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Wednesday, July 9, 2 p.m. ET

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Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008; 2:00 PM

Washington Post Nationals beat writer Chico Harlan was online Wednesday, July 9 at noon ET to take your questions and comments about the Washington Nationals.

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A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

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Chico Harlan: Thanks for sharing the time this afternoon, fellas. We're here to talk Nats baseballs for the next hour. The free range food discussion is happening one chatroom over.

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Sec 114, Row E: I'm going to jump in here. The Post has now posted 2-3 stories on this and touched on the idea that the numbers cannot be correct -- yet, the WaPo hasn't done any real investigation. Ultimately, I think they'll discover that they did something different calculation wise, than the other teams.

Also -- can the WaPo dig around and get the ratings numbers for the three different Nats outlets? I have to figure that somewhere, someone missed counting one or two of the channels. I know where the channels are on my TV, but I'm a core fan. But outside of us hardcore fans, how many know that the Nats may be on any of three television channels in a given night? What are MASN2's ratings?

washingtonpost.com: Nats Striking Out on TV (Post, July 8)

Chico Harlan: The numbers we got were only a team-by-team compilation... there was no breakdown of ratings between MASN and MASN2 -- though I'd like to see them. Alas, Nielsen ratings are only available on a subscription basis, so we'd need an intermediary source to provide those numbers. The original numbers that spawned the story came from the Sports Business Journal.

I've heard plenty of complaints from viewers that the Nats games are hard to find on TV; they are on different channels, etc. So, is that the reason TV numbers are so low? Perhaps, because the one team with a similar arrangement, the O's, have the third-lowest regional TV audience in baseball. In this case, I think it's best to form a direct comparison with the Orioles. In terms of coverage on television, their circumstances mirror the Nats almost exactly.

In the course of a season, about 100 O's games are on MASN, about 60 on MASN2. Same ratio for Washington.

So, I think the MASN/MASN2 arrangement partly explains why both teams have such low ratings. But it doesn't explain why the Nats, even in the context of the most poorly-watched teams in baseball, are such an outlier.

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Sec 114, Row E: Chico, The HD issue is given short shrift in the articles; there's a lot of people with new HDTVs, big HDTVs, and there's a big difference in broadcast quality. The Nats and O's are the only two teams without a full HD schedule. That and the quality of the broadcast is crap anyway.

Is this something that the Nats can use to get out of that horrendous TV deal? It wouldn't take much of an argument to show that not having HD when everyone else has a full HD schedule is a breach of the intent of the contract.

Chico Harlan: You add an interesting layer of rationale to the TV ratings, Sec. 114. I'm still skeptical of their veracity; they are such an outlier. That said, though Nielsen Ratings sometimes draw criticism -- the numbers rely on meters attached to TV sets and journal/logs kept by viewers -- nobody yet has come up with a better system for measurement.

Certainly in the last few years, a certain demographic has come to see sports on HD not just as a luxury, but as a necessity. It so changes the viewing experience. I would imagine that a small but noticeable number is less likely to watch baseball because of the lacking HD option. That alone doesn't explain what the ratings are SO low, but it's I'm very willing to put it among the top reasons.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I dare you to answer this question in the chat -- What hit rock bottom faster, the Nationals or the Post's coverage of the team?

Chico Harlan: No problem, Silver Spring. Like my predecessor on this beat, Barry Svrluga, I have my personal frustrations at times about the lack of resources and space the Post sometimes devotes to the Nats. Would I love to have an entire army of folks dedicated to baseball coverage? Heck yes. When I was an intern at the Boston Globe, we used to have five or six people -- and maybe a seventh, a Spanish writer, if Pedro was pitching -- come out to Fenway to write about the Sox... on a Tuesday night... in June. Granted, that's the extreme end. And more important, that was back in the day when newspapers across the board had larger staffs and deeper pockets. Plus, it's a baseball-crazy market. Here, the Nats are still making inroads, and sometimes -- as TV ratings reflect -- that comes with bumps, even apathy.

I obviously have the central role in Nats coverage at the Post, so most of the criticism I am willing to shoulder myself. No matter the space I am given to write about this team, I will work my butt off, as I have been doing, to provide the best coverage possible -- a coverage that's thought-provoking, topical, newsy and insightful. In the end, of course, the work must speak for itself. So I will just shut up and get back to work.

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Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Harlan: I was one of the 9,000 watching last night's game. I don't mean to pick on W. Pena, but his at-bat in the bottom of the 4th was one of the ugliest I've seen. Two swings at pitches in the dirt. When he took a third pitch in the dirt, derisive cheers emanated from the crowd. After taking another pitch, MASN announcer Bob Carpenter said Pena looks now to be in his "take" mode. Sure enough, he took strike three. I know Webb is one of the best, but ALL major league pitchers must relish pitching against the Nats.

And I must add, I very much enjoy reading your articles. Your style of writing is a pleasure. I just wish you had a better team to write about! How do you manage to keep your sanity watching all of these losses one after the other?

Chico Harlan: Pena is lost at the plate right now. Just before Dukes's injury, it appeared like team management had just about reached the end with him. All that talk about giving him a chance had suddenly changed into a very bottom-line stance: The opportunities aren't there for him, Manny Acta said, simply, about one week ago.

Then came the Dukes injury, which changed everything. Now, Pena will have one more chance to sink or swim. Everything I've seen in his plate appearances suggests he'll sink. But with Pena, there is always this off-in-the-distance vison of him finally, blessedly developing. Maybe he's one of those talents where it will just never click. But did anybody else notice the SI.com player poll in which Pena was cited to have the second-best raw power in the majors? Yup, behind only Ryan Howard. Where did it all go?

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Washington, D.C.: Is it just me or is Jesus Flores looking a little lost at the plate lately? Any chance we'll be seeing LoDuca behind the plate more, especially to boost his "tradeability"?

Chico Harlan: Absolutely Flores has been struggling at the plate of late. His average a month ago was .325. Now it's dropped to .267 ... he went 0-4 again last night. Mind you, this was a guy batting fourth not so long ago.

Some in the Nats front office kind of expected this return to the mean, though. Very few see Flores down the road as a .325 hitter. But he can potentially become a .275-.300 hitter with good pop for a catcher. If you offer the Nats that kind of productivity long-term, they'll take it.

This last month for Flores hasn't done anything to diminish the team's confidence in his abilities. Yes, you'll see Lo Duca behind the plate a bit more -- partly to boost his tradeability, partly to lift a bit of weight from Flores's shoulders. But Flores will still be catching most days, no matter what. Remember, Lo Duca is expendable precisely because of what Flores means to this team.

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TV Ratings: On any given day, the Nats show up on MASN, MASN-2 or Channel 20. This has got to be killing their attempts at building an audience. Has anyone floated the idea of permanently mooring the Nats on, say, MASN-1 and the O's on MASN-2. (I know neither team would want to be on "2" -- maybe change the names to MASN-DC and MASN-MD?)

Chico Harlan: I'll just post one or two TV comments and throw them out for general consumption.

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Bethesda, Md.: OK, I'm a casual fan, which means I'll watch a game on ESPN primarily because it looks so good in HD. That said, why would I want to watch the Nationals on Verizon Fios Channel 1? It's actually fitting because they look as crappy as they play.

Chico Harlan: Another one.

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Boston: Chico, do you think the Nationals will be true to their word and let guys like Mock and Clippard start, if they really think this is a lost season? Because the rotation should feature those two, Balester, Lannan (of course), and whoever out of Redding, Bergmann, and Perez if we don't trade. Do you think the Nats will have Balester, Mock, and Clippard full time in the rotation in the next few weeks?

Chico Harlan: The whole season-is-lost approach will really manifest itself after the trading deadline, I believe. Right now, you're hearing the strategy and only partly seeing its implementation. Balester is the first piece, as far as pitchers go. But yes, assuming either Perez or Redding isn't with the team in a few weeks, you'll have one more rotation spot for a young guy -- and either Mock or Clippard will get a good chance to fill it.

So, you ask about the next few weeks...

I would bet that one of those young guys will be pitching every five days in Washington. But I know this: If both Mock and Clippard were at this level come August, the team would be fine with that, too. The Nats are willing to take their lumps, now.

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Capitol Hill: The Nationals have their plan for how to become a winning team, and cite the Rays as an example. Since it took the Rays over a decade of last place finishes to get the high draft choices to become half-season winners, can we assume that the Nationals will challenge for the pennant in, oh, 2016?

Chico Harlan: Better to use the Rays as a model than the Pirates.

But in all seriousness, this much of the equation is simple. If you have several consecutive years of high first-rd picks -- and if you use them wisely -- you create a great foundation. A team that struggles 3-4 years in a row SHOULD have an almost inevitable upswing.

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Mt. Vernon, Va.: Any time a Nat gets injured (in other words, at about 20 minutes and 50 minutes past the hour, every hour), we hear they will be expected to be out 4-6 weeks. Which, I suppose is Nats-speak for, "we're not sure how long they'll be out." That said, do you have any update on return dates for Milledge, Zimmerman, and Dukes?

Chico Harlan: Baseball injuries are strange like that. They linger, they develop. So much of the severity of these injuries can only be discerned with, first, some kind of exploratory surgery and, second, the revelation of how a player responds to rehab. Because these are impossible to predict from the moment the injury occurs, you often get the same trend. ...

That is, an optimistic prognosis devolves into a realistic one.

I don't think it's the case of misdiagnosis or poor doctors. In some cases, of course, we've seen some problems with immediately identifying an injury -- especially with Cordero. But it's hard to second-guess these matters. Numerous doctors examined Cordero before his latest injury, the labral tear, was diagnosed. When it comes to injuries, the team cannot be accused of negligence.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for considering this early submission. Have you talked to the Nats management about Luke Montz? Is he viewed as a potential major league regular or at best a back up? It'd seem with the scarcity of young catching on many of the contenders and the high budget teams, a young, cost controlled, potential regular would be a valuable trading chit.

The Fangraphs website has a list of the 50 most valuable players in trade, considering age and contract. Four of the top 26 are catchers (McCann, Mauer, Martin, and Soto). Any thought on where Jesus (the catcher, not the ...) would place on a catchers only list?

Chico Harlan: Montz is right on the border between future starter and future back-up. A lot will depend on his development in the next year, but he might get a shot at the Opening Day roster next year. The team is still waiting to see whether Montz can develop into a regular. But at worst, he's a future back-up at the big league level.

And we all know that back-up catchers have the best job in sports.

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Vienna, Va.: I'm one of the lonely 9000 watching the Nats, and a have two 20-game plans. Even I'm faltering. When the Nats had runners on first and third with one out, I remarked to my wife (two of 9000), "maybe they'll get their run this inning." But alas, it was not to be.

Good pitching is wonderful to watch, and the Nats have had some of it. Abysmal hitting, however, is a lasting torment and can sour anybody on a team. I'll be at the game tonight, and I'll continue to graze a few innings on TV until hope fizzles, but lord, can anybody on this team hit the ball? I'm so tired of Wily "hit no" Mo Pena looking flat out bad.

I think the ritual sacrifice of the hitting coach is in order.

Chico Harlan: The lament from one of the 9,000.

I feel your pain, Vienna.

You've come to the right place. Share your sorrows. Pass your burdens along. Remember, 2016... 2016... 2016.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, Chico. Given how the Nats rank near or at the bottom for runs scored, BA, OBP and SLG, how much longer will they stick with Lenny Harris? Yes, their regular 3B, 1B, CF and RF are all on the DL, but none of them was hitting better than their career numbers either.

Chico Harlan: Is it possible to defend Lenny Harris without looking like a complete homer? No?

Well, I feel compelled to do it anyway.

Look, you cannot properly judge Harris for the disaster that's become the 2007 season. If you took away seven of the eight Opening Day starters from ANY team in baseball, it, too, would be a trainwreck. The Yanks might be last in baseball in hitting if they faced similar problems. True, Kearns and Johnson weren't hitting before those injuries -- and people use that as ammo against Harris. But those vets are less likely to lean on Harris anyway. Their approaches are already fairly engrained.

So, do we judge Harris by his work with the younger guys? I suppose that's the best way. Wily Mo Pena is the most perplexing case; he's at absolute ground zero right now. But if you're going to blame Harris for that, then Harris deserves some credit for the way Washington's other two young OFs, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, have shown signs of progress.

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1 of 9,000: Hi Chico -- two questions about last night's game: The relievers -- Shell, Rivera and Hanrahan -- were amazing. Is Hanrahan for real? I'm concerned that with only a fastball (albeit a damn good one), he'll be figured out soon. Also, did it feel like Webb was toying with Wily Mo? Clearly, Wily Mo couldn't handle Webb's sinker. But Webb then threw a fastball to get Wily Mo on one of the strikeouts. Pena seemed lost and confused up there.

Chico Harlan: I'm done with the Pena-bashing for today. Or at least for one question.

It's rare these days to hear the word "amazing" linked with the Nats relievers, but yesterday it was surely deserved. Hanrahan is chiefly a fastball pitcher, yes, and he'll need a wider repertoire before he becomes top-shelf. But one things with relievers: Because they generally face a given hitter just once in a game, they can get away with a smaller range of stuff.

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McLean, Va.: About how much money will Perez' outburst from last night cost him?

Chico Harlan: Over/under: Let's say $2,500.

Svrluga and Sheinin are both in the office, too, right now. A quick survey of the minds says... Sheinen, $5,000, Barry, $1,500.

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A Nat Fan Suffering in U Street: Chico -- Why in the world would we even want Zimmerman back in the lineup this season? We have no post-season hopes so why not let him take the rest of the season off, rest up, heal up (and like Nick Johnson every season) be ready for next spring training?

Chico Harlan: I can see the fanbase has become fearful of the worst-case scenarios. Understandable, given how quickly they've come flying this season. But at leas from the GM's words, we can safely assume that Zimmerman will NOT be allowed back on the field this season if there's any chance that playing will make things worse. They truly just want him back for 2009. That's why surgery, if it happened, would only be a possibility mid-season. One thing they wouldn't do is play him this year while planning on off-season surgery. They don't want to risk the chance that he won't be ready for spring training in 2009.

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Washington, D.C. (Sec. 312): Any word or update on signing our top draft picks?

Chico Harlan: Nothing on Crow so far, but the team isn't quite concerned yet. The signing of first-round picks tends to be an awkward kind of dance, sometimes. Teams wait around to see what others will do. Then, all the picks come-a-signin' in one frantic jumble. That hasn't happened yet. So far, the Nats are more disappointed than concerned. They're disappointed because Crow is losing time in the minors, which can delay his rise to the big leagues.

But remember, last year's No. 9 pick, Jarrod Parker, signed with Arizona just a few minutes before the deadline.

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Washington, D.C.: How did your time in Australia affect your view of sport? It is really a sport-crazy country. So who is going to win the the Australian Football League? Geelong? Crows?

Chico Harlan: I have NRL (rugby league) loyalty. Aussie Rules is for those yobbos from the south.

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Centreville, va.: How dare you say something nice about Harris? And in a manner that makes sense no less! Don't listen to him N.J. readers. We want blood! Blood!

Chico Harlan: I'm not exactly exchanging Christmas cards with Lenny. Just saying, the Nats of ought-eight could have Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn or even Tom Emanski teaching them how to hit, and they'd still be dead-last in the majors in all those offensive categories.

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Lexington, Ky.: I am new to baseball, so what really is a balk? In Astleford's article of July 9th, the description seemed to be something like a balk, but if Perez has been doing this all along, why call it a balk now?

washingtonpost.com: Nats' Only Sparks Come From Ejected Pitcher (Post, July 9)

Chico Harlan: The balk is a curious thing. Like the traveling call in hoops, it's one of those things that is so open to interpretation that it curries a lot of second-guessing. Perez clearly thought he hadn't balked, and his reasoning had a lot to do with the context of every game he'd pitched beforehand. His reasoning: If he makes that motion all of the time, and he's never called for it, why did Hernandez make an issue of it now? I can understand Perez's frustrations.

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Washington, D.C.: Chico -- My concern with some of management's comments is their seemingly naive understanding that we are in a medium term struggle for the hearts and minds of the mid-atlantic baseball fans who are 6-14 years old or so. Whomever gets to the playoffs first (Nats or Baltimore) will win a whole generation of fans. I'm not sure Stan realizes this is the real struggle, winning over the generation of kids in this region today.

Chico Harlan: That's why, in my online poll several days ago, I asked one question about children. You see this in markets all of the time. Teams grow their foundations by winning. Kids who grow up with winning teams become devoted fans throughout adulthood. I think you make a good point, D.C.

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Nats703: Any thoughts on Luis Ayala? He was pretty solid in his role as set-up man last season after returning from Tommy Johns surgery. Now, he looks to have regressed and is hardly reliable pitching in the eighth inning in a close game. Any reason Manny keeps sending him out there anyway, only to blow the game open?

Chico Harlan: Who else can he rely on? Hanrahan, maybe. But Shell? Colome? Simple as this, Acta continues to use Ayala because he has no other choice. I don't believe anybody in the Nats pen has been more over-extended on account of the Cordero loss than Ayala.

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Game Weather: So Chico, planning to come out to the game tonight -- can't believe I end up missing Webb and Haren and get Micah Owings instead. Any word on the weather and if they'll get the game in?

Chico Harlan: I only learned one thing in meteorology school, and it involved clicking on this link:

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/capitalweathergang/natcast/

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Chico, Could you give us some insight into the team's attitude? I understand management loves Manny, and he's not an in-your-face guy, and that's fine. However, this team just sleepwalks through games and keeps having terrible at bats and defensive lapses. In my opinion, someone needs to provide some leadership, energy, and tough love.

Chico Harlan: It's perhaps my toughest judgment as a beat writer to determine whether this team truly does "sleepwalk" through games, as you say. Are the mental errors, for instance, a sign of disinterest and/or lacking leadership? Or are they merely a product of players who are incapable of filling their roles? Honestly, I have conflicted feelings about it.

But I know what Manny Acta would say. He'd tell you that leadership and clubhouse attitude are entirely immaterial to performance. Winning/playing well, he feels, starts everything, and leadership will follow. If leadership and winning can be viewed as something of a chicken-egg conundrum, Acta firmly feels that winning spawns leadership, but leadership does not spawn winning.

Does that make sense?

That's why he is so averse to the yelling and screaming. He doesn't think a clubhouse tirade will change anything. To a degree, his team's only salvation is performance. It won't come from anything else, because Acta isn't about to change his approach.

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Section 201: Has Bowden begun hyping the advantages of having the first pick in next summer's MLB draft? Is the organization now in a race with Seattle for the first pick? Is that the next big thing we "fans" can look forward too?

Chico Harlan: We'll end today's chat with a little hope. Yup, the Nats have a fighting chance for the No. 1 pick in June 2009. Right now, you've got to give them the top odds to finish with the major league's worst record.

Wait... am I using that line of logic as something about which to be hopeful?

It appears so. Sorry if this is pathetic. Perhaps this is the latest sign of the depths in which we wade.

Let's do it again next week.

Thanks again for all of the questions. I received way more than I could get to. Bad baseball can still be fascinating.

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