BY ROB SHAW
It was a lively off-season in the Big Leagues for certain as the best leadoff hitter and two of the best sluggers moved to new teams this winter. While a great deal of the attention turned to the Marlins who unveiled a new logo, new jerseys, a new stadium, and new acquisitions, the quiet Nationals should attract the most attention because of their sudden rise in expectations in the NL East.
The news with the greatest impact coming from the Nationals during the off-season wasn’t the trade for Gio Gonzalez or even the latest news from top phenom Bryce Harper. Instead, the it came at the end of February when the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman, signed on the dotted line to a six-year $100 million deal. The deal sends an important message to the Nationals that they are not just about developing young talent, but keeping that talent around for the years to come to compete with the best in the NL.
The star third baseman told us, “I’ve been here through the not too good years, I wanted to make sure to be here for the good times that are about to come.” Zimmerman added, “They’ve done it the right way, they drafted good, they built out their farm system, kind of made it so that we won’t be good for one or two years, but 10 or 15.”
The fact that Zimmerman opted to stay long-term with the Nationals was met with affirmation from his teammates. Hurler Jordan Zimmerman said, “Yeah he made it clear that he wanted to stay here and stay here for the long haul, and build a team around him. The owners are all for it and I think it is going to be good for the club in the long run.”
There are a lot of household names on the Nationals this season. Jayson Werth did not meet expectations last season, we discussed Zimmerman, Michael Morse is now a star after what he did last year, but one guy who is sneaking under the radar despite the fact that he posted sensational numbers last season was Jordan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman is an ace. Last year, he actually truly was the number one, and maybe that explains why his record is not as impressive as his ERA and his WHIP. On the other hand, this year he will be matching with a lot of number twos and threes since Strasburg is the opening day starter. This is really big for the Nationals, because that gives them an advantage in every game that he pitches. Maybe 15-17 wins is a realistic target for the young hurler.
Zimmerman is optimistic about the team’s chances of clinching the division. “We had some key pickups this year and I think we are going to have a great starting staff and picked up Lidge and a couple of other guys in the bullpen who are going to help out big time. So I am pretty excited to get going this season.”
I see Washington as the favorite in the NL East. The Phillies may have that big three, but there’s a big three in Washington now that is younger and perhaps will end up more durable this season. You look at the offense for the Nationals, they took away Jayson Werth from the Phillies and with the Phillies having injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, there are some serious concerns there. I think the offense is better for the Nationals, perhaps the numbers won’t reflect that because of the pitcher’s park.
The Braves are a good team. I don’t think they have the rotation that the Nationals have. The Marlins are a good team too. They don’t have the depth in the rotation. Also, the Nationals bullpen ace is Tyler Clippard, one of the best middle relievers in baseball, and when Drew Storen comes back healthy, he could be lights out yet again.
This Nationals team should be the favorite in the NL East. And it’s great because it’s going to surprise a lot of people. So as far as expectations, they should be sky high. Washington fans, you have something to be excited about this season.
Fantasy Baseball’s Surprise Party:
1) Ichiro hits under .300
The future Hall of Famer may be labeled somewhat of a one-trick pony, but at least he always had that trick, which was the ability to rack up hits at an unprecedented level. Suzuki boasts a .327 career average and never before has hit for lower than a .303 average through 10 years in the Major Leagues. However, at the moment, Suzuki’s average is under .270. When you consider that Ichiro actually started the season quite well with a .328 average through the first month of the season, you have to wonder if the 37-year-old veteran is finally slowing down. Suzuki will also have his third straight season with fewer than 100 runs scored.
2) Lance Berkman’s Power Stroke
Since blasting a career-high 45 home runs in 2006, Lance Berkman’s annual home run total has declined in four straight seasons. That streak has come to an end this season, as the 35-year-old veteran has nearly doubled last year’s total already with 27 home runs. After hitting just one dinger in 106 at bats last season with the Yankees, it looked like Berkman was playing on borrowed time. However, the Cardinals outfielder is instead enjoying an MVP caliber season.
3) Manny’s Retirement
With just one hit through 17 at bats, it looked like the worst was out of the way for Rays recently acquired outfielder Manny Ramirez. However, the legend in Boston who enjoyed a heck of a half-season with the Dodgers would never again stare down another pitch. No, Ramirez, approaching his 38th birthday, was caught using performance-enhancing drugs for the second time in his career and a hasty and quiet retirement soon followed. 555 home runs and a .312 average likely won’t be enough to bring Manny to Cooperstown.
4) Bartolo Colon Back in the Majors
He’s a former Cy Young award winner with 150-plus wins under his belt, but Colon was never expected to play a key role in this season considering we last saw him pitch in 2009 when he finished a season with the White Sox with a 3-6 record. However, after plenty of rest and a controversial arm surgery, Colon is back in a big way for the Yankees. Armed with great command and some serious heat, Colon improved his record to 7-6 this weekend with a fine 3.29 ERA
5) 2011 Free Agent Busts: Werth, Crawford, and Dunn
The big bats on the market this past winter were Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, and Adam Dunn. They all came into the season with stellar career marked with consistency and fairly predictable production.
Jayson Werth, for instance, has belted 20-plus home runs with 10 plus steals, and an average north of .265 in each of the last three seasons. Werth is currently batting just .219 with 11 home runs in what was supposed to be his prime at 32-years old.
Carl Crawford has hit less than .300 just once in the last six seasons entering this season. Well, now he’s batting .254, and his steals are on pace to be his lowest season total since his rookie season.
Finally, Adam Dunn has hit either 38 or 40 home runs in each of the last six seasons. He currently boasts just nine home runs, and his .160 average is 100 points off last season’s batting clip.
By R.J. Anderson //
Separating current value from future value is a must in the world of transaction analysis; less so in the fantasy world, where so many leagues go with limited (or no) stability from year-to-year. Understanding that is paramount to understanding the negative reaction to Jayson Werth’s signing in the real world. The common critical points arising are that seven years is too long for someone Werth’s age (31), that $126 million is too much, and that the Nationals will not benefit from this deal when they are nearing competitor status. And yet, none of that matters in the fantasy world.
Werth is one of baseball’s best right fielders offensively or defensively. Over the last three seasons he’s hit .279/.376/.513 while averaging 29 home runs per season, 84 runs batted in, and 8 steals. His ability to steal bases and play defense is important to note. Whereas a player like Adam Dunn – whom Werth ostensibly replaces in the Nationals’ lineup – derives much of his value from hitting home runs and drawing walks – like Werth — receives criticism for his skill set that ages poorly, Werth is more athletic and should age better. That does not mean Werth will live up to that line this season, though, it just means don’t expect a sudden collapse.
What everyone should expect is for Werth’s new ballpark to limit his home runs. Not egregiously, but a few here and there. Citizen’s Bank Park is one of the kindest to right-handed batters in the game. Nationals Park isn’t mean to them, but it’s not nearly as charitable. The other aspect of the Nationals’ organization that may affect Werth is the talent around him. Werth batted behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard last season, sometimes far enough behind that he didn’t benefit fully from their ability to reach base. With Washington, he figures to bat ahead of or directly behind Josh Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman, who both got on base roughly 39% of the time last season.
With young talent like Danny Espinoza, Ian Desmond, and of course Bryce Harper potentially filling out the Washington lineup sooner than later, there’s a chance Werth can continue to knock in 85-plus a season to along with 25 or so home runs and a .275 or so batting average. He shouldn’t rise up your charts because of this signing, but he shouldn’t fall either.
For more on Jayson Werth, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.
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By Tommy Rancel //
Despite the news that the New York Yankees do not plan to pursue Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth this offseason, the pair of outfielders are the most sought-out position players on the open market. But who deserves top billing?
According to Scott Boras, the agent of Werth, the Phillies’ outfielder is the cream of the crop. It is normally good practice to treat agent speak as such, but Boras isn’t too far off.
Over the past three seasons, Werth has averaged a slash line of .279/.376/.513 with 29 home runs and 84 RBI. Only five players other than Werth can say they’ve averaged at least those numbers over the same time frame (min. 1800 plate appearances). Those players are: Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Mark Teixeira, and Joey Votto.
This season he joined Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Jose Bautista as the only major leaguers with an OPS greater than .920 with a minimum of 650 plate appearances. That’s nice company to keep heading into a rather weak free agent class for position players.
On the other hand, the case can be made that Carl Crawford is not only the better overall player right now, but will be the better value in three to four years.
First, Crawford is younger and more athletic. Although Werth is a decent defender, Crawford is among the best in the league. Despite being the better overall offensive player right now, Werth’s skillset is not as broad as Crawford’s and could decline quicker.
Crawford’s offensive game plays in all types of parks and he has spent his career in the American League. Werth, on the other hand, has enjoyed his success playing in the National League at one of the more hitter-friendly parks. In fact, the gap in his home/road splits has grown even further apart over the past two seasons.
Consider this, the closest statistical player to Crawford at age 28 according to baseball-reference.com is Roberto Clemente. Also consider that Crawford has more career hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBI, and nearly 10 times as many steals than the legendary Clemente did at the same age, despite just a 22-game difference in career games. While Crawford doesn’t have the arm of Clemente, he is regarded as one of the best defenders in the game. Imagine if Clemente hit the open market going into to what some consider his prime; that could be what we have here.
Everyone knows that Crawford’s main asset is speed. That said, in recent seasons he has taken a few more walks. He also showed more power this season with a career-high 62 extra-base hits. Although Tropicana Field has taken a toll on his legs, he has avoided major injury to those valuable wheels.
Looking at short-term value, Werth is likely the better offensive player for 2011 – even though Crawford is the superior fantasy commodity given his prodigious speed. Werth’s power potential is much greater, and it’s not just tied to balls leaving the yard. He led the league with 46 doubles in 2010 and could rack up even more in a place like Fenway Park. However, if you’re looking for a keeper between the two, Crawford is the one. He will continue to offer tremendous value in steals, as well as providing an above-average number of extra-base hits for the next few years. In conjunction with steals and extra bases, He should score a lot of runs in a good lineup as well.
For more on Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, and other MLB Free Agents check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.
By Eno Sarris //
Biggest Surprise: Carlos Ruiz
After spending most of his career as a sub-.260 hitter, Carlos Ruiz finally had some luck on batted balls (.335 BABIP this year, .280 career) and put together a terrific and surprising .302/.400/.447 season that would have ranked him higher if he had managed more than 433 plate appearances. Shane Victorino‘s power surge (18 homers, .170 ISO in 2010, .150 career) also qualifies as a nice surprise, but it came from hitting more fly balls and negatively affected his batting average.
Biggest Bust: Jimmy Rollins
It may seem like nicks and cuts are keeping Jimmy Rollins out of the lineup more often these days, but 2010 was the first time he didn’t amass 625+ plate appearances since his rookie year. Given his injury-riddled year, it’s not surprising that Rollins had the fewest home runs and stolen bases of his career, as well as the lowest batting average. He’ll be a 32-year-old shortstop next year, and more years like this will come in the future, even if his BABIP (.246) and ISO (.131 in 2010, .163 career) rebound in the short term.
2011 Keeper Alert: Domonic Brown
This is a great team full of solid keepers, but most of the Phillies’ regulars are also over 30 years old. Fantasy owners looking to the future should consider Domonic Brown, who will most likely replace Jayson Werth when Werth leaves in free agency. Across Double- and Triple-A in 2010, Brown showed power (.262 ISO), speed (17 SB), and a great batting average (.327). His strikeout rate was a little high (21.5%), but he’s an elite prospect.
2011 Regression Alert: Jayson Werth
Werth has been great since joining the Phillies three years ago, averaging 29 home runs, 18 stolen bases, and a .279 batting average over that time. But he’s looking for a paycheck that will most probably take him away from the ever-more-expensive Phillies team. That would be too bad, because he has a .529 slugging percentage in Philadelphia (.481 career), and has benefited both from the hitter-friendly ballpark and a strong lineup conducive to counting stats. With the steals already declining, a few fewer home runs in his future, and a high strikeout rate (28.9% career) that will most likely produce a mediocre batting average, he will be a less exciting fantasy player next year.