One summer day during my not-particularly-misspent youth, bored out of my gourd, I scanned the bookshelves in our family room for the billionth time. My mom was a purchaser for a regional bookstore chain, which meant that for years, we'd been getting advance copies of novels and nonfiction books in power-stapled brown-cardboard wraps, most of which got thrown up into a series of bookshelves, never read but never discarded. (To my parents' eternal credit, there was something verboten about trashing books, even bad ones.) Unfortunately, this meant that a sizable swath of the Harris family library was a rogue's gallery of dim-bulbed "How To" guides, trashy Jackie Collins wannabes and the occasional turgid tome from Norman Mailer. I was a comic book and high-end sci-fi kid who'd exhausted his own reading material, but I'd seen all these titles, in the exact same order, for years. There was nothing new. It was dreck.
But there was one hardcover book, lodged between "Hearts Ablaze" and "A Pictorial History Of Skiing," over which I'd let my eyes run without comment a million times. I didn't know what the title meant, so I assumed it was more silly trash. Then, that fateful summer's day, I wondered just what the heck a "magus" was. This is how I found one of my favorite books, "The Magus" by John Fowles. By now, I've read it, like, seven times.
The admittedly roundabout point here is: Great stuff can come from even the most dubious of circumstances. Which leads me, quite naturally, to the Washington Nationals.
In their four years of existence, the Nats have been competitive exactly once, in their first season, in 2005, during which they went 81-81 (and still finished last in the National League East). Since then, they have maxed out at 73 wins, bottomed out at 2008's 59 and provided precious little in the way of excitement for D.C.-area fans or fantasy baseball players. Indeed, some of the more disastrous fantasy performances of the past half-decade have come from Washington; Ramon Ortiz in '06, Ryan Langerhans in '07 and Jason Bergmann in '08 are just the tips of the iceberg.
But there have been "Magus"-like nuggets, too. Different fantasy leagues evaluate stats differently, but by any measure, Ryan Zimmerman's .287 BA/20 HR/110 RBI/11 SB/84 R rookie campaign in '06 was a somewhat unforeseen fantasy boon. Felipe Lopez stole 21 bases the same season, after being traded from the Reds. Chad Cordero saved 29 with good peripherals. In '07, Dmitri Young was the NL's comeback player of the year, hitting .320. And in '08, Cristian Guzman came from practically nowhere to hit .316 and score 77 runs, while now-exiled Lastings Milledge stole 24 bases and hit 14 homers. Finding these guys and their respective solid fantasy seasons was like locating a silver dollar in the folds of an old recliner: free money.
So while others wax poetic about the ever-skyrocketing fantasy values of Albert Pujols and Jason Bay, let's you and I take a moment to ponder the Nationals, who seem destined for yet another irrelevant finish in the NL East. Is anyone on this roster worth speculating on, in hopes of a surprising (if perhaps temporary) ascendance to fantasy relevance? And for the few Nats who have performed well so far in '09, can we believe in their hot starts?
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B: Buoyed by his 30-game hitting streak, Zimmerman has been a top-10 fantasy hitter so far in 2009 and fantasy's second-most valuable third baseman, behind only Evan Longoria. Those who have benefited from Zimmerman's breakout after last season's frustration (he lost about 200 at-bats to a shoulder injury) are wondering whether this kind of production can last. I don't believe it will. I mean, obviously, we all probably can agree Zimmerman won't hit .353 for the season. But he also probably is not going to keep up a .383 batting average on balls in play, which is 15th-highest in the majors (and which doesn't compare favorably to his career .325 -- including this season). Zimmerman probably will reach 20 home runs and 100 RBIs, but his history says there's little reason to expect his final batting average to be above .300. To me, that makes him someone to deal. Verdict: Sell high.
Adam Dunn, OF: Every analysis of Dunn's '09 season to date will begin with some clever remark about how there's no way on earth his batting average will stay near .300, where it had hovered for most of the season's first six weeks, until a recent 5-for-33 stretch dropped him to .280. But is that a reason to give up on him? Zimmerman has 10 homers and 32 RBIs, but nothing in his past tells us he'll continue at a 1.016 OPS clip. Dunn has 12 homers and 33 RBIs, but he hasn't benefited from an overly lucky BABIP and has hit at least 40 homers with at least 92 RBIs every season since 2004. That means he likely has at least 28 dingers and 59 RBIs left in his bag of tricks, which I dare say could be more in both categories than Zimmerman will get you the rest of the way. You know the average will drop a bit more. But you drafted Dunn for this exact power pace. Verdict: Hold steady.
Nick Johnson, 1B: Johnson hasn't hit for power in '09 (four home runs) but is piloting along at a .338 clip. That's unrealistically high -- his BABIP is .393, even higher than Zimmerman's. Yet it's those 25 RBIs that have the fantasy world humming a bit; at this rate, Johnson would submit the first 100-RBI campaign of his career. As a result, while Johnson is still unowned in just less than 80 percent of ESPN.com leagues, his ownership is up 13.1 percent over the past week. The argument against Johnson is obvious: He's fragile. He's been hurt every season of his nine-year career, and it's almost always been a new body part. In a shallow league in which you have to give up on a very good player in order to add anyone, Johnson probably isn't worth the risk. But by the same token, if first-base options happen to be slim in your league, why not give an oft-injured player a go? After all, if you've been relying on, say, hip-impaired Carlos Delgado, what's the harm in adding Johnson and riding him right up to the point that he gets hurt, whereupon you can drop him and be right back where you started in the replacement process? Verdict: Qualified add.
Elijah Dukes, OF: Dukes has well-documented freakish athletic skill and upside but currently is on the disabled list with a hamstring pull he tried to play through but re-injured Sunday. He's made some fantasy waves this season by driving in 24 runs, but unfortunately, his baseball abilities haven't caught up with his speed -- he has two steals but has been caught stealing six times. In ESPN standard leagues, there's little reason to hang onto a guy with a history of leg injuries who currently has a leg injury. There are way too many outfielder fish in the sea. Verdict: Should be dropped in shallow leagues.
Shairon Martis, SP: Martis has been the only Nats pitcher you can argue has had a positive influence on 10-team mixed fantasy leagues so far in 2009. He's 5-0 with a 4.53 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP, which just about qualifies him for "ace" status in D.C. Considering he's owned in only 4 percent of ESPN.com leagues, we should evaluate him as a potential sleeper. Alas, Martis' underlying numbers are scary -- he has a 23-19 strikes-walks ratio through 47 2/3 innings and a .269 BABIP, and while he's a fly ball pitcher (42 percent of batted balls against him are fly balls), he's boasted a fortunately low 6.2 percent HR/FB. This isn't the stuff of a breakout candidate. I'd chalk those wins up as providential. Verdict: Leave him be.
John Lannan, SP: Entering '09, Lannan was the Nats' opening day starter and presumptive No. 1, but that really made him only the team's best-tasting Brussels sprout. Still essentially unowned in ESPN leagues, Lannan has been mediocre: 3.63 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 27-18 K-BB ratio in 52 innings. His positives include a very strong ground ball tendency -- 54 percent both in '08 and so far in '09 -- and the fact that as long as he's healthy, you know the Nationals will keep trotting him out there every five days. But he's just not dominant enough with the strikeout to be of much use in a 5x5 league, especially a shallow mixed one. He's not someone to be dabbling with on your fantasy team, either. Verdict: Leave him be.
Jordan Zimmermann, SP: Readers of my 60 Feet 6 Inches column this week already know what I think of the other Zimmermann. But I'll refresh. Despite some abysmal rookie numbers so far in '09 (6.35 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), he is the only pitcher on the Nats' staff I think will wind up being a positive influence on mixed league fantasy teams from this point forward. He has a 32-10 K-BB ratio in 34 innings and boasts an unlucky .354 BABIP, an abnormally low 60.8 percent strand rate and an abnormally high HR/FB rate of 14.7 percent. I want to see Zimmermann pitch well his next few times out, because the organization could worry that the rookie is getting scarred by his beatings and send him down. But I don't think it'll happen. If there's one guy we're going to look back on at the end of '09 and say, "Boy, I didn't see that coming," I think it'll be a post-All-Star-break Zimmermann. Verdict: Speculative add to an already-strong fantasy staff.
Finally, Nats players like Jesus Flores, Ron Villone, Anderson Hernandez, Austin Kearns and Josh Willingham, while relevant to varying extent in deeper or NL-only leagues, shouldn't be anywhere near your team right now in a standard ESPN league. But Ross Detwiler is a name worth watching; he's a prized lefty, the No. 6 overall pick from 2007 who threw well (six strikeouts, zero walks) in his major league start Monday against Pittsburgh. He is only 23 but has No. 2 starter stuff, and if things come together quickly, we might be discussing him in a month or so.
Christopher Harris is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.