Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Feb 24, 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

Extremely excited by your piece on Harper, a great read. I guess there's only one thing I have to ask of you... what do you think Harper's stats will be this year?

Great question.

The sensible answer, just assuming better health and some marginal growth over '13, is something like ./285/.380/.510 with 30 homers, 90 RBI and >100 runs scored if he plays 150 games.

It won't be LESS than last year. The question is: Will it be much more?

By age 21, almost all of the early-blooming stars had shown what their career level would be. And I think this year and next we probably we find out Harper's true level. Mantle didn't get to his peak levels until 24-25. But most phenoms do spike by 21-22 if they are going to do it.

Conigliaro was the same hitter at 19-20-22-22, an .850 OPS slugger. He started very good, didn't get better before his injury. Cesar Cedeno, a monster five-tool player, was near-great at 21-22 -- AS, GG, sixth and 11th in MVP. Griffey hit his stride at 21 with the said levels as his final career norms.

Harper is going to be a star. Will he be great? He has to stay in one piece. He seems to be focused on power and getting more distance to left-center field where he has a lot of well-hit balls that don't quite carry far enough to be doubles or homers and, instead. just barely get caught.

But 35-to-40 homers w >100 RBI is the cheerful/sane thought if you'd like to enjoy the weeks of anticipation before Opening Day. 

In your writeup, you praise the Fister deal as if we literally acquired 1919 Babe Ruth for cash. You even referred to him as a unicorn. Don't get me wrong, I am fully aboard the 2014 Nats hype train even with all the long term Braves extensions, but honestly, what do you feel Fister is capable of? I'd wager 220 IP with a lower ERA, perhaps 3.2? thoughts?

I don't think I compared Fister to Babe Ruth! I did compare him to Price, Hamels and Greinke, none of whom look to me like they are going to be Hall of Famers, but who are very fine Top 20 in baseball pitchers.

A sensible projection for Fister, with a strong contending team behind him, might be 14-9 (his record last year) or 15-11 with 200-to-215 innings and an ERA around 3.20. That's slightly lower than his 3>30 the last three years in the A.L. with the DH.

Just off past performance, the Nats have Strasburg with a <2.75 year in him soon if he gets the details of his game together. Gio, Z'mann and Fister are very similar. Fister goes just as deep into games as they do and, as a Tiger, had 69 percent quality starts. That is VERY high. When Gio had the run support he won 21. When Z'mann got runs he won 19. Fister is capable of the same ceiling in a given season. But the Nats would be happy over the next two years with 380 innings, ~28 wins.

He's a unicorn because his style is so unusual -- ultra-tall pitcher with the 585th fastball by mph, but an extremely effective pitcher. Aside from Jered Weaver, it's very hard to find such guys over 6-6. Lowe, who was 6-6, had some success though probably not Top 20 or 30 in MLB.

Watch how Fister expands the plate, convinces hitters he can throw any type pitch for a strike then, as game progresses, throws them just OFF the plate. He gets stronger as games progress and is slightly tougher the third (and fourth) time through the order than the first two times.

With Michael Sam having the courage coming out like he did, do you think that the HOF voters (well actually the seniors committee actually) finally make Jerry Smith the Hall of Famer he truly is?

I wrote about Smith when he had AIDS and came out before he died. I hope this link from 1986 helps.

Jerry Smith was always one of my father's favorite players. He spotted him in the exhibition season of his rookie year and said, "Great hands." Of all the Skins players we ever watched together, I think Smith was the one that mhy dad spotted as a real star before most other people did.

I hope Smith makes the HOF.  I've never done a complete analysis. But here's one comparison of how excellent he was. Mike Ditka got enormous praise at TE in that period. Ditka, in 158 games, had 427 catches for 5812 yards and 43 TDs. Smith, in 168 games, made 421 catches for 5496 yards and 60 TDs.

That's 60 TDs for Smith, 43 for Ditka who's in the HOF.

As my column said, his greatest act of courage wasn't a TD catch.

Why is MLB having such a hard time coming up with the home plate collision rule? ASA (Softball) has the perfect rule: At all times, it is the RUNNER'S responsibility to avoid the all out collision. At no time can the runner barrel into the catcher, if he does it is an ejection. Now regarding the run, it all depends on if the catcher has the ball. If the catcher does not have the ball, it is obstruction on the catcher and the run counts. If the catcher does have the ball, it is interference on the runner and the run does not count. It isn't hard to come up with. Why is MLB having such trouble?

Thanks for the info on the softball rule. I didn't know what it was.

MLB has a LOT of bang-bang plays at the plate. Seems to me that the man deffending the plate -- whether it's a catcher or a pitcher (on a wild pitch) or some other infielder on an unusual play-- should allow the runner a path to some part of the plate. I'll go into more detail on the rule and on the new replay rules when I feel like I've got a good handle on them and talked to players managers about them. It was interesting to learn that managers can "encourage" umps to look at replays at the UMP's discretion without using up a challenge. Better be nice to blue if you want him to do your challenging for you!

Really enjoyed your article re Greg M. Been ill lately, and just started reading my emails again, and a good friend sent me your article. As for Glavine, who also is going in, he should pay lots of umpires for his election. I'm a Mets fan, and I used to cringe when he pitched against the Mets. Seems he had a 23" wide plate with most umps. [ 3" on each side]. He never cud hold the jock of Greg M. He did not have near the ability, but he had more gift strikes than any pitcher I've watched, and I've watched baseball religiously since 1944 when Hal Newhowser was the best lefty around. So congrats on a great article re Greg M., and PLEASE don't write a glowing article on Mr. Glavine. P.S. The umps stopped giving Glavine both sides of the plate when the Mets acquired him...proving what a fake he was. Alan Drysdale [third cousin of Don]

I hear this a lot about Glavine. But you also heard it about Tommy John, Jim Kaat, Jaime Moyer and many other effective nibblers over the years. I'd love to know what PitchFX would show about Glavine in his prime. Pitchers with great late movement, like Glavine, often get a ton of close strikes called because they DESERVE them. It is the very FRONT of the plate where the strike or ball is called. The better the late movement, the more the catcher receives the ball outside what the viewer may think is the stroke zone.

A whole career full of umps didn't decide to "help Glavine." He won 300 because he earned it, imo. If you can nick a corner, or nibble so precisely that you are going to one strike call, then lure the ump into calling the next pitch a strike when it is one or two inches further off the plate, then that is an amazing skill. And part of the game.

With this late set of free agent moves, are the Orioles now admitting they won't be able to sign Davis and Weiters in two years and are now going for broke?

No, I think they are seperate issues. The O's payroll is only around $105M now. They simply waited -- and for good reason -- until the remaining free agents saw their best options disappear. To get Jimenez, whose mechanics have led to inconsistency, the O's had to go to four years ($48M). It's similar to the Nats giving Werth an extra year (at least) on his deal to get him to come to a team that was seen as flawed. The Nelson Cruz signing, may get them right back to the 85-to-88 win range, was somewhat similar to the Nats waiting, and waiting, until Rafael Soriano was still available very late in the off-season. Or maybe the Edwin Jackson signing when he couldn't get the four or five-year deal he wanted and needed a "soft pillow" to land on for a year before he went for (and got) the big money one year later.

The issue with Cruz is obvious. After his PED suspension will he be like Melky Cabrera who went from All-Star in '12 (then the PED bust) to medicority the next year in '13 when he was under intense scurtiny? My gut is that Cruz will continue to be a good power hitter when he plays. How much will he get injured. He's missed an average of 36 games a year for Texas. The O's will probably be delighted if they get 25 homers in 125 games from Cruz. He loves to hit in Camden Yards. Put on an amazing BP show last year before the game in which he hit two long homers.   

The Nats are slightly under $125M, a few million less than they actually budgeted.

FWIW, the Nats payroll is still <$125M, several million below where some in the organization thought they'd end up this winter. Do they have one more bench move available to them? They certainly seem to have finished everything except deciding the fifth starter and the last two crowded spots in the bullpen. Nice to see Jaime Carroll beaming by the batting cage in Viera, happy to be a Nat again. After he polayed well as a utility man for Washington in '05 at 31, I don't think I'd ever have guessed that he'd average 139 games, 424 at bats and a .282 batting average at ages 36-thru-38! Last year he tailed off to .211 in 225 abs. So, at 40, he'll have to prove he's not finished. But he's been foolin' 'em for years. Fine guy to have on a contending team as the 24th or 25th man -- if he can still play. Be fun iof he can because in low-scoring games he's a fine small-ball tool -- hit-and-run, squeeze bunt -- in the late innings.

Greetings Tom, With the kerfuffle over the HOF voting and the steroid players calmed down I do want to ask you about the managers. Torre and LaRusso are going in and all are thrilled. But, don't they have some obligation for looking the other way? Tony had McGuire and Canseco. Joe had A-Rod and Manny in L.A. Joe go to the 2008 NLCS for no other reason than Manny. If we are to believe that they were great managers they has to know. How could they have not known? I have a hard time demonizing the players while deifying the manangers.

The problem is: What are they supposed to do if they DO know? The GM acquires the players. The ownership pays them. They are part of the team you are given. If you try to "reform" them, but in the process make them lesser players, you've fulfilled some higher obligation, but what is your obligation to your employer?

A different question is which managers, if any, had a culture of PED use and somehow encouraged it. Are there any that did not just "close their eyes" but actually gave a few "winks" to go ahead and use the stuff? All I've ever heard is "probably turned a blind eye," NEVER "collected cheaters and encouraged them."

If Canseco called himself the "chemist," and bragged about all the PED users he'd helped and taught, then in all his travels was there ever a team that acquired him because they assumed that he WOULD teach some of their players how to get and use PEDs? I actually doubt it. Until the 2000's there was almost nobody in authority who actually thought there was a big problem with PEDs. Their ability to deny was spectacular. If some/many actually knew, then you'd have heard about it by now, I assume.

How worrisome is Nene's injury for the Wizards? Michael Lee just tweeted that Washington is 8-34 (!) without the Brazilian big man since he arrived in March 2012.

"Nervously await results of MRI" are just about the worst words you want to hear about a key player. And good reporters usually give you the best tips that they can on which way the wind seems to be blowing. You don't KNOW, but you know what key players or medical folks SEEM to think before the real final results arrive. Michael Lee is very good. So when you read "there's fear among some Wiz that Nene is done for the season" that means just what it says. People who know more than just "he sure looked like he was in pain" are very worried. But that's doesn't mean the MRI can't be clean. I've seen countless such bullets that were dodged.

Nonetheless, Nene is absolutely essential to the Wiz, probably right after Wall. They go out and get Andre Miller to make a run and about five second later...

The question about Nene has always been injury. Early in his career he had years with 80, 77, 77, 82 and 75 games played. But he also had a one-game season, a 16, a 55 and a 64. Ouch! The last two years have been 39 and 61.

So, since he's played 49 already this year, you can be sure the Wiz are holding their breath. At 28-28 they desperately need him to be healthy. They can win games without him. But can they cause a fuss in the playoffs without him? Doubtful. Cross fingers.

I know everyone asks about Harper, but I think one of the big factors this year will be Denard Span. If he plays all season like he did the second half of last season, there should be more runners on base for the bashers to drive in. Second question, what do you think of the O's picking up Cruz?

Span is a hidden key. Which player is he? There are about a hundred plausible Nats lineups. But none of them look as good if Span has a .311 on-base percentage as he did when the Nats hit bottom after the Braves series in August. Not even close to good enough. After that, as the Nats went 32-16, his OB percentage was .368 -- what they hoped he'd be and what he was his first two years in MLB.

Over the last 4 yrs, a huge data sample, Span's OB percentage is only .332, about league average, and he averages just 17 steals with a paltry three HRs and only 75 runs scored (his total last year) if he plays ~140 games. He's a wonderful CF, but it's been a long time since he was even an average leadoff man, imo.

You have to believe a LOT in the value of defensive runs saved to justify Span as a leadoff man. Both Wiulliams and Rizzo do. Me, not so much. Does he end up hitting eighth? That's a weak bottom of the order. So, hope the last 48 games were a sign.

Yes, advanced stats think he was a pretty decent player last year with a 2.4 WAR. And in '12 it was a sterling 5.1 WAR. Which player in '14?

The three candidates for the fans' choice bobble head have been announced. They are Tyler Clippard, Matt Williams, and Adam LaRoche. Please vote for Clip by texting 36 to 99778 or by tweeting or choosing his picture on the team's Facebook page. Clip has been with the Nats since December 2007, has amazing reliever stats, and has never had a bobble head. Please right this wrong.

Ah, the causes of Justice are served in strange ways. But, yes, I'd go with the Clip vote.

Boz, After the first full squad workouts, what strikes you the most about the team so far? And what questions are you still looking to be answered in the coming days and weeks?

They have a really remarkable depth of good arms. Not just "will pitch in MLB someday," but higher ceilings. Front office really does well with "last man" that it includes in its trades -- lefty Felix Rivero (Farns trade) has impressed many, including Livo, and sleeper Blake Treinen (SP in minors in Michael Morse deal) has impressed EVERYBODY -- Boone, McCatty. There isn't room for all of them, or anywhere near all of them, on a 12-man staff. Purke, Solis, Cole all looked far better than many Nat prospects over the years.

If Roark has the same high-quality command this spring that he had last year, I look for him to get the fifth rotation spot with Detwiler in bullpen and Jordan in AAA. Just a guess. If Roark isn't as sharp as '13 -- I don't mean 1.51 ERA, just "plus" command -- then he can't do it on stuff alone, though he touches 94 mph. He's got a real bulldog attitude.

Can Espinosa hit .235? If he can, he really helps, either as high-level utility man or even a starter because the HR power and SB are there. Also, he's huge insurance behind Desmond both now and even if '16. Can he hit? No idea. LaRoche's hitting is question No. 2. 

BTW, re Nene worries, Steinberg just tweeted this: "Btw, Kornheiser coined "Curse of Les Boulez" on a February 26. Just missed."

There have been some rumors floating around that the Angels and Mike Trout have been discussing a 6 year, $150 million deal. Trout only has two years of service in the books and this deal would only set him up for another massive payday when he turns 28. Do you think this makes any sense for the Angels? If both sides happen to agree to a deal along the lines of what has been reported, do the Nationals change their approach with Harper?

The Braves have set an ultra-aggressive line with their signings of Freeman and Kimbrel years before some thought it was necessary. The Nats, I suspect, role their eyes. I assume they'll take the risk of waiting to find out whether the Real Harper has an OPS of .850, like last year which is very good, or .950, which is sometimes an MVP candidate, or even 1.050, which is huge, like Trout or Mantle in his prime.

You don't give Harper a superstar deal until he proves he is one. That's a long way from a career high of 60-some RBI. I really enjoy Bam Bam, but, like everybody, I want to see the actual production and the ability to stay in one piece.

Hey Boz. I just got back from family trip to Florida for a little spring training fun. Man, there is nothing like it. Didn't see you among the press corps, but maybe you were incognito in a bucket hat and shades. Just want to say how impressed I am with the way so many of the players go out of their way to be friendly and sign for fans - e.g. my kids got Stras, Gio, Bryce, Jordan Z, etc. etc. But there are a few guys who just do not seem to be very "fan-friendly" - - Werth - I'm not surprised, but Ryan Z - what gives? He can be like Stras and just sign a few and go, but at least make an effort. Werth and Ryan both just disappear in the van. Nobody expects them to stay out there and sign all day, but at least make an appearance - let the kids get to meet you. But again - most of the players were very fan-friendly. Thanks - love your columns and chats.

I came back a couple of days ago, so you may have missed me. Sorry. Z'man must hold the franchise record for autographs and geniality with fans. You were unlucky. It all depends on the day you get them. I've ceratinly seen Werth sign. But they are a good group. I sometimes wonder if they are too good. I asked three or four vets, "When are you going to get some jerks in here?" Joking, but... All said, "Rizzo doesn't go out and get (bleeps)." Maybe Williams adds some edge or brings it out in others. Aside from Werth, Harper and Desmond, some others can use more fire in the eye.   

Hello, Like many, last week, leading up to the NBA trade deadline, I emailed a lot with friends. When a Deng rumor was floated, I said I would probably trade Nene just for his expiring contract. I said I loved watching Nene play and was a massive fan of his, but frankly he looked almost completely spent already and still had 2.5 more extremely extremely expensive years left on his deal. That was last week. All fans always think they could do a better job than the current coach/manager--that's just part of sports. But in the case of the Wizards I think it's actually true. And that's not to brag. Kind of damning myself with faint praise. Sorry to be rambling and ranty. But it has been more than 10 years! I know the Wiz aren't really big news around here but they are important to me for some reason. Is there any hope for change? I really wish there were more accountability in sports. "Owners." Ha. That says it all.

Rants appreciated. I've enjoyed all the progress in this 28-28 team. Lot of fun players. But Nene and Gortat are essential. So it's not like they have young blocks of granite as foundation stones in the front court. So, I'm enjoying this year and await those Nene MRIs today. 

Hey Tom. I think we can all agree that team USA Hockey ended up disapointing in Sochi. Canada and Finland are both good teams so it's not a total shock they were able to beat the US team but I was rather shocked how dominated the American team was in both games. Why was this? Would you blame the style of play? Coaching? Sad Olympic Bear?

Not surprised that US threw in a clunker vs. Finland after their gold hopes were lost. Doesn't speak well for them. Bronze is worth an effort.

I was more struck by the fact that the US only had four gold medals in sports which did not debut in this Olympics. The other five golds were in new events which, frankly, always tend to be "What new sport have the Americans invented that we can put in the games  and help them have a better showing?"

I covered the Heidens, Eroic and Beth, at the '80 games when the U.S. was a speed skating powerhouse -- one of the toughest of all sports. Still remember their spartan training facilities outside Milwaukee (in West Alice, Wisc?). This time, we were shutout in speedskating!? Nothing except an ice dancing gold in figure skating!? 

The Mikaela Shiffrin gold was cool, but wish she hadn't talked about getting "five" gold next time. "Sorry I just admitted that to you all." Oh, NOT to be 18 at the very monet when acting your age does you no good. Oh, well, all part of her exciting total package. 

Got to admit that 11 golds for Norway, population five illion, vs nine for U.S. still shocks. Yes, I know Norway  is North of the North Pole. But how many cold STATES in the U.S. have more than 5 million population.

Grump, grump. Glad for all 28 medals we did get. And even happier that there were no incidents in Sochi. Because they might have been a lot more than "incidents." Our Post troops did an exceptional job of personalizing, dramatizing and synopsizing for someone like me who a "tweener" on winter sports. If you don't pull me in, I drift away. They pulled me in.

Who do you have filling in the last two spots after Lobaton, McClouth, and Hairston?

Tyler Moore for sure. Espinosa or Carroll.

Born in D.C. a lifelong fan. That means the Skins for 53 years. I say I won't and then always end up drinking the Kool Aid during camp only to be disappointed come the season. Is there a reason to take a smalllll sip with Mr. Gruden in town, or should I stick with my Vodka and Tonic which I resort to usually after the first game or two of the new season???

Have a twist of Gruden in a double vodka. If they go 3-13 again, call it a "Gruesome." If they go 8-8, toast each win with a "Grutini."

The talk of Fister prompts this question. I assume that the release point of pitches from a tall pitcher is closer to the plate than for shorter pitchers. If that is so, is it enough to affect the amount of time between release and the plate, effectively speeding up the pitch?

Yes, to a slight degree. Maybe it makes his 88.8 more like 89.8. But that's still not in the top 400 fastballs.

It's amazing to me that Fister can use command and sinking action (also a cutter with the same delivery but just a different grip) to have the 12th most effective fastball in MLB over the last three years. Even if the methodolgy for valuing "effective pitches" is somewhat imprecise it's still stunning to see 88.8 mph ranked one spot below Verlander.

Hello Boz, I think the way the IOC treated Backie is horrible. His team doctor knew about the Pseudophed (a decongestant not an antihistimine). Why didn't they alert the IOC ahead of time? BTW, you can't buy drugs with that ingredient in it on the shelves. Although you can get it without a prescription; you must ask the pharmacist behind the counter to get it for you. This is so it can't be bought in bulk and used to make other things. Backie contributed to getting the Swedes to the Gold Medal Game. He should get his medal! Don't you think?

Too bad about Backstrom. I'm not going to play hockey-drug-expert on this one. But not such a wonderful Games for the Caps.

I noticed no questions on Ovechkin!

How many countries can throw one hockey player under the bus!? Russia, Canada. And his father has to have a heart procedure. Adam and I went in the Nats room as they watched a Russian hockey game. We asked one hockey nut "Why does Ovechkin take so much flack?" Answer: You mean just because he plays no defense and only skates when it puts him in position to get a shot?

Okay, well there's that. But imagine a three-time MVP in MLB or NBA who had enormous offensive ability, plus one other strength (Ovechkin's big hits), but was constantly ripped for his defense. No 45 homer hitter or 30-ppg scorer would take that heat. 

But maybe in hockey defense just means more. And under pressure, in the Olympics and the NHL post-season Ovi does seem to panic and try to do too much himself. That's not as bad as "disappearing" in the clutch. But he needs the same balance in his game as in normal NHL games -- mostly the great shot, but also awareness of other possibilities.

Anyway, I feel bad for him.  Hope he can get his head back together when he returns. All athletes deserve an honest critique but, man, does the hockey world LOVE to jump up and down on Ovechkin. Gee, isn't there some value in 60 goals in a LOW-SCORING sport?

Bos: When Glavine was active, I saw him one March in Lakeland, FL, v. Tigers. We had perfect seats behind the plate and high enough to see the ball cross the dish. On one early hitter, TG pitched to the black for a called strike. He next pitched exactly on more ball width off the plate for another called strike. (The "complaint pitch" of the earlier chatter, Drysdale.) He next pitched exactly one more ball width off the plate for "ball one." Then, after a smile and a shrug, he threw the same pitch he had thrown for strike two. And got the call again. Masterful.

In the NBA pivot, you have to know what the refs will call. In the NFL you have to sense what is holding, or interference, and what isn't. Working the K zone is a skill. It counts, too.

Does he have a realistic chance to unseat Rendon? is it really an open competition?

Doubtful. But it's still fair to phrase it that way, as "open." Rendon is a big part of the future. Espinosa's ability to play a strong SS, as a backup or in future, and his willingness to play at third this spring too (cannon arm could allow him to play Machado Deep) is a really nice piece for a contender to have. You truly want to give him every kind of psychological support. It's just common sense.

Any thoughts on Ovi - post Olympics ? He just doesn't come up "large" when the lights are the brightest.

He's 28. He has a coach who appreciates him and was a linemate of two great scorers and thus understands his considerable, if lopsided value. There's still time. 

Just wanted to note, in passing, that the player who commented on Ovi then made a half-dozen points about all the things he was good or wonderful at. He was just explaining, when asked, why Ovi was an easy target to criticize, but in the context of being a three-time MVP.

That's it until next Monday. Fingers still crossed on MRI. That's really a big part of a season hanging on one knee. Thanks again for all your insightful questions.

When do you seen Giolito making the jump to the big show and where do you think he will ultimately fit in to the Nationals rotation?

I haven't seen him throw yet. He's still only 19  -- 19 -- with just 38 innings in the minors. Like every teenager, he has a lot to learn about the pro game. The Nats don't need to rush him -- at all. There's quite a pipeline that needs to be evaluated. Even if he's exceptional, and now the No. 21 prospect in the minors, he won't be 20 until July. We'll have to relax. 

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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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