Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

May 27, 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

Your thoughts on the new Caps' hires? I'm OK with Trotz as coach, but hiring McPhee's deputy as GM after promising a "fresh set of eyes"? Not happy about that.

Trotz was the best available coach. So you've got a proven 15-year NHL coach to bring stability, focus more on defensed. He didn't have much talent in Nashville, hence a losing overall record, seven times in playoffs and only two times going to the second round (and never further). But in all sports the coach is only as good as the talent. I suspect he looked at the Caps and thought, "Now I can show what I can do with more firepower." So, lets see. Interesting guy. Should be fun.

I have never seen anybody blind-sided worse by social media worse than the new GM, Brian MacLellan, with the "lazy" comments by an ex-Cap employee. Now, anybody can "grab the mike" and cause a fuss. That's potentially both good and bad. But it's worth pointing out that the tweeter-in-point was let go by the Caps a decade ago and certainly seems to be paying back a grudge -- as well as exercising free speech.

I'll get back to this more.

Why do the Nats continue to ignore Ross Detwiler as a fill-in starter while failing to define a bullpen role for him that allows him to pitch regularly? He is wasting away under the current "plan", whatever that is.

Good point.

In spring training I asked another pitcher whether it would be easy or hard to move Detwiler from starter (in Viera) to reliever then back to starting again if he was needed during the season. He said that one switch in role was no problem and pitchers thought that was standard operating procedure but that some pitchers worried, or actually had arm problems, when they were asked to "stretch out" for 90+ pitches, then change to a relief schedule, then go back again. He wasn't criticizing, just helping me understand.

So the Nats kind of boxed themselves in. If it became clear, after a season-ending injury to somebody in the rotation, that a new starter was needeed for months, then I think they would ask Det to switch again. But starter-to-relief-to-starter-then-back-to-relief might be irresponsible handling to a quality pitcher.

But they have gotten almost no value out to Detwiler. He'd probably have done better than Taylor Jordan as fifth starter and could now sub for Gio. BUT that is pretending you can see the future. The Nats made a call in real time. That one hasn't worked. They also put Aaron Barrett on the Opening Day roster, straight from AA, which might be considered aggressive/unexpected and that has worked perfectly.

In the month of May he is striking out almost 50 percent of the time. How long does Williams stick with him?

If he continues to go back to his "K" ways of '13 -- rather than just being in a slump which he corrects soon -- then he'd go back to a utility role when Zimmerman returns to third base, I'd guess. Of course that depends on the state of Z'man's throwing. He's been working in LF. So there are lots of moving parts since Rendon can play third or second.

Espinosa doesn't have to hit much, just close to his career slash line, to be valuable. But he can also K himself back to where he was. Lot of pressure on him. His career role is in the balance, as I wrote last week. MANY pro ballplayers are in similar career spots all the time. MLB is a tough way to make a living.  

Do you think he'll play LF when he comes back?

I'd loved to see it. I saw him taking balls out there a few days ago and he looked very good -- a natural!? What does HE think? That's important, too. Zim has always done whatever the team asked, including hit No. 2 after a career at 3-4.

The idea is to get more offense in a lineup that becomes weak as soon as you subtract one or two hitters. That was the problem last year. They can hit like hell when (almost) everybody is healthy, as they did in the second half last year. But when the lineup gets short they all press, squeeze the sawdust out of the bat handle and look terrible. And what comes off the bench isn't strong enough to play every day.

Z'man in LF is also a serious long-term question. If the Nats don't pick up Span's expensive option year for '15, do they go back to their "power lineup" of '12 with Harper in CF between Werth and Zim. But then you need to find one, and maybe two bats since LaRoche's deal is also up. That's why they are so invested in Espinosa finding himself at the plate. It would mean they'd found an internal fix to a major problem with making a trade or signing a free agent.

I've always wondered how well Z'man might hit if he got to focus on offense -- by playing first or LF -- and not throw himself all over the place at third, a physically demanding position where you take a beating over the full season.

One major Nats problem the last two years is that they do not have an MVP-contender type of bat in the middle of their lineup. Maybe Harper someday. But not yet. They have a lot of good or pretty good hitters but they lack the one fulcrum to a good attack. Could Z'man be that at a less demanding defensive spot? 

Bring up this high-ceiling young talent and don't play him. Bat him against soft-pitching coaches before games; and then only rarely put him in front of real MLB sliders, fastballs, etc., mostly in critical late-inning situations. Moore's case is similar. Isn't it a recipe for discouragement and failure for our future stars, when we instead put age 32+ benchers Frandsen, McLouth, and Dobbs in our starting lineup? How do we best evaluate and maximize the potentials of rising stars?

The Nats certainly have not treated Walters as if they thought he was a major talent for the future. And they have jerked around Moore, too. They've been caught between Win Now with the window open in '13-'14 and Develop Talent. One thing Davey was consistent about was that he always wanted to develop, not stunt young players. He hated seeing Moore play so seldom. And he had a very high opinion of Walters. But not as high as Jose's!!

I was watching Post TV on Roku this weekend, and the discussion was which of this areas pro teams is close to championship.......what are your thoughts -Elwood Randallstown, MD

Here's the link to the video:

The Nats are the closest because they have the starting rotation to succeed in post-season if they get there and are pitching well. Strasburg, Gio, Zimmermann and Fister could go a long way -- in theory. But they certainly have not played like a truly serious contender for the last 200 games. That's just a fact. Last summer, after they were swept by Atlanta at Nats Park, I wrote a column about their lax fundamentals, jitters in pressure games and general not-quite-ready demeanor once high expectations arrived. And, if you look back, I've returned to that countless times since. However, they've had so many injuries this year that it either 1) masks their improvement in the bullpen, the impact of the addition of Fister and any positive impact Matt Williams may have.  Or 2) it has temporarily shielded them from the worst criticism of their long period of disappointing play.

The Wiz have improved greatly but are probably a major star away from being able to get past LeBron/Wade to get to a final. In the NBA, you just don't go all the way without at least one HOF talent and usually more. That's what you see in both the Heat-Pacer series and Spurs/OKC. It's fun to hear "longshot" talk -- heard some on talk radio last week -- about getting James or Durant as free agents sometime in the future. But just the fact that a Durant Back To DC Fantasy is necessary to talk seriously about a title shows the Wiz' problems.

I'd put the Skins ahead of the Caps because of the RGIII factor. QB and coach are the key in the NFL. What if he really does come back 99 percent healthy and clicks with Jay Gruden, Garcon and Jackson? BUT you are talking about a 3-13 team with a long history of dysfunction. This is the annual off-season problem. The correct assumption about rookie coaches/managers in every sport is Probably Not. That's just the reality. Most aren't big successes. But then you get a Joe Gibbs, as a rookie coach, and have a dozen wonderful years.

Getting Trotz seems like a strong move because it gives you a baseline for evaluation. You can't say "Maybe the problem is that Hunter or Oates are rookie coaches." Since the end of the '12-'13 season I've said that the Caps just look like a middle-of-the-pack team for basic talent. The only way they jump way up is if that talent was being badly misused and Trotz will find a way to ignite it. 

Do Nats pitchers reasonably believe they have to be absolutely perfect to win based on the miserable lack of offense and inconsistant defense? Does this lack of confidence affect their approach, perhaps leading to the rash of early runs? Seems as if super sentitive Strasburg would be especially vulnerable to this weakness.

Considering the bad defense and lack of runs, the Nats staff has done very well. They are fifth in baseball in ERA and third in Fielder Independent Pitching -- which means they've been a little unlucky on balls falling for hits and may improve as the season goers along. But the offense is 24th in runs-per-game. So, what have you got? Sixth in pitching and 24th in offense means you are middle-of-the-pack. Which they are at 25-26 and a slight positive run differential.

The question is: Will they get healthy and stay fairly healthy? And if they do, how well will they play? They'd need to play at a 95-win pace for the rest of this season to finish at 90 wins. 

Yup, I said it. The rotation is settling down and I'd put our bullpen against any in baseball, but when you have the heart of your order down for such a long period of time you can only expect but so much. If you looked at the starting eight we have right now nobody would be picking us to win the NL East or even be particularly competitive, and if our pitching staff had league average ERAs we wouldn't be. The Nats are keeping their heads above water with a lot of backups and all of our guys are coming back during the dog days of summer. Every team has injuries so I'm not making excuses, just saying that we're doing OK considering.

That is the Other View. And it is not unreasonable. It is definitely the Nats own view of themselves within the clubhouse. There is a long history of team that were hurt early getting hot in the summer and riding it a long way. Except for the '84 Tigers and a couple of other teams ('86 Mets, late-'90's Yanks) it's rare to see a team start hot, stay hot and then finish strongly in October to get to a Series or win it.

The one thing that would concern me most about the Nats is their defense. Is it a tip off to the team's nervous system? Does Washington specialize in teams with mysterious  psyches?

Boz, TK really went off on the Nats to open his show this morning. Apparently, he watches every game and does not see how this club will turns things around any time soon. He singled you out for ever being the optimist. What can you say to Mr. Tony to soothe his panic?

"We kid because we love."

And you're correct, Tony is a long-time friend.

As for the Nats, it IS a LONG season. But they didn't wake up until the last ~50 games in '13. They better wake up a lot sooner than that this season. Last year, in mid-season, a lot of people, including me, gave them the benefit of the doubt for a few extra weeks because of the 98-win season. But since they got swept by Atlanta at Nats Park last season I think everybody, who is watching, has viewed them more critically. They only started playing well after they were all but dead. That's much better than rolling over. But it's not generally a good sign. (When the pressure is off, you relax and play better.) You'll notice that all the World Series pre-season predictions this year came from outside DC while those who were closer to the team were more restrained. The Nats are a good team with the potential to be a very good team. But they have to prove it.

Hi Boz, Back during the summer of 2012, when people were saying that the Nats should spread Strasburg's innings out and have him skip a few starts instead of shutting him down in early September, you wrote: "There are two things so stupid that you never do them. First, you don’t voluntarily shut a pitcher down for weeks then start him back up, creating, in effect, a second spring training. You also can’t pretend that “skipping starts” is feasible. Why? Because you aren’t skipping anything. The issue isn’t innings; it’s total workload on the arm. While skipping starts, a pitcher stays on a throwing program." And yet, this weekend, Adam Kilgore reported that the Nats are doing exactly that with Lucas Giolito--he hasn't pitched in over two weeks and is on a throwing program so that he'll be able to pitch the full season on an innings limit. So are the Nats mishandling Giolito?

Read Adam's story again. They did not "shutdown" Giolito. He is still on a throwing program. That means throwing hard. They want him to experience the grind of a long season wtihout the high inning's total. We'll see how it works. But it's the same idea. Don't stop throwing (hard) then start up again.

When does he get an extended look at second?

He won't. He's a good utility player. Let him be good at that. Don't overexpose him and turn him into a poor everyday player.

Do you think the 50-Senator letter to Goodell calling for a Redskins name change has any sway? Is this an inevitability or a storm that will be weathered?

I'll make two points. People around the country who do not like the Skins or don't like Snyder are overjoyed that they fight so hard to keep the name. It makes them look stubborn and out of touch, especially because of the "never change" quote that frames all subsequent views of their position.

Also, I looked up the dictionary definition of "Redskin." Oxford: "Noun .dated or .offensive." Merriam-Webster: "usually offensive."

These are the First Words after "Redskin," not some footnote deep in the definition.

OTOH, their good works with Native Americans, whatever the mix of motives, are good. So there's that.

I don't care about the Simpson tweet. What I care about is that Leonsis promised "fresh eyes" and we end up with a newbie GM who is a house man. Remember, the window for Ovi, Backstrom won't be open forever. Both Craig Button and Ray Shero, who have won Cups, were available. This is a mind boggling move that overshadows the Trotz hire, which was solid.

Yes, "fresh eyes" is an issue. And a bitter tweet by an ex-employee from a decade ago should carry very little weight.

If you want to blow up a team and start over, you hire a new GM and a new coach. You don't need to have an "institutional memory" person at the top who knows first hand how everything got the way it is. But, if you believe, as Leonsis does, that this team can be reworked and saved as a contender NOW, then there is logic in keeping someone who can tell Trotz where the skeletons are hidden, what the hot buttons are on each player and what the backstory may be on things that happen that he might not otherwise understand.

That's the rationalization. Is that ALL it is -- just a rationalization not to change the organization too much and to keep Ted comfortable with who is around him? Don't know. Give MacLellan a chance.

BUT this is a little similar to Snyder promoting Bruce Allen, now President, and implying that Shanahans, and only Shanahans were the 3-13 problem. See: Nothing much is REALLY wrong with my franchise.

Give Allen a chance, too. But don't forget what came before, either.

How do you think the design of Nationals Park is holding up compared to some of the newer MLB parks (Miami)?

I ask visiting scribes. They like it. Some parks, like Miami, Houston, Cincy went with gimmicks, pinwheels, elevated trains. That sometimes doesn't wear well. Nats Park kept it straight forward. That was a good idea. 

He still has an arthritic shoulder, no? It seems the only place safe for his shoulder is first base, or more preferably, a trade to the American League where he can play DH.

Accuracy, much more than arm strength has been Zimmerman's throwing problem. Or haven't you noticed him hitting the fans in the first base box seats on the fly?

He's got more than enough arm for leftfield.  And the longer throw is easier for accuracy. You aren't aiming. You're just letting it fly.

What does the promotion of MacLellan say about Leonsis the owner? He didn't follow through on his "fresh set of eyes" mandate. Leonsis has always been loyal to a fault IMO when you look at the tenures of GMGM and EG with the Wiz. If Snyder pulled the same move he'd be excoriated for promoting one of his own.

I see your point. But remember that MacLellan may be a good match with Trotz -- a first-time GM may let the coach be the unquestioned dominant figure. Maybe Trotz liked the Caps job better with an in-house GM. Maybe we'll find out.

Remember, EVERY time a team fires a coach or GM the fans are always mad -- otherwise people wouldn't be getting fired. So initial reaction is going to tend to be cynical. So, it's a decent idea to take a deep breath.

Wouldn't it be good for Strasburg to have to earn "ace" treatment? How does it help his development when he's treated with kid gloves all the time and is labeled the team's ace/star/stopper when he's probably the fourth best starter on the staff?

If you want to max your chances of winning on Saturday in Pittsburgh you take Strasburg out earlier. How much earlier? That's tricky. There wasn't an obvious juncture. But you don't let him turn a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit as he leaves the game.

If you are try to develop him as an ace for the present and future, you do what Williams did.

On Sunday, Williams took Fister out after 5 1/3 and only 84 pitches. not "ace" handling. Fister looked amazed. Did Matt want to avoid losing two straight games the same way? Did he stay up half the night thinking, "I lost without using the bullpen with the lowest ERA in baseball. Arrghhh!" 

Or did he handle the two games differently for different but valid reasons? Stammen got a one-pitch double play. That took the sting out of what could have been a touchy move. Fister certainly has ace presence. I asked Rizzo what he liked about Fister. He said, "I love everything about him -- from the mound to the plane to the hotel on the road. " He has the famous "good face." Every time you look at him he has exactly the expression that you would like to see on a ballplayer's face in that situation -- from ultra-intense to laughing, the whole range.  He's in tune with the game.

So are we really supposed to believe that Brian McLellan had a bunch of great ideas for the Caps, but George McPhee just wasn't listening to him?

I hear you.

He and George go all the way back to playing together in college.

Boz, Went to yesterday's game. My take is that they need more power hitters. Any chance of trading for one in the second half?

That guy Michael Morse is ripping up the N.L. West for the Giants.

I'm not surprised that he's hitting. He's a Hitter. ButI 'm surprised he might have another 31-95-.303 season in him ('11.) I'm sure he's not hurting their clubhouse. Trading him seemed logical at the time because the Nats had traded for Span then, unexpectedly, got LaRoche to resign on their terms for only two yrs. There was no job for Morse. But that doesn't mean you don't feel good for him in SF.

That's it for this week. Thanks for all the great questions. Some thought Ted's timing for his big news (on Memorial Day) was a bit odd. I just appreciate his real reason -- to suit my chat cycle. Have a great week. Remember, in just seven days it ALWAYS looks different in sports.

In This Chat
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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