Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Mar 25, 2019

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

Past Ask Boswell chats

Hello, from Nats Park

Thanks to this 11 a.m. Chat start, I'm the first person in an empty press box looking out at an (almost) empty ballpark and all the fresh hopes of a new season. Brings out the kid in everybody. Let's talk March Madness, especially Duke's amazing escape on Sunday, the Terps tough loss on Saturday. (Did Waters really take three steps plus a toe-tap before his winning layup?). Also, Nats preview with opening day on Thursday. Yanks in town for a 5 p.m. exhibition this evening at Nats Park. Also, last week's Caps Bolts classic and the build-up to the Capitals defense of their Stanley Cup Championship. That and any other subject you pick: right up until 12:35 when (a sign of spring) the Nats clubhouse opens and, in a sent, a season begins. Cheers -- to the best time of the year (sports and otherwise).

They won't sneak up (sort of) on anyone one and they have lost 2 to the Lightning - can they get past the Lightning assuming they meet in the playoffs?

Fighters make fights and, in the NHL playoffs, styles of play and specific team-vs-team match-ups have extra weight.

Yes, the Caps can beat the Lightning if they meet in the Eastern Conference Finals again. But several things have to happen. And the exceptional Lightning are already showing that they plan to prevent those things from occurring.

First, based on regular-season record, Tampa Bay is perhaps the second-best team, or maybe even the best team in the NHL over the last 20 years. They have been insanely dominant, flirting with an .800 points-percentage. When the Caps won their three Presidents Trophies they were always in the .720s and .730s in pts-percentage. So it's an uphill battle against the team that is No. 1 in the NHL in both the power play and the penalty kill, plus fabulous goaltending.

However, the Caps beat the Lightning up and wore them down in last year's seven-game battle. The Caps were the bullies --generally a hockey compliment, especially in the playoffs. In their two meetings in the last 2 weeks, the Bolts have tried to match the Caps for physical toughness, especially singling out Tom Wilson for contact. But, by the 3rd period of their second meeting last week, the Caps had much the better of the play and set a franchise record with 58 shots on goal in the game. But only Kuznetsov, with a last-minute goal to tie the game 4-4, and get the Caps a standings point, was able to cash in late in the game.

The Lightning were certainly ready for a fight in both meetings. Defenseman Michal Kempny got in a checking battle on the boards that ended up in a fight in which his knee was injured --it's not known exactly how badly. But that incident is a sign of the importance of attrition in any Caps-Bolts meeting.

To win --and they would certainly be underdogs for good reason-- the Caps would have to minimize penalties, thus emphasizing their ability --which few teams have-- to play the Lightning to a standstill at even strength.

Braden Holtby has to be remarkable in goal against one of the highest-scoring teams ever. With hindsight, it's incredible that he shutout this team BACK-TO-BACK last year in Games Six and Seven to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. (They were his first shutouts of the season!)

There will be weeks to discuss all this. For now, the Caps need to keep their slim one-point lead (over the Islanders of Barry Trotz) in the Metropolitan Division. Lots of bridges to cross to get to Caps-Bolts -- but it would be a Dream Rematch. I was watching the tape of the game again last night -- if anything the pace of play and imagination on both sides was even better than when seeing it live.

Nats win division? Get to championship series? How do both Soto and Robles do this year? Will Max be the same consistent Cy Young contender he's been since arriving? More? Not just Nats - what are your predictions for this season?

An on-going pole at ESPN has asked who will win the N.L. East. Fans, or at least the fans who've voted so far, have both the Phils and the Braves with a 35% chance to win and the Nats and Mets with about a 15% chance each.

So, the Nats should "enjoy" not being burdened with TOO many expectations. The baseball media, by and large, still likes the Nats chances and generally puts them on an even footing with the Phils as division favorites, with perhaps a slight edge to the Nats because of better starting pitching.

I think the Nats, now that they have gotten through spring training (almost) in one piece (pretty much, so far) look like an 88-to-90-win team in a division where that will probably get you into a last-week of September battle to win the N.L. East.

Last year, the Nats were sickly under-performers. Their run differential "should" have produced 90 wins, not 82. We're all wondering how much, if any, of that gap was due to a rookie manager. At least, it shouldn't take Davey Martinez half-a-season to get a feel for handling a pitching staff and especially not over-working a bullpen.

My biggest concern for the Nats, aside from injuries, which have been really high in recent seasons, is whether Patrick Corbin will get off to a solid start and be able to perform well after getting that $140-million contract. He had trouble in the early innings in his Florida starts and didn't get ahead in counts as much as usual. Martinez is already talking about getting him to tweak his pre-game routine in the sense of "we'll look at it" to see if his last minutes of warming up can focus on....what? After you pay $140-million for a player, I don't think you touch him until the second half of his first season. Don't bring him in and start messing with him or even talk about doing anything.

The Phils seem deep in new talent --a dead-serious quality team now-- even though they were awful in their late-season collapse last year. The state of Jake Arrieta will interest me. He's been poor in 3 starts (7.88) and has his last spring start today. Early-season starting pitching will be important in this division, meaning a likely edge for the Nats and Mets because their rotations are better and healthier right now. The Braves will start the season without Foltynewicz (elbow) on the IL and not expected back until May. Kevin Gausman also isn't ready for the bell.

What strikes me most about the N.L. East is its UNPREDICTABILITY and how much fun that will be this year. Sometimes I like to analyze and predict. But sometimes you just go through the list of players who could be big GOOD stories, but could also be mild disappointments and you see a very wide range of outcomes. The Nats are a perfect example. I think Robles will have a fine season. I was very impressed with him in Fla. But he's still a big "?" Will Dozier bounce back? Will Anibal Sanchez and Hellickson continue to look as excellent as they did in Fla? That's a lot to ask.

So, NL East predictions, since it's always manditory to look like a dope. Nats 90-72, Phils 88-74, Braves 86-76 and Mets 83-79. Just not a believer in that Mets everyday lineup.

Braves owners (Liberty media) are cheap and won't spend. It's good for the rest of the division, but bad for baseball to have a defending division winner who's acting like it doesn't have a nickel to its name. They signed Josh Donaldson for one years and then...nothing.

Rizzo, in his interview on the Rendon extension, talked about the team having a long term plan. I can't imagine that the Redskins have a long term plan. Baseball seems better equipped to long term planning due to their farm system. I believe basketball has a developmental league that is sponsored by professional teams. Do the other major sports teams have developmental leagues? Why doesn't football do the same?

Nats always talk about their 0ne-year, three-year and five-year plans. I think the Redskins have a one-month, three-month and five-month plan. If none of those work, they fire somebody.

Sure looks like GM Bruce Allen is running the off-season while Jay Gruden watches what hand he's going to be dealt. You see that constantly in MLB where the GM builds the roster and the manager then has to cope with it. But you'd like to see coordination between the front-office and coach in the NFL because the coach's systems (and his assistant's ideas) are important to what players you sign, draft or trade. With the Skins it's more like "Landon Collins would be a splashy sign. Let's do that." Collins is a fine player. But make a list of all the players on the Skins defense who won't be back --as I did here last week. It's a net negative right now.

Back to your main question: The NFL and NBA don't need SIGNIFICANT developmental leagues because they have COLLEGE SPORTS as a multi-billion-dollar industry to feed them -- and pay the players nothing (above the table).

The NBA has had affiliations with developmental teams. The NFL doesn't need it.

One reason MLB feels slightly less --and I mean only 'slightly' less-- exploitative of young players than the NFL and NBA is because, if you are good enough, you can get a bonus to sign out of high school or JC (like Harper, $9.9M). 

There is one area in which I DO NOT like the Nats current "Plan A" -- their bullpen. After Doolittle and Trevor Rosenthal (high-90's, but poor control so far), one Nat exec said recently that the next best-looking arm in Fla was Matt Grace. I suspect you may hear some early-season hints directed toward ownership --by players, execs, and anon-- that the Nats sure could use another proven quality bullpen arm.  You can't go back in time to revisit the signings --in the manageable $25M range-- of relievers Robertson, Ottavino, A Miller and Joe Kelly, but those are the sort they'll need (SOON, I suspect). At this point, signing Craig Kimbrel seems unlikely, but if the pen has early problems, you may have to look at trades. The Nats loved Austen Williams (8 shutout appearances) in Fla). That's nice. For him. But it makes me worry about that pen if you are talking about the wonders of discovering an unknown arm in your system. Yes, Williams did have a 1.19 ERA in 32 games in the minors last year.

If Harper knew that Trout would blow his offer out of the water by $100m, less than 2 weeks later, do you think Harper in hindsight would have made a more concerted effort to stay with the Nats during the exclusive rights period?

Here's a Mike Trout quote from over the weekend that was in the Athletic: "I kind of saw what Bryce and Manny went through and it drew a red flag for me. I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put perspective in my mind. I obviously want to be an Angel for life. That was a big key."

Man, that tells you a lot. He's talked to both Bryce and Manny. He sees their experience as a "red flag" about the wisdom of throwing yourself into free agency with no certainty that you will be pursued by glamor teams on the verge of winning. The strong hint may be that, if you don't negotiate with your original team early, then there may never be a way to "get back home" later in the process. The Nats certainly never "circled back" --as Boras kept hinting or planting-- to match any other team's final offer to Harper. When the door closed, it never opened again. The Nats said it was always open a crank --at least that's what they said publicly. It sure looked closed and shut after Corbin signed.

I suspect that neither Boras (his responsibility) nor Harper read the free agent market correctly AT ALL. With hindsight, it looks like Harper was fortunate that a team and town as good as the Phils and Philadelphia was still available to him. What if the Phils had reached a deal with Machado while Harper was still on the market?! Would Harper now be a Padre?

The Trout signing, and his comments afterward, make it clear that Bryce was just talking to hear himself talk -- or maybe wishful thinking-- when he riffed about recruiting Trout to come to Philly after 2020. He made it sound like his opinion or enthusiasm might carry some weight with Trout. Clearly, there was no significant link between the two.

So, after this Trout quote, my final take is going to stay consistent with my previous "reads" of this free agent off-season. 1) Machado and Harper were both shocked and disappointed by their lack or choices. 2) Whether by accident or not, there was a kind of "reverse auction" in which rich or famous teams declared themselves NOT to be interested in MM or BH. 3) Both Machado and Harper made final decisions which were strictly cases of "making the best of an unforeseen situation." That's not quite the same as making the best of a BAD situation. Harper has probably convinced himself that he is enormously happy to be a Phillie. And it may work out great for both. But there is no doubt in my mind that he is also a SHOCKED Phillie.

PS: There's no way that Harper could have foreseen all of this and changed his strategy in October and negotiated more aggressively with the Nats. He and Boras already had their plan: Test the market. 

Bryce Harper seemed determined to sign the largest baseball contract ever. My read was that he felt it was important to get more than Stanton had gotten, and so was willing to go for a 13 year contract to top that number. He set the table for Trout to relegate harper's contract to a footnote in the history books within weeks. Do you think he will end up regretting what he chose to emphasize, given that he could, for instance, have landed with the Dodgers?

We're thinking along the same lines. Before Harper signed, I thought that going to the Dodgers at a huge AAV would be the destination most likely to make him happy, famous and in possession of a ring. Then, if he and the Dodgers fell deeper in love, you extend the deal in the future. That's a form of "betting on yourself."

Sure feels like Bryce (or Boras) wanted to inch past the record of $325M. His deal will always be seen in the context of Trout blowing it away within days. It's not deliberate one-ups-man-ship. But it's certainly accidental one-ups-man-ship.

Duke has been the best team all season but almost lost to a nine seed last night. How will that scare affect Duke's chances of winning the championship? How does this change the course of the tournament? Should I be worried about my bracket?

FWIW, Zion Williamson would have had a big hand in a Duke defeat if Aubrey Dawkins' last-second tip-in goes in for a UCF upset win. Zion is amazing, but he's not perfect. Yet. His free throw percentage --64.5%-- wouldn't be good on a high school JV team. And his missed FT in the last 15 seconds could have ended up losing that game by a point.

Zion also missed a jump shot in the last 90 seconds. 

A few thoughts on that Duke escape. Coach K was his best self in the post-game interview on TV, in giving credit to his ex-Duke-assistant and now UCF coach Johnny Dawkins and his star son Aubrey. Coach K even said the magic words "we were lucky." Then he added that he (and everybody else) has good and bad luck at times in March. But it was nice of him to acknowledge that UCF played well enough to win.

BTW, until now I didn't know that UCF was U of Central Florida. I'd look at UCF and wonder "Is that the University of California at Fullerton --Cal-State-Fullerton." Sorry, UCF. 

A lot of fun to see UCF's 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall --one of the great names, be such a play-smart force in the middle, even against the 6-7 275-pound Williamson.

The combination of the Dawkins duo and Fall would have been the perfect March Madness story. And really spiced up the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, even though Maryland played two exciting games, this was about as mild and un-Mad a first week of basketball as I remember.

I KNOW that everybody, since Allen Iverson arrived at GU, has been taking an extra step on drives to the basket and that "everybody" also palms the ball as they turn the corner on a drive and that you can go to the "slo-mo" all you want and scream "that's traveling --HE JUST TOOK THREE STEPS WHILE CARRYING THE BALL UNDER HIS ARM before scooping that layup." And nobody will call it. But Tremont Waters final shot, clutch as it was, included all those long-ago -but-no-longer sins, as well as, after his third step, a TOE-TAP with his right foot behind him. Watch the slo-mo. It's like he's saying, "Watch THIS! Have I just invented a FOURTH free pivot foot!?"

OK, no sour grapes. Maryland made a fine comeback. But, considering how they played in both their games, they probably got just about the final result that they deserved.

I'll probably be back later after some Nats interviewing. Thanks for all your questions.

 

 

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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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