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Washington Nationals aces will face tough test in desert

The Washington Nationals start a seven game trip out west against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday. Arizona may have finished with the worst record in baseball last season, but they've scored the fourth most runs in the National League so far in 2015.

Paul Goldschmidt is the player that everybody knows, but A.J. Pollock is the centerpiece of a terrific young outfield that complements Goldy in the lineup.
Paul Goldschmidt is the player that everybody knows, but A.J. Pollock is the centerpiece of a terrific young outfield that complements Goldy in the lineup.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After completing a three game sweep of the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, the Washington Nationals will head across the country to begin a series with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Coming off of a 2014 campaign in which Arizona finished with the worst record in baseball, the perception is that this is a team with some pretty significant holes on the roster.  While it's true that the Diamondbacks aren't built to contend in 2015, their lineup should be tough... particularly in a hitter's haven like Chase Field.

Make someone other than Paul Goldschmidt beat you?

Part of the reason that Arizona finished with the worst record in the league last season is that their star first baseman missed the final two months with a fractured hand.  Arizona's miserable start to the 2014 campaign (9-22 in March/April) didn't help matters much, but the Diamondbacks went just 16-37 in August and September without their top player.  In May, June, and July last season, Arizona was actually a .500 team (39-39).  Of course, when you remove a .300/.396/.542 hitter (155 wRC+) from the lineup for those final two months, it would be expected that they'd struggle a bit.

In past series previews, I've talked about how the Nats should make someone other than Giancarlo Stanton beat them.  I've brought up how performing better against left-handed hitters was the key to beating the Braves this past weekend, but Freddie Freeman was the biggest concern.  Goldschmidt is right there with those two NL East rivals' top hitters.  In fact, since his first full season in 2012, he's been better than them offensively.

Goldy is that rare offensive player who can carry his team's offense on his back for prolonged stretches.  He strikes out quite a bit.  Other than that, there are no weaknesses to his game.

  • He can hit for average.  Goldschmidt has a .295 career average and has finished over .300 in each of the past two years
  • He has immense power, with 64 HR in 299 games since the beginning of 2013.  His .237 ISO since his first full season ranks 11th in baseball and his .536 slugging ranks 6th
  • Goldschmidt will counter his high strikeout rate by taking his walks.  His 12.7% walk rate since his first full season ranks 14th in MLB.  He's had a walk rate of 13.4% or higher in each of the past three years
  • For a first baseman, he's got a pretty decent glove.  His 18 DRS ranks fifth among first basemen since he came into the league
  • He even runs!  Goldschmidt has stolen 48 bases since 2012.  This figure leads all first basemen by 15 (Eric Hosmer, 33) and more than doubles the player who ranks third (Edwin Encarnacion, 23).  What's more, he's actually good with his success rate (52 for 66 career) and has provided 9.9 BsR above average in his career.  He's 6 for 7 so far in 2015.

Goldschmidt might be the best hitter in the National League right now.  His 190 wRC+ so far this season ranks second to Adrian Gonzalez, just a hair better than Bryce Harper.  He's a .300/.400/.550 guy who will pose a threat every time he steps into the batter's box.  Should the Nats be extremely careful against him?  Absolutely.  Do the Diamondbacks have more lineup support for him than the Braves do around Freeman or the Marlins do around Stanton?  They might......

Goldy's support system

I wouldn't call the Diamondbacks' lineup around Goldschmidt deep, but they do have some talented players around him in the lineup.  The most notable of these players form the Arizona outfield.....

A.J. Pollock emerged as an above average regular as the Diamondbacks' starting center fielder in 2013, batting .269/.322/.409 with 8 HR and 12 SB to go along with stellar CF defense.  He was on his way to an even bigger breakout last season before breaking his hand in May.  The injury cost him three months, but Pollock still had an outstanding year, batting .302/.353/.498 with 7 HR and 14 SB.  His 3.3 fWAR in just 75 games put him just outside of the top ten among CF.  We can't assume that he would have maintained that pace for another 75 games, but if he had, he would have been the fourth best center fielder in baseball last season, behind Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, and Michael Brantley (ahead of Carlos Gomez, Adam Jones, Yasiel Puig, and yes... Denard Span).  Pollock has picked up in 2015 where he left off last season.  He currently sports a .306/.361/.432 line.

My favorite of the Diamondbacks outfielders is David Peralta.  He's just the kind of guy that's hard not to root for.  The 27-year-old Venezuelan was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals as a 16-year-old in 2004.... as a starting pitcher!  Peralta didn't have a lot of success pitching in the Cardinals' system, managing a 5.69 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in two seasons at rookie ball.  The Cardinals released him in 2009 after those disappointing campaigns in rookie ball and a couple of shoulder surgeries.  What did Peralta decide to do?  He went back to Venezuela and reinvented himself as a position player!  A few years later, Peralta found himself back in North America playing Independent League baseball.  Diamondbacks scout Chris Carminucci saw something in him and convinced Arizona to give him a shot in 2013.  When injuries to Pollock and Mark Trumbo hit in 2014, Peralta made the jump from AA to the majors.  All he did from there was hit .286/.320/.450 with 8 HR and 6 SB in 88 games with the big league club.  He's done a fine job of repeating that performance (.278/.333/.556) early this season.

Mark Trumbo is a pure power hitter.  He's shown that he can hit for average in spurts, but walks (not enough) and strikeouts (too many) look like they're always going to be a problem for him.  He's a statue in left field when he plays, but there's always the risk of a Trumbomb when he steps to the plate.  Ender Inciarte is the exact opposite of Trumbo... a burner with great defensive value and little to no power.  He's also not a very big walk guy, so he's miscast a bit when the Diamondbacks have him bat in the leadoff spot.  Hey... at least other teams overrate speed in the leadoff spot, too!

The Diamondbacks do have other talented hitters surrounding Goldschmidt as well...

  • Cuban import Yasmany Tomas hasn't been as bad defensively at third base as many expected he would be... so far.  I believe that the club would rather have rookie and natural third baseman Jake Lamb (who started the year on a tear) healthy and move Tomas back to the outfield, but their insistence to try him at third base in the first place indicates otherwise.  Tomas has big potential with the bat, and the early returns have been pretty good (.296/.356/.333) even if the power hasn't shone through yet.
  • Chris Owings looked like a player on the rise after his rookie year.  The 23-year-old hit .261/.300/.406 as a rookie last season with an above average middle infield glove.  His emergence was part of the reason that Arizona dealt Didi Gregorius to the Yankees.  Even with the poor start to 2015 (.210/.240/.330), he does project to be far better offensively than Gregorius.  His minor league performance tells us that he should be able to bring the strikeout rate down (it's been a problem, 28.3%), but it also tells us that he's probably never really going to improve his walk rate enough to bat near the top of the order.  Still, there's some pop, some speed, and a nice glove here.
  • Aaron Hill's best days appear to be behind him, but he's off to a decent start in 2015 with a more limited role after a terribly disappointing 2014 season.  Hill's got good power for a middle infielder and can hit for average.

Honestly, the Diamondbacks' main offensive contributions around Goldschmidt should come from Pollock, Peralta, and Trumbo.  The biggest problem that their offense seems to have is that it's not very well positionally balanced.  A pretty good argument could be made that (without Lamb) the Diamondbacks top five hitters outside of Goldschmidt are all outfielders (Tomas is really a corner outfielder).  They can only play three at a time.  I was stunned that they didn't make a move to deal either Inciarte, Peralta, or Trumbo this past offseason.  As soon as they fall out of the race, we should expect to hear those names mentioned in quite a few trade rumors.

On the positive side, the Diamondbacks' pitching is far from overpowering.  Even on the road, the Nats should be able to win this series.  As strong as Arizona's lineup is, they're just going to have to try and win those games by scoring five or six runs a game instead of winning low-scoring games.