due with what’s on the major league roster.

2014 Prognosis: Strong Contenders
Last year was a bump on the road. THIS time the Nationals mean business, and when they make the playoffs, Stephen Strasburg might even be along for the ride! Don’t start printing playoff tickets just yet…wait until May when it’s clear that 2013’s unlucky setbacks were an aberration. It should be fun watching them duke it out with Atlanta atop the NL East this year.

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