Cardinals at Nationals series preview 4/17-4/20

Stephen - Mike Ehrmann

The Cards travel to D.C. for four games against the Washington Nationals

The Starters

Mise-en-scene

The Nationals and Cardinals enter the series with identical 9-6 records. However, Nats fans are likely a little more concerned with their team's start than the record might indicate: Washington is 8-1 against the sub-par Mets and Marlins, and 1-5 against their real competition in the division, the Atlanta Braves.

On the other hand, they surely will take any kind of win they can get at the moment. The Nationals have dealt with several key injuries already this year. Key off-season acquisition Doug Fister is yet to throw a regular season pitch for his new team, but he's expected back fairly soon. He's set to head to extended spring training for a couple of tune-ups shortly. Rising catcher Wilson Ramos broke a bone in his hand and is out for another 4-6 weeks, CF Denard Span is due back within a few days from a stay on the 7-day concussion DL, and most importantly, All-Star 3B Ryan Zimmerman is out 4-6 weeks with a broken thumb sustained on a dive to the bag last week. Bryce Harper's quad has been giving him some trouble, but it doesn't sound like anything serious.

Given that all of these myriad maladies should heal relatively soon, expectations remain high in Washington. After their breakthrough performance in 2012, missing the playoffs in 2013 was a step back not many pundits foresaw. Once again, they showed up frequently on pre-season playoff picks, and it's easy to see why. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are a formidable trio of starters, and Doug Fister is set to make it a quartet. The lineup is deep, and it's not hard to imagine Harper's potential future as a perennial MVP candidate is drawing near.

The Cardinals are off to a good start, taking 2 of 3 in each series except their tough 1-2 series in Pittsburgh. With a big advantage in tonight's pitching match-up, a split in Washington looks very attainable and would be a good result.

Some things to watch (for)

New Washington skipper Matt Williams (yes, that Matt Williams) was an intense ballplayer. I expect he'll be an intense manager. If his gaze frightens you, watch this twice an hour until the sensation passes.

Tonight's starter, Taylor Jordan, is in a battle with Tanner Roark for who gets to stay in the rotation when Fister returns. Jordan has a four-seam, two-seam, slider, change-up arsenal, with the change being his best asset. He doesn't strike out a lot of guys, but his numbers in the minors point to excellent control.

I think Anthony Rendon is going to be a star if his health allows. His elite walk-rate from the minors hasn't shown up in the majors yet, but he's 4 years younger than the name I'm about to drop as a comp. Matt Carpenter. With a little more power. He's currently at 3rd with Danny Espinosa manning 2nd until Zimmerman's return. There will be some shifting around short-term when everyone is healthy (Rendon can play the keystone as well), but long-term expect Espinosa to be out or Zim to move to 1st.

So far this season, Bryce Harper has batted 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 7th. I don't know what this tells us other than Williams doesn't consider getting one of his best hitters extra PA's a priority. He hasn't hit lower than 4th since Zimmerman hit the DL, so we might miss out on the fun.

Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche are off to terrific starts. Ian Desmond has been kind of terrible thus far. It's mid-April.

Stephen Strasburg, famous for failing so far to be the the best pitcher in baseball like we were all promised, has managed to go 1-2 with a 6.00 ERA so far this year while striking out a full third of all batters he's faced. Only that K rate is within range of his career numbers. Things will get better, Stephen.

Speaking of Stephen, this entire series looks to have stellar pitching. Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn will look to build on their best starts of the season against Milwaukee.

Eric Fornataro and Jorge Rondon were just called up to reinforce the bullpen with Joe Kelly hitting the DL and Keith Butler sent packing. For some background on the two new relievers, read here and here. It appears likely that one will be sent back down prior to Monday's game against the Mets so that Tyler Lyons (read here!) can make a start in Joe Kelly's stead.

Who the hell is that?

That's Zach Walters! Oh boy, am I ever excited to tell you about Zach Walters. I remember digging around through minor league leaderboards during the dark baseball barren days of mid-January. The home-run section was mostly populated by guys way too old for their league and top prospects I had already read much about, so a 23-year-old shortstop with 29 homers in AAA who I'd never heard of caught my eye.

I clicked on Walters' name and saw an unusual profile. He only showed moderate power prior to last year's explosion, and like I said, shortstop! 29 taters! He switch-hits! He was clearly a legitimate out-of-nowhere power prospect. Did I mention he can play short?

I did some more reading and general internet scouring on Zach. I found some especially interesting tidbits in this Cistulli interview with the man, aptly entitled "Fangraphs Audio: Very Powerful Nats Prospect Zach Walters". Apparently, Davey Johnson sidled up to Walters during spring training 2012 in exactly the way that Davey Johnson might sidle and said "hey, uh," (I'm paraphrasing here) "you should try to hit more homeruns". And so he did.

Oh, and I guess I need to mention he had 134 K's against 20 BB's. So that's ugly. To be fair, he was working on a new approach and swing, and... well... 134/20 K/BB can't be excused away. But still, can I dream about Wilin Rosario playing short?

Anyway, Walters posted a .379 /.455 /.621 line this spring, including 4 BB's to just 8 K's. He was sent down anyhow, but he was called up 4 days ago when Ryan Zimmerman hit the DL. Get ready to hear a lot about him when he makes his appearances because in his 4 PA's of the season, he already did this and, more impressively, this.

Walters isn't going to be playing short now or anytime soon, but he has a little experience at 2nd and plenty of arm for 3rd. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a hot-hand start over Danny Espinosa sometime this series. We'll almost certainly see him pinch-hit. I'm looking forward to it.

Keys to the series
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