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.
Follow us on Twitter: @BloombergSports @RobShawSports @MicheleSteele
Daniel Murphy, Utility, Mets
I am not sure what the Mets will do once Ike Davis returns to the lineup be it this year or next. Daniel Murphy is simply a hired bat who can offer some serious offense. The problem is on the defensive side, as Murphy is at his best at third base, which happens to be the home for Mr. David Wright.
Murphy has his average up to .315 this season, with line drive power: 6 HR, 21 doubles and 2 triples. Murphy has hit .385 this month after hitting .330 in June.
Murphy is just 26 years old and bats left-handed, so this is a nice problem to have for the Mets.
Alex Gordon, OF, Royals
The second overall pick of the 2005 draft, Gordon has long been considered a bust due to the slow start to his career, but this season he has finally met expectations.
The 27-year old boasts 11 home runs with 24 doubles and 8 swipes. His average is up to .296 after batting just .215 last season. His plate discipline has been so impressive that the team opted to have him leadoff before pushing him down in the order to take advantage of his power.
Gordon is now considered a potential trade target for teams in need of offense.
Jeff Francoeur, OF, Royals
You would think Jeff Francoeur is 40 years old since he’s played for three teams over the last year. Though he has not been able to sustain the hot start to the season (after batting .316 in April, Francoeur hit just .233 and .235 the next two months), he has found a way to contribute to a fantasy roster. He’s doing this on the basepaths, as he has already swiped 15 bases, nearly double his previous high.
The .266 average still leaves something to be desired, but his 13 home runs and 58 RBI may be enough to force yet another trade.
Michael Morse, OF, Nationals
At 29 years old, Morse is a late bloomer, but he is also one of the better hitters in baseball right now with an even .300 average and 15 home runs. Morse has already matched his previous career-high in home runs, set last season. His OBP is a healthy .348 and while walks are hard to come by, Morse makes up for it with a .523 slugging percentage.
Jon Jay, OF, Cardinals
This 26-year old left-handed hitter was drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Miami. However, Jay never quite earned top prospect status, and this year he has surprised people as a solid platoon option.
Jay is hurt by a lack of patience at the plate and limited power, but you can’t argue with the .310 average, which comes a season after hitting .300. In total, Jay boasts a .304 career average with 11 home runs in 516 at bats.
Jay has made a case to get regular at bats, considering he hits both lefties and righties for at least a .300 average throughout his career. However, with Lance Berkman leading the league in homers, Jay’s playing time will continue to be limited for the remainder of the season.
By Bloomberg Sports// Ballpark Figures: Stock Report— Bloomberg Television’s Michele Steele and Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Analyst Rob Shaw are talking Bulls and Bears in Fantasy Baseball. Shaw tells us to invest in Royals infielder Wilson Betemit, Yankees outfielder Marcus Thames, Nationals outfielder Michael Morse, and Mets pitcher RA Dickey. Shaw is bearish on infielders Alberto Callaspo of the Angels and Miguel Tejada of the Padres. For more fantasy insight visit us at BloombergSports.com.