Every member of the Washington Nationals outfield faces some crucial questions this season. Can Bryce Harper put up MVP-caliber production? Will Jayson Werth continue to defy Father Time? Can Denard Span return to 2009 form in possibly the final year of his deal? All three players have substantial fantasy upside, and the benefit of playing on what should be one of the better teams in baseball this season. While Harper and Werth should still be effective fantasy assets even if they fail to live up to expectations, they could ruin fantasy teams based on how high they are being selected. Span comes with less risk, but the potential for great reward. The real question is, how likely is it that these players actually reach their lofty upsides?
It’s really a shame Jayson Werth didn’t pick up more MVP votes last season. On a Nationals teams full of offensive disappointments, he was the one player who exceeded expectations. Werth was particularly effective over the second half, posting a ridiculous .339/.432/.600 slash line over 273 plate appearances. The biggest reason for the second half surge was a change in Werth’s batting stance. Werth discovered he had been holding his hands too low. After the adjustment, he hit .365 the rest of the year.
There are two major questions about Werth’s ability to replicate his success. He’ll be 35 years old this season, which is typically an age where most players see their numbers fall off significantly. While Werth is known as a hard-worker, and takes great care of his body, it’s hard to get past his age. On top of that, Werth has had some issues staying healthy the past two years. He was limited to just 81 games in 2012, and played 129 in 2013. Prior to the past two seasons, he had three straight years with at least 150 games played, so it’s tough to know if his injuries were poor luck, or a sign he’s getting older. Werth is capable of putting up solid numbers again, but there’s plenty of risk here. He’s a great selection at the right price, but he’s not the type of guy fantasy owners should reach for.
Like Werth, Denard Span was another player who exploded over the second half. After struggling through the first half of the season, Span hit .302/.337/.413 over 272 plate appearances late in the year. The reason for his improvement was new Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu. Schu helped Span make an adjustment with his hands and shoulder, which wound up leading to a 29 game hitting streak. Even with that improvement, Span’s on-base percentage left something to be desired. Span complained last season that pitchers were going right at him, making it hard for him to take more pitches. As a result, he started being more aggressive at the plate in order to make pitchers pay. While he’s capable of posting a decent walk rate, it’s unclear whether he’ll get back to posting a .350 on-base percentage.
Nate McLouth might be overqualified for a fourth outfielder spot. Or, at least, he probably should get more playing time than he’s likely to receive with the Nationals. If McLouth could hit lefties, he would be a fantastic platoon partner for Span. Alas, that’s not the case. McLouth won’t hit for a high average, but can contribute plenty of steals, and occasional power. He’s probably not the type of player you want to depend on in a full-time role, but you could get by for a week or two going with him.
Bryce Harper enters 2014 healthy, and “as big as a house.” Harper’s reckless play led to a hip and knee injury, both of which seemed to bother the outfielder for most of the season. While hitting .274/.368/.486 wouldn’t be considered a disappointment for any other 20-year-old, Harper owners were probably slightly upset he didn’t completely explode with an MVP-caliber season. The good thing is, Harper was able to post those numbers while dealing with injuries that required offseason surgery. At age-21, the sky really is the limit for the young outfielder. Keep in mind, he was hitting .303/.400/.622 in 140 plate appearances before colliding with the wall in mid-May. A small sample, yes, but a sign at what he’s capable of if healthy. The biggest issue he faces is making an adjustment against left-handed pitchers. Harper hit just .214 against them last year. He hit 240 against lefties during his rookie season, so there’s room for improvement. Given his pedigree, it seems foolish to think he won’t figure out a way to eventually mash against same-handed hitting.
Scott Hairston would be the ideal platoon-mate for Span, but he no longer plays center. Hairston’s main asset at this point is his power against lefties. He’s not even a high average hitter against them, hitting just .214 last season. Still, it’s enough to get him occasional work. While the team will likely give Harper every opportunity in the world to figure out left-handed hitters, Hairston could see starts if the team starts to get concerned about Harper’s progress, or lack thereof, once the season is underway. As it currently stands, Hairston isn’t looking at a ton of playing time.
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