Nearly every member of the Washington Nationals’ infield produced at least 4 WAR last season. Well, aside from catcher, where Wilson Ramos missed most of the year with a knee injury. Ramos is healthy now, and the rest of the strong infield from last season is back. Both Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche emerged as breakout fantasy options last season, while Ryan Zimmerman regained his form in the second half and Danny Espinosa nearly went 20-20. With the infield only getting stronger now that Ramos is back, every National will remain a valuable asset in most leagues.
Reports about Wilson Ramos’ progress have all been positive this spring, and it seems like he’ll be ready for the start of the season. Ramos provided surprisingly solid numbers as a 23-year-old rookie, placing him among some elite talent at the catching position. Ramos’ .335 wOBA from that season lists him in between Craig Biggio and Ivan Rodriguez. Other catching greats are bunched near Ramos, so there’s a legitimate chance he eventually turns into a really great player. Problem is, there’s a fair amount of catching depth this year. Based on how you feel about Jesus Montero, Salvador Perez and Jonathan Lucroy, Ramos might not even rate among the top-12 at his position to start the season. He’s certainly worth keeping an eye on, and should be drafted in larger leagues. For now, it depends on whether you like his upside over that group of players.
Kurt Suzuki should back up Ramos, and could receive a fair amount of playing time early in the season if Ramos isn’t ready for a full-time workload. He hasn’t hit for a decent average in the last three seasons, and his power took a dive in 2012. He’s not a candidate to be drafted in mixed leagues.
Adam LaRoche had the second-best year of his career at age-32. He hit .271/.343/.510 with a career-high 33 home runs in 647 plate appearances. Given his age and his previous performance, he’s probably not all that likely to reach those heights again. LaRoche is currently going really late in drafts, where he could potentially be a steal, but there are just far too many great options at the position to consider reaching for him. He had the second-biggest HR/FB rate of his career last season, so the home runs seem likely to decrease as well. Expect between 22 and 25, not 30+.
Tyler Moore will backup LaRoche at first, and should see some time in left field. He’s also the likely DH when the team plays an American League opponent. Moore had some great offensive minor-league seasons, but has always been a little old for his leagues. There’s a chance he would hit for pretty decent power in a full-time role, but his average would be fairly low based on his 26.9% strikeout rate.
Strikeouts have become a big problem for Danny Espinosa. The 26-year-old led the National League with a 28.7% strikeout rate last season, but managed to “improve” his average to .247. Espinosa had high strikeout rates throughout the minors, so this isn’t a problem that will likely go away with more experience. He’ll eventually go 20-20 one year, but will hurt you in average and won’t bat very high in the Nationals’ order. He’s a cheap source of both speed and power, and plays a fairly shallow position, so he’s being selected near the end of most mixed league drafts. He’s not a terrible gamble if you missed out on a second baseman early.
The ultimate utility-man, Steve Lombardozzi should see time at second, third, short and in left field this season. He’s a high contact, low-power hitter who doesn’t like to take walks. While he could hit for decent averages, he probably wouldn’t contribute enough in other areas to make a dent as a full-time player.
Ian Desmond proved a lot of doubters wrong last season. The 27-year-old hit .292/.335/.511, and clubbed 25 bombs. The power outburst was particularly impressive considering Desmond had hit just eight the previous season. While he’s unlikely to repeat that performance, Desmond did show some signs that he has added power. He started using the entire field field last season, and displayed power to both center and right field, something he didn’t do much in previous years. As Mike Podhorzer pointed out in November, Desmond distance on fly balls and home runs increased, and he hit for more doubles last year. All of those factors point to Desmond hitting for a decent amount of power again, but it’s tough to expect 25 home runs. He’s not in the elite tier just yet, but is going shortly after the first batch of shortstops.
A shoulder injury hindered Ryan Zimmerman throughout the first few months of the season. Just when it looked like he was bound for the DL for a second time, Zimmerman decided that a series of cortisone shots was worth a try. It worked wonders, as Zimmerman tore the cover off the ball over the second half. He hit 20 of his 25 home runs from July to September. Despite the early shoulder issues, Zimmerman still managed to play in 145 games last year. He’s developed a bit of an injury-prone tag over the past few seasons, but has only played in fewer than 142 games just twice since becoming a full-time starter. He’s more likely to suffer a minor injury, go on the DL for a short stint and only miss about 20 games.
Third base prospect Anthony Rendon needs to be discussed here, even if there’s currently no spot for him in the Nationals’ infield. Rendon may have been the top overall player selected in the 2011 draft had it not been for a shoulder issue, which limited his production leading up to the draft. Rendon could move fast, but needs to stay healthy, something he wasn’t able to do last season. There are some people who see Espinosa as the team’s weakest infielder, and suggest Rendon could move over to second, but that seems unlikely given the Nationals haven’t even tried him there yet. He could be used as an injury fill-in if Zimmerman goes down, and would likely be a waiver-wire flyer if he ends up in a full-time role.
Nearly every player in the Nationals’ infield should have value this season. While Desmond and Zimmerman are the two early-round picks, LaRoche, Ramos and Espinosa can provide value as late sleepers. The team should have one of the better lineups in baseball, allowing their guys plenty of opportunities to rack up stats in fantasy leagues. Owners need to be aware of every infield starter on the team.