Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Jun 02, 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

When Harper returns, who is out Espinosa or Span?

Big, big question and perhaps the most important and toughest facing the Nationals this year. I don't know. I don't think that anybody does. Yet. But it's a great baseball argument because it has so many moving parts, so many tests of baseball judgment and so many longer-term implications.

Can Zimmerman still play third? Does he want to? Once you switch him to LF, isn't that like moving Yount from SS to CF or Biggio from C to second then to CF or Carew from second to first? When a player has been your FofF or has a $100M+ deal, don't you have to say, "This is a huge piece of our team for many years. Lets do it once and get it right, not jerk him around." Even if, like Z'man, he's willing to get jerked around.

Which is better, a strong inf defense of Rendon, Desmond, Espinosa and LaRoche where Desmond's occasional bad-hands month is the only worry, but with a more limited OF defense of Harper in CF with Z'man and Werth? Or the reverse with Span in CF but Z'man and his throws back at third and Rendon at a position (second) where he is okay but not nearly as good as third. And, YES, third base IS Rendon's  Natural Position because any baseball person who sees him SAYS "natural at third" but simply doesn't look as good -- or like he ever WILL be as good at second.

Maybe somebody else will be on the DL when Harper gets back and this Musical Chairs overload won't happen. But it also sends a message to Span -- and LaRoche -- about whether you intend to pick up their options for '15. If you play Z'man any significant amount at 1st base that tells LaRoche more about where he stands. (BTW, the Nats holds Span's $9M option for '15. With LaRoche is it a MUTUAL option for $15M. So EITHER side can walk away. If LaRoche has an excellent year, he may want a 2-or-3 year contract. I doubt Nats would go for that. He's now 34. But LaRoche and Nats really like the current setup. So LaRoche coming back in '15 isn't as much a long sshort as "mutual options" usually are.

I lean toward recreating the '12 power lineup with: Harper (leadoff and CF), Rendon, Z'man, Werth, LaRoche, Ramos, Desmond, Espinosa, pitcher. But I change my mind every M-W-F and think Span's on-base percentage isn't THAT poor and Espinosa's bat will never come back to life. If Espinosa had an OPS close to Span's you might almost have to go with Espinosa. But, right now, it doesn't look like he will do it. 

Tom, while the Nats have underperformed this season, I think it's time for a reality check. After 34 years with no baseball, we have a promising team in a beautiful stadium with big crowds. I was 21 when the Senators left and 55 when the Nats arrived, and I carried the torch for Washington baseball all those years. During those long years in purgatory, I would have given anything to see my team take the field in the nation's capital. I'll never forget the magical night baseball returned to D.C. I'm not saying we should forgive all the shortcomings of the Nats, but chill people! There's baseball in D.C. and we have a competitive team that just might catch fire. Life is good.

I think you are exactly right -- for a fan. Or for a fan exactly like you.

But I have at least two functions. See the Nats in a historical context -- which is what you are doing -- but also see them as I would if they were a team from 1,000 miles away. IOW, professional baseball analysis. What is a fair expectation of them, how are they measuring up to it and what factors are in play that may have limited them.

If I had to guess, I'd say that they are about to get healthier with Z'man and Gio back and that -- if they were 1,000 miles away from DC -- I'd say, "Watch out. Unless 90 percent of the sharpest baseball eyes are wrong, this is a very talented team that is probably pretty annoyed and about to get hot."

However, I have had one alternative notion, especially if they continue to linger near .500 when they are healthier. Are the Nats everyday players  better athletes than they are baseball players? I've seldom seen a team with so many players who would look at home in an NHL, NFL or NBA locker room. At least 15 of them, including several pitchers. That is part of why scouts and out-of-town writers think they are such a Series contender.  They LOOK great. They have great TOOLS. (See "Moneyball" for the illusion of tools and the relative meaningless of a ballplayer "looking like" a ballplayer.) But if you have questionable hands or a poor eye for the strike zone or tend to get hurt or have a poor temperament for the difficulties of pitching, then that is a "baseball issue" that only shows up in actual (statistical) performance. 

What has happened to him?

Nothing's wrong with him, except that his "feel" for his slider and curveball aren't as good as he'd like. IOW, some of them don't break correctly or go exactly where they should. So, the occasional flat slider or high hanging breaking ball.

But he's throwing the heck out of the ball -- 95 mph with some perfect tight unhittable sliders in his last start. A lot of things have to go right to be as good as J Z'mann has been for years. He'll get all the pieces back together soon. If he does, and Gio is OK -- and he seems to be -- I just want to see the Strasburg, Gio, Z'mann, Fister and Roark rotation intact for six weeks. It'd be fun. I've seen exceptional four-man rotations up close in Baltimore over the years, but never five. Come on, ball gods, play fair -- just for a few weeks. 

How much longer before Williams says enough?

One reason that Z'man can come back so fast is, presumably, because he can play in LF for most of the time until Harper comes back and, therefore, doesn't have to take extra time on a rehab assignment getting his throwing back in best-possible-condition to return to third base. And you can get an idea of what he can or can't do in LF.

So that may buy Espinosa or Espinosa/Frandsen more time at second -- for now.

Of course it's conceivable that Z'man still plays third most of the time, or third-first-and-LF.

Matt Williams is going to have to do some serious managing.  Of lineups, personalities and "messages sent." It helps that the Nats are a close team and have a lot of team-first players. But not many people are THAT team-first.

(BTW, Espinosa has made some more adjustments at the plate in recent days -- and everybody has screamed at him for the last year to "make adjustments, don't be stubborn." And he looks somewhat better. Will June be like his April? Or will it be like May. The answer's not in yet. But the next few days may show if the latest switches -- more open stance, further from the plate -- are useful.

I love golf and watch every weekend. However, when Tiger and Phil are not in contention the ratings plummet. I think a big issue Golf has is there is to much parity. It seems like every week, another no name wins. What can the PGA do about this?

I really enjoyed watching every shot of the tapoe last night at the Memorial of Hideki Matsuyama, Kevin Na, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott. Not for great golf but so lots of laughs. OMG were they awful. Except for Na (who now finally plays less slowly) and finished with a 64 ahead of everybody else, then waited for the playoff with Hidecki.

Poor Watson has days, like Sunday, when he looks like he's never played before -- and wants to cry and hide -- because he has simply lost control of all the crazy moving parts in his enormous crazy swing. He's fun and a short-game wizard. Faldo said of Bubba's drive at the short par-five No. 15, which may have been 100 yards off line (honestly), "Oh...ohhh...where on earth is that?  Is that in someone's backyard?. That's mega-right, mega-right....That one won't be very useful...(with Bubba you never know) when one might go sideways."

Host Nicklaus, who never knocks anybody, said, "I might have hit one OB there, but not when I was playing that (15th) hole." Sly, Jack.

TV also tried to get Jack to agree that, if you showed his circa 1975 swing in reverse -- making Jack a lefthander -- that Watson really had a southpaw version of the old Nicklaus high-at-the-top, heel-off-the-ground swing. Jack looked at their side-by-side video and seemed to have eaten a bad oyster. Translated, his answer was, "Yeah, a little, but...NOOOO!"

Bubba could only "repeat his swing" if you jabbed him with a cattle prod in exactly the same place on both swings. He looks like he's being electrocuted.

Okay, enough Bubba. When he gets it going, especially at Augusta, he's shown he can win.

Many will point out that Watson shot 72 and "only" needed a 70 to win outright. How tough could that be if Na shot 64 and conditions looked like heaven. Matsuyama, who is just 22, "only" needed 68 and Scott 67 to win outright. Actually, if you look at the whole scoreboard, there were only 11 scores in the 60's out of 76 players and there were plenty of mid-70's scores. Muirfield played pretty tough, especially the last 3 holes.

But, back to your point, yes, I was getting to it, the golf world really does need Tiger and Phil because it is assumed that they are real deal superstars. So, when/if they come unglued it just shows how tough the game really is. In their absence, from the field (Tiger) or the leaderboard (Phil on Sunday), it is too easy to think, "Look at these clowns throwing up all over themselves. I can do that. Why should I watch?"

A couple of notes: I thought Faldo, Nance and Jack were a little cool toward Na in the booth interview. He's frosted a lot of people with slow play but it looks like he's tried to change and even said he regetted stepping away from his second shot at the 18th. Also, even though the playoff winner Matsuyama needed a lucky bounce off a tree -- which knocked his ball back in the fairway at the 72nd hole and allowed him to make birdie to tie -- he still is a formidable ball striker when he's on. However, I don't think I can remember the last top player who has such a loooong pause at the top of his backswing. Can he duplicate that under big pressure? Jack was touting him as a potential star for the next 10-to-15 years. Nicklaus doesn't blow smoke. So, he must really think it, or something fairly close to it. Therefore, suspend disbelief and watch Matsuyama.

I was at the game yesterday. Obviously I'd rather the outcome have been different but as a baseball fan it was a treat to see Yu Darvish live. You really have to see a 59 MPH (!!) curve ball in person to believe it. Do you think Darvish's and Tanaka's success is a sign that the Japanese leagues are getting more competitive relative to MLB or are these guys an exception?


It's been assumed that hitters from Japan like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki could make the jump. There was a lot more cynicism toward pitchers from Japan. That should be dead now, or dying, with Darvish, Tanaka and a vet like Kuroda still going strong.

LaRoche, asked about the called thirds strike he took on the 59 mph curve, was his usual LaConic self: "I thought he lost it and it was going off the backstop. But it keep breaking." I wasn't sure the reporters who heard him actually got it. He said he thought Darvish had lost his grip on the ball and had thrown it off the backstop on the fly, but it was a strike! Yes, droll hyperbole. Don't want to waste those true flavor-of-baseball quotes.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been great this year. The ratings have been up, and last nights game almost broke twitter. Wondering if you think the NHL is ready to challenge the NBA and MLB for prominence in the US?

I watched some of it, but switched to watch the Memorial tape because I will cover the same people at the U.S. Open next week in Pinehurst. I would NEVER have skipped watching a minute of a comparably important MLB, NFL or NBA game. I've been watching every game of the Spurs-OKC and Heat-Pacers series. Maybe I'm not typical as someone who likes the NHL but doesn't love it. But, to answer your question, I think the NHL is still a long way from "crossing over" to the same category as the others. Be glad to be wrong.

BTW, I want Duncan to get his fifth ring. Couldn't care less if James gets three-in-a-row. The second half (and overtime) of the Spurs, without Tony Parker, beating the Thunder in OKC was wonderful and remarkable. San Antonio is deeper than last year. But it was Duncan, in his 17th season and playing more minutes than he usually does, who simply refused to lose after the huge disappointment of blowing a six-point lead in the last minute-or-so of regulation. He wanted those four days off!

Time after time in sports, in huge games, the Stat Stuff and long-term trends shrink in importance and somebody -- usually a star -- simply has to stand up and say, "It's on me. Hitch a ride. We win this one." When it's the old guy who does it, it's pretty cool.

So, I'm picking the Heat to win. Lets see if they can overcome THAT.

In several games recently, after a borderline pitch on a three ball count, a Nats player has jogged to first only to have the umpire call the pitch a strike. This has happened to Werth on a number of occasions, but also to Rendon, Desmond, and others. What's going on here? Are the Nats gaining a reputation with the umpires? Or do they already have one?

Espinosa may have that rep, a little. But nobody else, to my eye.

However, Tanner Roark may already be getting a GOOD reputation for being a bulldog who never complains to umps, just gets back on the rubber, doesn't show anybody up and does HIS job, not theirs. He got a "veteran's call" on a third strike on a perfect fastball tailing low and away. He only has 128 innings in the majors. I said, "Whoa! Jordan Z'mann, who seldom complains, gets that call after five years. Roark gets it now!?" Maybe it was just one pitch. But Roark does a ton of little things right. Yesterday, he said that "I'm still learning how to read the bat." He's now shaking off more pitches because he knows -- as Fister says --  that you have to believe in every pitch you throw and be accountable for what it is, not just lay it on the catcher. Clippard says that the best pitch in baseball is "the pitch you throw with conviction."

Roark is now 10-5 career with a 2.49 ERA. He's not that good. Nobody is. But people still keep underestimating him. He fanned Beltre with a letter-high fastball (93) with a man on third and one out in the 1st inning. He came after Beltre, a future Hall of Famer, with the same high fastball about six more times -- always where he wanted it -- and got a weak fly out to left and a ground out to second.

I don't know how good he is yet. Still a small sample. But I think he's still improving. And I bet he's better than most people think. After his last two starts, both times Span went out of his way afterwards to say how much guts Roark had. Didn't say "guts." The verdict is far from final. But it's now possible that Roark is a real rotation piece. If so, iiifff, then that may be the best Nats development this season. The Nats control him through '19. 

Bos, What is your take on the insider trading stories about Phil Mickelson and the sports gambler? In the stories I read, there does not seem to be much evidence against him. Was the FBI trying to intimidate him by questioning him at the Memorial tournament? Thanks-love your work

A dozen or more years ago, I might have been tempted to think, "Where there's smoke..." That might not have been fair, but Phil wasn't as mature then. (Very few are at that age.) Now, I give the full benefit of the doubt to Phil. We'll see. Early days -- not for the investigation but for knowing what it has and hasn't found.

Right now, he's hitting .325 in AA, with 15 home runs. Supposedly he's play center field like a Gold Glover. He's never hit like this before in his career. What's going on? Is he just hot or did he "turn a corner"? How does this affect the Nats' future plans for CF, with either Span or Harper (assuming Zimmerman ends up in LF fulltime)?

Let Taylor have a full minor-league development. He's always had poor W-K ratios which usually hurt a hitter when he gets to the majors and pitchers get hm to chase. This is a breakthrough year for Taylor. Let him build confidence, don't rush him. The Nats have, with reason, been in a hurry to get MLB production out of Harper and Rendon. It may not have hurt them. But their knowledge of the strike zone was more advanced. 

But, yes, Taylor's power and batting average bust out are good news for a farm system that has had some trouble drafting and developing hitters as well as it handles pitchers.

Lets not give out those Gold Gloves before Taylor plays a day in the majors. The Nats have, at various times, suggested that almost anybody and everybody that put on a mitt for them was a "plus" defender or "above average" or a "potential GG." That includes, at different times, LaRoche, Werth, Span, Z'man, Espinosa, Desmond, Rendon and even Harper (someday). Yet they lead the N.L. in errors. Yes, trust but verify.

Atlanta has a run differential of 11; Nats have a run differential of 14. Does this provide any basis for optimism about what lies ahead? (Plus soon adding Zim, later adding Harper...)

Good point. If I had to decide, I'd take the Braves today and spot them the 3 1/2 games. But that would be a close call. I think the Braves problems will remain their problems all season -- injured pitchers who are out for the year, regression to the mean by their substitutes like Harang and a lot of poor strikeout-prone hitters. The Braves are still good, and they play the Nats very confidently, but those flaws limit them, imo. It's possible -- though far from certain --that a large part of their 27-28 record is connected to injuries. For example, the Nats have only four homers from Z'man, Harper and Ramos combined. That's about 16 less after a third of the season that many would have predicted. As I pointed out last week, after the last 236 games (121-115) the Nats have to prove they aren't all 'talk and tools." We'll see.  

Do you think he'll get more playing time?

It's tough getting from Syracuse to Nats Park these days. Stephen Souza is burning down the league and hasn't gotten called back.

Now HE is a rookie who needs to stop giving the umps hard looks after strike calls. I'd have sent him back to AAA just to save him from himself before word got around. Doubt very much that he intended it or realized how confrontational he looked. But it's how you APPEAR that matters with umps.

Walters and Souza both have big thump. When or can they make the jump?

If Ryan Zimmerman's move to LF is a success, does this mean that the Nats might keep LaRoche next year and let Span go? The Nats have long sought a lead off CF and are convinced they have one in Span. While fans may get frustrated with Span's offense at times, I always hear people like Rizzo, Matt Williams, and other folks associated with the Nats talk about how great and important Span is to the team. But it would seem to be a crowded outfield if you have Ryan Zimmerman in addition to Harper, Werth, and Span. But might this be Span's last season on the Nats?

The Nats hold a team option for $9M for '15 on Span as part of his previous contract with the Twins. That's a great insurance policy. He's a strong good personality, plays fine CF (his first error EVER as a Nats was Sunday), but it's a fair question what his real total value is.

This is when you wish you had a baseball time machine to go 20 years into the future and ask, "Now that Wins Above Replacement has been refined as an analytical tool, how the heck much WAS Denard Span worth back then in '13-'14?"

Of course, if we had a time machine we could probably find something slightly more interesting to do with it.

Is anyone excited to see this matchup again? The Spurs are the most boring dynasty in sports history, and I'm sick of the Heat. The NBA stinks!

I disagree. I'm looking forward to it. At least until the Heat get a strangle hold on it -- if they do.

But you are certainly not alone in thinking the Spurs are boring (I love watching 'em) and the Heat a story you're sick of (they're talent makes them fun for me, too).

How about a shout out for Maryland baseball? Super regional. They will have to beat another team (UVA) on their home field. Go Terps.

Go, Terps. We gave 'em good "play" on our Web site. They deserve the shout out.

Another huge upside to the late bloomer given the salary structures of today's game is that if Roark even turns out to "just" be a solid No 4/5 starter, he is an INCREDIBLY cheap one. He's under team control through the 2019 season, and is currently 27 and not arbitration eligible until after 2016. That means that the Nats get his 27-29 years at whatever they want to pay, and 30-32 at the escalating arb rate. Basically his entire prime for a tiny percent of market value, even if they go year-to-year.

Yes, exactly.

These are the potential bonuses -- not just "Here is our next Superstar" -- that let teams spend to improve themselves in other areas. 

“This hurts the flow of the game.," you write. " It isn't baseball.” “I don’t think anybody likes a break in the action," says Tyler Clippard. Except when the batter steps out of the box. Or the pitcher steps off of the mound. Or the catcher comes out to talk to the pitcher--and after a moment is joined by the infielders and then the pitching coach. Ball games seem to have lengthened by about an hour since I started watching the Senators years ago. Baseball people have no room to talk about adding another minute or two to make sure plays get called right. Now if they wanted to speed the game up by eliminating those between-pitches delays...

Great post. Thanks.

Bos, this past weekend I was chatting with one of the more die-hard DC sports fans I know and when I asked him who is all-time favorite DC athlete was he mentioned Frank Howard, aka "The Capital Punisher." Being from a different generation I was not familiar with Frank and was wondering if you had any colorful insight or personal anecdotes on this great Washington Senator. Thanks and go IAC!

I visited  him for a Where-Are-They-Now piece when he managed Spokane in the minors. He was the warmest most engaging and funny Bunyonesque guy you could imagine. He was financially and emotionally generous with his young players who absolutely loved him. I heard him tell some of them,. "How are you going to wheel that lumber tomorrow if you don't pound that Budweiser tonight?" Okay, maybe not a Life Coach. But that was long ago.

He was roommates with Dick Bosman and some other Nats. Frank would prepare a HUGE meal of eggs, bacon, pancakes  and everything else you can imagine. Then he'd say, "Boys, take what you want. I'll eat the rest."

Nobody in baseball today -- Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, anybody -- hits the ball as far, when he got hold of it, as Hondo did in his RFK days. When the Nats came back to D.C., players taking batting practice saw the white "home run" seats painted in the upper deck. They'd ask me, "So, where was home plate back then when he hit those homers." I'd say, "Right where it is today. Right where you're standing." Some of them, in all seriousness, refused to believe it. I'd get coach Tommy McCraw, who played with Howard in '71, to testify.

Tommy John gave up the upper-deck homer to dead center in RFK which may be the most unbelieveable one. He told me, "It was a line drive. I almost jumped for it. When I turned around and saw where it landed, I almost feinted. If it had hit me, it would have killed me."

How's that? I got a million of 'em.

Interesting article today on Morse, Hudson, and the Giants success. MM was inferring that we should have have shut down SS in 2012 as you never know when or if you will get another shot. Do you think maybe Morse whould just enjoy his team's good fortune (and his own success) this year?

Here's the link:

Glad he commented. There were certainly Nats who didn't agree with the plan. As I've written a couple of times, Davey wasn't a fan of it. Didn't hate it. But probably would have gone a different way with it if it had been his call. It was Rizzo's idea. His biggest backer was Ted Lerner, then in his 80's. If he could be patient, I always wondered why others couldn't.

FWIW, there's usually sometimes backstory. Don't know whether it applies in this case. But among many factors in the Nats evaluating their roster from 12 to '13 (and eventually trading Morse), one was the front office belief that Morse got hurt a lot, didn't heal quickly and didn't play with pain as well as some others. So, does that actually make Morse wise? One of those who played every day with injuries was Espinosa. Did it help or hurt his career or have no impact. After one Morse injury I remember someone in the farm system/organization saying, "Espinosa is playing with a thumb he can fold back to touch his wrist."

No matter how tough you think you have to be to play baseball every day from March 1 to (sometimes) Nov 1, it's WAAAY harder than that.

Am I a bad person because I enjoy watching Kevin Na implode under pressure?

You weren't alone. I say give him another chance.

What is your take on Strasburg? I feel as though fans and media want him to throw a complete game shutout with double digit strikeouts every time he takes the mound. His last 10 starts he has an ERA of 2.67 and has averaged 1.4 walks to 7.4 strikeouts. Gives the Nats a chance to win EVERY time out. I don't feel he is appreciated as he should be.

Advanced metrics say that he is having a heck of a season and as his luck on balls hit in play and his run support improve it will be come obvious. Advanced stats aren't always right. But it'll be fun to see if they forecast correctly on this one.

Please spread the word that it is OK to cheer when the Nats are on offense. It's not the NFL. I go to a lot of games and the crowd never seems to make a lot of noise in clutch hitting situations. C'mon people our job is to rattle the opposing pitcher.

I noticed that too on Sunday. But Yu Darvish can make cheering, not just hitting, seem pointless.

Read in the Post today that in yesterday's Potomac Nats game he " got caught in a rundown and slid into" the base head first. Seriously??? Do these guys NEVER learn?

Williams mentioned that in his post-game press conference, complete with describing thee rundown and head first slide. Then, in a rare moment of physical humor, Matt acted like he'd been holding his breath, then let it out like, "Wheeww." (We dodged a bullet.) Then he added that Z'man will have another rehab game on Monday but "no more rundowns."

He looked like he wanted to add, "Pleeease!"

I can't imagine a more exciting match-up and i've been looking forward to it all year. The Spurs give the heat trouble and to say that Ginobbli and Parker and all those three pointers is boring is nuts. The Spurs and (I say this begrudgingly) the Heat are everything that is great about the game of basketball. I don't like the Heat (I'llnever forgive Lebron for killing DC and my adopted team the Celtics) but they play the game beautifully.

There you go. We'll have Heat-Spurs to talk about next Monday in the chat.

this is a comment re Roark.You said nobody's that good re 10-5 record and 2.49 ERA .Kershaw ERA for last 3 years 2.28.,2.53,1.83. Other greats have similar numbers i.e. Tom Seaver for their careers. Admittedly rare company.

Good point. Your Kershaw stat is correct. But no starting pitcher in modern baseball history has a CAREER ERA anywhere close to 2.49. Most don't realize it. Since WWII, Whiey Ford is the best at 2.75. Kershaw is now at 2.62. But he has along way to go. ERA's go up at the end of careers.

I love hockey and hung on every minute of last night's game. But it's hard to see when hockey will ever challenge the NBA or MLB. The NHL is too dysfunctional -- yes, even more than MLB -- and too parochial. Like soccer fans, we hockey fans should just accept that the sport is awesome but most people in this country don't appreciate it. Nothing wrong with loving the No. 4, or No. 5, or No. 6 sport in the US.

Sounds wise. But few fans can be expected to accept and internalize that what they LOVE many other people only like. Yet we have little problem understanding that we may love a type of music that is never going to be the most  popular. I love the blues. It's never going to be No. 1-2-3. That's my gain. But it's nobody's loss.

Outta here. Cheers.

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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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