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Washington Nationals

Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 2:00 PM

Washington Post Nationals beat writer Chico Harlan was online Wednesday, July 23 at noon ET to take your questions and comments about the Washington Nationals.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

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Chico Harlan: Well, let's start it up. Cue the "Hillbilly Deluxe." (Big timin' in a small town.) Fire away.

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Washington, DC: Has Trader Jim lost his marbles? I applaud the Rauch deal - he's a luxury that a losing team doesn't need, and it brought back a good young almost-major-league-ready player, which is exactly what the Nats need. But the Guzman contract? Why re-sign a guy to a losing team when he has trade value? Yes, they need a shortstop for 2009, but they could have signed Guzman in the offseason as a free agent or - GASP - signed another shortstop. The only move so far that makes less sense than the Guzman contract is the Astros trading for Wolf.

Chico Harlan: Gotta disagree with your take on the Guzman, signing, DC. If they had traded Guzy in July, no way would he have re-signed with the Nats come the offseason. Guzman is the rare sort of guy who is content playing in a place in which he's comfortable -- even if the team isn't winning. But give him a few months of a playoff chase in a different town... well, then he gets comfortable AND gets the winning. At that point, he's far less likely to return to life in DC.

But Guzman's deal was important because of the market, too. The shortstops eligible for free agency at year's end are a weak group. Guzman (would have been)... Furcal... but after that? You've got guys like Alex Cintron and Adam Everett and Cesar Izturis. That's a fairly representative sample of the talent available if the Nats hadn't resigned Guzman. They would have likely needed to trade for a new SS, not sign one.

So, the Guzman signing made sense.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is Mock really going to work out of the bullpen, or is that move a sign of another pending move involving Redding or Perez perhaps?

Chico Harlan: Well, at least initially, Mock gets the chance to come out of the 'pen. If Redding or Perez is traded -- and I get the sense the team would rather part with Perez -- then, yeah, a rotation spot opens up. Mock might be the logical fill-in, but there's also a chance the team decides Jordan Zimmermann (currently with Class AA Harrisburg) is major league ready. Already with Balester, the Nats have shown a willingness to give a rotation spot (and a lot of rope) to a youngster who still might be a little too green. In the long term, Zimmermann is a better prospect than Mock. That might influence who gets the first shot to fill any opportunity created by trade.

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Alexandria, VA: Any chance we'll see Bill Rhinehart get a shot at first base? Surely it's better than seeing Willie Harris play there?

Chico Harlan: Rhinehart sure would make sense if the team somehow parted with Lo Duca or Belliard; in either case, there would be a vacancy at first base. But remember, Rhinehart has played in only twenty-some games at Class AA. He'd face a major, major adjustment... might be better for him to face some Class AAA pitching before he makes the leap.

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Alexandria, Va.: When do you expect Milledge back?

Chico Harlan: Within a week, I'd imagine. He's already played one game with Class AAA Columbus. (This was after playing in two games with the Gulf Coast League.) If Milledge doesn't join the team on this road trip, I'd expect to see him once the team returns home.

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Washington, DC: Why is the signing of Cristian Guzman considered such a "great" move by Bowden? Didn't we go down this road last year with Dmitri Young and his contract extension just before the deadline only to realize this year that it was a grave mistake? Sure they didn't get locked into a long term deal, but it definitely cost them well above the market value to keep him for two more years. If they weren't going to trade him, why not just wait until the end of the season to see what his market value was? He very well could slide back down to his career averages by the end of the year and thus be gotten for significantly less than what they ended up paying.

The Nats are clearly short on middle infielders in the system, so Guzman fills a short term need, but the cost to the team is high with a low likelihood of him coming even close to the numbers and games played he has achieved this season. Couldn't the Nats have found a suitor to take Rauch and Guzman in a package deal for two or three infield prospects AND a pitching prospect or draft pick? At the very least, they could have gotten a better return by trading Guzman than trading Rauch. I guess we've seen this pattern before--re-sign or refuse to trade your best players even though your in "rebuilding" mode while trading your second-tier players for marginal prospects and draft picks--so I guess we shouldn't be too surprised.

Chico Harlan: Make no mistake, the market for solid, late-inning relief pitching was perfect, and that made Rauch just as valuable a commodity as Guzman. If anything, maybe that discredits the value Washington received in exchange for Rauch. But this wasn't a case of the Nats decided to trade one because he was "second tier."

But I'll say this much: The Nats took a risk that the Guzman of this year -- the healthy Guzman -- is somebody who will maintain that level of performance. Evidently, a half-season of excellent productivity convinced Jim Bowden than Guzman can keep it up. That remains to be seen, but that, along with Guzman's health, is the biggest potential pitfall of such a signing.

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Anchorage, Alaska: In response to Washington, DC, who wrote: "Why re-sign a guy (Guzman) to a losing team when he has trade value?"

Guzman's trade value just went up. He now has a two year, reasonable market-rate contract with a team-friendly term that nobody who was serious about Guzman would object to.

I am not saying that they should trade him now, but hypothetically, for the team that gets him, he's a better deal now than if he was at the end of the contract... and it may well be that the team that it is best for is the Nats.

Chico Harlan: I suppose that's true. But they didn't sign him to this deal with the intention to trade him.

Then again, a large part of Rauch's appeal to other teams was the deal he already had in place... a market-friendly deal for certain. He's owed $2 million next year. And the Dbacks will have a club option to pay him $2.9 in 2010.

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Fairfax, VA: Assuming Willie Harris keeps hitting the ball this well, will he remain a starter when Dukes and Milledge return, or is it back to the bench?

Chico Harlan: Nope, to the bench he goes. Well, at least he's on the bench once Dukes is back, too. But yeah, we'll keep seeing him get regular at bats even after Milledge returns. At that point, Harris will be in left more times than not.

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Burke, Va.: Do you get the impression that there was a behind-the-scenes blowup between Nats' management and Felipe Lopez, or was it just a series of transgressions that led to the Nats finally saying "enough is enough" and truncating his playing time?

Chico Harlan: Well, there was no one tipping point. The accretion of errors and nonchalance added up. Manager Manny Acta had no choice but to play Lopez, hoping to make him tradable. It's not as if Acta didn't notice the same things every fan notices. And yeah, it would be human nature to want some form of retribution... no doubt, he wanted to pin Lopez to the bench and set the right kind of example for his team. But he just couldn't do it. But now that we're so close to the deadline, I think the team has almost met a point of resignation with Lopez. Maybe he'll get crazy-hot this week and drum up some demand. But more than likely, he won't. He's just a lame duck. He's gone after this year, obviously. The team might be better off releasing him come August.

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Alexandria, Va.: Based on his minor league stats, Bonifacio looks to be another speedy guy who won't be able to get on base enough to stick in the bigs. In other words, the second coming of Felipe Lopez. With the Cubs and Mets, among others, in need of bullpen help, was Bowden's determination to fulfill his longstanding quest to acquire Bonifacio the best move for this team? Especially considering Rauch is under contract for another two years. Are toolsy ex-Diamondbacks the new toosly ex-Reds?

Chico Harlan: Bonifacio is not a Felipe Lopez. He has more speed and less power. He'll need to improve his OBP for sure, especially if the team wants to bat Bonifacio and Guzman 1-2 next year. I cannot say if acquiring Bonifacio was the best move for this team. Like any prospect-for-veteran deal, it cannot be judged right away. If Bonifacio can give you a career that matches, say, that of Luis Castillo -- and that's the player to whom Bonifacio is most often compared -- then the Nats made out OK. If he can't get on base enough to stick in the bigs, then yeah, the Nats lost out. The team, in this case, was definitely putting its faith in Mike Rizzo's judgment. Frankly, if that leads to an ongoing love affair for toolsy Arizona prospects, I'll take that over an ongoing love affair for Cincinnati Reds.

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San Francisco: Can I just become a bullpen catcher and stay on the team?

J Estrada

Chico Harlan: You won't play very much, Johnny. Is $1.25 million enough to still make that sound worthwhile?

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Annandale, VA: Chico, What is the next move for the Nats? Trade another player or two? Release a player (ie Lopez)? Fire a coach (ie Harris)? Or is this it and we have our team for August and September?

Chico Harlan: Well, these were the two big ones. Any moves after this will be far less impactful. If the team trades Lopez or Lo Duca, it will be lucky to land a marginal prospect. Redding and Perez have a little value, and either is a candidate to be traded, but again, neither one will be part of a trade that brings a new face to the '09 ballclub. So yeah, this is your team. If there are firings among the coaching staff, that will almost certainly wait until the offseason.

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Glen Echo: Your 2009 Opening Day Lineup....

Guzman 6 Milledge 8 Zimmerman 5 Johnson 3 Dukes 7 Kearns 9 Flores 2 Bonifacio 4 Balester 1

Chico Harlan: Balester won't be the Opening Day starter, but other than that, I think that's a fair guess. Unless Willie Harris is starting at every position at once.

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Arlington, Va.: Initially I wasn't a Paul LoDuca fan but he has impressed me with his attitude in the face of losing his starting position to Flores and trying to provide a bit of leadership. When Jorge Posada got injured I thought - great maybe the Yankees will trade for him. Is there any chance he will be dealt before the deadline? I think it would be better for the Nats and better for LoDuca.

Chico Harlan: The Yanks are absolutely the most logical team. And Lo Duca absolutely wants to be moved to another team... as a catcher. He's enjoying the slew of at bats he's getting right now with the Nats, but he understands he won't be back next season. So right now, he's playing with the hope of drumming up some interest.

There's one major problem. Say the Yanks want Lo Duca as a possible catcher option. Well, they probably want to see how he can handle things defensively first. And that's just not happening right now with the Nats -- not with Flores so deserving of playing time, and not with Nieves behind him, and not with Estrada taking up further space. Any team that trades for Lo Duca will have to take a leap of faith that the guy can be adequate defensively. That's tough to ask for, too, especially after he looked so suspect earlier this year.

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Arlington, Va.: I will be at AT&T Park on Sunday (Matt Cain bobblehead day) and wonder how you view the park itself and hope that it is not as cold as Candlestick was. Compare it to Nationals Park if you wish.

Chico Harlan: AT&T Park lived up to the hype. Last night was my first visit, but I'd put it on a top 3 list alongside PNC and Fenway. The sightlines are fantastic. The brick, the colors, the intimacy... that's how a ballpark should feel. Nothing feels contrived. From a vantage point way up top behind first base, you can actually see the bay, the city, the bridges all at once. It beats Nats Park, and that's no discredit to what the Nats have. This one is just about pitch-perfect, though. You'll enjoy. (Even the wind wasn't bad yesterday. I've heard it can still whip at times, but rarely as bad as it was at the Stick.)

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Bethesda, Md.: Why the rush to sign Guzman now and why not trade him for a prospect and see if we can re-sign him in the offseason? I don't see how anyone can make it seem like 8 million per is a bargain? If there was no trade market for him now coming off an all star first half then why would anyone think he was going to get a 3 or 4 year, 35 to 40 million dollar contract in the offseason? Is Guzman's contract (A 2 year overpaid contract for a guy that had a hot first half coming off several poor seasons and multiple injuries) sure seems like it is going to become Dimitri 2.0 .

Chico Harlan: Certainly Dmitri's contract is the one historical warning sign that makes this Guzman deal feel like a risk. There are a few similarities... the hot season after some tough times... the penchant for injuries... the notion that a strong season represented future returns.

But it's unfair to group Guzman alongside Young. Guzman is a pro -- always business-like, and very serious. The injuries were not his fault. Leave a fate in Guzman's hands, and he will do everything possible to hold up his end of the bargain. That doesn't mean that bad-luck injuries won't get in the way, but Guzman himself won't get in the way of his own good. Dmitri, especially by struggling to control his weight, has done just that.

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6th and Fla. NW: As long as we're on to 2009 ... I predict Bowden has one more big shoe to drop before then--a Soriano-esque deal. And Nick Johnson won't be your Opening Day first baseman.

Chico Harlan: I'll grant you this, 6th and Fla. There might be one more shoe to drop before next season that alters the lineup. But it probably won't come by trade. As we've talked about before, the team should have a willingness this offseason to make a play for a big free agent. That's the one piece that could really change things. I agree, counting on Nick Johnson as your starting first baseman entering 2009 is dubious. Do the Nats make a run at Teixeira? Now that's the kind of shoe that would create an impact.

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Falls Gulch, Va.: I am going to miss Rauch. Please try to convince me this was as good deal for us. Also I guess this spells the end for Lopez no? Any reaction from him in the clubhouse.

Chico Harlan: I'll take this question as a chance to add a little insight about Rauch. His value to the team was unquestionable. With Cordero out, he basically slid seamlessly into a new role. In that way, Rauch will be missed -- and not just by Falls Gulch. But Rauch was a bit of a loner in the clubhouse. He approached his job very seriously, and clearly had respect for his career, but his personality could sometimes be taken as dour.

I'll try to get reaction from Lopez today. I've been talking to him for quite some time now about the season, his role, whether he wants out of DC... and normally, his answers are curt and proper. "I just want to get by bat right." "I'm not wasting my time thinking about trades." That kind of stuff. But maybe the acquisition of Bonifacio will change his mindset.

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San Francisco: Hey Chico, all I need is a uniform man. I hear it's easier to talk to the ladies from the bullpen anyway...

Johnny

Chico Harlan: We'll end on that. Estrada gets the final word.

Thanks for the questions, folks. Enjoyed the chance to talk about and digest a crazy last 24 hours. We've got eight more days before the trading deadline, so hopefully we get a little more to talk about for next week, too.

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