- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Four members of the Washington Nationals' offense are owned in 100 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues, and underrated first baseman Adam LaRoche isn't far from that at 88 percent. Second baseman Danny Espinosa has been hot of late and is starting to be added in more leagues as well, which gives the National League East leaders a pretty strong offensive base in helping fantasy owners despite the fact that this is hardly a prominent run-scoring team (22nd in runs scored).
The Nationals are scheduled to get another key member of the offense back in the coming weeks, providing yet another option for fantasy owners. Say what you will about how disappointing outfielder Jayson Werth was in 2011 -- those who made him a top-50 option on draft day probably have -- but the bearded wonder has all-around skills that entice the statistical community. When he comes off the disabled list soon after missing months for a broken wrist, he is going to matter.
Werth certainly isn't worthless. A ninth-round selection in ESPN average live drafts (22nd among outfielders), he remains owned in 29.6 percent of ESPN standard leagues. That's up a bit over the past week because owners are looking for a late push, and adding him after he homers or steals a base will likely be too late.
At the time of his injury, suffered while diving for a fly ball in right field in a Sunday night game on ESPN, Werth was hitting .276 with three home runs and three stolen bases. While 27 games is a small sample, Werth's walk rate was up and his strikeout rate considerably down. I had been expecting bounce-back numbers anyway, another 20-homer, 20-steal campaign but with a better batting average than in his Nationals debut (when he hit .232). Werth still provided 20 home runs and 19 steals that year.
Wrist injuries tend to sap power, which will certainly be a concern for Werth, who will need a rehab assignment to get his timing back at the plate. According to Amanda Comak of the Washington Times, the Nationals aren't particularly concerned with reinjury and manager Davey Johnson speculates Werth is two or three weeks from returning.
But here's another angle: Werth's return sends scrappy Stephen Lombardozzi to the bench. He has been leading off but doing a poor job in the role, with a .290 on-base percentage over 130 at-bats. He doesn't possess power, he hasn't been stealing bases, and he's not an outfielder, but rather a second baseman. Shortstop Ian Desmond has proven to be less than ideal for OBP as well. Espinosa should be hitting seventh, ahead of the team's catcher only.
So how about Werth as the leadoff hitter? He takes walks, gets on base and has the speed to steal and take extra bases. Nationals' leadoff options have posted a cumulative .302 OBP this season. Most of Werth's at-bats came in the No. 5 lineup spot, but the heart of the lineup shouldn't be tinkered with, as Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, LaRoche and Desmond have been handling things from Nos. 2-6 quite capably. Bat Werth first! It's the right thing to do!
Regardless of how the Nationals react, fantasy owners should make room on their bench. No matter which outfield spot Werth settles into -- Harper can play center field -- he is a major upgrade on what the team has now. Perhaps he is a major upgrade on what your fantasy team has as well.
Eric Karabell examines Jayson Werth's status and upside from a fantasy perspective.