Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Dec 12, 2016

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, Wizards, the NFL and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

I see the Eaton move as getting Bryce Harper's replacement. I see the move for Jansen as spending money that would go to Harper. So are the chances Harper is extended pretty much gone at this point? That seems to be the message the Nats are sending,

I'll address this at greater length very soon..

But the short answer is "Yes."

When the Nats saw that they should not, or did not believe that they would be able to sign Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to long-term extensions, they "moved on" as an organization and did it YEARS before they were caught by the dilemma. They traded for Trea Turner to take over at shortstop of Desmond and they signed Max Scherzer for $210M to replace Zimmermann, even though they played together for a year.

Now they've gotten Eaton, far in advance, signed through '19-'20-'21 so they don't have a void if-when Harper leaves, which it certainly looks like he probably will because nobody knows how to "value" him as a player right now. Is he the Bryce of '15 or of '16? Nobody knows. So everybody is frozen. Nobody can even imagine what a deal would look like until there is far more Harper Certitude, and that probably won't arrive until Bryce is close enough to free agency -- perhaps a year from now -- when it will make the most sense for him to "test the waters." That doesn't always mean "gone." But more often than not.  

Did we trade Espi for the equivalent of a bag of balls? That's what it seems like..

Yes.

And $5m in salary that the Nats won't have to pay and presumably will use to sign a closer or otherwise strengthen the bullpen.

The Angels apparently want to start Espinosa at 2d base beside Simmons. That should be a flashy combo.

Espinosa finally got to show what he could do defensively at SS. He was good. But I think he's more of a "plus" defensively at second base. The last two years he's hit like he, apparently, is always going to hit: .690 OPS, HRs, an on-base percentage around .310 because he's so tough and gets hit by so many pitches, but almost 30% strikeouts which drives everybody crazy.

I think this is best for both. He's back home in SoCal. And he won't be at the bottom of a lineup with Norris-Lobaton at C and the pitcher -- which would have been brutal, especially if Zimmerman doesn't bounce back well batting No.6. In short, because Ramos left town (and the Nats no longer had a hard-hitting catcher), Espi had to leave town, too. He was a luxury they could no longer afford with a pair of catchers who, on paper, look like they'll be weak hitters.

This move was almost certainly going to happen anyway because Ramos would have left DC even if he hadn't gotten hurt. The Nats made it clear with their $30M low-ball offer to him, while he was still healthy, that they assume he was a "fit" in the AL with the DH and they weren't going to get into any bidding contest over him when AL teams had reason to go higher. After the injury, all the more reason to go to the AL.

He can still have his moments. Granted, they are getting more spread out but that was a brutal pick six yesterday. Can we say he shook it off though?

That is probably the correct message to take from it -- and definitely the message that HE took from it. After the game, he said that "picks sixes are part of the NFL" and that's it's how you bounce back from them that matters most. We all remember how he seemed to deflate early in his career after bad mistakes. Cousins came back to lead the 77-yard drive for the winning scoring, including the 33-yard deep ball to Crowder and the vital fourth-and-two completion for six yards to Garcon. As Gruden said of the 4th-and-two, "That was the game." 

Since moving here, I've enjoyed observing the dulusional local football fans convince themselves (year after year) that this season will be different and/or their current savior will resurrect the failing team. This year the fantasy seems to be lingering longer than usual. I still believe the Skins will join their baseball and hockey counterparts in a quick exit in the first round of the playoffs. Do you see any real evidence they make a real run in the weak NFC?

There's real evidence that I probably wouldn't want you as my next door neighbor, Delusional Downer. Jeez, give a city a break.

The Skins are rebuilding a rubble of a franchise that bottomed (recently) at 7-25. They're doing a very nice job so far. The only thing DC may be guilty of is demanding too much too soon of the Skins. They had some sickly personal when Iron Mike left town. But he did leave one nice thing behind -- Cousins.

Nobody in the NFC is particularly scary this season. Green Bay, whom the Skins squashed, just beat Seattle by four TDs. The Giants, whom the Skins beat, have now beaten the Cowboys twice. And they made Prescott look worried and YOUNG in the second half last night. Those close-up shots show facial expressions very well. The Lions, another NFC playoff team, barely beat the Skins in Detroit on a semi-miracle last minute drive.

It's always easy to say, "Oh, they'll get knocked out early." I think it's also a little lazy. Because of first-round byes, the two "best" teams in the NFC won't even play the first round. Sure, the Skins could make it and lose fast. But they have a really fancy passing attack when they're reasonably healthy and they have a MUCH better team chemistry and sense of resiliency under Jay and Scot than they have in years. They're a fun team. They, to a degree, seem to enjoy pressure and rise to it. Enjoy 'em.

Granted, they got big breaks or made big plays on Sunday to avoid losing. They gave up Sproles 72-yard punt return -- called back for a block in the back (Thanks, Zach Ertz, who said, "I feel terrible about it.") The Eagles botched a low snap on a 50-yard FG attempt in the second half because their snapper -- Jon Dorenbos who, I think, was runner-up on America's Got Talent (as a magician) -- was hurt. The Skins also escaped after hitting an upright with a missed FG from 39 yards. Has Dustin Hopkins got that PAT-to-39-yard distance "in his head" since his overtime miss in London?

DC fans are often frustrated but this is not one of our delusional periods. The Caps and Nats really have been very good in recent years and could have gone further or much further. But hockey and baseball are the two sports where basic talent is measured least in the playoffs and a Hot Hand, or a hot goalie, or too much Kershaw can has a disproportionate impact.   

Everybody wants to win it all -- in every sport -- about once every 30 years. But for those of us who prefer to retain our sanity for the other 29 years, we don't mind having good winning teams that go to the playoffs, like the Skins last year, or the Nats and Caps who have been at the top of their sports for years now.

Hey Boz, I was struck by how similar the offensive numbers between Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon are, from Fangraphs: BA: .284 OBP: .357 SLG: .414 OPS: .771 Stolen bases: 54 Home runs: 34 RBI: 177 BB: 195 Hits: 582 wRC+: 113 WAR: 12.8 Anthony Rendon through 487 games, 2,079 at bats: BA: .274 OBP: .345 SLG: .433 OPS: .777 Hits: 153 Stolen bases: 31 Home runs: 53 RBI: 85 BB: 65 Hits: 504 wRC+: 113 WAR: 13.6 If Giolito, Lopez and Dunning would be a fair trade for Rendon, then it's got to be a fair trade for Eaton

FanGraphs has been doing excellent work on Eaton since the middle of last year. Just google Eaton and FanGraphs and you'll find a piece with video of 1o of his best defensive plays and another on how/why he's one of the games hidden stars.

How much did the Nats give up?

Dunning was the 29th pick in the draft. In the NFL, that means you're good. In MLB it doesn't mean much at all, especially with pitchers. I've looked through those draft picks back to '65 by draft-pick order and am always amazed that so few, if they aren't picked in the top 15, ever do much at all. So I view Dunning as a very small piece until he proves otherwise. But, yes, the White Sox say they like him a lot.

Giolito was a big disappointment every time he pitched -- a mystery almost. Many baseball writers pointed out that the Sox do good work with young pitchers. I said, "And Mike Maddux doesn't?" Maddux may be the best in the business right now and he got to watch Giolito and Lopez from spring training until they were actually up and pitching for HIM late in the season. He must not have been screaming, "NO, NO, NO" too loud.

My guess is that Lopez will be the 100-game winner in the group -- and you'll be surprised how few active pitchers have 100 career victories. Or very good reliever.

The Nats gave up too much in the sense that if you did a guesstimate of the range of the careers of the three prospects it would be amazingly wide -- like 75 career wins for all of them to maybe 250 career wins total. And maybe the "mid-point of this daydream exercise would say that they will "probably" be worth more than Eaton.

But Eaton is as close to a certainty as you can get in a trade. (Okay, NOBODY is certain.) Everyday player, not a pitcher. His yearly numbers look identical. I think that WAR flatters him too much, just as it was way too kind to Heyward last year when he got the ridiculous >$180M deal with the Cubs. You just CAN'T catch enough flyballs in RF and hold enough runners from taking an extra base to compensate for being a really mediocre hitter for the last several years.

But Eaton cost $38M for five years, which leaves a lot of payroll to spend on others in the future. A team roster is a PUZZLE. Your needs and your resources and your (multiple) time frames have top interlock.

I think the Nats overpaid. But I think they knew it and Eaton DOES "check a lot of boxes."

Now I will make one snarky and enjoyable (to me) comment. Six weeks ago, I made up a winter wish list for the Nats in a column. It was short.

*Offer Desmond $75m for five years to play CF. Then you can move him anywhere you want as Werth, Harper (maybe) leave, whether it's LF, CF, RF or, as the Rox are doing, 1st base. Turns out Ian signed for $70M for five years. The Nats apparently made no real effort to get him despite both sides saying they had no bad feelings about his departure.

*Go after Melancon early and hard before the FA market for star relievers drives prices to the sky. It's a risk because he's 31. But I thought it should be considered very seriously because I doubted the Nats could, or can get Chapman or Jansen. SF, and the Giants are smart folks, thought enough of Melncon to give him $62M for 5 yrs with an opt out after two years. The Nats may have been as much as $10M shy of that offer.

*Make Pedro Severino the starting catcher.

*Call it a winter unless something big falls in your hands. (That turned out to be making a run at Sale, which was a very good idea.)

So, we'll see how Desmond and Melancon work out in their new homes. Hey, "don't listen to me" is usually a decent rule.      

I hear the KC Royals have decided they have too many free agents after next year, and want to trade some veteran talent. How would Lorenzo Cain fit into the center field void for the Nats?

As I mentioned in a trade last week, Cain was a theoretical idea if you wanted to dream up a CF deal for the Nats. But you'd only get him for one year. The McCutchen deal has some merit because you'd him for two years while you still have Harper. But he was so bad last year that he seemed risked. Dusky Baker said the Nats players thought he might have had a hand injury at some point because "we couldn't believe we were throwing fastballs by him." Baker also said he saw some Cutch misplays in CF that were not something he'd have done in previous years "when he caught everything," so Dusty speculated "leg injury" to cover that one.

When you have to come up with different injuries/excuses for different parts of a player's failing game maybe you should be careful. But everybody loves Cutch and wants to see him come back.

The Eaton trade blew away the other possibilities because it is so rare -- can you say "unheard of" to get a player coming off a 6.0 WAR season who just turned 28 last week, is locked up for FIVE years and at less than half of Dexter Fowler's $82.5M/5yr deal that was signed last week.

Fowler is similar to Eaton, but two yrs, eight months older, and probably not quite as good a player.

But it's only a bargain -- from a fan's point of view -- if the Nats use their $50M Eaton "discount" to add other talent.  

Boz, have you noticed the results of the five games that have featured the Redskins, the Giants and the Cowboys? Giants over the Cowboys by 1 Cowboys over the Redskins by 4 Redskins over the Giants by 2 Cowboys over the Redskins by 5 Giants over the Cowboys by 3 Combined victory margin: 15 points Individual game margins: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 points. We've got to be rooting for the Skins to close out the season with a 6 point win over the Giants. Talk about 1 in a trillion.

Nice!

It's hard for teams to accept the notion of true parity -- that they probably aren't really much better than many other teams -- and that, unlike their earlier years in football, they are going to have to rely on each other to endure one close game after another and that winning 60 percent of those games is a big success story.

For YEARS from the late-'90's until the last couple of years, I went into Skins locker rooms after games and, time after time, had to listen to them talk about how good they WERE and how good they SHOULD BE, right after they LOST. It's not wise for reporters, spotting pro athlete 100+ pounds and a few decades, to say, "You guys are only good in your DREAMS. Everything you say, week after week, is what LOSERS say. You don't respect the game. You don't respect your opponents. You only respect your self-inflated reps and the Skins-World culture that enables you in you delusions." I should have made up a card to hand out in an envelop that said, "Open this note after I am safely out of the vicinity." 

You try to be as blunt as you can. But Team Culture established to what degree a team is in contact with reality. NOW, finally, you have a GM who doesn't blow smoke in their ear holes. Jeez, he won't even roll over and get on board the Kirk Is Wonderful Train yet. And Gruden tells them over and over that they have to play their best to win ANY game against ANYBODY because, though they're pretty good, they're not anywhere near as good as they need to become -- someday. It's so refreshing.

And it's one central reason that you can enjoy this team so much more now. The other is that "team culture" and "individual character" go together. I don't want to jinx 'em by saying anything too nice, then have 15 guys make fools of themselves, but the Skins now have a team that you can enjoy talking to. Maybe that's partly because many are young and hungry. Maybe part of it is Cousins civility and Lord of the Rings goofiness, as opposed to RGIII, who always seemed so likeable in conversation, yet still gave off this odd sense of world-celebrity entitlement that had become part of him.

Example. I asked Robert Kelley, in passing, if he'd ever heard of a Redskin named Larry Brown. He said, "No." I said -- real quickly because guys after games don't want to listen to a lot of words from anybody -- that he was an unknown back out of a little-followed college (Kansas St, I think), like Kelley. That Brown had no real speed, couldn't catch passes very well, was about Kelley's size, relative to his era, and didn't have flashy moves. But he ran like a crazy man, life-or-death fighting for every yard, had quick feet and feeling for when holes would open and how to follow blocks. "And he led the NFL in rushing one year and was MVP of the NFL the next year. He's still around. Probably in his 60's. Quiet, humble guy. Everybody loved him."

Kelley said, "Let me write down that name." He did. So, he says he's going to look for old clips of Larry Brown and "maybe learn something."

Seemed like a very New Skins 90 seconds.    

Hi Tom, the Adam Eaton deal and immediate reactions (e.g., Mike Rizzo getting skewered in the press, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper skipping out on Nats Fest last weekend, etc.) bring back unpleasant memories from last year (Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Williams, the Bud Black fiasco, rejections by Ben Zobrist, Brandon Phillips and Jason Heyward, etc.) and makes one wonder about lingering culture issues in the Nats’ clubhouse. Experts in the MLB media have critiqued Mike Rizzo as being brilliant in two out of three aspects of roster construction: (1) assembling the right skill sets on the field; and (2) aligning player contracts (number of years and dollar values) to keep affordable and controllable players in place as long as possible and avoid large talent and budget disruptions; but less masterful in managing the third critical aspect, i.e., the intangibles of player personalities and team culture. Adam Eaton sounds like a fine player with skills and a contract that meet the Nats’ needs. There are lots of fair questions about whether he’ll produce at his recent WAR level in CF, whether he was worth the three prospects Rizzo sacrificed for him, etc. But there is also a question about whether his personality will be a good fit in the Nats clubhouse. He’s been described as a “me-first” guy who’s been unpopular with team mates in Arizona and Chicago. Rizzo seems to like Eaton’s high-energy, “hair on fire” style of play; but it seems like the deal for Rizzo was mostly about acquiring an under-valued controllable asset. Has the deal exposed a continuing weakness in Mike Rizzo’s roster construction, i.e., a meticulous eye for meshing skills and contracts, but a lesser feel for integrating personalities into a positive, winning team culture?

A Chicago reporter who covers the White Sox told me an interest story about Eaton. A couple of years ago the reporters father was in bad ill -- and would later die -- and had a vintage Corvette that he'd kept stored for a long time. The father wanted to sell it. I don't know why. Maybe hospital bills or just to get things in order because of his problems. Eaton is a big fan of Corvettes. The reporter casually mentioned his father and the Corvette to Eaton. The outfielder and his wife set up a day to go with this guy -- I'm sure they know the reporter in Chicago but it's not like he's world famous or anything -- to drive to see the father's car, investigate how much it might be worth and how to go about selling it. Eaton saw the whole process through to the end, using his expertise to get a good price for someone he barely knew. Eaton plays very hard and he may have rubbed a couple of teammates/opponents the wrong way -- I don't know about that, it'll be a fresh start in DC and we'll see about that. But I do know that the Chicago reporter said, "NOBODY has ever gone out of his way to that extent, especially basically a stranger, to do anything that nice for me. DC is getting a great guy in Eaton."  

All good news so far. The team is competitive every week. I'm sure he'll patch up the defense over the off-season and lock down Cousins. Hard to ask much more than what this guy has already delivered, no?

Had you seen enough to say move on from him???

I thought, "Move on."

But NOT move on from Lopez. That's what shocked me. (And plenty of others.) Substitute Fedde or Voth's name for Lopez in that trade and a couple of eyebrows will raise, but not many -- it's just be a sane trade with a lot of near-certainty for the Nats and a lot of ceiling for the White Sox..

Seems as if Mike Rizzo is catching heat for the wrong reasons. Understand the trade for Eaton, although would have been nice to throw in some other prospects (especially Michael K Taylor) to bring in Robertson too. However, the trade for Danny Espinosa seems to be a steal for the Angels, similar to the earlier Nats trade for Gott. Was it just a salary dump of an unhappy player or was his trade value really so exceptionally low?

Danny wasn't unhappy yet. But he probably would have been! I doubt that the real reason he was traded would have appealed to him: We could tolerate one awful hitting glove man in our lineup, but now we have two (maybe) poor hitters because our catcher combined hit about .200 last year. No contender is good enough to start a season carrying two suitcases full of outs that huge -- so YOU have to go. But we really thank your for those four really solid all-around seasons when you had a 1.7 to 2.7 WAR and helped up by playing every day on teams that won 98 (in '12) and 95 (in '16).

The Nats sure seem to be clearing salary for something -- Espinosa, Revere (non-tendered), Ramos, Papelbon (see, you forgot he was $11M in '16), Petit and assorted minor others. They better hope they find some way or ways to spend it. 

If they don't get Kenley Jansen, and landing him away from the Dodgers in LA (weather, familiarity and $$$) would be a coup, the Nats need to add TWO solid arms to that bullpen, even if they aren't established closers, because with Rivero gone (for Melncon) and a whiff on the long-shot Chapman, their bullpen is NOT ready for '17. The job can get done. But it sure hasn't been done yet. Among other things, Koda Glover's torn labrum explains why his performance fell off late in September. But it's also worrisome because, according to one of our stories this weekend, he chose "rehab" for his hip this winter as opposed to one of the alternatives -- a hip replacement. What? Can that be right? Gotta get more detail on that.

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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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