Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2012 [Print without images]

Thursday, January 17, 2013
Nats shake up fantasy landscape

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

The Washington Nationals are all-in for 2013.

In a nine-day span, the Nationals have maneuvered the chess pieces of their roster to fill their few glaring weaknesses, and by doing so they have impacted the fantasy values of as many as 12 different players in three different cities.

The chain of events began with the Jan. 8 re-signing of first baseman Adam LaRoche. After a 2011 season ruined by surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, he returned to form last season as a .271-33-100 slugger -- those stats awfully close to his per-162-games career averages of .268-27-93. The No. 12 first baseman on the 2012 Player Rater, LaRoche should again be a quality mixed-league corner infielder or NL-only first baseman, the only potential change in his 2013 numbers being a drop in his 16.5 home run/fly ball percentage. In other words, think a repeat of everything except the homers, which might be closer to that annual average of 27.

Then, on Wednesday, came the surprise report that the Nationals had signed free-agent closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract, the team adding to an already strong stable of relievers albeit one without ninth-inning clarity. Soriano's deal reportedly includes a vesting option for 2015 that exercises if he tallies at least 120 games finished combined in 2013-14.

Rafael Soriano
Rafael Soriano saved 42 games for the Yankees last season after Mariano Rivera went down with a knee injury.

Between the vesting option, the $14 million average annual salary that now ranks the highest of any relief pitcher in baseball, and the fact that the Nationals will surrender their first-round pick in June's amateur draft to the New York Yankees, who made Soriano a qualifying offer, it's a safe bet that Soriano will close for the 2013 Nationals. Washington fans who recall Drew Storen's ugly blown save in Game 5 of last October's National League Division Series might agree with such a decision.

Now under contract, Soriano's value, which threatened to drop with each passing week as teams made alternate closer plans, returns to close to what it was in 2012, when he was the No. 10 relief pitcher on our Player Rater. From May 3, the day Mariano Rivera tore his ACL and was lost for the season, through year's end, Soriano's 42 saves were second-most in the game and his 2.26 ERA and 1.06 WHIP both ranked in the top 20 percent of qualified relievers. Remember, too, that Soriano's home ballpark -- Yankee Stadium -- isn't especially friendly to fly-ball pitchers with weaknesses against left-handed hitters; he has allowed a lifetime OPS to that side almost 200 points higher than to righties (.705 to .509).

Freed of Yankee Stadium's homer-friendly confines, Soriano might make a case for top-5 fantasy closer status. The primary reason he's now only 11th in my rankings is that the Nationals have competition for his role. Statistically speaking, consider that he had a 4.31 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 57 games at Yankee Stadium during his two years in pinstripes, his 2.45 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 126 road games the past four seasons combined much better indicators of his true value.

The fantasy values of both Storen and Tyler Clippard, who shared the ninth inning for the Nationals last season, plummet as a result. Neither really did anything to warrant the demotion, but a bullpen that has both ready to be deployed in the seventh and eighth innings on any given night is a stronger one. Storen managed a 2.79 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 6.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21 appearances from Sept. 1 forward, playoffs included, meaning he'll still have NL-only appeal, not to mention he is the natural handcuff to Soriano, who has four DL stints for elbow issues the past five seasons combined on his resume.

Clippard, meanwhile, struggled to the tune of a 7.16 ERA and 1.59 WHIP after Sept. 1, playoffs included, but could also be an attractive NL-only ratio helper. Manager Davey Johnson said last spring that he preferred to deploy Clippard in a setup role, which hints that he's the natural No. 3 man in the Nationals' bullpen pecking order. Storen drops to 34th in my relief pitcher rankings following Soriano's signing, while Clippard drops to 38th.

Michael Morse
Michael Morse hit .291 with 18 homers and 62 RBIs last season but his role with the Washington Nationals heading into 2013 was up in the air.

Finally, with LaRoche re-signed to man first base and Denard Span added to complete the Nationals' outfield, Michael Morse was traded on Wednesday as had been heavily rumored for the past week. In a three-team deal Wednesday night, Morse returned to the team with which he made his major league debut in 2005, the Seattle Mariners, with catcher John Jaso shipped to the Oakland Athletics and prospects sent back the Nationals' way.

Morse gives the Mariners yet another designated hitter type -- they've also added similar such candidates as Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez this winter -- and that creates a logjam at DH, first base and in the corner outfield spots. The most likely resolution has Morse getting the bulk of his time in left field, Morales at DH and Ibanez in right field, though much of that depends upon the Mariners' future plans with disappointing first baseman Justin Smoak.

Back in Seattle, Morse's power might be somewhat neutralized by the move to spacious Safeco Field, and his run production (runs and RBIs for our purposes) will suffer as a result of joining a weaker lineup. His critics might cite his .309/.382/.441 rates and 50.7 at-bats per home run averages in 58 games at Safeco during his Mariners career, but keep in mind those were all accrued pre-2010, when his power began capturing our attention, and they came in a tiny sample size of 173 plate appearances. More relevant is the fact that, from 2010-12 combined, Mariners right-handed hitters managed a 5.1 home run/fly ball percentage at Safeco and their opponents 8.0 percent there; Nationals right-handers had a 10.9 percentage at Nationals Park and their opponents 8.6 percent during that same time.

Morse finished his Nationals career with an 18.6 at-bats per home run ratio and 19.9 home run/fly ball percentage, so expect a decline in those rates as a result of the move. With the fences coming in slightly at Safeco, Morse might be more of a 25- than 30-homer candidate granted a full season's at-bats, but that'll result in fewer RBIs, and his low walk total will result in fewer runs in the Mariners' lineup. His fantasy value drops by a couple rounds in the middle of mixed-league drafts; he's now my No. 145 player overall.

Jesus Montero -- a player not involved in any of the past week's transactions -- might be the most intriguing name impacted by the Morse trade. Montero is now the only catcher on the Mariners' 40-man roster, their non-roster invitees being unproven names John Hicks, Jesus Sucre and Mike Zunino, and this could signal the Mariners' interest in making the sophomore their full-time catcher. Here's a curious fact regarding that: Montero was a considerably better hitter when he was catching rather than serving as DH, his splits at both spots listed below.

Catcher: 230 PAs, .310/.343/.498
DH: 320 PAs, .227/.266/.310

Jesus Montero
Jesus Montero may end up playing a lot more catcher in 2013 with the Mariners collecting lots of DH types.

If Montero is one of those players who tend to be more focused offensively when he's playing a field position, consider Wednesday's trade a positive. Safeco's outfield dimension changes also benefit him at least as much as anyone on the Mariners' roster, so a compelling case could be made for him as a top-10 fantasy catcher.

Smoak, whose .654 OPS last season was the worst of any qualified first baseman since the 1994 strike, now faces an uphill battle in his quest for at-bats, and he might scarcely warrant AL-only consideration now. Morales is a superior hitter and integral to the Mariners scoring runs, and Ibanez's best spot is DH considering his weak defense. This team might have to go with Montero at catcher, Morales at first, Morse in left and Ibanez at DH nearly every night, otherwise they risk having a brutal defense that could threaten the entire pitching staff's ERA/WHIP.

Jaso is a curious pickup for the Athletics, who until Wednesday appeared ready to entrust sophomore Derek Norris with their regular catcher duties. Though a mediocre defensive catcher, Jaso is a brilliant on-base specialist with an obvious platoon-role split, meaning the Athletics might go straight righty/lefty with the two. Consider that, in the past three seasons combined, Jaso's 1.11:1 walk-to-strikeout ratio is tops among hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances. His career OPS against right-handers, however, is 284 points higher than against lefties (.793-.509).

With the trade, Jaso improves to my No. 22 catcher, while Norris drops out of my top 30 at the position. And if you're looking for an uber-deep sleeper in a singular (AL- or NL-only) league, keep close tabs on what the Athletics do with George Kottaras, previously their backup, but designated for assignment following the trade. Kottaras has underrated pop -- he has .200 isolated power and a 21.5 at-bat per homer ratio the past three seasons combined -- and he could be an intriguing pickup for another catcher-needy team. Consider the possibility he lands with, say, the New York Yankees, whose catchers rank among the game's worst?

The Nationals, meanwhile, reacquired pitching prospects A.J. Cole, whom they traded to the Athletics in the December 2011 Gio Gonzalez deal, and Blake Treinen, along with a player to be named later. Cole's prospect stock plummeted following his 7.82-ERA, 1.84-WHIP performance in eight starts in high Class A last summer, though a 2.07 ERA and 1.01 WHIP following his demotion to low Class A, plus the fact that he's just 21 years old, gives him some hope in a few years. Treinen has an impressive 4.13 K's-per-walk ratio during his two-year pro career, though a 4.37 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 24 games in high Class A last summer keep him off the top prospect lists. Neither is draft-worthy in 2013.