Washington Nationals

Elite Prospect Updates: Moore, Trout, Harper

Elite prospects are always popular targets come draft day, and this year we have a trio of ultra-promising young players on the cusp of the big leagues and eager to help your fantasy team. To help you prepare for the early part of the season, here's the lastest news on each of those three players. Average Draft Positions come courtesy of Mock Draft Central.

Matt Moore, LHP, TB
ADP - 104

A mild oblique strain held the game's best pitching prospect back early in Spring Training, but Moore got into his first game action this week and struck out three of the six men he faced. Thanks to his new contract extension, the Rays have no salary or free agency-related reason to send the 22-year-old southpaw to Triple-A to start the season. Either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis will be shifted to the bullpen to free up a rotation spot, with Niemann the favorite to remain a starter. A trade is always possible as well. There's enough time left in Spring Training for Moore to make four starts, which should give him plenty of time to properly stretch out and start the team's fourth or fifth game of the regular season. Oblique issues can be tricky though, and a setback would surely have him start the season on the DL.

I ranked Moore as the 43rd best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball a few weeks ago, but I like him quite a bit more than that. I can definitely see a Madison Bumgarner-type of performance coming in 2012, which means something like 13 wins, a 3.30 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and 8.5 K/9. Given the tough AL East competition, I would probably take the over on the ERA though.

Mike Trout, OF, LAA
ADP - 220

Injuries are a theme in this post, but in Trout's case it's an illness. The 20-year-old told Bill Plunkett of The Orange County register that he's "feeling weak and feverish with no appetite" due to a flu-like virus which has also caused him to lose ten pounds. Trout hasn't played in close to a week now, so his already long chances of making the club out of camp have been diminished further. The Angels have a logjam of outfielders and DH-types with Mark Trumbo, Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Kendrys Morales penciled into just three lineup spots (four if you're feeling generous and think Trumbo can cut it at third). Abreu and Wells are release candidates, but the latter will likely get a significant opportunity to show he's worth the $63MM left on his contract.

Trout was #59 on my list of fantasy outfielders mostly because his playing time is so uncertain. The talent is there for him to club double-digit homers with 30+ steals if given 400 plate appearances, although the high batting averages might not come right away. Fantasy owners won't benefit from Trout's above-average defense, but there's enough here to become a top ten fantasy outfielder in the near future. I just wouldn't expect it to happen this summer given the team's currect roster situation.

Bryce Harper, OF, WAS
ADP - 227

Harper has been limited by a calf issue this week, prompting him to tell Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com that he probably won't be able to make the team out of Spring Training despite his (and manager Davey Johnson's) wishes. Still just 19, Harper has five singles and two walks in 13 at-bats this spring, and he was going to really have blow the doors off the competition to have a realistic chance to make the club. There's a open spot in the outfield calling his name and GM Mike Rizzo says he's still a candidate for the roster, but I get the sense the club is content with letting the game's best power prospect get some more time in the minors rather than throw him to the big league wolves as a teenager.

I didn't rank Harper among the game's 60 best fantasy outfielders only because I find it very hard to believe a kid that young will be that productive right away. Harper has insane power, legitimate 40 homers-a-year type of power, but no teenager has ever hit even 30 homers in a season, and only twice in the last 50 years has a 20-year-old managed 30 homers (Alex Rodriguez in 1996 and Tony Conigliaro in 1965). There figures to be a point in the not too distant future when Bryce is among the game's very players (fantasy or reality), but that probably won't happen in 2012.

Transaction Analysis: Pierre, Lidge, Francis

Other than that little matter with that big first baseman, it was a relatively quiet week for transactions. But quiet isn't silent, and when I saw that Juan Pierre signed with Philadelphia, Brad Lidge joined Washington, and Jeff Francis agreed to terms with Cincinnati, it occurred to me that this would have been a huge day back in 2007. Pierre was coming off a 64-steal season, Lidge had just resurrected his career (for the first time), and Francis won 17 games leading Colorado to the NL Pennant.

How times change. Pierre and Francis have signed minor league contracts, while Lidge will earn just $1MM. All three entered the offseason with the potential (however slight) at being fantasy contributors, but all three find themselves in situations that significantly diminish their values but bear at least some attention.

Juan Pierre

Pierre joins a crowded left-field picture for the Phillies, and he will vie with John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, and Domonic Brown for playing time. It's possible that he won't make the team, or that he will be relegated to pinch -unning duty, both of which obviously kill whatever fantasy value the 34-year-old speedster had left after stealing just 27 bases for Ozzie Guillen's White Sox in 2011. Those desperate for steals (in leagues that don't count CS, at least) should keep an eye on Pierre, though, as he has a knack for worming his way into Major League lineups. Pay extra attention if Ryan Howard's injury lingers.

Pierre isn't the only player whose potential value takes a downturn with this move, as Brown just got another roadblock to playing time. This doesn't end his chances at winning a starting job, but it certainly doesn't make it any easier.

Brad Lidge

 Say what you want about Lidge, the guy doesn't stay down. Or up. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a higher-variance ballplayer than Lidge, who can be the worst reliever in baseball or the best. Though it seems safe to say his best years are behind him, the upside that seems to follow him led to speculation that he might land a closing gig somewhere. That speculation ends with his deal with the Nationals. Though he earned the prestige of a Major League deal, it doesn't look like he'll be pitching in the ninth inning, or even the eighth with Drew Storen closing and All-Star Tyler Clippard setting up. Though trade rumors swirled about Storen over the summer, it seems unlikely that a Washington team with dreams of contention would trade both at once.  

Lidge's best chance at fantasy-relevance may hinge on pitching well enough to get traded into another team's stopper job. Deep leagues can at least note that his strikeout rate has never dipped below a batter per inning.

Jeff Francis

Though teams like the Mets and Mariners were thought to have interest -- and room in their rotations -- for Francis, he signed a minor league deal with a Reds team that doesn't have room for the starters they already had. Coming off a mediocre 2011 in which his 4.10 FIP wasn't good but was better than his 4.82 ERA and 16 losses suggested, Francis might have been worth a late-round flier in deep leagues. If he manages to crack the Reds' rotation (he's probably seventh in line if Aroldis Chapman is under real consideration) he'd be worth a look, as Cincinnati looks to compete and Francis's 47% GB rate ought to play decently in cozy Great American Ball Park.

It would probably take a trade or injury to get Francis into the Cincinnati rotation, but if it happens he could be a useful two-start pitcher or streamer, though that's probably where the upside is.

Five years ago, all three of these guys looked like (or even were) fantasy mainstays. At the beginning of the offseason they looked like they could still help your team if they found the right situation. None of them did.

Projecting Gio Gonzalez

The Nationals clearly believe in Gio Gonzalez.  They paid a hefty price to acquire him from Oakland, and then locked him up through at least 2016.  Fantasy leaguers always pay extra attention to solid starters moving from the AL to the NL; what can we expect of Gio in 2012?

Gonzalez's vitals for the 2011 A's:

  • 3.12 ERA, 3.78 SIERA
  • 1.32 WHIP
  • 8.8 K/9
  • 4.1 BB/9
  • 0.76 HR/9
  • 47.5% groundball rate
  • 7.8 H/9
  • .287 BABIP vs. .289 for A's in general and .287 for Nationals

The walks are the obvious red flag.  If Gonzalez pushed that down to league average, around 3.1, his WHIP would go from 1.32 to 1.21, all else being equal.  With a little control, Gonzalez's WHIP would go from liability to asset, given how hard he's been to hit the last few years.  And I do expect him to continue to be difficult to hit.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo discussed Gonzalez with reporters upon acquiring him in late December, saying, "We see his walks trending in the right direction, we see him having general command, and as he progresses into his career, he's going to improve on his command each and every year."  While it's true that Gonzalez has improved his walk rate each year, the progress has been minimal.  Tossing out the 34-inning 2008 sample, Gonzalez has gone from 5.11  in '09 to 4.13 in '10 to 4.05 in '11.  He spent all of 2010-11 in a big league rotation and his walk rate was virtually the same.  He allowed the most walks in the AL in 2011 and tied for third-most in 2010.

Gonzalez did not show improvement as the 2011 season wore on; here are his walk rates by month:

  • April: 4.20
  • May: 3.90
  • June: 4.08
  • July: 4.50
  • August: 4.65
  • September: 3.29

Sometimes though, as Rizzo suggested, the league switch does the trick.  Working in the AL East for the Blue Jays from 2004-06, Ted Lilly was a consistent 4+ BB/9 lefty.  Upon moving to the Cubs in the NL, his walk rate immediately dropped under 3.0 and stayed there, and lately has been closer to 2.0.  ESPN's Keith Law believes Gonzalez is likely to maintain some value in Washington, "while leaving the club frustrated that he's not better."

Baseball HQ projects a very mild improvement for Gonzalez's move to the NL, with a 4.0 BB/9.  That'd lead to a 1.35 WHIP, but they still call for a 3.37 ERA.  If you think Gio can manage 3.5 BB/9, then his WHIP would at least drop below 1.30.

Over at Mock Draft Central, Gonzalez's average draft position is 109.55, meaning he's going in the 10th round of a 12-team mixed league on average.  His main asset is strikeouts, but you can get those from Brandon Beachy, Anibal Sanchez, and perhaps Cory Luebke, all drafted after Gonzalez.  The trio lacks Gonzalez's control issues, but only Sanchez can be counted on for innings.  Matt Garza goes a few picks before Gonzalez.  I'd rather have Garza, but only if he starts the season with an NL club.

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A Look At Danny Espinosa

We ranked the Nationals' Danny Espinosa 13th among second basemen recently, yet he's not being drafted inside the first 40 rounds.  Let's dive into the numbers on this potential sleeper.

Espinosa, a third-round pick in 2008, hit .268/.337/.464 in 542 plate appearances across Double and Triple-A in 2010 despite missing time with a hamstring injury.  He mashed 22 home runs and stole 25 bags, though he was caught 11 times.  He switched from shortstop to second base in August and got the call in September.  He played second base for the Nationals regularly that month, hitting .214/.277/.447 with six home runs and a couple of times caught stealing in 112 plate appearances. Espinosa had minor hand surgery in November but is expected to be fine for Spring Training.

Espinosa is penciled in as the Nationals' Opening Day second baseman for 2011, though Jerry Hairston Jr., Albert Gonzalez, and Alex Cora might be hanging around to step in if he falters.  Espinosa will probably bat toward the bottom of the order at least initially.

Baseball America says Espinosa projects as a "solid regular," a player with excellent bat speed and average foot speed.  They say he runs the bases well, though his caught stealing numbers don't back that up.  For him to be mixed league worthy in 2011, he needs to continue attempting steals at the pace he did in the minors (over 15% of the time once he reached first base).

Projection systems spit out something like .240-20-70-80-20 if he is to get 550 ABs.  In an MLB.com chat, Espinosa named his personal goals: 

I want to go out there and play every day. Personally, I want to play every single day and hit for a solid average. That's my biggest thing. I want to hit for a solid average and have a high on-base percentage.      

Obviously a strikeout-prone player can not simply will himself to a good batting average.  But the power/speed combo makes Espinosa a top 15 second baseman even with a .240 average.  If you can take the hit in that category, he's a good late-round pick as for your MI slot.  Espinosa is not alone as a low-AVG power/speed second baseman; the Rays' Sean Rodriguez provides a similar package but with more big league experience.

Jordan Zimmermann Worth Stashing?

Jordan Zimmermann had a strong rookie debut for the Nationals last year, whiffing more than a batter per inning with good control.  However he went down for Tommy John surgery on August 12th, 2009.  As he nears the end of his minor league rehab work, should mixed leaguers have him stashed?

Zimmermann's recovery has been on the short end of the typical period for Tommy John, but he's had no setbacks and the Nats have used him carefully.  He's already made nine rehab starts in the minors, though he's averaged fewer than four innings per game.  His numbers are strong, though I wouldn't mind a K/9 higher than the current 6.8.

Zimmermann's rehab plan calls for at least one more five-inning start at Triple A, according to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.  If that goes well, he could make his season debut August 25th against the Cubs.  Five starts from Zimmermann is appealing in any fantasy league, but there's a catch: Kilgore says he will throw a maximum of five innings per start.  That figures to limit his chances at wins.

Even with the inning limitation, I think Zimmermann is worth stashing in mixed leagues - unless you use quality starts as a category.  His SIERA last year was 3.37, and an ERA under 4.00 this year will probably help the back-end of your rotation for the season's final month.  Who knows, maybe the innings limitation will allow Zimmermann to go full blast moreso than usual.

Roger Bernadina A Sleeper?

Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina was definitely not on fantasy radars entering the season, but at this point he merits mixed league consideration.  Bernadina is hitting .291-5-23-15-6 in 158 at-bats and has been playing regularly.  Over a 550 at-bat season his work projects at .291-17-80-52-21.  The entire line reeks of small sample size, but you have to figure he'll pick up his runs scored pace.

ZiPS is not yet on board, predicting just a .259/.319/.367 line the rest of the way.  Strong work in 245 plate appearances between Triple A and the bigs so far has not been enough to change the projection model's mind.  Baseball Prospectus says Bernadina would have to play at his 90th percentile projection to slug .442.

Scouting-wise, Bernadina ranked just 22nd among Nationals prospects before the season.  They said he has "plus-plus speed and average raw power."  So it appears that his 20-steal speed is for real, but his 15-20 home run power is in question.  For what it's worth Bernadina slugged .434 in May and sits at .507 in June, with five home runs, seven doubles, and two triples within those 167 PAs.

Bottom line: grab Bernadina as a speed source who won't kill you in the other categories, and hope his mild power breakout holds up.

Scott Olsen Worth A Look

Scott Olsen was an interesting pick heading into 2007 fantasy drafts.  He was only 23, and was coming off a season in which he'd posted an 8.3 K/9.  Things went downhill from there, as his velocity started diving and he had labrum surgery in July of '09.

In 2010, Olsen has found his way back to fantasy relevancy.  Through six starts, his K/9 is back up to 7.6 per nine.  At 2.7 BB/9, he's flashing the best control of his career.  His 3.51 ERA is impressive considering he started the season with rough outings against tough offenses (the Phillies and Rockies).  Today in a post for The Hardball Times, Pat Andriola notes Olsen's increased slider usage.  At 26, Olsen is maturing as a pitcher.  It seems possible we could see a sub-4.00 ERA from here on out, plus a respectable amount of strikeouts.  Olsen has a signficant financial incentive to make as many starts as possible, as his contract pays $85K per.  You may want to skip his next start, as he's at Coors Field.  After that, though, he projects to face the Orioles, Giants, and Astros.

Olsen's not the only lefty waiver wire pickup with a quality K rate.  Ricky Romero, Tom Gorzelanny, Jon Niese, Jason Vargas, Clayton Richard, Brett Cecil, and Wade LeBlanc also fit the mold.

Monitoring Jordan Zimmermann

Nationals rookie Jordan Zimmermann is available in a lot of mixed leagues, as his ERA found its way to 6.35 after an ugly May 17th start against the Phillies. It was Zimmermann's fourth consecutive slow start.  But just when I'd completely counted him out, he put up a 7 inning, 1 ER, 7 K gem against the Orioles.  That's a team that hits righties pretty well.

Zimmermann's numbers so far:

41 innings
5.71 ERA
3.80 xFIP
1.41 WHIP
1.35 Expected WHIP
8.56 K/9
2.63 BB/9
3.25 K/BB
1.32 HR/9
19.7% HR/flyball rate
38.1% groundball rate
10.10 H/9
.351 BABIP vs. .324 team BABIP

So if Zimmermann had a 3.80 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with 39 Ks in 7 starts, would he be on any waiver wires?  Not many.  But it seems that that's what we should expect from here on out, especially as he gets acclimated to the Majors.  Zimmermann is stuck with the Nationals' defense, but his BABIP should still come down as should his HR/flyball rate.

Zimmermann starts against the Mets today, a team ranked 9th in the NL with a .737 OPS against righties.  While he's stuck dueling with Johan Santana, the Mets' depleted lineup won't have Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, or Carlos Delgado.  It looks like he'll get the Giants next time out, so I'm willing to give him a look in mixed leagues.  I just have to find the patience to stick with Zimmermann after his next lousy start.

A Look At Jordan Zimmermann

Nationals top prospect Jordan Zimmermann is having a flawless spring, and if he's decent over the next three weeks he'll probably begin the year in the big league rotation.  In mixed leagues, he's being drafted very late if at all.  It'd be an aggressive promotion since he hasn't pitched at Triple A, though Zimmermann did pitch in college.

Baseball America says Zimmermann projects as a solid #2 starter with four average or above-average pitches.  What do the numbers say?

ZiPS calls for a 4.81 ERA and 1.47 WHIP.  CHONE sees a 5.05 ERA and 1.55 WHIP.  And PECOTA says to expect a 4.54 ERA and 1.43 WHIP.  Clearly the projection systems don't think he's ready.  However, they're only working with about 100 innings of high minors data.

PECOTA is fairly optimistic in its 75th percentile forecast: a 4.07 ERA and 1.35 WHIP.  They expect solid strikeout and walk rates as a rookie.  Their best comparable for Zimmermann is Bobby Jones circa 1993.  Assuming they're referring to the one who debuted with the Mets that year, that's encouraging.  Jones did have Triple A experience in '93, but he hit the ground running as a rookie (3.65 ERA/1.35 WHIP) and was solid as a sophomore (3.15 ERA/1.33 WHIP).

If you look at Zimmermann from a purely statistical perspective, you wouldn't draft him this year in a mixed league.  But the risk is so low that I think he's worth a late pick.  His path to the Majors is clear, he's having a great spring, and the scouting reports are positive.

Team By Team - Washington Nationals

At the moment The Roto Authority will take a break from the constant trade rumors and identify some decent second half sleepers from the Washington Nationals.  This team has been a huge surprise in 2005, and even as they fall back down to Earth you may be able to pick out a few gems to help your fantasy baseball team.  Check out Capitol Punishment for good Nationals blogging.

Jose Guillen is leading Washington's offense, with a .302-19-58 line so far.  Guillen and Vinny Castilla have been skeptical about RFK Stadium's posted measurements, and with good reason.  Guillen might be looking at a 35-40 HR season in a more neutral ballpark.  Keep an eye on any stadium adjustments made - it's very possible that the team pulls in the fences.  If you act quickly, you might be able to snag Guillen for a career year 2006.

Nick Johnson looked to be having a breakout season, with a .443 OBP so far.  But with a .387 career OBP, Johnson has always been a patient hitter.  However, without steals, and with only moderate power and a long injury history, fantasy baseball owners have to avoid Johnson.  He's simply much more valuable in real baseball than in fantasy baseball.

Ryan Church is having a nice rookie season, but his injury history coupled with his lack of upside makes him a weak candidate for your outfield.  Take a flier on him as your fifth OF, but don't expect the world.  Remember, Church is a 26 year-old rookie.

John Patterson is having a monster year, but only has four wins to show for it.  If you can point to his supposed inability to win and steal him in a trade, do it immediately.  Don't be afraid to give up a Jim Edmonds type or more, as Patterson is a top 5 NL pitcher right now.

Esteban Loaiza isn't a hot commodity in most fantasy baseball leagues, but his 3.54 RFK-aided ERA goes a long way at the bottom of your rotation.  He won't let you down in the K department, either - expect a Doug Davis-like 175 Ks.   

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