Wednesday, May 14, 2 p.m. ET

Washington Nationals

Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008; 2:00 PM

Washington Post Nationals beat writer Chico Harlan was online Wednesday, May 21 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments about the Washington Nationals.

A transcript follows.


Chico Harlan: Greetings Nats fans. It's just me this week. No more simulated starts with Svrluga guiding the way. Questions about Chipotle burritos are also welcome. I'm eating one right now. No better 1,400-calorie lunch on the planet.


Springfield, Va.: Hi Chico. With the worst hitting outfielders in the league, has there been any mumbling in regards to the Nat's hitting coach?

Chico Harlan: No more mumbling than you heard a month ago. When Milledge had a few hits two games ago, he actually went out of his way to give Harris some kudos for the way he'd helped him. I'm skeptical, still. When an entire offense struggles, 1-9, you look for a common denominator. That's Harris. Harris has a tough job for an outsider to judge, because his work is essentially a summation of behind-the-scenes adjustments and nuances. So I think you have to judge the man on results.


Section 420: Whither Shawn Hill? Arm forever "tight"?

Chico Harlan: A fascinating question, especially because Hill has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. He's never appeared in more than 25 games in a season, though, (this dates all the way back to the minors) and until he does, he'll be saddled with the injury tag. Right now, Hill can battle through the forearm pain, but if it persist, it probably reduces him from a 12-15 game winner to a 10-12 game winner. The elbow pain is more worrisome. When that surfaces, it's generally the sign of a bigger problem... perhaps something lingering down the road.

For now, Hill is still battling. He'll miss this start, but he'll be back in the rotation next week. I think some in the Nats organization will be watching with concern and interest.


Houston: Lidge was having a terrible time finding the strike zone last night, and looked to be reverting to the form that made us glad to see him go. With Dukes on third and a chance to win the game on a pitch in the dirt, why didn't Manny have the take sign on? Why was Lopez allowed to kill the rally by swinging at the first pitch?

Chico Harlan: Lopez is a veteran. The situation is his to feel out. That said, he absolutely should have been more patient. Acta wasn't critical of the at bat -- he said that if Lopez had gotten a hit, nobody would have second-guessed his approach, which is true. But here's my take, as a professional second-guesser: If your offense is struggling, and suddenly the opposing pitcher is giving away baserunners like they're Christmas presents, you keep giving him every chance to throw balls. Obviously, a hitter's average keeps rising as a count moves in his favor, from 0-0 to 1-0 to 2-1, etc. Lopez should have worked the count.

He wasn't willing to talk about the at bat yesterday after the game, but it might be worth revisiting today.


Arlington, VA: Hi Chico,

Welcome to the Nats beat. From what I've read of your writing so far, it's lived up to the expectations set by your predecessor (what was his name again?).

Have you heard any rumblings from the front office on the make-or-break point for when they will decide whether Lenny Harris should stay in his job as hitting coach or be reassigned?

Chico Harlan: Lots of hating for Lenny Harris right now. This is just one of about six or seven questions in the queue right now that have at least a touch of hostility for the ol' Nats hitting coach. Again, I've heard nothing about a make-or-break point for Harris. If Washington's offense ever breaks out and say, scores, 50 runs in one week, the Harris-to-guillotine talk will probably die. But if this kind of offense keeps up, I don't think the team can have too much more patience. Right now, given the pitching Washington has received, this team should be playing .500 ball or better.


Springfield, VA: If Hill goes down for a while (sadly, that's what I'm expecting), does Chico inherit that spot in the rotation or will a guy like Mock, Clippard, Shell or Balester get a shot?

Chico Harlan: I think tonight's start for Chico will go a long way to determining that. Many are convinced that at least one or two of the aforementioned minor leagues will start for the Nats this season. I tend to agree, if only because a rotation is always subjected to a steady influx of injuries and change. The team's record, too, will probably play a role in determining just when those guys surface with the club. If the record hangs around .500, you probably tend to favor a more vet-heavy approach. But if things start to tail away, then the notion of opening the doors to a youth-heavy approach becomes all the more inviting. Just remember -- Chico is only 24 himself. (Though granted, he doesn't have top-shelf stuff of the others.)

If I'm a betting man, I think we see one of the four guys you mention by the end of July.


Wilmington, NC: Why are the Nats reluctant to call up Justin Maxwell, Ryan Langerhans, or even Alex Escobar?

The offense needs a shake up and I can't see what giving someone like Maxwell a look is going to hurt. He has done well with us previously and while not tearing it up in the minors in batting average, he is doing very well in other stats like OBP, etc.

Chico Harlan: I wouldn't call it a reluctance, because that suggests some team-wide hesitance to use those guys. It's rather that the Nats want to see what they have right now with Dukes, Milledge, Pena, etc. No proper conclusion can be reached by giving those guys 150 at bats and abandoning the project. For better or worse, those guys will get at bats.


HC in NY:"If Washington's offense ever breaks out and say, scores, 50 runs in one week"

I've got a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

Chico Harlan: Hillary, you will have a sudden influx of free time on your hands quite soon. We might have a job for you. What do you know about the fundamentals of batting?


NattyDelite!: Hey Chico, thanks for the great coverage.

Based off of your observation, and/or what the guys in the clubhouse are saying, do you think that our lineup could be changed by one "impact" bat? Zimmerman suddenly seeing better pitches, Kearnsy batting lower in the order, etc.

Or are we just hopeless for now?

Chico Harlan: This is a key point. I do think that one decent bat somewhere between the lineup's 4-6 spots could provide at least a marked boost, especially for Zimmerman. The Face of the Franchise would never admit it, but he's been hindered this year by the guys behind him. Hitting is absolutely a cumulative art, and the Nats have so many mis-fitting pieces right now, everybody looks the worse for it.


Crystal City VA: During the rough times for Guzman (injuries and and sub-.200 batting avg.) in '05 -'07 he was virtually silent. Now he is playing well and, at this point, the leading All-Star candidate for the Nats. So is he more open to talking with reporters - I rarely see him quoted? Or is he just not that quotable? What is he like in the locker room and who does he hang with?

Chico Harlan: The primary reason you don't see him quoted more often is because he's not that comfortable with English. If he contributes a key play in a game, he's affable and willing to talk. But the language gap prevents him from being one of the go-to guys for insight. That's a media failing more than anything. My offseason plan is to take a Spanish immersion course and learn enough to start a talking regularly with the half-dozen players whose voices are rarely heard.


Fairfax, VA: Ray Knight has discussed on air how some players do better facing major league rather than minor league pitching. Flores is an obvious example. Dukes at the least should be in Columbus honing his batting skills. we have 3 guys hitting over .300 in Columbus. Yes, they have all seen major league duty, with mixed results, but they cant do worse than the OF play we've seen so far, agree?

Chico Harlan: Again, you can't give up so soon on the guys you have.

See also: Church, Ryan.


New York: How did the Nats mess up on Ryan Church? He's the Mets best player right now.

Chico Harlan: My point.


Solving the outfield problem: I know this is basically ridiculous but the thought popped into my head the other day and won't go away. There is an outfielder available right now who would likely solve the Nats' need for a power hitter who can fill a role in the middle of the order and make the lineup better.

His name is Barry Bonds. I say no more.

Chico Harlan: Sure, you get Barry Bonds, you get power.

You also get a constant headache, a circus act, a worn out body capable of who-knows-what without chemical enhancement, a guy who can't run, an instant clubhouse contaminant, and a failed reality show star. Maybe it's better just sticking with WMP.


Woodley Park: What is the timetable on LoDuca's return? I could really care less about him. If we're developing players, let Flores figure it out up here in the Majors rather than Lo Duca spouting off in the media about the team's effort when he can't hit either. That block of the plate last night was amazing.

Chico Harlan: Agreed, a superb play. When Lo Duca returns, Flores has to -- has to -- continue to play regularly. He's earned it. Not just because he's batting .316. It's because of the way he calls the game and plays defense. Look at the team ERA with Flores behind the plate. Almost every pitcher on staff has gone out of his way to give Flores props. The guess here is, they want to keep throwing to him.


Svrluganation: Consider this an extended job interview.

What are your favorite baseball books? Any favorite authors, in general?

Chico Harlan: My favorite authors are, in no particular order, David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Ian Frazier, Gary Smith (a magazine guy), Truman Capote and Barry Svrluga. Svrluga is a lot like Wolfe, only he uses shorter sentences, and writes books featuring erratic right fielders, not arrogant investment bankers.


Los Angeles: If you consider the question for a moment, it's really not that ridiculous: is Jesus Flores currently the best player in the entire system?

Chico Harlan: Can't yet say. I haven't yet seen enough of the team's farm system. But I'll say this much: In Flores, Washington has its likely catcher of the future. That might be the most valuable lesson gleaned in this season's first two months.


Manny Acta: Chico, glad to have you on the beat now, and thanks for doing this chat. I like Manny Acta and I understand "The Plan" is to take things slow and for Manny to focus on teaching rather than look for immediate results. But I think his public comments, constantly shrugging off poor playing, failure to improve, and lack of hustle, are starting to wear on the fans. They certainly are starting to bother me. My suspicion is that he's more critical of players in private. Have you heard if this is so? I think it would improve how Manny and the front office are perceived by fans (the paying customers) if they occasionally let us know that they are not taking these problems lying down.

Chico Harlan: I am certain he's more critical of players in private. That's his job. Teams have little to gain by airing their normal grievances in public. Whether we're talking about a player's attitude or an outfielder's lack of hustle, these are things that Acta is always better off talking about man-to-man. Failing to do that is a quick way to lose all support in a clubhouse.


Section 117: Hi, Chico,

Welcome to your first solo chat!

Question -- The only Nats hitters with an OBP over .335 are Johnson (on the DL), Young, Flores, Nieves and Boone? Can it really be a team-wide slump that's now lasted close to Memorial Day? I think it's more that Lenny Harris isn't getting through to them that they need to follow Ted Williams's advice and not swing at the first pitch they see from an opposing pitcher THAT DAY (regardless of how often they've faced him in the past), to not swing at anything more than a baseball's width off the plate, and to work the counts (jacking up the opposing SP's pitch count) and be willing to take a walk.

Just look at the lists of the best hitters in MLB in any given year. Nearly all of them always lead the list in BBs as well as AVG, OBP, SLG and OPS.

Chico Harlan: Did some quick research here. Perhaps this isn't the best reflection of what you're talking about, but it at least suggests that the Nats' biggest problem is NOT patience.

I checked out the league team rankings in pitches seen per plate appearance. Here, the Nats rank 21st, right between San Diego and Tampa. (3.76 pitchers per at bat.) Here, by the way, Cleveland leads the league. The Angels are the worst.


Mount Vernon, VA: What do the Nationals have to lose giving Dukes, Milledge and Pena the start every game until Austin Kearns is completely healthy? This team isn't going to the playoffs in 2008 and nothing at all can be gained from wasting starts on Rob Mackowiak, Willie Harris, Alex Escobar, or Ryan Langerhans. Let the three OFs sink or swim but give them the understanding that they are the starters everyday for the next few weeks.

Chico Harlan: I sometimes shudder at the good old what-do-we-have-to-lose rationale. That's the kind of logic that doesn't mix well with karaoke, drinking, mechanical bulls or sports teams. If you do something just because you have nothing to lose, you're basically saying the result no longer matters. Washington has two responsibilities this season: To win, and to learn how to win in the future. Those two goals require a very delicate balance, but by going to the extreme in one direction -- and playing guys who aren't quite ready -- you're totally sacrificing the duty to put a competitive product on the field now. That's why teams have Class AAA and Class AA squads.

So how does this affect Milledge, Dukes, et al? Yes, they need to play. And yes, they should play more than the other OFs you mention. But ideally, they should play because they are better than Mackowiak and Willie Harris, not just because they are younger. Say Dukes has 300 at bats on the season, once August rolls around, and the guy's average still looks like a Willie Harris total divided by four, then he's earned himself a spot on the bench. Again, it's a balance. The Nats have to learn about what they have. But once they reach a conclusion, you need to find the next guy capable of results.


RE: Church: My goodness folks, do you not recognize the difference of Church hitting in the Mets lineup where he is a complimentary piece versus when he was a National who was being counted on as a significant middle of the order bat?

It's the same theory behind why David Wright has had such tremendous success and is so far ahead of Zimm. Wright was able to hit 6th with Beltran, Delgado and company carrying the lineup as he developed as a big leaguer.

You are comparing apples and oranges. Church is having a great year, and good for him. Put him back in a Nats uniform hitting fifth and I guarantee you he is right back at the production level he maintained in his one plus years as a regular here.

Chico Harlan: I've heard this enough that I'll let this stand on its own. A valid argument, and it underscores the importance of a lineup where the pieces fit.


Section 133: Despite the fact that Utley bobbled the ball, Lopez loped to first on the last out Tuesday night. Did Manny notice?

Chico Harlan: He didn't say anything about it, but wasn't asked directly. I'll ask today.


RE: Acta: I'd like to know what fans think should be happening?

Do people not realize this is a six month 162 game season? How do you want Acta to act?

Face facts, the team is not that good, they just don't have a great conglomeration of talent and certainly not the right mix of guys to compete. This is common knowledge. A record near .500 OVER SIX MONTHS will be a success.

Acta is giving the same answers because people are asking the same questions. What the heck do you want him to do? Stop looking for someone to blame and project your frustrations on.

Acta is a good manager and is helping to create a clubhouse and team culture. He cannot react to each individual day, there is a larger picture at stake.

Fans need to get out of their obsessive state of mind that has been created by our 24 hour news cycle where they are always looking for the next story.

Just stop whining.

Chico Harlan: Most of what you say is true. Baseball, because of its season length, creates a culture that counters drastic reactions to anything. A smart manager knows this and acts accordingly. In many ways, baseball is the fundamental opposite of our instant must-react-with hyperbole media cycle. We want drastic conclusions from everything... and perhaps this is why football has become our national sport. Every game plays along with our desire for new insight, new goats, new heroes. Just a thought.


Nationals Park: Svrluga failed to see the genius of the man that is Clint. What are your first impressions of Nationals Park and the non baseball things that go on? Likes? Dislikes?

Chico Harlan: Give me a few more weeks for the complete likes/dislikes list.

For now: The team doesn't do enough to take advantage of that scoreboard. And you do see a steady stream of errors with presentation of statistics. One thing I saw recently on the big board: "Lets go Nats"

The Nats should bring in the apostrophe and get rid of Clint.


Sec 114 Row E: Chico, You are right - if the Nats had an NL league average offense and scored 210 runs, compared to their minuscule 181 runs, while holding the runs allowed at 219, using the Pythagorean Win Expectancy calculations, the Nats would be 23-24, instead of 20-27.

That's a big deal right there.

Chico Harlan: OK, we're talking now about Pythagorean Win Expectancies. I'd say that's the definition of a solid baseball chat. Thanks for elevating the communal IQ rating of this online experience, Sec 114.

On that note, I've got to say goodbye. We're out of time. Thanks for joining in, and bear with me. I'm still feeling out the team, the personalities and the storylines. The patience and questions have been much appreciated.


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