Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

May 28, 2019

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

Past Ask Boswell chats

Hope everyone enjoyed their Memorial Day

We've got several good topics for our chat this week. The death of Bill Buckner over the weekend at 69 begins the recurrent subject of sports "goats." Your thoughts? I'll offer mine --from 30 years ago. Nothing's changed. 

Also, the Nats futility has continued and intensified since our last chat 8 days ago. Then, they needed to go 6-2 or 7-1 against the slumping Mets and awful Marlins to jump-start a streak to get back in the NL East hunt. They took LATE LEADS into 7 of those 8 games. And went 3-5. That is how you AVOID winning streaks. And it's also how you blow a huge chance to be 25-29 now, not 22-32, and in much better shape. 

Fault: Bullpen, a manager who can't run it, GM who built it wrong or owners who didn't go after Kimbrel 3 months ago?

NBA Finals start this week with Golden State without Kevin Durant for at least Game One (and probably more). Your picks? And mine.

Stanley Cup: Bruins (owned by Caps) lead 1-0. Could the Caps have coped with THIS hot Boston team that has won its last 8 games behind a goalie with a .956 save percentage in the post-season? 

This week's big pennant-race question may be answered by the time we chat next Monday. Who signs Craig Kimbrel & Dallas Keuchel? After midnight on this Sunday, June 2, there is no "compensation" attached to either. And the dollars will start flying. The Braves, Nats and Phils all need him. Others, too. Who gets him. How soon? and For how much? 

Let's go! (Or, as the late great Jim Murray once wrote as his lede graph when covering the Indy 500: "Gentlemen, start your coffins."

I admire you for leaving open a window for optimism on the Nats -- I hope they can do something to justify it. But in the fairly likely case that they don't play .700 baseball and get into playoff contention, I wonder about what the the hard decisions will be. If they want to win in 2020 (and I think they should -- Max, Stras, and Corbin are all better than advertised), then I don't actually see they have that much salary to dump. If you're trying to win next year, you have to resign Rendon. But if you resign Rendon, you probably can't dump enough salary to get below the luxury tax (which shouldn't matter to billionaires, but they managed to bollix that up last year to no good effect). Sure, they can probably try to offload Dozier or Gomes or Doolittle (or, gulp, Zimmerman), but can they even get under the threshold if they do? Unless they want to strip to the studs and build for 2024, I think the only hard decision is, "Well boss, you spent a lot of money on this team, and you have to eat it. Now you have to spend more money to get an actual professional manager, and next offseason you have to spend even more to get an actual professional bullpen. Sorry."

Good question. But it shows a common misunderstanding about the Nats salary commitments for '20. They can EASILY get under the luxury tax for '20 and still sign Rendon --who currently makes $18.M.

Here is the do-it-yourself site

Simple version: Say Rendon gets $26M-a-year --which would be more than Harper's $25.4M-a-year in Philly. That only increases the Nats current $197.3m payroll (as measured against the lux-tax ceiling) to $205.3M. This year, the ceiling is $206M, next year $208M.

So, add Rendon and they are STILL under the '20 ceiling.

But Zimmerman, who adds $16.66M this year, Dozier $9M (who'll be replaced by Carter Kieboom at <$600K) and Rosenthal $6M all drop off the payroll.

That's >$31M. 

The question is what free agents do the Nats ADD for '20 after they sign Rendon long term (if they can).

If Rendon does not sign, the Nats would have ~$50M to spend on new players in '20. The idea that you break up this core of talent --Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Soto, Turner, Robles, Doolittle, Suzuki/Gomes, Kieboom, Eaton is nuts, imo.

The Nats are a team that SHOULD contend in '20 --with a different manager, a rebuilt bullpen, a Rendon extension and a free agent addition. If they can't extend Rendon --I think they will-- then Kieboom can play 3rd OR 2nd. That gives flexibility. You spend, or trade, on a big upgrade offensively at EITHER second or third --whatever works best. And Kieboom learns the other spot.

That is NOT what you want. You WANT Rendon. I don't think he's Harper. I think he'd like the Nats to come after him hard now and see if they can make a deal --even though that is NOT Scott Boras' M.O.

Strasburg came to the Nats to work out a $175M extension. That happens ONCE. The Lerners shouldn't count on it happening twice. Go ahead, go crazy and "bid against yourselves" by making Rendon almost as big an offer as you are willing to make. Presumably, Rendon noticed that the $300M to Harper, with $100M deferred, was pretty close to the Nats "last best" offer --but with plenty of that $100M in deferred money presumably negotiated back.

If the Nats gave Scherzer, heading into his age 30 season, $210M for 7 years with HALF deferred into years 8-through-14. Next year will be Rendon's age-30 season. I doubt that even Anthony thinks he's worth as much as Max. So, you work backward from $210M for 7 yrs with 1/2 deferred. OR you look at Manny Machado, who'll get $180M for the six years of his deal at ages 30-through-35.

Where does that get you? Just a guess: Maybe $160M for six years with very little deferred. Machado can play both, fabulous third and good shortstop. He's worth more than Rendon. Nolan Arenado is part of the conversation. But only part. Let Boras argue with himself about that. To me, Max is the Nats contract to use as a measuring stick. And Machado's pay at ages 30-through-35 should be similar to Rendon's pay at 30-through-35. 

If you look at Max, Manny and Nolan, it should not be difficult to figure out the right "ballpark" for a deal. If Anthony wants to stay, which everybody hopes he does, he can get it done. If he goes the Harper route, that's bad. But you have to cope. You can't wait until Feb of '20 to see if you're going to have Rendon back. You have to do deals before that. Then MAYBE you still get Rendon. I HATE that scenario. I just hope Anthony understands that once you become "free" things have a momentum of their own. And, while you may get slightly richer, you may not end up where you want to be.   

Any thoughts on the passing of Bill Buckner and his place in baseball history? He certainly seemed to have gotten a raw deal from Red Sox Nation for the untimely error. As I recall, some of the “blame” should have gone to Red Sox manager John McNamara who, during the season, would routinely sub in Dave Stapleton for Buckner on defense late in games. For some reason, on that fateful night he did not.

Let me start with links to two of my columns from that period. I really liked Buckner. Good guy, tough as nails, elite hitter (and batting champ).

The whole "goat" syndrome in sports is sick. Especially the Mega-Goat. Sometimes you need an extreme, and even tragic illustration to make the point that fans, media have to control ourselves and our habit of scapegoating --and doing it viciously at times. In the Troll Age it is, if anything, even worse.

Here's a link to my '89 column after Donnie Moore --an Angel mega-goat in the '86 post-season-- shot his wife, then committed suicide. "Nothing to Forgive."

Then, I doubt that most people understand the CONTEXT of Buckner's error. He had SEVERAL injuries, limped all over the place in the playoffs, made errors, couldn't hit at all --but kept playing because he'd been the heart-and-soul player in the Red Sox lineup. Keeping him in was symbolic. But with a healthy Don Baylor, a decent 1st baseman on the bench, it was also very much debatable whether he should play in Game Six. At least in my opinion.

Here is my column, which I'm sure I've stuck into a chat or two over the years, that was published about 18 hours BEFORE Buckner made his error. 

It starts "Limpin' Lizards, here comes Bill Buckner." I discussed how the game finds injured players at bad times. And ends "As of now, Boston manager John McNamara says, "If he's hobbling like he has been, he'll be playing." If so, hold your breath. He may play funny, but he doesn't deserve a sad end."

Yes, you are right --McNamara should have brought in Stapleton for defense in the last inning. But he considered Buckner so inspirational to the Red Sox --and, I suspect, such a symbol of his managerial guts in sticking with him and getting away with it-- that he left Buckner on the field so he could join in the post-World-Series celebration by the Red Sox.


Current bullpen ERA in support of Scherzer's starts this year: 11.71. Relievers have allowed 2+ runs in 9 of his 12 starts this season. Are they allowed to be on the same bus with him when they go to the games? Does he acknowledge their existence? Are they going by his house to do any and all chores as a make-up gesture? Seriously, how do those kinds of results impact the inner chemistry of the team?

Bad bullpens DESTROY clubhouse chemistry. Almost nothing is more certain to do it. And it's not that the relievers are isolated as "bad folks." They usually aren't. It's just a sense of doom --that no lead is good enough-- that hangs over the team and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Nats are absolutely THERE right now. It's bad.

In the last week:

Last Tuesday, the Nats led 3-1 after 6 1/2 innings, blew the lead, then came back to lead AGAIN, 5-4, but blew that too and lost 6-5. Fedde pitched 5 innings of one-run ball --wasted win.

On Wednesday: Max left leading 1-0 after 7 1/2 innings. Nats pen gave up SIX runs in the 8th. (Oh, that 8th inning!)

On Thursday, Strasburg led 4-3 after 7 1/2 innings. Nats gave up 3 in the eighth to lose. 

They won on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but blew a lead late on Friday and had to come from behind to salvage the win 12-10 with back-to-back homers in the 8th by Soto and Adams. It was a win, but a total pen collapse --again.

On Saturday, Corbin pitched a four-hit complete game shutout and won. BUT Corbin has now averaged 109.4 pitches in his last five starts this month. That is astronomically higher than what he was asked to do in Arizona last year. There, he averaged only 95.2 pitches per game for the whole season! He did not throw more than 100 pitches in ANY game until summer --on June 22 he threw 102. All '18, Corbin only had one game with 110 pitches (113).

So far this May, he's had games of 118, 107, 108, 98 and 116 in the shutout when he had a 6-0 lead. 

Is anybody watching? The Nats signed Corbin for SIX YEARS, not for TWO MONTHS. Somebody better throw a rope over Martinez. Doolittle also has had more high-pitch-count outings this year than he has had in his entire previous career combined. 

There are two problems with a bad bullpen and an inexperienced manager who has never handled bullpens. The first is that you turn a lot of wins into losses. But, long term, you can also damage your whole pitching staff --leaving starters in too long to avoid calling the pen. And damaging relievers by constantly having them "getting hot" in the 6th, 7th and 8th because you don't trust the reliever who's in the game to be able to finish that inning. 

Grace and Barraclough are on pace to work in 81 games each. And that doesn't count all the times they've warmed up but not been used.

Everyone touted as having a legitimate shot at the NL Cy Young this year, based on last year's results, is having a bad to so-so year. No one has jumped out ahead from that small group. So who do you like among the wild cards and dark horses to win the award this year?

N.L. dark horse: Stephen Strasburg, if he stays healthy and starts 33 games.

He has 7 starts where he's allowed only 0, 0, 1, 1 2, 2 and 2 runs. In three others, 4, 4, 4 but pitched 6, 6.2 and 6.2 innings. Only one bad start --6 runs.

Yet with all this, he's only 4-3. Should be, like, 7-3.  

He's on pace to go 12-9 with a 3.25 ERA in 216 innings, only 159 hits, just 54 walks, 261 strikeouts and a WHIP under 1.0 (0.986). However, his FIP is 2.80. So his ERA may trend down and get under 3.00.

Yes, he has to keep pitching as he has been so far. But if he's healthy, he probably will. "He's never healthy!" He was in '14 --led NL with 34 starts and had 215 innings. Also, he was 3rd for Cy Young Awards in '17.

Never say, "This could be Strasburg's big year."

But it's fun to watch. He's never pitched this well --or this intelligently-- despite losing about 1 mph off his fastball. Now throws slightly more off-speed pitches than fastballs (49%). With this mix, he has the highest K-per-9-innings ratio of his career. 

Strasburg pitches tonight in Atlanta. He was 1-2 against them last year with a 4.19 ERA. Not his favorite foe: career 11-11, 4.05. That is, by far, his most defeats against any team. Next most is Marlins (7) --but he's 18-7 vs them. . 

Tom, Please help me understand why Dozier is still starting instead of Kendrick at 2B. Or, for that matter, Difo. Kendrick is a much better hitter and Difo is a much better fielder. Or maybe we could see if Danny Espinosa is available?

Kendrick has played great, but also played a ton --44 of 48 games since coming off the IL where he started the season. Howie is (baseball) old and needs some time off. He and Martinez talk about it all the time. At 35 (in July), wear him out and you'll quickly lose that .309 average and .903 OPS.

When, if Zimmerman comes back --he's had a setback with his chronic heel injury-- then you may have to decide who gets time and where. Now, Kendrick is playing as much as is good for him --on pace for 132 games and (!) 24 homers, 84 RBI in only 411 plate appearances!

The day Rizzo got Kendrick he knew he'd stolen a career .290 hitter, clubhouse leader and a player who, if you didn't wear him down after such a long career, would probably get back to career-norm numbers with less playing time.

BUT the Nats wanted him to stay healthy enough to get a LOT more ABs than he has so far --439 in three years. The season-ending Achilles last year was a big blow. As a Nat, in 136 games, he has 19 homers a .301 average and .844 OPS. 

A year ago, his career was in jeopardy. Now, you wonder: If he gets 250-to-350 PA a year, can he play "forever?"

I know they want to get it right. But seriously, how long does it take to hire a GM?

They've done without one for 16 years. What's the rush?

My input: I loved that John Thompson --Big John--stood up for Danny Ferry last week. 

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of what I’m hearing people refer to Danny Ferry as if he’s a racist,” Thompson told The Team 980′s Rick “Doc” Walker during an interview Tuesday. “That is the biggest bunch of bullcrap — and if we weren’t on the air, I would say bull-s — that I have ever heard...

“I’ve been around him and I know” he’s not a racist, Thompson said of Ferry. “I’m sick of these people, that when somebody says something, it’s interpreted conveniently for people who dislike him to start labeling him. There’s enough sick racists on the planet than to call this boy a racist, and he absolutely is not. Anybody who knows me knows I am racially conscientious, and if I thought he was [a racist], I would say that, but that is the meanest thing that I have heard.”

If you want to read it all

John's one of my Top Five people I've ever covered --which I did for >10 years, both GU beat and later in features and columns. Probably laughed more with him than anybody I ever covered. Probably, in part, because I covered him all the way back to high school coaching at St. Anthony's. Seemed like we knew a lot of the same DC people.

(I think I got off on the wrong foot with JTIII when I mentioned that he probably didn't remember our first meeting --when he was six and sitting on his dad's knee in the living room of Father Raymond Kemp, on the D.C. City Council, as we talked about local social-justice issues. Sometimes, the best idea is just to shut up.) 

Big John may be No. 1 in the category --Famous People That The Public Just Can't Get Their Minds Around Correctly.

I have no views on Ferry as a GM candidate. That's for NBA front-office experts.

And Big John knows him 100 times better than I do --so I figure John's probably got him pegged right on that old controversy. 

Is he even worth pursuing at this point once the comp picks attached to him go away given that he will need several weeks to get back into game shape and by that point, the Nats may well be too far out of contention for him to even matter?

This is a super-tough question. Let's assume he can get ready for MLB by July 1. If so, he's burned up half a season and, if he's going for $15M-$16M-a-year, that's $8M which has disappeared. 

The Braves would be insane not to go after him with their hanging by a thread bullpen --20th, 4.39 ERA. If they are hanging by a thread, what are the Nats --7.13?

Last week and this week were VERY important because, in a sense, the Nats themselves had a chance to "play for Kimbrel." If they'd gone 6-2 in the last eight days, as they should have, then 2-0 vs Braves and 2-1 vs Reds, then they could've gone from 19-27 to 29-30 by the Sunday midnight deadline when compensation drops off Kimbrel. At 29-30, the Lerners would feel a lot of pressure --and a lot of Lets Win motivation-- to make a big move now that's designed to maximize their chances in '19-'20-'21 when they know they have their Big Three.

But how can you look at these Nats and say, "We gotta open the checkbook WIDE and support these wonderful guys! If we had Kimbrel, Doolittle and maybe Rosenthal coming back with 'no pressure,' plus is nice rookie in Tanner Rainey, as well as less demanding roles for Barraclough, Grace, Suero, why we might suddenly have a GOOD bullpen, not a joke pen. And THEN how good would we look for the rest of '19 and beyond --yeah, maybe real good!"

I'd like to scream at the Lerners to think that way. But my eyes won't allow it.

I think Kimbrel will be in for a shock. He was, supposedly, asking for $100M for 6 years despite looking wild and erratic after the All-Star break and throughout the '18 post-season. That market is GONE. Two years ago, Chapman and Jansen got $85M and $80M deals. Those both look like over-pays now. Mark Melancon got $62M --a huge mistake. The biggest reliever FA deal last winter was $39M for 3 yrs for Zach Britton. And that was the most by a lot.

The Braves ownership is cheap and not grounded in (or very interested in) baseball. This may be more like a Kimbrel Skirmish than a Kimbrel War.

If he gets $55M he'll be lucky. And after wasting half of this year, it may be more like $52M for 4 yrs --the Britton deal but with one more year. He'll be a hot commodity on June 3. But how hot will he be by June 13 when his value drops with every day he doesn't sign?

If the Nats can get him in that $50M-$55M range, that's a chance I'd take. Maybe even $60M. 

They have payroll room to extend Rendon AND sign Kimbrel --as I showed in an earlier answer. Best case: You got the real Craig Kimbrel for the next few years and it turns out that late-'18 was a glitch. Most likely case, you got the age 30, 2.91 ERA version of Kimbrel, not the best-ERA-in-100-years Kimbrel with the career ERA of 1.91 Worst case? Maybe he's an overpaid 3.50-3.75 ERA Kimbrel --but he still helps your bullpen. The odds that this guy --whose fastball was its normal 96.7 mph last year and whose slider was still vicious, is suddenly a washout --man, that's a very low probability. And ALL free agents scare you with that possibility. 

I'd let Kimbrel stew for a few days, see where the market is --or if he signs instantly. But if he doesn't, and he hears the clock ticking, then if his price is sane according to your scouts and stat analytics people, then GO FOR HIM.

My favorite course in college was called Sports Medicine.One of the early lectures was about how marathon runners deplete and load carbohydrates. I was also a successful pitcher on Maryland*s team, and wondered if this could be applied to success on the mound. I learned that glycogen, or stored energy on the muscle fiber, was the key to successful marathoners. So I would ingest large amounts of carbs leading up to my next start. I Don t know if it helped but it certainly didn't hurt. I was able to finish 90% of the games that I started. When I began training racehorses years later, I applied the principle to the horses and had a long and successful career. That's why pitchers need 4 days rest in between starts.To replenish glycogen to the fibers of all muscles used in pitching. What some managers aren t aware of, is that if the surrounding muscles in the arm, torso, and legs are depleted of glycogen, the pitching motion itself puts a dangerous strain on the shoulder and elbow, with injury a possibility. That's why I spaced my horses races apart, and did not train them hard in between races.The more time,it seemed, the better the performance. Just something for Nats fans to chew on. There is science to baseball.

Now THAT is my kind of "question."

Thanks very much for the info.

I can’t help but wonder whether the Nats (and their fans) we’re essentially drained mentally and emotionally this winter and spring by all of the off-season drama about where Harper was going to land. To put it hypothetically, had Nats and Harper mutually agreed to either commit to one another or not immediately after last season, do you think they would have turned out to be a different (i.e., better) team than they are today?

The Nats made an offer, then took it off the table as soon as Corbin signed in early December. They never got back in the game.

Only Boras, trying to drum up a market, kept leaking that the Nats might show up late. Can't blame him for trying. But as is usually the case with Scott, listen to everything he says, learn from his stats, his baseball savvy and lines of reasoning --but NEVER BELIEVE HIM. 

It's not his job to tell you the truth. It's his job to get the most money for his client --and one of those ways is to "use" the media. 

Harper will break out of his slump in Phillie. BUT we really do have an important piece of additional Bryce data from this season. 

Harper is having another monster slump --his last 48 games (since leaving DC in early April) he's hitting .202 with a lame .693 OPS and leads MLB in strikeouts. Nats fans have seen him look lost like this before, including almost half of last season --but he's never struck out as much as he is now. The stories now say that he's "having trouble with the fastball." Well, that's the one pitch everybody has got!

Bryce will get hot again. And, at 26, there's no way that he won't have some good years, maybe even a couple of very good ones. But if he has these humongous totally-lost multi-month mega-slumps in more years than he doesn't --and that is now his career  MO--- is be going to get hot for 13 years? Is he going to get $330M worth of hot? And that doesn't even factor in injuries.

LONG slumps are now a career trademark --as well as hot streaks. Harper is going to have plenty of "laughs" along the way. But after the first third of this season, the chance that he will get the LAST laugh has gone down.

That's it for today.

The better the Bruins play the more I console myself that the Capitals would have had a very tough time with them if they'd met in the Eastern Conference Finals. And that Game 7 2OT loss to Carolina bothers me less --a little TINY bit less.

Do you think we will see Ryan Zimmerman play this year? I'm concerned his plantar issues don't seem to go away.

Talked to him on Monday. He's down about it. Will be back --but thought he'd be close by now. Instead, got to wait for the ache to go back down. You do everything the docs say, but the test is in the ramp up to MLB full speed.

Zim knows fans mean well, but he gets tons of advice on how fans have dealt with the same problem and "got over it pretty fast." He shook his head --"Love 'em. Appreciate their concern."

You could have put one of those cartoon bubbles over his head: But Their Jobs Are Behind a Desk.

See you next Monday at 11 a.m. Thanks again for all your questions. 

In This Chat
Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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