The Fantasy Top 5 for 2014: Washington Nationals

Mike McGinnis

Alex Kantecki looks into the future with the top-five Washington Nationals in 2014 fantasy baseball leagues.

Ah, the Nationals. The team that everyone with a pulse predicted to represent the National League in the World Series. It's safe to say Washington didn't live up to expectations, finishing 86-76 and 10 games back in the National League East. Despite missing the playoffs in 2013 after finishing first in their division in 2012, the Nationals remain a hotbed of fantasy talent, from pitching to hitting and everything in between.

Washington is a good bet to bounce back in 2014, with a little help from these guys:

5. Jayson Werth

Writing about Werth in any top-five list a year ago would have been considered crazy, but what a difference a year makes. Werth slashed .318/.398/.532 with 25 home runs, 84 runs, 82 RBIs and 10 steals, and it's hard to imagine it getting any better for the bearded outfielder. Excluding 2012, Werth has averaged 26 home runs and 16 steals since 2008, so there's obviously plenty of natural juice left in the 34-year-old's bat and legs. A .358 BABIP in 2013 might be enough to scare the regression police, but Werth's career BABIP sits at .331; I'm not worried about a huge drop off. I'm comfortable predicting 20 home runs and 10 steals in 2014, but his batting average is a tough one to figure; in his last full season (2011), Werth batted just .232. Still, with a combination of power and speed, Werth provides enough value to remain in the No. 3 outfielder discussion.

4. Ryan Zimmerman

Zimmerman pulled a Zimmerman and saved his best ball for the second half of 2013, hitting 15 home runs post All-Star break. Overall, the third baseman slashed .275/.344/.465 with 26 home runs, 84 runs, 79 RBIs and six steals. The six steals represented a career-best since swiping 11 his rookie season (2006), and the 26 long balls were his most since hitting 33 in 2009. In head-to-head leagues, I run away from Zimmerman, but in the standard rotisserie format he's a very serviceable play at the hot corner. Zimmerman's ISO is in the .190s these days, so 20-plus home runs should be expected. Hitting in the heart of the Nationals' lineup, he's a more reliable run producer than Werth, but you should expect 20 missed games or so based on his track record.

3. Ian Desmond

For the most part, Desmond repeated his 2012 breakout campaign in 2013, hitting .280/.331/.453 with 20 home runs, 77 runs, 80 RBIs and 21 steals. That's back-to-back 20/20 seasons for Desmond, who I doubted in the preseason. I didn't think Desmond could repeat as a top-five shortstop, but it's hard to ignore the two-year stretch of success in Washington. After Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez, power at shortstop falls off a cliff, and one can argue that Desmond is one of the safest power plays at the position (given Tulo's injury history). His HR/FB rate dropped from 18.2 percent in 2012 to 12.9 percent in 2013, but another 20 home runs is certainly in play. He's worth investing in as a top-five shortstop once again.

2. Stephen Strasburg

Strasburg may not have been worth a top-three pick among starting pitchers in 2013, but the hard-throwing righty still had an impressive season, posting a 3.00 ERA and 1.05 WHIP to go along with 191 strikeouts in 183 innings. The only thing holding Strasburg back was a matter of wins, as the 25-year-old finished under .500 with an 8-9 record. He was once again throwing 95 and his walk rate remained in line with his career average (seven percent), but his strikeout rate dropped from 30.2 percent to 26.1 percent. It was reported that Strasburg was pitching with discomfort in his forearm throughout the season, which could put a damper on his productivity and playing time in 2014. With no more news, there's simply no way to pass on Strasburg as a top-10 pitcher, however. He remains an elite target.

1. Bryce Harper

Harper, 21, is coming off a disappointing season in which he hit .274/.368/.486 with 20 home runs, 71 runs, 58 RBIs and 11 steals. The Nationals rising star missed 44 games and underwhelmed in the RBI and stolen base categories, making him a No. 3 outfielder at best. But Harper's talent is far too special to ignore because of injury. He showed improvement with an 18.9-percent strikeout rate (down from 20.1) and a 12.3-percent walk rate (up from 9.4), all while posting an impressive .212 ISO in his second big league season. A full season of at-bats could produce a 30/20 season, with an added expectation that his RBI total will go up considerably. He's well worth a second-round pick in 2014 drafts.

Honorable mention: Jordan Zimmermann

It hurts to place Zimmermann in the "Honorable Mention" section, but a lot of his 2013 success came directly from an NL-leading 19 wins. You can't count on Zimmermann reaching that mark again, as he totaled 20 wins the previous two seasons combined. Zimmermann is a hell of a pitcher, but his fantasy value is dampened by a league-average strikeout rate. The 27-year-old has out-pitched his advanced metrics considerably, including a 3.18 ERA (3.78 xFIP) in 2011 and a 2.94 ERA (3.78 xFIP) in 2012. He'll likely remain an asset in the ERA and WHIP departments, but I don't see him providing top-10 upside again.

Consider his 2012 season a more realistic outcome, when he finished as the No. 23 starting pitcher, according to the ESPN Player Rater. Pitching is always deep, which is why I leaned Werth over Zimmermann for the No. 5 spot. It's very close and I like Zimmermann a lot, so don't take this ranking as a slight to the Nationals' most consistent and reliable pitcher. I mean, come on, look at how much I wrote about him!

For more, check out Federal Baseball, SB Nation's community for everything Nationals.

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