Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

May 19, 2014

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, the Capitals, the Nationals, the rest of D.C. sports and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

What is your take on this year's aggressive baserunning.  It sounds good in theory but it seems like they've given away more outs this year rather than scoring more with their hyper-aggressive base running. Your thoughts?

It hasn't worked well so far, imo. It may work in theory. I don't think it suits the Nats actual players to be much more aggressive than they already were throughout their careers.

Span, Desmond, Espinosa and McLouth have always been aggressive base runners and sometimes base stealers. So why would they need to change -- just do what they do. Adam LaRoche, 34, has no business being aggressive on the bases. Yet he was. And was thrown out several times. Is his current DL trip with a quad injury connected to all the base-running foolishness (foolish in his case)? The last thing I'd want to see from Werth is more aggression on the bases with his history on injuries as a Nat and how central his hitting and personality are to the team. Every time Ramos runs hard I hold my breath with his hamstring and knee history. You want to hold him back. But the Nats don't.

That leaves Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. Harper already took too many chances on the bases. Telling him to be more aggressive is (I'm stealing this line) like telling an 18-year-old to have more interest in sex; it's not encouragement he needs. Z'man has had shoulder injuries from diving at 3rd. Again, he's already aggressive within his abilities.

It's probably just coincidence that Zimmerman and Harper both broke bones in their hands while diving headfirst into bases. But, to me, it's a coincidence that contains a message: Cut It Out.

Williams has lots of good theories that apply to the Nats. But constantly looking for the extra base is, in this team's case, just asking for trips to the DL or gimpy players. Am I clear enough on this? It ain't helpin'. It may be hurting. The Nats were aggressive enough in '12-'13 to average 92 wins a year. That's not the area to change much.

When can we get back to the seasons of 100 losses and zero heartburn. I much prefer those over this gutless, zero heart team.

The Nats problems have nothing to do with guts or heart. These are the easy responses of frustrated fans.

I bet I haven't met 10 MLB players in my career who could be called "gutless" with any merit.

If you prefer 100 loses to the aggravations of following a team that is trying to be exceptional, then it's possible that you aren't cut out to be a fan. Problems in pro sports is very seldom about "not trying hard enough."

Ernie Grunfeld did a very good job this year cleaning up his own mess. But now that he has the tools to make the playoffs, what free agents should he keep and who should he let go this offseason. I am assuming he can't extend both Gortat and Ariza and stay anywhere near the salary cap. I wonder if sometimes the best GMs are the ones that know when to let the old expensive players go away (e.g. St. Louis Cardinals letting Pujols go).

Even people who are career-long NBA experts, and cap students, are not in agreement on whether the Wiz CAN keep both Gortat and Ariza. Of course they should, and almost certainly do want to keep them. The big contract to Webster is a problem. He'd be hard to trade after playing little role in the Wiz playoffs. I'd say that the person closest to this situation that I've "quizzed" about it really doubts that the Wiz can keep both and that they'll go after Gortat (and keep him) but that Ariza will be lost (and hard to replace). In theory, Otto Porter fills the Ariza spot with Webster still adding value off the bench as he did in the regular season. But a couple of others who are usually very good on salary cap issues think that the whole team will be back. My guess: Ernie is going to have to figure out how to "clean up" again -- this time in the case of Webster.

The Wiz had a remarkable starting five -- very in tune with each other and with complementary skills. The first four men off the bench also were perfect fits for their roles. I hope they all come back because such chemistry is hard to find and hard to hold. Gortat is absolutely essential. But Ariza's combination of length, ability to play good defense against super-tough foes like George and James and his 3-point-shooting is an unusal mix. Even if Porter pans out, how long will it take for him to approach Ariza's defense and big-game experience? This is presumably the Wiz main off-season issue. 

What is his problem? Two bad starts in a row? Think something physical is going on?

Usually I look for "more" to be wrong with an injured player than what the team initially says. Zimmerman is now out longer than originally expected, for example. But my educated guess, and that's all it is, is that Gio has an inflamed shoulder -- that's to say more inflamed than most pitchers are most of the time anyway -- and that he really has had trouble "getting loose" before games. I think the 15 days will fix him. He hit 95 Saturday and had a sharp curve. That doesn't look like an injured pitcher. But you never know. He's really gotten banged around his last two starts but, pitch by pitch, he's looked OK. He got himself into a pair of 3-0 counts to Norris in Oakland and gave up two 3-run homers. You could say, "Here it is" and Norris probably couldn't hit two jacks on two 90+ fastballs, even if he knew they were coming over the plate. And Gio gave up a cheap infield hit on Saturday and had a bunch on pitches at the knees called balls. I don't think there's much wrong. But a pitcher needs his head straight and his arm feeling fairly close to normal to be effective. This will give Gio a restart on his season. And it will be interesting to seee how Blake Treinan does if he gets a couple of starts. Fister looks like he's ready to reel off a few good starts. Could be wrong but I think he'll be a pleasure to watch. 

Tom, great column on Sunday. It should be required reding for all Cleveland Brown fans who expect Johnny Manziel to take them to the Super Bowl this year.

Thanks very much.

I think Manziel is lucky he wasn't taken in the first few picks. There'll be less pressure to justify a selection since he dropped back into the 20's. The Browns already had their high pick, so they didn't "lose it" to get him.

So, for the Browns, probably a smart gamble. But I still have an "off" feeling about Manziel. When he came out making the "give me the money" gesture with his fingers held above his head as he walked to the podium, I thought, "OMG, that is EXACTLY the wrong thing to do. You just LOST zillions of dollars. Don't act like you just won." Bravado really doesn't work when it is phoney -- not reflective of your true feelings. And that was phoney. Maybe he'd already planned to do it. Well, then change the plan. Don't make yourself look like you "don't get it" about what just happened to you. Yes, just a kid in a tough disappointing moment.

The story about his "come get me" and "lets wreck this league together" text to the Browns is classic stuff. Love it. But my gut is that we've already seen the best, and most memorable moments of Johnny Football. It'd be fun to be wrong.

Hi Tom, since Ovi got hurt while not playing for the Caps and if he is out a long time, does Leonsis still owe him all that cash?

My understanding, which may change as more info arrives, is that Ovi was lucky and isn't badly hurt. Iow, probably nothing that impacts the Caps next season.

I realized that international players have split allegiances and don't just want to play for the teams that pay them tens of millions. I'm sorry, but here's my opinion: Nuts to that.

If somebody gives you a NINE-figure 10-year contract and essentially builds their entire franchise around you, then you owe them the decency not to get yourself busted up playing the same CONTACT sport at a high competitive level in the off-season on another continent.

Come on, Ovi doesn't have enough black clouds over his head? Early in his career he took crazy-kid physical risks off the ice -- and the Caps looked the other way. Oh, you just never know what that zany Ovi will do if you give him a golf cart and a sliding garage door in the Verizon Center tunnels. Why he might invent a Lets See If We Can Get Decapitated Today game to kill time. (Remember that viral video?) Now, deep in his career, he's taking risks out of NHL season. If I were paying him, I'd be super ticked. When does this guy wake up?

A lot of people, esp on this chat, have been really down on the Nats. But they are playing over .500 ball, and are a half game out, all while doing it with the entire world on the DL. What gives? How much better could the Nats possibly be doing right now considering a) all the injuries, b) the division (read Marlins) is much stronger then expected, and c) all the injuries.

This is an era where an enormous range of info constantly bombards us, including internet trolls and talk-radio hosts who get attention or earn a living -- in other words, have THEIR fun -- by spoiling YOUR fun. You have to select which sources of information you think are credible. And, I think, you're best off forming your own opinion and disregarding most others. 

One of the great stock market investors once said, "After I look in the mirror in the morning, everybody's been heard from." Most people can't dream of that level of -- in  his case justified -- confidence. But I think we might be better off if we erred in that direction more often. If your view of the Nats, or anything else, is highly critical, then fine. That's really how you feel. But if -- as you say -- you feel that 23-20 is pretty good work and you're enjoying watching the Nats persevere, then don't let anybody spoil your good time. To them it's a job. But to you it's a GAME.

Washington has its best baseball team since the '30's. It's a likeable hard-working group -- maybe too hard working and a little tight at times. Remember, when people tell you their opinion, they are usually telling you a lot more about themselves than they are about the ostensible subject.

Any idea why so many TJ injuries this year? Also, do you think there should be a rule to prevent a HS kid from throwing 194 pitches in a game?

Yes, I heard about the 194-pitch game.

Lots of theories, probably all partly correct, about why there are so many injuries. I think that year-round throwing programs for kids are obviously insane. I grew up in the three-sport days when everybody played on a different team in each season. Then we saw two-sports-at-most. And now it's an age of ultra-specialization in one sport, perhaps to get a college scholarship. That's understandable. But a lot is lost.

I spoke recently to Joan Holden, the retiring head of school at my old school -- St. Stephen's and St. Agnes. She's had remarkable athletic teams in her 30 years there including almost legendary girls field hockey and lacrosse teams, among others. They've gotten scads of local and national awards and countless scholarships. But Joan said that one of the things she was proudest of was that so many stars in one sport also played another sport in which they were often not the star, or not even on the starting team, but learned to "play a different role in the group." There are life lessons in focusing on what you're best at. But it's an unusual life in which it isn't just as important -- and probably more -- to learn to function as part of the group, not the captain/star of it.

One small note on the elbow injuries. My sense is that many of the current change-ups in MLB, a hugely popular and necessary pitch, are not the old "pull down the lampshade" version but resemble what was called a screwball for 100 years. Screwballs got a bad rep as elbow ruiners. You didn't want to admit you taught one or threw one. "What, are you crazy?" But you see tons on sharp screwball action on changeups. Each delivery/grip and degree of pronation are unique to that pitcher. But it's one unexplored corner of the discussion.

Oh, one more detail, this time on the Manziel hand sign. It's something he does with rapper Drake. Yeah, and it's also about The Money. 

http://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2013/9/6/4700258/johnny-manziel-texas-am-president-drake-ovo-hand-signal

Tom, So far, which Nat has impressed you the most and why? Thanks.

Anthony Rendon, if they'll give him a day off once in a while to stay fresh, looks like he's headed toward the higher end of his ceiling. Which is very high.

Aaron Barrett is going to be a setup man or closer for somebody someday -- same 95 + killer slider that Storen had when he came up. Storen has added a fine changeup -- threw three excellent ones in key counts on Sunday-- and, including his work late in '13, is officially "BACK" as a fine reliever.

Tanner Roark is a legit MLB starter. How good over a larger sample size? To be determined. But command of four pitches, a "plus" curve and bulldog manner. Sure, he has to do it many more times. But I suspect he probably will.

That's a lot. But I think Walters is showing well in limited time.

Though many see Z-man's return as creating a logjam in the infield or his rumored helping out in the outfield, I see it as a way to alleviate Espinosa's return to sociopathic hitting. Strikeouts are way up lately and he is not putting the ball in play as he was earlier in the season. Give him an extended time off of the field and let Williams/batting instructor try to work their magic with him again.

Espinosa was hot early, is cold now. Also looked good in spring training. Is this just the inevitable slump in a long season or reversion to '13 nightmare? Is he just over-exposed starting every day? We'll see. 

LaRoche's injury has also given Tyler Moore enough time to get some regular ABs. Injuries are bad. But they do let you get more info on players whose future role in the organization needs to be evaluated. 

Any idea which direction they'll go in?

They tend to go for "high ceiling" and may disregard a current injury or tendency toward injury. Remember when Anthony Rendon fell to No. 6 overall because "everybody" thought he'd never stay healthy? Now, knock on wood, he's been healthy for the last 200+ games. Lucas Giolito, now the No. 1 pick in the draft, was available becauswe he had elbow problems that screamed "TJ surgery ahead." Nats picked him. He blew out. He's back. Those who passed on him or didn't think he was signable (would go to college) look like dopes now.

I completely agree that the last thing the Nats need to be is more aggressive on the basepaths. Not just because of the injury concerns but also because in many cases they're just giving away free outs to the defense. Maybe defenses get rattled when a true speed-burner like a Vince Coleman is on base, but if a lumbering LaRoche is trying to stretch a single, they'll gladly take the out at second. Earl Weaver said it best: "On offense, your most precious possessions are your 27 outs." Matt Williams needs to be careful about giving those outs away on the basepaths.

I agree -- in part. Baseball has moved into a lower-scoring period which means that manufacturing one extra run is somewhat more important and playing for the Big Inning is somewhat less important. But that "somewhat" is pretty darn small. You better be sure that your players are suited to that "gain a fraction of a run" strategy that the Nats now buy into. And, yes, the Nats (and Rizzo) use that "fraction of a run" phrase.

The Nats have some of those players. That's good. Use it. But one size does not fit all.

"When can we get back to the seasons of 100 losses and zero heartburn. I much prefer those over this gutless, zero heart team." Seriously? You thought those teams played with hearts and guts? Nook Logan? Nyjer Morgan? Lastings Milledge? Tony Armas Jr.? Daniel Cabrerra? That is one short memory you have.

Yes, there's a lot of response to our "fan." Maybe he was pulling our leg. Lets hope (for his/her sake) that's the case.

No true fan ever rwants to see 100 losses. We bear with them if need be, look forward to better times, and rejoice when those times arrive. The Nats are doing very well given their number of injuries. Go Nats!

Check.

Do you have any sense of whether the Nats think AJ Cole is ready to pitch in the majors? He presumably has a higher ceiling than Treinen or Jordan if they need someone to take more than a few starts.

The Nats think Cole and several of their power pitchers in the Giolito rotation at Class A Hagerstown -- the insane take-no-prisoners Sally League dynamo -- are too good to rush. Of course you don't want to "rush" anybody. But how do you measure it. It's vague. You just say, "Well, Treinen looked good against Keershaw/Dodgers. He throws 95-98. He's had AAA experience. He's "ready if he'll ever be." So, it's his turn. And Cole will have his day -- many of 'em.

The Nats, like the Cards and Braves (neither in a major market), really are built for the long run and take that perspective in everything. How long is long? The Braves have only had one losing team since '91. Since '78, the Cards have had ZERO 90-loss teams but 18 that won at least 86 games (a chance to contend.)

Everybody always wants to know, "When will the Nats win a (fill in the blank)." Nobody knows. But maybe it's the wrong question. How about this: When will the Nationals build an entire organization that acquires and develops talent in a way that is self-sustaining, not dependent on huge free-agent spending and produces far more winning than losing teams over a long period of time? I'm not absolutely sure, but I think that may already have happened.

NFL adn NBA teams, no matter how well they are run,  simply cannot build a talent pipeline, a farm system, the way an MLB team can. So they're always at the mercy of the future. That's also part of the fun of baseball. You can see further into the future -- and enjoy the anticipation.

Do you think the Wiz should prepare and make a play for Durant next year or a trade (Beal, next year's No. 1, Porter, Nene) for Kevin Love, who says he will not resign with Minnesota? Would love your thoughts.

I love watching both Durant and Love. I'll try to DEVELOP some opinions on this. I'd almost given up on the Wiz becoming a place that top free agents would want to go. For years you'd hear ridiculous rumors about whom the Wiz might get. I'd always say/think, "Are you nuts? They aren't going to get ANY of them. They are FREE agents -- as in 'free will.' They're not coming to the Wiz, the second worst NBA franchise of the last third of a century."

Maybe that's changed now. I hope so. The Wiz just won a lot more than some playoff games -- they won back some respect. That's probably much more important in the long run. 

Bos, Nearly 114,000 for Mets series in D.C. and big crowds in Baltimore, last week, too - guess this area CAN support two ballclubs - and we have 2 good BASEBALL TOWNS whose fans show up when there's a team worth watching. Can we put this debate to bed for good now? Baseball's decision to put a team in D.C. was spot on!

The prosecution rests. The verdict is in: the Washington-Baltimore area is Not Guilty of any of these spurious charges.

Oh, some chatters don't apparently have a link to my Sunday column on Wall-RGIII-Strasburg-Harper and expectations for ultra-high draft picks.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/blogsandcolumns/from-john-wall-to-stephen-strasburg-to-rgiii-to-bryce-harper-washingtons-young-stars-are-judged-by-impossible-standards/2014/05/17/af752640-dd25-11e3-8009-71de85b9c527_story.html

Great article! A point I thought you made well that I think might be getting lost (based on what I've heard on sports radio) is the impact one individual can or can not make on a team. In basketball, one person can make a larger difference than in other sports, but particularly in baseball, one player only represents 1/8 of an offense (in the NL) and a starting pitcher only players once every five games. I keep hearing players evaluated on TV and the radio based on how many championships they have won or have not won, but there is only so much one player can do to help his team win a championship! Why do people continue to compare players based on championships their teams have won?

Thanks. Yes, that was an important point.

NBA big men have the most impact on possible immediate titles. NBA guards, like Wall, much less so. NFL QBs can make a vast difference, too. One MLB pitcher or hitter has MUCH less impact, in theory, on producing titles because of the 1/5th or 1/9th reasons.

You can compare titles within one sport -- though some great players simply never get to play with a great team. But it's probably a mistake to compare the number of titles across sports -- or at least to put too much weight on it. Especially in baseball. 

Even if they keep everyone, how do they get better? Hope that Beal and Wall get better while everyone else maintains their skill level? What's a realistic path to elevating a fifth place team that showed signs of true excellence to a championship team?

Otto Porter was the THIRD overall pick last year. That is supposed to have significant impact over time.

But I think you are correct. It will be hard for the Wiz to get significantly better because they don't have a Freak Star at the center of the team -- LeBron, Durant, Kobe, Shaq.

BTW, Ariza has already been quoted as saying "free agents would be crazy not to come here."

Words you never thought you'd hear. And are glad when you do.

The Wizards played well enough to satisfy my hopes, but the Pacers have had one of the most incredible swings of efficiency, from very good to horrid, back and forth. It seems like a lot more than effort and character, and I can't recall a team that is so varied. They remind of Phil Mickelson, actually! What about you?

OMG, did Chris Webber KILL the Pacers at the end of the Game 5 TV broadcast. He said that every team knows every other team's identity, even if fans and media sometimes don't. Then he riffed on the characters of the Heat and OKC. Webber then said the Pacers problem was that they "have more dogs" than other good teams. He called them dogs twice, and in the context of  repeatedly saying that sometimes they show up and sometimes they don't; and that they'd just been crushed in Game 5 because of "lack of effort." I was surprised that was barely noticed. 

Anyway, the Heat STILL have no center to play against Hibbert, just as they didn't last year. So that's kind of a problem, right? If he's going to go 19 points, nine boards, three assist and a block, like he did in Game 1, after being a 12 pts-7 reb player in the rest of his career, you suddenly made the Pacers a better team. I'll admit I'm rooting for the Pacers. But "don't always show up" to play is tough to overcome late in the post-season.

That's it for today. Come on, California Chrome! (They'll let him use the nasal strip, just watch.)

See you next week.

I'll be interested to hear what Tiger Woods has to say at his CCC press conference today about whether and how much he is now hitting golf balls. If he isn't pretty far along in his recovery -- with only a month left before the U.S. Open -- it's hard to think he'll be at Pinehurst. Hope for good news.

Boz, While the Nats are only 20-some percent into the season, one of the bright spots I've seen has been the performance of Craig Stammen. The nature of his job means that he always comes in at a difficult time, and is told to hold the line until/if the offense can score some runs. Stammen has blown up only once so far this season. Does the team recognize his contribution? And do they plan on keeping him for the long run?

After his work the last three four combined Stammen would not be an outrageous All-Star selection at all.

In 134 games, 14-9 with a 2.45 ERA. That's 205.1 innings with many more Ks than hits (198 K, 170 hits), only 12 homers. He defines a player who has figured it out after going to the bullpen, mastering his two best pitches (sinker slider) and commanding them almost perfectly in a few spots. In spring training, his days as a starter came up in conversation. "Every starter who ever went to the bullpen still thinks he can be a starter," he said. "You never know." But he's happy. He can't be a free agent until 2017. I hope he gets his pay day. He deserves it.

The UMD baseball team qualified for the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2005 - as a sixth seed finishing ahead of traditional powers UNC and NC State. And, if you believe what you read, they are a good bet to be selected for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1971. Any thoughts? Maybe a column?

Noted. Thanks.

A gutless, zero heart team? Really? It seems to me that coming back, over and over and over again in games this season is the mark of a team that is quite the opposite of what that poster thinks. That and the fact that so many of these comebacks have taken place with depleted lineups. "You gotta have heart" was written for this team.

But it'd be nice if their starting pitchers didn't give up three or more runs in the first inning 10 (TEN) times so far. The MLB average this season for such malpractice is TWO.

Hello Tom: One of the delightful features of baseball is that every stadium is different. Have you ever dreamed about becoming a baseball stadium architect? I think that it would be fascinating because you would have few limitations, but it would also be frustrating because of the many tradeoffs that would need to be made. A high home run fence? Then the fans sitting behind the fence can't see plays at the base of the wall. Stands that are parallel to the foul lines, as in Camden Yards? Then the fans in those seats are facing center field, not second base. Short distances to the fences? More home runs but fewer doubles and triples. Steep gradient in the stands? Better acoustics (it would amplify the crowd noise), but you would lose seating capacity. Have you ever discussed these issues with a baseball architect?

Long ago, like the '80's, I apparently wrote a column about the 10 things that a stadium design should have. Larry Lucchino told me, in the '90's, that he kept a copy of it for years and some of the ideas were -- accidentally or on purpose -- in the Camden Yards design. Then he said, joking, something like "but you're not getting any of the credit." Don't deserve any. Many people had similar ideas back then about creating the opposite of the ugly multi-purpose NFL-MLB stadiums of the '60's and '70's. Camden Yards was the natural outgrowth of that shift in taste, back to baseball's roots and architectural uniqueness. To this day I don't remember that column, if it actually existed, except in Larry's memory, or anything it said.

Newspaper writers are like sharks. We swim, eat and produce matter that is left behind. We barely remember where we're been or what we've produced. One reason you hold your own opinions lightly is because you barely remember what they were. You just keep eating/digesting (gathering new material/thinking), swimming (writing) and hope what's produced doesn't smell too bad. What's amazing is how much fun it is.

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Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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