The Washington Nationals have been one of the most interesting - and frustrating - teams this season for fans of both fantasy baseball and the reality of baseball. With the traditional "second half" underway, let's take a look at some of their more surprising storylines and predict how things will play out over the final few months.
Eric Karabell on Bryce Harper
Few hitters offer the potential upside of Harper, which is why his current .214 batting average is such a drag. He was supposed to produce like a first-round fantasy talent. He has not. However, and we did get this reminder in the Home Run Derby, Harper can hit for great power. Despite the batting average, he could threaten his career best of 42 home runs. His low batting average is likely due to several factors known and unknown; defenses obviously shift him and Harper has not adjusted. He has also been one of the unlucky ones with a .226 BABIP. And then there is the pressure. Let's not pretend it does not exist. Just like Manny Machado, Harper is playing for a ridiculous new contract, either in Washington or elsewhere. Perhaps it is taking a toll on him.
I could see Harper hitting .214 all year. I could also see him hitting .314 from here on out. The power remains and perhaps he even decides to steal more bases. I no longer rank Harper among my top-10 fantasy options but he could easily return to such heights, which is the problem if one trades him away. I would neither buy nor sell. If you got him, hope for the best, because the best is eminently attainable. I will cautiously predict Harper hits .270 the final 10 weeks and keeps a pace for 40 blasts.
Tristan H. Cockcroft on Stephen Strasburg
Injuries have been a problem for nearly all of Strasburg's career, but in his defense, he has been remarkably resilient around his DL stints. Combining his first five starts following activation from the DL in what has been eight career stints, we get a sample of 32. (He didn't make it to five starts after three of those stints -- he was injured after three games in his first, after three in his third, after one in his seventh.) In those 32 post-DL stint appearances he posted 19 quality starts, a 2.02 ERA and 0.84 WHIP, with the main knock on his performance being a so-so 5.9 innings pitched per start average. Anyone who had him rostered last season remembers his most recent, and most impressive, rebound from a DL stint: He had seven quality starts in eight tries, a 0.84 ERA and 0.78 WHIP after his Aug. 19 activation.
Could Strasburg repeat those numbers? That might be asking a lot, but on a per-start basis throughout his career, he has pitched like a top-10 fantasy starting pitcher, so there's little reason to doubt him since he's healthy right now. I'd have a hard time ranking among that group, considering his injury risk -- which indeed is greater than that of most of the pitchers ranked in the upper tiers -- but he's not far from it.
AJ Mass on Daniel Murphy
After two seasons during which he hit a combined .334, averaging 45 doubles and 24 home runs, suddenly fantasy managers are looking at a .258 batting average and just five extra-base hits in 28 games so far this year asking the question, "What's wrong with Daniel Murphy?"
How soon people forget that Murphy had knee surgery in October and if you drafted him this spring, you knew he was not going to be available for some time. Once he did get into the Washington lineup on June 12, he was limited to first base and interleague DH-duties in order not to overtax himself and to get used to the physical wear-and-tear of everyday baseball. It wasn't until July when manager Dave Martinez felt confident enough to declare Murphy as his second baseman again.
Take away a very rusty return to the field (.103 in his first 29 at-bats) and Murphy has hit .328 since June 22. Defensively, he still looks out of sorts at the keystone, but fielding doesn't count for fantasy purposes. His hard-hit percentage is at a career-low 14.6 percent, and that's clearly a residual effect of the injury. However, that should definitely improve with time.
While I don't think he'll reach double-digits in home runs in 2018, he won't be too far off the mark and given his terrific 7.2 percent K-rate, his value in points leagues sits on the cusp of the top-50 hitters and just outside of the top-10 2B in the game. He's a middle-infield option with upside who should gain some offensive momentum going forward.
"A righty capable of mashing southpaws that has nice size, power potential and, at times, has flashed batting average to go along with a .900 OPS."
Most teams will employ a platoon system in which strengths and weaknesses of players at the same position fit together like a puzzle, allowing the team to maximize each individual's value. The Nationals, however, have two players who do the same thing, but only one first base to cover. I could add "has a late summer/early fall birthday" to the first sentence and you still wouldn't know if I was detailing Mark Reynolds or Ryan Zimmerman.
So who has the edge now that both are healthy? It's Zimmerman for me. Yes, the health concern is there, but in a risk/reward roster spot like this, I'm more of a believer in the floor/ceiling combination when he's on the field. For his career, Zimmerman has the higher hard hit percentage and the higher fly ball percentage, two stats that tend to forecast power upside. The other part of power is actually making contact, and despite a higher career chase rate, Zimmerman's swing-and-miss rate is roughly half of Reynolds'.
For me, that indicates that, when healthy, Reynolds is the more likely of the two to slump in a big way (a 5-for-45 June with 20 strikeouts being an example of what I'm talking about). Subtract Reynolds' massive series against Miami and you're looking at a 600-at-bat pace of fewer than 80 runs and 80 RBI with a .243 batting average ... his projection moving forward isn't nearly as optimistic as a quick glance at the 2018 batting line may suggest.