Wednesday, June 11, Noon ET

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Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Nationals beat writer Chico Harlan was online Wednesday, June 11 at noon ET to take your questions and comments about the Washington Nationals.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

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Chico Harlan: Already folks, thanks for joining me on the lunch hour. If you'd prefer to chat about lunch, you might want to try Sietsema's chat room instead.

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Arlington, Va.: Chico: It looks like Manny and Elijah had some words last night but I didn't see anything in your recap. I have a hunch it was related to the home run celebration between Milledge and Dukes -- do you have any insight?

Chico Harlan: For sure it was related to the celebration. Remember, with Dukes, this is not a first-time incident. After his homer last week, his motion toward home plate ump Doug Eddings was something that Manny Acta took exception too. Acta said he didn't have a problem with a little exuberance, but showing up an ump crossed the line. Plus, it served no benefit.

I think that set the foundation for what happened last night. Clearly, Acta has tolerance for many things -- he's been super-patient with Washington's slumping youngsters this season. But he doesn't have tolerance for anything that looks like bad sportsmanship or excessive celebration.

You mention that I didn't have anything in my game story, or at least not much. Guilty as charged, and it's not because I don't think the Dukes-Acta thing is important. It simply happened while I was consumed by trying to make deadline; my fingers were dancing along like millipedes so I could file once the game ended.

But I promise -- more answers to come. This is definitely the kind of scenario the Nats were tempting when they traded for Dukes.

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Section 105: Chico,

In just the last week, Dukes has been unable to restrain himself from showing up an ump and then a pitcher. What's the problem? At least with the ump there was presumably some sort of dispute over an earlier call that could inspire such a display of attitude, but did he have any reason to have a beef with the Pirates' closer? Is this a pattern of Dukes feeling a need to send a message to people he perceives as having wronged him, or just a pattern of him showing people up in general? Although neither is great, the former is slightly more acceptable to me than the latter. Thanks

Chico Harlan: I saw no beef between Dukes and Capps. I think it's more that Dukes has trouble controlling himself -- under all circumstances. Certainly much of his life suggests as much.

Remember, the problem last night wasn't just some unrestrained on-field stuff. It was an argument with Acta. And then, the refusal to shake hands with him. If Dukes had the ability to quickly calm himself, these are things that wouldn't have happened.

Everybody's personality is different. Some people can easily get worked up. And that's fine most of the time. But when you have such a person in a baseball clubhouse (e.g., Dukes) his actions can create a deep ripple effect. Other players might come to resent the tension he creates. Showing up a manager is never a smart move for the overall health of a ballclub.

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Upper Natosphere: Chico, why is it that the "Best Reader Posts" featured on E2 are always the ones that are critical of the team? This, as you know, is not representative of most of the comments on NJ, and it undermines the paper's credibility as a neutral party. I know you're new to the Post but since you're the closest one to the Journal I'm hoping you might have some influence over this.

Chico Harlan: Interesting observation, Upper Nat. Seriously -- thanks for pointing this out. I'm so often out of town that I rarely get to see the paper in the flesh, and this is one of those items that you don't find online. So I cannot comment on your observation, but it doesn't surprise me. If you're looking for something punchy, it's generally something snarky, too.

But it shouldn't work that way.

A lot of the best reader comments on there are insightful without being critical. I'd like this "Best" section to reflect that.

I'll see what my limited influence can do.

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Section 111 (Formerly 223 at RFK Stadium): So we've seen Tyler Clippard and Garrett Mock already. Clip looked like he had better stuff of the two, but neither was jaw dropping impressive. With that said, when do we get to see the Nats real top prospect - Collin Balester?

Chico Harlan: Very soon, I gotta believe. This summer soon.

I wouldn't necessarily call him "the real top prospect"... at this point, he's got to share that tag with Zimmermann and maybe even VanAllen in Harrisburg.

But yes, I'd say Belester gets the next shot. The way pitching works, nobody stays healthy forever. Washington has had good luck for the last weeks with Perez-Bergmann-Hill-Lannan-Redding... but eventually, we're bound to see something similar to what happened this week with Perez.

I agree, by the way: Clippard looked a tad better.

But jeez, weren't those two starts frighteningly similar?

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Section 138: Chico,

(Obligatory Dukes question)Will Ian Snell end up in a body bag if he hits Dukes?

Chico Harlan: Ian Snell is a small dude.

I think there's one factor that might be working in his favor, though. (And this is just a guess, to be confirmed or dismissed a few hours from now:)

But that is, Dukes might not appear in the lineup tonight. So he might not be available for the ol' beanball.

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Section 416, aka The Alps: Once again, Ayala has a poor performance. What is it going to take for management to make some much needed adjustments with mid-relief, or is there just no one else left to turn?

Chico Harlan: Yeah, they really don't have other options. It's strange, but the most reliable relievers in the last week have been Jesus Colome and Charlie Manning. Kind of a bizarro world there.

Especially with Cordero out, every pitcher who handles the late innings for the Nats has been forced into a different role this season. Rauch is now pitching the ninth. Ayala is essentially the man for the eighth.

Despite his struggles of late, I don't think Acta yet trusts anybody else (except Rivera -- who's been similarly shaky) to work a close, late game. Most of that is based on track record. With a bullpen, you really don't have much choice but to keep trotting guys out there and give them time to work out the kinks.

Starters who stink can be dispatched to the pen. (Or the minors.) Closers who stink can be pushed into the earlier innings. But for the most part, the middle relievers have nowhere to hide.

And Ayala isn't going to Class AAA Columbus, let's be clear about that.

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Washington, DC: What positive comments could possibly be incisive? One would have to ignore reality to have anything good to say about this team, save Aaron Boone (who wouldn't be with the team if not for nepotism), Guzman (FINALLY paying off as he heads into free agency!) and John Rauch (which just highlights how much the team has been overrating Cordero for years, pretending "closer" is a unique skill set). Oh, and the Rule Five pickups (Flores), who always -- eventually -- show why they were freely available.

Chico Harlan: All good stories. Though Boone has been exposed a bit with more playing time. On a good team, he's one of the first few guys off the bench. Excellent signing, though, by Washington.

My question: Who's this team's All-Star candidate right now?

I'm saying Guzman or Rauch at this point.

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HammondsNats: So that Lastings Milledge that a lot of Nats fans were bashing, is turning into a pretty nice ballplayer. His bat has sure come alive, he leads the team in SBs and it looks like he's playing some better centerfield out there. People forget he is just 23 years old and has seen less than 180 games of MLB service. He's definitely a centerpiece of the future (to go along with Flores, Zimmerman, Lannan).

Chico Harlan: Starting (slowly) to agree with you. His defense still doesn't dazzle, but it's improved markedly in the last month. He's also hitting with a little more power. I love his work on the basepaths, too. He's basically the only legit base-stealing threat the Nats have right now.

Lastings has said he feels a little different -- for the better -- hitting No. 3 as opposed to No. 5. He sees more fastballs, and gets slightly better protection, especially with Dmitri Young now behind him.

Again, the key for Milledge's role in the future: What position will he play? If he can keep improving his defense, he'll be OK in centerfield. There seems to be less and less doubt that he's developing the bat to at least be a good-hitting center fielder.

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Sec 314: Before last night's "celebration" controversy, I was hoping that the Wily Mo Pena era in Washington might be ending soon. Any chance he might be joining Mackowiak in the ranks of the released?

Chico Harlan: Releasing Pena would surprise me. I'm not suggesting he'll be on the team next year, but there's no reason to cast Pena away before the Nats are absolutely certain he won't develop.

Though Pena and Mackowiak have had similarly pathetic offensive seasons, there's a difference between the two. A vital difference. There's still a chance -- yes, a slight chance -- that everything might click for Pena. With Mackowiak, though, you knew what you were getting.

This season has already pretty much been set up as a tablet for learning about and evaluating the young players. So even if Pena isn't somebody playing every day, he's still worth having. Especially if Langerhans remains on the roster; that's somebody who has worth as a defensive replacement in late innings. So long as the Nats are carrying more than four outfielders, they can afford to have one on the bench who isn't much of a fielder.

(Kind understatement.)

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Rockville: I've been curious for awhile on this, but could you possible contrast and compare the way Spanish-speaking media covers major league baseball and maybe more specfically the Nats.

Chico Harlan: Very little Spanish-speaking media around the Nats. Nobody on an every-day basis.

That's unfortunate, because it takes away the chance to really know a good fraction of the players in that clubhouse. Without Spanish, it's impossible to really know several of the team's key players; Cristian Guzman is the first who comes to mind.

This has already been a frustration for me this season. I gotta learn Spanish during the offseason. That will open some pretty rich opportunities to learn more about the team, I think.

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Section 138: Chico my man,

Any idea on how the lineup will sort out when players get healthy, and back on the squad? Is Dukes entrenched in the 2 spot? Where will Milledge hit?

Chico Harlan: Good question.

I'll try, real quick, to configure my ideal, everybody's-healthy lineup.

Guzman -- 6

Dukes -- 7

Zimmerman -- 5

Johnson -- 3

Milledge -- 8

Kearns -- 9

Flores -- 2

Belliard -- 4

Pitcher -- 1

That, or maybe you bat Ronnie Belliard clean-up.

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Arlington, Va.: Wait a minute. In a seesaw game (and after just getting swept and losing 8 of 9) you go back down by a run in the 8th then you get a clutch 2R HR with 2 out in the 9th and you can't show a little excitement?!?! I don't think Dukes was out of line. You people are just trying to create controversy. The argument with Acta may be another story, but PLEASE.

Chico Harlan: Some space for devil's advocacy. I'll publish without much comment, other than to say baseball can be a delicate game. One man's idea of what is OK can be quite different from another's. Football, for instance, has much greater tolerance for showmanship.

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Section 222: I'm interested in your view of the effect of rehab stints on injured players, and minor league preparation in general. This year we have a number of examples to consider -- WMP was brought back after his injury very quickly, and a lot of folks think that his lousy play is a result of that. Flores had a terrible time at the plate in AAA, and he's been one of our best and most consistent hitters since he came up. Belliard was 0 for Harrisburg, and hits two home runs in his first start, and Langerhans was tearing up the basebaths at Columbus and reverted quickly to his anemic historical average. Are there any conclusions to be drawn here?

Chico Harlan: Well, the range of players we're talking about here is too wide for much of a conclusion, except to say that nothing really matters except two things:

1. Can you do enough in the minors to get a chance in the big leagues?

2. Can you do enough in the big leagues to stay?

Belliard, Langerhans and Flores fall into three distinct categories.

For Belliard, performance in the minors was irrelevant. The team just wanted him to get the feel once again of swinging, running, etc. He would have been promoted whether he went 15-for-15 or 0-for-15.

Flores might be the rarest type of ballplayer: One who actually performs better in the bigs than he does in the minors. Baseball people I've talked to struggle to quite say why this happens, but they guess it's because some personalities, perhaps Flores's, respond best to the most demanding situations. You demand the most of them, they respond with their absolute best. Flores definitely carries himself like he belongs.

Langerhans is probably the most conventional case. The so-called AAAA player. He'll generally hit well enough in the minors, and he'll try to tread water in the big leagues.

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Arlington, Va.: Can you update us on when some of the guys are expected to come off the DL? thanks

Chico Harlan: Sure. Hopefully I don't forget anybody.

Cordero -- just went down to Florida to start throwing more regularly. He's still about two weeks away from a rehab assignment. I'm guessing he won't be back with Washington until July.

Nick Johnson -- has a setback recently. He was supposed to get his cast removed last week, and the doctors decided he should wear it for two more weeks. Initially the team estimated 4-6 weeks. Now it's more like 6-8.

Lo Duca -- might be close. He just started a rehab assignment. The real question here is, where does he play?

Kearns -- still doing arm strengthening exercises. Once he resumes "baseball activities," the team will have a better idea. Still a few weeks away.

Zimmerman -- stay tuned.

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Cap Hill: Any news on the other Chico?

By the way, you're doing a great job. Barry left big shoes to fill.

Chico Harlan: Had an MRI on Monday I believe. Last I asked Manny about it, the team was still waiting to hear on the results. I could have an answer on this today.

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White seat, RFK: Chico--

You seem to pull no punches in your writing, i.e. saying recently that the Nats bats have been used only "for decoration." Do the players take exception to that kind of material and does it keep them from cooperating with you?

Chico Harlan: I haven't yet gotten any grief from players for ripping them at times. My hope is always that they understand this much: Baseball is a game, a light-hearted one, and it's best taken with a healthy dose of humor, even in bad times. My humor is sometimes more on the sarcastic/irreverent side, though, which can be a bit off-putting to some, so I'm always prepared to catch flack for an athlete who isn't happy with what I write.

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Da Meat Hook is back?: Chico: Obviously Belliard's return gets the spotlight, but Dmitri Young is having a good couple of games after coming back from his illness. That would be much more important in the end. Is he rounding into form (although the words "rounding" and "form" have a little different meaning when you look at him)?

Chico Harlan: Yes. His form has rounded out quite wonderfully, at last in a sense other than the literal one.

Acta was talking about this yesterday, actually -- how the mere addition of one or two guys can have a real catalyzing effect on the entire offense. (He was talking about both Belliard and Young.) At least yesterday, his words seemed worth taking to heart. With DY hitting fourth instead of Aaron Boone, Washington hardly has a formidable lineup. But it has a backbone that's somewhat stronger. Noticeably stronger.

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Infield Gallery: A previous poster made a remark about Rule 5 players and how (meaning Flores) will eventually prove why they were left unprotected in the first place. What do you hear among the experts about Flores? Is that poster right or will Flores (as I believe) be a good MLB catcher (or maybe better)?

Chico Harlan: The people I've talked to are Flores believers. Everything I've seen from him makes me think he's legit. Might not always be a .300-plus hitter, but he makes himself valuable in other ways. Among them:

* He works well with the pitchers.

* Just as important, the pitchers like how he calls games.

* He hits with runners in scoring position.

* He has some pop.

Rule 5 or not, that's what you want from a catcher.

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Rockville, Md.: Any thoughts on Tolman getting another runner easily thrown out last night with Milledge?

Chico Harlan: I'm not going to criticize him too much. When a team is so desperate for runs -- and the Nats were especially desperate at the moment he waved Milledge home -- I think it's a gamble worth taking. I know a lot of Nats fans like to use Tolman as a punching bag, but this time around, I could see his side of things.

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Falls Church: Your ideal line-up suggests that Lopez has played himself out of a job and that Flores has played himself into one. What happens with Lo Duca and Lannan's fave, Wil Nieves? And I assume that we've seen the last of Johnny Estrada barring more injuries?

Chico Harlan: Yeah, Wil Nieves is in a tough spot. He's a fine back-up catcher, and he's done nothing during his time here to change my mind on that. But the numbers game might work against him. He's the likely odd man out once Lo Duca returns.

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Vienna, Va.: Chico: So I'm going to guess you're not having lunch today (or any time soon) with Felipe Lopez. Any reaction from him to your not-so-subtle digs at his lack of hustle? And with Belliard coming back in such a big way last night, should Felipe curl up in a nice cool spot on the bench for a while?

Chico Harlan: Felipe and I actually are meeting at Primanti Bros., 1:30 p.m. Felipe had a busy morning, but he said he'd hustle to be there on time.

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Section 117: Hi, Chico,

Looking ahead to this winter's free agent class, given the Nats' revenues proving that they're a big-market team that can afford a $100 million player payroll, how does this sound for FA targets?

1B -- Teixeira

2B -- Loretta

SS -- Furcal or Eckstein

OF -- Burrell and/or Dunn

Yes, Loretta's 36, but he's remarkably consistent when it comes to career OBP (.362) and he plays steady defense. Definitely an under-the-radar guy. Everyone else is relatively young (no one older than 32 I think) and also good career OBP (no lower than .350).

Chico Harlan: That sounds like an expensive .500 team.

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Chico Harlan: OK, gotta run now. Thanks again for all the great questions, insights and amusement.

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