Series 12 Preview: Cubs at Nationals

Harper

Cubs pitchers will have to throw with caution when facing Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The reigning NL East champions haven’t gotten unleashed quite yet, but there’s little doubt their combination of pitching and hitting, veterans and youth will carry them deep into this season. The problem so far has been the offense, which ranks toward the bottom of the league in run production, mixed with a high strikeout totals and a lack of baserunners. But there’s talent oozing through the organization after about a decade of effective drafting. GM Mike Rizzo has supplemented the core of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg with some great trades for Gio Gonzalez, Denard Span and late-inning bullpen arms. No matter the Nationals’ offensive situation, the Cubs will have to bring their cleanest A-game to the nation’s capital to deal with the all-around threat.

3.6 runs scored/game, 14th in the NL
Other-worldly talent Harper has slugged 10 homers in 33 games and has already shown he’ll be able to make adjustments at the big league level. But beyond his 1.013 OPS (on-base plus slugging), no other Nationals position player is clearing .800 right now. The problems with their top hitters haven’t been uniform either. Some haven’t been able to hit for average or power (Adam LaRoche, Zimmerman) while others bring the stick but won’t take a walk (Desmond, Jayson Werth). All four have the potential to do damage in the middle of the order. Center fielder Span gives the team a second speedster alongside Desmond, and Span’s able to play the field and take a walk. Second baseman Danny Espinosa is a black hole at the plate, but he’s a pretty terrific middle infielder. In the end, the lineup will only be able to get away with its current low-strikeout, high-walk mix once it starts hitting the ball with more authority.

3.8 runs allowed/game, 4th in the NL
Strasburg gets the headlines, but the entire Nats rotation is solid. Despite a 1-4 record, the power right-hander has fanned 44 batters in 44.1 innings and owns a 3.45 ERA. At least the Cubs will miss Zimmermann, who has established himself as one of the game’s most effective young pitchers. He only strikes out six batters per nine innings, but his control is outstanding. Left-handers Gonzalez—a Cy Young finalist last year and owner of a devastating low-3/4 curve—and Ross Detwiler round out the trio of young starters the Cubs will see this series. The bullpen is deep—that much is certain. Whether it’s a collection of good relievers or a mix of good and great is up for debate. Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Henry Rodriguez all have closed for the Nationals in the past. Soriano’s the one closing out games now, relying heavily on a low-90s fastball that has seen its velocity decline precipitously over the past couple of years. He pairs it with a slider that’s currently only being used when he’s ahead in the count. Meanwhile, Clippard brings an excellent right-handed change-up, Storen is a promising youngster with great stuff, and Rodriguez brings velocity but without any idea of where it’s going.

—Sean Ahmed

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