Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
You're not imagining things. The Baltimore Orioles really are in first place.
And up until a day ago, so were the Washington Nationals.
Never has the Beltway Series meant more for these two fan bases and never has it meant more for fantasy baseball.
The Nationals haven't enjoyed a winning season since their move to the nation's capital in 2005 and Baltimore hasn't been over .500 since Cal Ripken was in uniform.
But it looks like all of that is about to change. No team in baseball has been able to match Washington's 2.94 team ERA while the Orioles have slugged their way to a major-league leading 61 homers so far in 2012.
It looks like "next year" is finally here for the Nats and O's. Here are a few fantasy prospects to keep an eye on when these clubs square off this weekend in Washington, D.C.
Wei-Yin Chen, Pitcher, Baltimore Orioles: Chen is making quite an impression in his rookie season. He leads the team in ERA (2.45), wins (4) and he's third on the Orioles' staff in strikeouts with 32. Chen's stuff isn't overpowering (his fastball only hits about 89 mph on the radar gun) but his command is excellent (just 14 walks allowed in seven starts) and he has done a decent job of keeping the ball in the stadium (allowed just three homers this year). His luck might run out later on in the year when he begins facing teams for the second time but right now, this 26-year-old from Taiwan is a must-start. He'll take the hill Sunday night in the series finale against Washington's Stephen Strasburg.
Ian Desmond, Shortstop, Washington Nationals: Desmond is coming off of a tough outing against Pirates ace James McDonald on Thursday (0-5 with four strikeouts) but before that, he had been on a six-game hitting streak during which he was batting .379. Desmond's .268 average with 5 HRs and 15 RBIs won't blow you away but if you think about the league's incredible lack of depth at shortstop this season, you'll begin to realize how valuable he really is. Desmond is currently ranked 10th among big league shortstops in fantasy production, well ahead of established stars like Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins. He's still available in 20.8 percent of ESPN leagues, so if you move quickly, Desmond could help you solve your shortstop deficiency.
Ross Detwiler, Pitcher, Washington Nationals: Detwiler has looked more human in his last two starts (0-1, 5.73 ERA) but before that, he had been almost untouchable (3-1, 1.59 in five starts). His strikeout rate isn't anything to write home about (28 Ks in seven starts) and his longest outing lasted just 6.1 innings, but Detwiler's control has been superb (allowed only 10 BBs in 39.1 innings) and he owns lefthanders (lefties are hitting .125 against him). Because he's owned in just 44.6 percent of league's, Detwiler is the ultimate low-risk, high-reward fantasy player.
J.J. Hardy, Shortstop, Baltimore Orioles: Cal Ripken, Miguel Tejada ... and J.J. Hardy? The Orioles have traditionally been very strong at the shortstop position and that hasn't changed since Hardy came to town at the start of the 2011 season. The 6-foot-1 slugger from Tucson is hitting .351 with 6 HRs and 14 RBIs so far this month and his nine homers on the season is the most of any shortstop in the major leagues. He heads into Friday's matchup with a six-game hitting streak.
Jim Johnson, Pitcher, Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles haven't had great luck with closers recently. Kevin Gregg, Mike Gonzalez, B.J. Ryan and Alfredo Simon have all tried their hand at the closer's role in the past without much success. This season Jim Johnson has made the ninth inning just one less thing for Orioles fans to worry about. Johnson is 14-for-14 in save chances this year and his ERA is at a minuscule 0.48. The 28-year-old righthander finally seems to have found his niche in the Baltimore bullpen and right now he looks like a shoe-in for this year's All-Star festivities in Kansas City.
Adam Jones, Outfielder, Baltimore Orioles: Orioles fans have been waiting years for Jones to make the leap from a good player to a great player. This year, he's finally making that leap. Jones has absolutely pulverized American League pitching this year with 13 HRs and 26 RBIs. And he's been able to do it while maintaining a very respectable .296 batting average. If Josh Hamilton wasn't having such an unbelievable season for the Texas Rangers, Jones would undoubtedly be in the conversation for the league MVP award. Jones has been especially dominant against righties this year, batting .325 with 10 dingers and 21 RBIs in 122 at bats.
Adam LaRoche, First Baseman, Washington Nationals: If you look at Washington's stat leaders, you'll find LaRoche's name at the top of just about every offensive category. He's having a monster year for the Nats, batting .336 with 7 HRs and 30 RBIs. The .336 mark is well above his career high of .285 set in 2006 as an Atlanta Brave and the 128 RBIs he is on pace for would easily eclipse his 2010 effort, when he drove in 100 runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Mike Morse and Jayson Werth's returns from injury will only help raise LaRoche's fantasy value.
Stephen Strasburg, Pitcher, Washington Nationals: Strasburg has been everything fantasy owners were hoping for in his first season back from Tommy John Surgery. He hasn't lost any velocity off of his high 90s fastball and his slider/curve is so good it should be illegal (not to mention the plus changeup he'll twirl in there every now and then). But what fantasy owners worry about with Strasburg (3-1, 2.25 ERA in eight starts) is how long he'll be pitching for. The Nationals announced before the season that they would be holding Strasburg to a strict 160 innings limit this season and so far, they're not backing off of that. If the Nationals are still in playoff contention come September, it's hard to believe they would really shut down their best pitcher for the rest of the season, so stay tuned.