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Slumping Washington Nationals head to house of horrors

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After a disheartening three game sweep at the hands of the Marlins, the Nats head to Atlanta to face their nemesis. The Braves have made a lot of changes, so hopefully the Nats can beat up on Eric Stults and start changing their fortunes.

Freddie Freeman has destroyed the Nats in his career, batting .323/.376/.500 against them.
Freddie Freeman has destroyed the Nats in his career, batting .323/.376/.500 against them.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After being swept in Miami, the Washington Nationals have lost five straight games for the first time since July 2013.  They play seven more games on their current road trip and are still ten days from their next day off, so they're going to have to correct their current issues on the road.  Unfortunately, they now head to Turner Field to face a Braves team that has given them a lot of headaches over the past two seasons.  In the past two years, the Nats have gone 14-24 against Atlanta.  They're just 7-12 in Turner Field over that span.

On the positive side, this isn't the same Braves team that they've faced the past couple of seasons.  Their entire starting outfield from the past two seasons is gone.  Both Upton brothers are in San Diego.  Jason Heyward is in St. Louis.  Former Braves catcher Evan Gattis was traded to Houston in the offseason.  Their second base tandem of Dan Uggla (now a Nat) and Tommy LaStella (traded to Cubs) is gone.  Only Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, and 2013 BABIP king Chris Johnson are returning starters from last season.

The rotation is a little more familiar.  The Nats will see just one new face take the mound as a starter in this three game set.  I would say that facing a 35-year-old journeyman like Eric Stults (4.13 ERA in 651.2 IP) should be something to get excited about.  Then again, the Nats just scored a whopping four runs against the murderer's row of Mat Latos, Tom Koehler, and Dan Haren, so let's limit the expectations a bit.  The Nats will also draw Braves ace Julio Teheran on Tuesday and lefty Alex Wood on Wednesday.  Wood has thoroughly dominated the Nats in six starts over the past two seasons (1.49 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 44 K in 36.1 IP).  If the Nats don't get well against a junkballing lefty like Stults, this has the potential to feel even longer than the three game sweep in Miami.

Anyway, let's get down to the preview.......

Lineup

Nick Markakis RF
Andrelton Simmons SS
Freddie Freeman 1b
A.J. Pierzynski/Christian Bethancourt C
Jonny Gomes LF
Kelly Johnson/Chris Johnson 3b
Jace Peterson 2b
Eric Young Jr./Cameron Maybin CF

The top three don't figure to change at all during the series, but the Braves figure to mix and match a bit beyond Freeman.  Markakis is a pretty empty OBP bat who plays good defense, but doesn't hit for a lot of power or steal bases.  Simmons is a gold glover who is capable with the bat, but not a major threat.  Freddie Freeman is a terrific all-around first baseman who plays well against everyone and absolutely destroys the Nats (.323/.376/.500).  Pierzynski has started the season on fire and is stealing a little more time than expected from Bethancourt.  Pierzynski has a solid bat.  Bethancourt has a terrific glove.  If only Atlanta could find a way to have Bethancourt hit nearly as well as Pierzynski, they might have that catcher's spot figured out for a few years.

The rest of the lineup has a lot of holes and uncertainty.  Gomes is a platoon outfielder who is being forced into their lineup a bit too much....  Chris Johnson is fine when he's making regular sacrifices to the BABIP gods (he has been so far, with a .393 BABIP heading into Sunday's game), but he doesn't hit for enough power at third base...  Kelly Johnson has power, but has turned into a less extreme version of Dan Uggla.  He strikes out a lot.  While he draws his fair share of walks to make up for it, his OBP has still hovered at right about .300 the past four years because he hits for such a poor average....  Peterson, part of the Justin Upton return, has been a strong OBP guy with great speed in the minors, but he's dealt with some rookie struggles early on (.171/.239/.200).  Maybin was a big prospect seven or eight years ago, but has never panned out.  Eric Young Jr. is a burner who hasn't figured out a way to consistently steal first base in his career....

Rotation

This is clearly the best part of the Braves roster.  Julio Teheran has developed into one of the top young starters in baseball over the past two years, though he's not off to such a great start in 2015.  As I mentioned above, Alex Wood has owned the Nats the past two seasons, but he hasn't been so bad against everyone else either (2.90 ERA).  The Nats will miss Shelby Miller (3-0, 2.05 ERA, 1.09 WHIP), Atlanta's primary return in the Jason Heyward trade, so at least we can be thankful for that.  Trevor Cahill and Eric Stults are stopgaps until some of the young starters in their system are ready to replace them.  The Nats can beat up on a stopgap like Stults, right?  Right?????

Bullpen

The Atlanta bullpen became quite a bit less formidable when they traded Craig Kimbrel to the Padres just before the season began.  Jason Grilli was a terrific late-inning reliever for Pittsburgh from 2011-2013, but he struggled last season before losing his job and getting traded to Anaheim.  He's off to a strong start, having gone a perfect 7 for 7 in save opportunities while allowing just one run... Speaking of guys who fell apart in 2014, Jim Johnson is Atlanta's primary setup man.  Johnson had a 7.09 ERA between Oakland and Detroit last season after a nice run as the Orioles' closer in 2012 and 2013.  So far, he's looked a lot more like the guy getting constantly lit up last year than the reliable arm he was the previous two seasons.... Luis Avilan will see the bulk of the LOOGY situations.  He's coming off of a down year, but he's been strong so far in 2015 (2.25 ERA, 0.75 WHIP).  The rest of the Braves bullpen is pretty nondescript.  If the Nats can get into the bullpen, they should be able to do some damage.

What's an acceptable result in this series?

I'd love to see a sweep, but the Nats have to start getting well against teams that they're better than on paper even if they only take two out of three.  There's no reason that they shouldn't be able to do some damage against Eric Stults.  If they beat Stults and figure out a way to scratch out a win against either Teheran or Wood, that should hopefully get something started.  Things won't get any easier after the Atlanta series as they'll head to New York for a four game series with the Mets... with Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey lined up for the first two games of that series.

It's April 27.  Is it still early?  Yes... Still, Spring Training ended a month ago.  It's time for the to start playing some real baseball.  Be better Nats!