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Series Preview #8: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Washington Nationals

They say not to judge a book by its cover.  But this book has a really terrible cover.
They say not to judge a book by its cover. But this book has a really terrible cover.

The history of the Washington Nationals franchise since moving from Montreal in 2005 has been filled with exciting--oh, who am I kidding? The Washington Nationals and their fans have seen the most boring seven seasons of baseball imaginable. Before 2010, the most exciting young pitcher Washington had in franchise history was probably John Lannan. And their most exciting position player outside of Ryan Zimmerman? Uh, Ian Desmond, maybe? Maybe Nick Johnson, before he broke everything? Otherwise, the Washington Nationals' Baseball Reference "Franchise Encyclopedia" page is a purgatory of interchangeable veteran role players, from Esteban Loaiza and Jose Vidro in 2005, right up to Chien-Ming Wang and Laynce Nix in 2011.

That's all in the past now, however. Now, they have Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who you already know about, because they are two of the most hyped prospects in the history of the game. And they have young talent to complement their phenoms up and down the roster. The Nationals' injury-free starting lineup features exactly one player over 30: center fielder Rick Ankiel. The rotation--which has an FIP of 2.25 in 2012, by the way--contains no one older than 28. Baseball is a game that thrives on anticipation and potential, and by that standard, the Washington Nationals are the most exciting team in baseball. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Jim Riggleman.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 94 75
Pitching (FIP-):
106 69
Fielding (UZR):
10.1 -1.1

This should function as your reminder that not only is Washington likely to be good in the future, they're also pretty good right now. The Nationals' 14-8 mark has them tied for the second-best record in the entire National League, and that's after a four-game skid. The offense has scuffled to open the season but their pitching has more than made up for it so far, with a team ERA of 2.33. As a team, the Nationals have allowed only six home runs this year, which is half the amount allowed by the next-best staff and one-fourth of the total the Diamondbacks have allowed this year.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Willie Bloomquist, SS
2. Gerardo Parra, CF
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Jason Kubel, LF
5. Miguel Montero, C
6. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
7. Aaron Hill, 2B
8. Ryan Roberts, 3B

Washington Nationals

1. Ian Desmond, SS
2. Steve Lomardozzi, 3B
3. Jayson Werth, RF
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Rick Ankiel, CF
6. Danny Espinosa, 2B
7. Bryce Harper, LF
8. Wilson Ramos, C

Yeah, yeah, I know, why do I have Goldschmidt in the starting lineup when Gibby has shown almost no inclination to play him consistently? I guess I just like to think the best of people.

Of course, all eyes will be on The Man, The Myth, The Haircut: Bryce Harper. It's utterly impossible to glean anything useful from 8 plate appearances, but I think it's fair to say that he hasn't been overwhelmed so far. Of course it's important to remember that he's 19. If he were in college, he'd be a freshman. He's not in college; he's in the majors. Bryce Harper just made me feel old.

I vaguely remember Ian Desmond being a solid prospect before getting called up, and he flashed enough power in a minor-league call up to make the Nationals think they had a shortstop of the future. That was 2009. Now he's 26 and has a career OPS of .688 in 1400 major league PAs. However, Ian Desmond does lead all of MLB in vaguely British-sounding first names, with two.

Ryan Zimmerman is out with an injury (again), and will be replaced by Steve Lomardozzi, who has been more or less replacement-level for 73 largely forgettable Plate Appearances in his major-league career. It's still early, but Jayson Werth has looked much better so far this year, with an OPS+ of 125. If he keeps this up, that famous contract he signed could end up being just a little bit of an overpay, rather than the franchise-crippling overpay it looked like last year. Progress!

Adam LaRoche is only here because Mike Morse, last year's breakout star at first base for the Nats, has been out since Spring Training. He's made the most of it though, leading the team with an OPS of .964 so far. I have to wonder if Nats fans have warmed up to him yet. Rick Ankiel's still around, providing the same slightly below-average offense he has since converting from a pitcher, although he still occasionally does things like this that make you reminisce. Espinosa and Flores are both struggling a bit compared to their numbers last year, but both are young and should get things turned around soon enough.

Pitching Matchups:

Tuesday: Trevor Cahill (1-2, 3.70) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 1.33)

Insightful Commentary: Truthfully, Cahill has been pretty much what we were supposed to get in the trade, a sinkerballer who is dominant when his sinker is working and incredibly hittable when it isn't. He's had two good starts, and two less-than-stellar starts, which all balances out into a pretty decent mid-rotation starter. He had an ERA of 3.91 in the AL, and I could see him finishing the year right around where he is now: with an ERA of 3.7.

Zimmermann threw 91 tantalizing innings in 2009 before getting injured and having to battle through a difficult 2010. He's been lights-out ever since, however. His strikeouts are down, but he has pinpoint accuracy (BB/9: 0.67 after being 1.73 in '11) and is able to keep the ball in the ballpark. His fastball sits in the low to mid 90s, so it seems like he should get more strikeouts than he has in the last couple of seasons. If he's able to accomplish that, he'll be an ace.

Wednesday: Joe Saunders (2-1, 0.90) vs. Edwin Jackson (1-1, 3.16)

Insightful Commenatary: In a young season where plenty of things have gone wrong for the Diamondbacks, it's nice to see someone like Saunders just go inexplicably right. He leads all of baseball in ERA, and it isn't a complete fluke, since he has an FIP of under 3 as well. Will it continue? No, but let's enjoy it while it lasts. Also, check out Jim's far longer and more thorough piece on Saunders.

Danys Baez, Matt Joyce, Max Scherzer, Colby Rasmus, Daniel Hudson, Trevor Miller. You could build a decent team around players that have been traded for Edwin Jackson over the years. He's been impressively durable, he throws hard and has solid secondary offerings, and he's amazingly still only 28. He also has a career ERA of 4.31. But every single team that picks him thinks that they and they alone have the secret to unlocking his hidden potential. And so, people keep trading away valuable pieces to get him. It's refreshing to know that people can still be so dumb.

Thursday: Ian Kennedy (3-0, 3.38) vs. Ross Detwiler (2-1, 1.64)

Insightful Commentary: I realized after Kennedy's start against the Marlins that I was mad. I was mad that the bullpen had blown the game (a game where Kennedy didn't even have his best stuff) and left him with just a no-decision rather than a win. Then, I thought about the larger picture, where Kennedy has lost all of one game since last year's All Star Break, and decided I should probably let this one go.

Detwiler has never pitched more than 75 innings in a season in the majors, so it's a bit hard to get a handle on him. He had an ERA of 3 last year, despite an FIP of 4.21, so smart money was on his numbers to change this year. And they have, just not in the direction you'd expect. He's been striking out far more batters this year, and as a result his ERA is down even further. Now, he has a BABIP of .233, so this silliness won't continue for long, but the uptick in his strikeout rate means that he should remain a decent starter.

Final Verdict: The Nationals have played well this year, and they should have the intangible benefits that go along with Harper playing his first games in front of a home crowd. However, the team has been scuffling of late, and the Diamondbacks just finished probably their best series of the season on the road in Miami. I'll say the D-Backs crash the Bryce Harper welcoming party and take the series two games to one.

Head over to Federal Baseball to see what Nats fans think.

(Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.)