Chicago Cubs welcome Washington Nationals to Wrigley

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Ahead of this week’s three-game set against the first-place Washington Nationals, I sat down with District on Deck co-editor Ricky Keeler to talk about Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and what Cubs fans can expect from the Nats this week at Wrigley Field.

Washington enters the series 2 1/2 games ahead of the New York Mets in the National League East, while Chicago is just 3 1/2 out of first in the NL Central, trailing a Cardinals team that is set to battle the Diamondbacks early this week.

Here’s some of our conversation with Keeler. Be sure to check out District on Deck this week as the Cubs battle the Nationals for some of the best coverage on the Web.

1) With Bryce Harper putting it all together and Anthony Rizzo leading the Cubs, who do you think would get the nod if the MVP voting was held today?

RK: As great of a season that Rizzo is having, I have to go with Harper in a very close vote. The reason for that is Harper has been able to get it done in all facets of the game. He has adjusted to right field very well and the offense has been there, as evidenced by a .386 batting average with 11 home runs and 26 RBI this month.

One of the things that I have been impressed about in regards to Harper is his plate discipline. It seems like every at-bat Harper has goes about six-to-seven pitches, so he does make the pitcher work. Plus, he has walked 39 times in 44 games this year, a trend that has carried over from spring training. I do think these two players will be right up there for MVP consideration, but Harper gets a slight edge right now. Both players are great faces for the game of baseball going forward.

2) What has been the Nats’ biggest weakness to-date?

RK: I would say that the Nats biggest weakness this year is their defense. The Nationals have made 35 errors, which is tied for second in the National League (with the Cubs). Out of those 35 errors, Ian Desmond has made 12, which is the most of any player in the NL. Washington’s pitching staff hasn’t been stellar this season, but they have had to get extra outs at times, which isn’t good for any pitcher. Washington got off to that 7-13 start in their first 20 games is because they were giving the opponent extra chances to score runs and they couldn’t get out of their own way.

Another thing to keep an eye on involving the Nats is the bullpen. Drew Storen has been excellent in the ninth this year, but with Tanner Roark moving to the rotation, keep an eye on the Nats middle relief, which can be inconsistent at times. Nevertheless, their bullpen ERA of 3.08 is fifth in the NL. With Casey Janssen now in this Nats bullpen, it should continue to get better.

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3) Is this the year Washington puts it all together? For a couple years, they were supposed to be a World Series contender, but have fallen short annually.

RK: While the Nationals are off to a great start, I am not quite sure if they are the favorites yet in the National League. St. Louis would get the nod for me and they were my pick to win the World Series in the preseason. Washington’s offense has been great this season, but Harper and Anthony Rendon (who is still out with an oblique injury) were the only hitters who hit in the postseason last year.

They have enough in the rotation, but they need Stephen Strasburg to get it together because he is off to a rough start. Once this team gets Doug Fister back in the rotation and Anthony Rendon back in the lineup, they are one of the teams to beat, but I am not so sure that they are the number one in the favorite to win just yet.

4) How concerned are fans with Stephen Strasburg’s struggles?

Right now, fans are very concerned. In four starts this month, he has a 10.20 ERA. To me, sometimes Strasburg shows too much reliance on his fastball and goes away from his very good secondary pitches, the curveball and the changeup. When that happens, Strasburg’s stuff becomes very hittable as opponents have hit .321 against him this season.

One thing to watch when you look at Strasburg’s mentality on the mound because when he gets in a jam, it usually turns into a crooked inning. Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann, who the Cubs will see this series, have carried the Nats rotation so far and Gio Gonzalez has had a couple good starts this year.

However, if this Nats rotation wants to be the best in the game, they need Strasburg to start pitching at a high level and to get that ERA way down from the 6.50 that it is at now.

Next: I-Cubs top Tacoma as Baez homers twice

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