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Washington Nationals

Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008 2:00 PM

Washington Post Nationals beat writer Chico Harlan was online Wednesday, Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments about the Washington Nationals.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

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Chico Harlan: Thanks for joining in the Nats chat this afternoon. Let's fire away. All questions Nationals-related are welcome. I'll also accept any questions about Marlo Stanfield's strategy in West Baltimore.

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Washington, D.C.: Chico, what's your updated prediction on the over/under for wins? Is 60 in jeopardy?

Cheers!

Chico Harlan: Well, DC, the Nats have 44 wins with 42 games left to play. So basically you're asking me if these guys can win at least 16 of their last 42 games. Truth is, their winning percentage (.367) would have to improve over the final quarter of the season to avoid less than 60 victories. Hit 60, and they'll need to play .381 baseball the rest of the way. Right now, the Nats are on pace for 59.4 wins. I'll call the "over" on this one for now, if only because the team I've seen in August -- yes, even with a five-game losing streak -- looks like an improvement on the team from the several months beforehand. I'll go out on the limb and call a 62-win season.

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Alexandria, Va.: Should we read anything more into the clubhouse locker shake-up? How is team chemistry since the Lopez and Lo Duca releases?

Chico Harlan: Well, a few players were talking about the chance of a clubhouse redesign in the last week, and I have to say, it made sense. It wasn't done to shake up the chemistry -- that already happened a few weeks prior... I'd say it's more a reflection of the changed chemistry.

All along, the Nats' ovular clubhouse was supposed to be a sign of openness, turning everybody toward everybody else. (In both a figurative and literal sense.) Well, that was all fine, but when the players were initially assigned lockers, a lot of the spacing was based on cliques. You had the everyday position players (vets like Nick Johnson, Ryan Zim, Austin Kearns) over here. You have the starters over there. You had a few of the Spanish-speaking players in one corner.

Now, that's all been jumbled up. For the better, I say. So many changes have been made to the roster since the beginning of the season that it made sense.

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Four Year Season Ticket Holder: This is the third time that I submit this reasonable comment. Maybe three times is the charm. Or maybe, you want to ensure your access to Nats management.

In the first three years, the Nats did very poorly. But they were, at least, a fun team to watch. This year they are also doing poorly, and they are no longer any fun. They are very boring. Changes must be made. Enough crying about injuries. It is time for accountability and we should start at the top.

Fire Jim Bowden. And do it quickly. The more time we waste the more mistakes he will make.

Mr. Bowden has failed. And he has had the resources. Following is a table of the bottom six teams in total payroll. The table shows team city, total payroll in millions, and won-loss record as of August 12, when I submitted this comment:

Minnesota -- $57M (66-52); WASHINGTON -- $54M (44-75); Pittsburgh -- $49M (54-64); Oakland -- $47M (54-63); Tampa Bay -- $43M (71-46); Florida -- $22M (62-57).

Washington stands out like a sore thumb, very sore indeed. Imagine how much fun the season would be if we had any of the other five teams. This table shows that a quality team can be developed with modest resources. Oakland does it almost every year. Mr. Bowden is clearly not up to this task. He must go!

I believe the case against Mr. Bowden is open-and-shut. But, I might be wrong. I would like to hear any good reasons, from you or the other chatters, as to why Mr. Bowden should be retained.

Chico Harlan: The case for/against Bowden is slightly more complicated than something that can be measured with simple wins and losses. I am neither defending him nor attacking him here -- just saying that when you're building an organization from the bottom-up, as he certainly has had to do, you have to measure job performance with a more subjective standard: Is he finding the pieces for the future? Washington's W-L record this season won't determine Bowden's job.

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Annandale, Va. : Chico -- Trying to keep things a little positive. The Nats may have lost last night, but the weather was perfect for a game. This past week was made for doubleheaders.

It is clear that the Nats wanted to trade the two players (names I refuse to acknowledge) they released on Aug. 1 for anything from a "player to be named" to half a bag of seeds. They received nothing, but are better off having just releasing them. They are now the Cardinals and Marlins problem.

In my opinion, the next player on the cut list has to be Austin Kearns. He has been in a slump since we traded for him from the Cincinnati Future Nationals. However, unlike the other two, he is still trying and I respect him for that. He can not hit, but he sure can throw. Does he stay on this team/start the rest of the season? If so, what are the odd he is on the team next year and/or our opening day right fielder? If he stays, we currently have 7 of 8 position player on next years team now (when Dukes returns). The only possible opening is first base. If this team does not add some pop to their bats at 1B, Kearns may have to leave just to get a real hitter in the line-up. Bottom line, what is Kearns future on this team?

Chico Harlan: A fantastic question, Annandale. Glad you asked it. These last 1-1/2 months are super-critical for Kearns. I think his future with this team is still up in the air. Working in his favor: He's hit for average since he's returned from the elbow surgery, he's still a fine defensive player, he's absolutely a good model as a worker for the younger players.

But it's a mystery why his power numbers have been so sub-par. For sure, the Nats need greater productivity from the RF spot next year.

I have no definitive answer for you on whether Kearns will be back next season or not -- odds are, he will be. But his salary jumps to $8 million next season, making him tough to deal. It might be one of those cases where Kearns has more value to the Nats than any other team.

Let's just say the Nats enter the offseason under the belief that their two biggest needs are RF and 1B. I'd rather see them use their resources to find a new first baseman than a new right fielder.

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New York: In advance, what will the paper's excuses be for the Nats not signing the young FA superstars CC Sabathia or Mark Teixeira?

Chico Harlan: If you want excuses, my man, read another paper.

That said, Teixeira and Sabathia are THE big free agents this year. It's not just a matter of whether the Nats want them -- and want to pay $150 million-plus. Their are dozens of other factors. Among them: Does either player even want to come to DC? In Sabathia's case, the answer will almost certainly be no. With Teixeira... well, we'll see.

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Fairfax, Va.: Does Aaron Crow think we're idiots? He wants $8 million plus a guaranteed major league contract? Who in their right mind would pay him that?

If he doesn't sign, he goes back for his senior year. He won't be drafted much if any higher next year, so he is just wasting his time.

Who wouldn't want to be signed by the Nats? He has a legitimate shot to be called up very early next season. How many other teams would give him that chance?

I know I'm in the minority, but if that is what he wants, we should pass him up. Getting two top 10 picks next year wouldn't be bad at all.

Chico Harlan: Crow's demands seem steep... few of the people I've talked to think he's worth what he's asking. Crow has more to lose in this situation than the Nats, I believe. You're right -- two first-round picks next year (including perhaps the first overall) isn't bad at all. Really, Washington's greatest hit might be the negative PR that comes with this, if indeed they can't wrap up Crow. Some organizations might be given a free pass, but the Nats have put so much emphasis on the scouting and signing of players that their fanbase follows it more closely than most.

As for Crow, though? A few of the scouts/agents I've talked to think that if Crow comes out next year, he'll be an even later pick. Next year's draft, by most accounts, is ridiculously deep. And I can't tell you how many times I've heard a phrase along the lines of, "Crow's value will never be higher." If he goes back to college for another year, he's risking a poorer season (and it'll be hard to top those crazy numbers from '07) or injury.

The Nats aren't just holding the money in this equation. They have more of the bargaining power, too, I believe.

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Shirlington, Va.: Seeing Adam Dunn get traded -- and Teixeira traded -- and both free agents after the season -- would the Nats have an interest in either of them as their 1B next year? Not sure of either's salary structure and whether it would fit "in the plans" or not -- but to me the Nats seem set in the field believe it or not and just need a power-hitting 1B, left-handed preferably. Am I close to right?

Chico Harlan: Money aside, Teixeira is a player who would be a perfect addition for the Nats. I'm not sold on Dunn. I think he belongs in the American League. Questions about his work ethic (or at least his demeanor) and his defense make him too much a liability for a big FA contract. Especially if you're a team that needs to be judicious with its FA targets.

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Who's next?: No, I'm not referring to one of the great albums of all time. I'm talking about the next prospects to arrive. They're don't appear to be any hitters coming along, but what about pitchers? Will we see J. Zimmermann this September? Who else?

Chico Harlan: Zimmermann's a possibility.

But there won't be any position players among the September call-ups who come up here and change the face of things. Simple reason: Pretty much every player the Nats want to evaluate right now is already playing. Now, if Justin Maxwell and Chris Marrero weren't injured, we'd have a different story to be talking about.

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Northeast, DC: I've bought four tickets to each of 20 games a year since the Nationals arrived, and I have to decide whether this will be a good use of my entertainment dollar next year. Is there anything that will happen on the field between now and October going to help me decide? If next year's lineup features stars who hit .267, average fielders and a pitching corps of all No. 3 or 4 starters, I may not be going to that many games. Some games this year were so hard to watch I got out of my seat and walked around.

Chico Harlan: If you're hoping for a winning season next year, Northeast, don't buy the tickets. But if you're interested in watching a potential down-the-road winning team develop (or at least try to develop) then it's still worth your while. The Nats have too many holes, some of which you mention, to solve all of them by next season.

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Bethesda, Md.: The projected lineup for next year looks just as bad as this year's with two guys likely at the top with terrible onbase percentages and the middle of the order severely lacking in power? After a couple of years of building through the farm -- how is this any kind of a Plan?

Chico Harlan: Well, the Nats will be depending on Chris Marrero to eventually fill one of those power-hitting holes. Maybe Destin Hood can one day do the same. But with prospects, it's always so speculative. For next year, the Nats can either suffer through more of the same, make a trade, or sign a big hitter. At this point, it looks like they're leaning toward a trade. They have enough minor league pitching prospects that they might be able to package a few of them and fill a need at the major league level. Ideas like that have always been a part of the plan. Not everything develops linearly when we're talking about drafting players.

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Willie Mo Hits Winning Walk-offs Weekly: What's the deal with the two new guys? So much production and energy to start, and now they've caught a bad case of the Nats (injury and poor hitting). Are either of these two part of the long term plans?

Chico Harlan: Way way too early to know. Bonifacio is two weeks into his career here. You need hundreds of ABs, not just 50 or so, before you can really judge whether a player can make it at this level. He'll get at least the next full season to prove himself. Gonzalez doesn't strike me as a future starter by any means, but he's a fine backup -- especially because of his glove. Bonifacio -- jury is still out, and will be out for a while.

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Miami: What do you think of Hanrahan as closer so far and is he expected to be the closer next year?

Chico Harlan: I need a larger sample size before judging Hanrahan. Hopefully by the end of the season he'll have a dozen or so save opportunities. If he converts, say, 10 of them, I think he's off to a promising start. So far, he's handled the easy ones and gotten roughed up in the one difficult situation (over the weekend against the Brewers). But either way, I think he starts the year in '09 as the closer. I don't see anybody else who's a better fit.

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Alexandria, Va.: Bonifacio is reverting to form and reports are that Micah Owings is the PTBNL in the Dunn trade. Time to say Bowden choosing Bonifacio over Owings was a mistake?

Also, does the team delay putting players on the DL to avoid having to pay callups pro rated MLB salary or is it an issue of incompetence on the part of the training staff?

Chico Harlan: Wouldn't say that -- simply because the Nats do need a second baseman more than they need pitching. (Of course, maybe the Nats could have asked Owings to pull an Ankiel and pick a position.)

As for the second part of your question, the delays are not premeditated for any reason -- especially financial. If you want to call it incompetence, call it incompetence. But it's not some ridiculous scheme for money-saving.

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No more $8,000 from me: Are the Nats preparing for a drastic drop-off in season ticket sales next year? Everyone I know who has tickets (granted it's only 15 people across 3 groups) are dropping their tickets entirely. For a team with less than amazing attendance, do they have any sense that it might get worse before it gets better?

Chico Harlan: You're definitely onto something. Teams can always rely on the new stadium honeymoon lasting a year. And that's why attendance, even now, is still holding strong. The Nats drew 32,000 last night. But next season, the product needs to improve -- significantly, I'd guess -- if attendance is to keep at this level. Chances are, the stadium crowds will almost certainly diminish.

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Next Year's Starters: I think signing Teixeira, who should be able to name both his price and destination, is pretty unrealistic. What do you think of Bobby Abreu or Pat Burrell as guys who help the middle of the order for a couple of years? Or possibly Sean Casey if desperation strikes?

Also, what do you think the Nats' chances to sign Ben Sheets, Brad Penny, or John Lackey as a top of the rotation guy? Or as a fall-back, Oliver Perez?

Chico Harlan: I'd absolutely stay away from guys like Abreu and Casey. I've seen enough baseball teams attempt to rebuild, and those that do it best -- Milwaukee, let's say -- resist the urge for stop-gap players. They commit fully to the plan. Free agents have a role in this plan, but it's only worth spending money on a guy when he's really part of the future. Casey and Abreu would not be. Teams in Washington's situation have nothing to gain by signing a guy who might turn a 74-win team into a 78-win team. Now Burrell might be a bit younger than Abreu and Casey, but he turns 32 at the end of this year. Not worth it, I say.

Perez and Sheets I both like as players, but the market for each will be steep. And for now, the Nats don't figure to be players for either of them.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What's the use of having Gonzalez on the roster if he's going to be blocked by Guzman for the foreseeable future? Guzman may be a better hitter at this stage, but I think Gonzalez is more what this teams needs -- an athletic shortstop that can save more runs and make the pitching more effective.

Chico Harlan: Gonzalez is best suited as a back-up anyway. Guzman is not in the way of anybody. He's playing ever day (and will be for the next two seasons) because he's a better ballplayer than Gonzalez. Gonzalez fits the weak-hit, good-glove archetype that back-up infielders have had for the last century. Play him every day, and he'll probably be exposed. Play him here and there, and you'll get the max out of him.

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Olney, Md.: In 2009, who SHOULD play first base, left and right fields and whom WILL play first base, left and right fields? Thanks !!

Chico Harlan: Okay, I'll just give you one answer... My guess for "should" and "will" will remain consistent.

1B -- somebody not currently in organization

LF -- Dukes

RF -- Kearns

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Washington, D.C.: Two odd questions. First, I've noticed from being at games and watching them on TV that there are a few players in uniform on the Nats bench that are not on the roster. Their numbers are all in the upper 80s, and I believe one of their names is Reyes and another is JR Martinez. Who are these guys and why are they on the bench? Secondly, is it just me, or does Jesus Flores switch back and forth between traditional and hockey style catchers masks? Usually guys stick to one style, but it seems like he uses both. Thanks a lot.

Chico Harlan: Good observation about Flores; I've got to ask him about that.

As for the other part of your question...

The folks you mention -- the guys with the WR numbers -- are part of the staff. Julian Martinez (87) and Nilson Robledo (88) are bullpen catchers. Pablo Reyes (86) and Jose Martinez (89) are batting practice pitchers. All four are with the Nats for every game, home and away.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Chico -- This is from SI.com -- any comment?

Thanks for your time

"They are absolutely terrible,'' one scout said of the Nats. "I can't even believe some of their players are in the majors.'' There is increasingly speculation that GM Jim Bowden's days could be numbered. (It can't help that Bowden is being investigated in the scout skimming case, though the National-owning Lerners seem to be supporting Bowden in that investigation.)

Chico Harlan: It's true that some players on the Nats don't belong in the majors. I'd agree with the scout, I suppose. A team with 44 wins at this point in the year meets the definition of "absolutely terrible" quite comfortably.

For now, all the Bowden talk is speculation, nothing more. But I, too, am noticing it more and more in avenues like SI.com, etc.

Okay, gotta sign away now. Thanks for all the comments today. Sorry I couldn't get to all of them.

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