The Washington Nationals are still swimming in red ink, but after winning seven of their last nine, they could be the sharp MLB pick in Friday's game against the Atlanta Braves.
Jason's 2015 record as of May 6: 14-8, plus-5.80 units ML; 0-1, minus-1.05 units Total
We've had some fun at the expense of the Washington Nationals. We've also made some good coin fading them with our early MLB picks. But there's a reason the Nationals were 6-1 preseason favorites on Bovada's World Series futures market. They've got an amazing starting rotation and a solid batting order, and when the bats are working, all is well. Washington has won seven of its last nine games to improve to 14-15 (minus-4.98 units).
The Nats are still playing catch-up in the National League East, though. The Atlanta Braves (14-14, plus-1.42 units) are a half-game up on Washington after winning four of their last six. Can the Braves open up that gap by beating the Nationals this Friday (7:05 p.m. ET)? Probably not. The baseball odds at press time have Washington priced as a –190 home chalk on the MLB odds, with the mighty Gio Gonzalez due to take the hill against the not-so-mighty Eric Stults in a battle of southpaws.
Blame It on Gio
Gonzalez (2.91 FIP) has been outstanding since coming over from the Oakland Athletics in 2012 in one of Billy Beane's fire sales. This could be one of his finest seasons yet. Gonzalez is drawing groundballs at a 57.6-percent clip, easily a career high, while ringing up 9.20 strikeouts per nine innings. He's been throwing more and more change-ups over the years, and fewer fastballs and curves, although the fastball still accounts for nearly two-thirds of his output.
Unfortunately for the Nats, those extra worm-burners are getting through the infield. Gonzalez has an unsightly .391 BABIP this year, well above his .290 career average. And with just 3.2 runs per game of support, Gonzalez has generated a tiny profit of 0.38 units on a team record of 3-2. Perhaps that'll go up as his BABIP regresses and the Washington bats get their act together. According to FanGraphs, the Nats are No. 19 in hitting over the past seven days (plus-0.4 WAR), up from No. 24 (plus-1.6 WAR) for the full season thus far.
Facing Stults (5.05 FIP) should give those bats a little extra juice. Stults put in some good work with the San Diego Padres in 2012 and 2013, but has otherwise been on the fringes of big-league employment since making his MLB debut in 2006. Too bad we all can't pitch at Petco Park. Stults made the Braves roster this year after signing a minor-league deal, which says as much about Atlanta's starting rotation as it does about Stults. He's 0.74 units in the hole on a team record of 2-3.
Atlanta's “success” thus far has been mostly at the plate, ranking No. 15 at plus-3.1 WAR. That's enough support for the top end of the rotation, where Shelby Miller (3.64 FIP) has been lighting it up, but things get a lot sketchier the further down the depth chart you go. We also don't expect super-utility man Kelly Johnson (.845 OPS) to keep hitting this well. Even if you account for his return to the National League, Johnson has a .785 career OPS on the senior circuit.
Now would be an opportune time to put some Washington bats in your fantasy lineup. Say hello to 2B/SS Danny Espinosa: He's 5-for-9 lifetime against Stults with a home run and a 1.600 OPS. Espinosa is almost certainly available, owned in just 2% of Yahoo leagues as we go to press. That .239 batting average might have something to do with it, but don't let that stop you from giving Espinosa a whirl with Stults on the mound. Meanwhile, we'll put the Nats in our baseball picks and hope this isn't one of their bad days at the plate.
Free MLB Pick: Take the Nationals