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Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell was online Thursday, Feb. 26 at noon ET to take your questions about the Nationals spring training, Jim Bowden's future, the latest sports news and his recent columns.

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: I think this is an appropriate question: What the hell is going on down there?

Tom Boswell: What!?

Beautiful day, spring training, a lineup full of people who can actually hit! Life's beautiful, isn't it?

Oh, you mean when will they fire the GM? They'll probably get around to it.

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Eyestreet NW: Any truth to the rumor that the two large men in dark suits and sunglasses following Jim Bowden around requested permission last week to take a few swings during BP? And that one of them was offered a contract as a non-roster invitee?

Tom Boswell: Well, we can't accuse Bowden of not providing comic non-relief.

We had a good talk by the batting cage. Didn't seem like too many people were around him. But it got better (for him). Jim Leland came over to pay respects.

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Moving On, D.C.: Tom - Doesn't there come a point when, regardless of Bowden's guilt of innocence, the team needs to cut him loose so it can move on and get out from under the ongoing stories about scandals. It may not sound fair, but baseball isn't always a particularly fair business, no?

Tom Boswell: I don't like that line of thinking. I think you treat everybody on their merits. There has always been pressure to "fire this guy" and "get rid of that bum." It didn't start with the Internet. Things have been nuts in big baseball cities for almost 100 years. The coverage of Ruth and others in his period were off the charts for emotion.

When a manager is under the gun, about to be fired, it has a large impact on the players and the team. With a GM, it's varstly different. I've been talking to Nats for the last three hours and many subjects, including toughy ones, contracts, injuries, etc., good teammametes, bad teammates, you name it. NOT ONE mentioned Bowden or showed any interest in the subject. So, the Nats aren't under any internal pressure to make a quick decision. If they blame a "quick call" on the media, it would be a cop out. The Nats are a baseball backwater (still). This isn't like Yankee or red Sox media-feeding frenzy which, to a degree, really does force the timetable for action in those cities.

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Crofton, Md.: Hello Bos!

What could be finer -- in Florida for spring training and talking baseball!

A Nick Johnson question for you -- isn't it better to have a healthy (cross your fingers)NJ in the lineup all year, as opposed to trading him for? I mean, having him in the lineup add quality and depth, something in short supply here lately. Are the chips received in trading him worth not having him in the lineup all year?

Tom Boswell: Just had a long talk with Nick and Austin Kearns. I said it was so weird to talk to people who are unchanged __at the personal level__ from two years ago, but now their "baseball cards" __their performance, the trajectory of their careers is so different. They laughed and said they want to get their old baseball cards back, and both think they can. We agreed it would be especially nice if Shawn Hill got to HAVE a baseball card. Hill said, "I'd like to fill up a few lines on one someday."

Kearns and Johnson are still relatively young, could have many fine years ahead __yeah, if healthy, if mechanically fixed at the plate in Kearns case. I've had to say, "Nice knowing you, thanks for all your help," to so many 35+-year-old guys of their ability, but it's ridiculous to think that one or both of them won't have a career "resurrection." Will it be in Washington?

The team REALLY wants to see what their lineup would be like with Nick in it. He'll bat leadoff today to increase his chances for the most at abts in his allotted innings.

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OF crisis: With NJ healthy, where do you put Willingham (when healthy)? I think it would be a tragedy if Willingham doesn't start in the OF.

Tom Boswell: The Nats look like the Redskins with Willingham and Dunn joining Kearns, NJ, Zim, Dukes. It's one of the biggest baseball teams I've ever seen. As I've pointed out before and will again, I think the Nats will score 750+ runs this season, after only 641 last year. Part less injuries, part young player development and a lot of Dunn and Willingham.

And good team can use four OFers. So, there's no problem with thinking of Dukes, Milledge, Dunn and Willingham as the OF. But then you have Kearns! That's why everybody on earth assumes that the Nats will make a fairly significant trade before Opening Day. Unless an injury, like NJ, means that they need their "depth."

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Washington, D.C.: Why is it taking so long to sign Zim to a long-term contract?

Tom Boswell: Zim won't be signed this spring. They had their chance, didn't get it done and barely avoided arbitration.

A lot of damage wasn't done to the relationship. But there was some.

Just my opinion, but it appears the Nats don't take the Markakis signing seriously __iow, they're acting like its a Peter-loves-Nick aberration, not a normal signing. That's just stupid. When there is a comparable signing that they like, they're glad to use that. Also, the Youkilis and Pedroia signing at $10M for multi-year set a useful standard.

As I've said, I think the Nats missed a fine chance to sign Zimmermman for something close to $60M-for-6yrs, based on Markakis' $66M-for-6yrs. Most likely, they'll regret it __financially or in some other way.

But it should help Zim have a good year.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hey Boz, what did you think about the game yesterday -- must have been nice for Duke to not have to worry about guarding Vasquez all night -- seriously, when was the last time you saw a team's best player go to the bench with 4 fouls with 18 minutes to play, in a heated ACC game, in his OWN building .. ?

Tom Boswell: Maryland wasn't on TV in Viera last night. Rats. Loved the UNC game. My son kept calling me from the game to make sure I was watching at home and to tell me, "They're gonna do it."

Watching Gary outcoach the Other Williams is almost comical. Roy looks unnerved by him. Does anybody have an opinion on why UNC let Md run so much of the last minute run off the clock without fouling?

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Vienna, Va.: Okay can we actually talk baseball? If you had to pick one, who would be THE player to watch for the Nats this year?

Tom Boswell: Dunn just told me, "I know I can be so much better than I've ever showed." Feels he's put too much internal pressure on himself. This guy is on pace for 600 homers if he stays healthy (and 500+ if he just stays semi-healthy past 35). "I have not come even remotely close to what I can do."

So, I would watch a guy like that!

Seriously, few teams have as many players with offensive POTENTIAL __that awful word__ as the Nats. But what is their real playing ability? Right after Dunn comes Dukes and Zimmerman. It's possible that, by July 4th, we think they are a real 3-4-5 in the order. Milledge has less up side. But there's no question that Zim, Dunn and Dukes could drive in 300 RBI. Zim had 201 in back-to-back year, Dunn has had 100 RBI 4 of the last 5 years and Dukes had 44 RBI in half a season last year.

The fact that it is so hard to answer this question __in contrast to seasons like '07 when you looked at the Nats roster and just covered your eyes__ is the reason this spring training feels excciting. BUT it is the addition of a real veteran slugger at cleanup that stabalizes everything and, perhaps, lets those around Dunn actually fulfill their potential.

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Arlington, Va.: Doesn't Albert Haynesworth have a rep for not playing hard/So wouldnt he just contribute to Dan Snyder legend of complete and abysmal failure in the free agent market.

And Ray Lewis, please, he has lost steps and his physical ability. He can't shed blockers like he used. He would be a great asset if the Skins had a very young and promising linebacker group but they don't.

Tom Boswell: I'm following the new Haynesworth saga from afar. Are the Redskins freeing up enough cap space to try to reclaim their title as the NFL Champions of Summer?

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Silver Spring, Md.: Any chance the Nats take a look at any of the free agent relievers still out there? Prices are coming way down, and it may be nice to have some proven arms in there, other than Saul Rivera.

Tom Boswell: Nats ABSOLUTELY must add at least one decent proven arm in the bullpen. How ever, chemistry will be better out there this year minus Rauch, Ayala and King. One Nats said today, "We had several pitchers here last year who were really in their own private world __Perez, Rauch, Ayala." Perez never gave Lannan one bit of help all season. Perez was useful but, like Lopez, won't be missed by teammates. "We can't be like the Yankees __everybody on their own plan. When we have more of a team feeling, we play better, relative to the talent we've got, like '07. And when we don't, like last year, it shows," said one Nat.

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Washington, D.C.: Who's your dark horse to make the Nats' roster out of spring training?

Tom Boswell: Jordan Zimmerman is everybody's No. 1 dark horse. So, does that make him only a gray horse? JZ will pitch this afternoon. I've never seen him.

Okay, here is a Bowden moment. I asked him who JZ resembled for style, stuff. "Ask our players. They compare him to everybody from Billingley (LAD) to Seaver."

"Tom Seaver?" I said. Sometimes I have a hard time keeping that reportorial straight face.

Hmmmm, which Nats ever hit against Seaver? Or saw him? But it's a good "quote." Gonna miss those.

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Rockville, Md.: I don't see where the Nationals can expect to halt their downward spiral. Dunn brings almost as many minuses (strikeouts, fielding) as pluses (power). I believe he hit .240 last year. Hardly the batting average of a "franchise" player. And where can they put him to do the least damage in the field? First base? What happens to Nick Johnson?

Pitching is only slightly improved. The attendance will continue to diminish whether they lose 100 games again or only 90. The fact is they will still be the League's bottom feeders. The latest scandal with the GM doesn't help matters.

Development in the surrounding area seems to be at a standstill, and the area still retains the somewhat "dicey" quality after dark.

And lastly, they don't seem to be doing much in the way of selling the team. Shouldn't they be saturating the airwaves with commercials at this point? There seems to be very little effort being made to establish a presence.

Am I missing something?

Tom Boswell: You're seeing everything "bad" correctly.

You're missing everything "good."

This is a 70-something win team. If it's only 70-92 there may still be plenty of grumping. But if it's 75-79 wins, and it might be, a lot of people are going to be amazed at how myopically they looked in the rearview mirror and focused solely on one hideous (and incredibly injured) season.

When the Nats had no talent at all in '07, I told you they might lose 105. This is a MUCH better team than '08. For those who actually enjoy baseball, they should be able to have a good time following them. That was NOT the case in '08. Washington was not given a major league product.

That has changed. This is not a good team. Or even a mediocre (.500) team. But it IS an actual MLB team. They'll probably finish with more wins than 8-to-10 teams. Okay, part of that is because they play in the JV league. They can bring over an ALer like Daniel Cabrera and actually (probably) get a useful season out of him in a lesser league.

"The Player to Be Named Later" is a beauty of a black eye. And firing a GM, which the Nats will probably have to do at some p;oint, is damaging. But Bowden has only taken one team to the post-season in 15 years and has a .480 career w-l percentage as a GM. It's not like he'll be hard to replace if that's the final decision.

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Arlington, VA: Why do you and some other Nats sportswriters think that it's a bad thing that they could not agree on a long-term deal with Zimmerman this winter?

Boston didn't sign Youkilis to a four-year deal till this winter. It took Philly a while to lock up Howard.

Everything will work out with Zimmerman. As long as he's healthy, he could have a huge year with Dunn hitting behind him. Sure, it might cost the Nats more than what Markakis got, but Zimmerman's a Gold Glove-caliber 3B. If he shows he can hit .280-300 with 25-30 HR's and 100-120 RBI's, he's worth just as much as Wright.

It will happen before ST 2010.

Tom Boswell: You're right. This will probably work out fine. Zim really does like playing in Washington. He'll almost certainly have a much better year than '08 and get a bigger deal. But this guy really is a Scott Rolen or Bubby Bell player __special and probably durable, a cornerstone of a winning team somewhere. The longer you wait the more you risk those years being played somewhere else. As players get older, their eyes get harder. You can see it happen. Not with Zim yet. But the hard eyes take the dollars.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hey Boz,

You hit the nail right on the head -- UNC is so poorly coached -- it's like they have no concept of how to manage a close game down the stretch -- the UNC player's didn't foul down the stretch because they didn't know what to do ...

Sorry you missed the game yesterday -- it would have boiled your blood (and check out Neal's screen) the UNC game was awesome -- classic Gary Williams all the way ...

Tom Boswell: I saw the Neal screen and didn't like it. My son played basketball with Nolan Smith when they were young __like 5th-6th grade. I watched him play then in a tiny private school gym at Key School in Annapolis (!) as he scored almost all his team's points! Nice young man. And he had the same game then. You could see it. I told my son, you're playing with a major college player who may even have an NBA shot. Nolan doesn't look now like he's that good, I guess. But it was tough to see somebody you know and like get KOed by a blind backcourt pick. It's legal. It's done everywhere. And it is one of the red flags for "dirty."

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Fairfax, VA.: Tom:

At NatsFest, Stan Kasten was asked about the persistent rumors that he's unhappy and may leave. His response was "I'm still here." What he did NOT say was "I'm not leaving." How unhappy is right now and how likely is it that he will leave this year or next?

Tom Boswell: I think I mentioned that Kasten has had more teams finish first in the NBA andf NHL __16 of them in Atlanta with Ted Turner's franchises__ than everybody else in Washington major sports combined. That doesn't include the 14 with the Braves. Think he knows what he's doing? So I'd try to keep him happy. He respects a lot of Bowden's improvizational skills. But I think anybody's life would be simpler without Jim's periodic dramas.

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Washington, D.C.: Who gets the ball on Opening Day for the Nats? It seems like John Lannan deserves it most of the current contenders, but if they make him the "ace" of the staff and work him like a mule in only his second year, I foresee an arm blowout within five years.

Tom Boswell: I agree. I'd go easy on Lannan. Scott Olsen hasn't missed a start in the last three years in Florida and shouldn't hurt himself with lots of work. All things being equal, I'd go with Olsen and monitor Lannan's workload a bit. It's not all a matter of age. It's also how many innings you've worked at various levels on the way up. Lannan has too much poise, command and moxie to mess up.

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Washington, D.C.: If you were the Nats GM, would you take a chance on Ben Sheets? He, like Nick Johnson, is rarely healthy but a game-changing presence when he is, and with the Nats' scarcity of starting pitching, the upside could be very high.

Tom Boswell: The Lerners have probably spent as much as they are going to right now. Smile. Enjoy it. Weel, sort of. Willingham, Olsen and Zimmerman got about $10M combined for this year with their last-minute signings before arb and Dunn gets $20M for two. And the Teixeira offer was real __looks like it was $188M/9yr in the end. That's all we're going to get for now. Commercial real estate is probably just going to get worse. Save the money for Straburg this summer ands the No. 10 overall pick, not Sheets.

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Anne Arundel County: If Eliajah Dukes doesn't make the line-up, will he sulk and be clubhouse poison?

Tom Boswell: If he's healthy, he plays.

Nick Johnson up right now in the bottom of the 1st. Flied out the left (softly) on the first pitch. At least he didn't try to check his swing! That's how he missed almost all of last year __one checked swing and "snap."

Dukes up now. If you are going to have him on your team, you play him. Period. 29 teams decided against that "if." The Nats are playing it out.

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Springfield, Va.: Aside from A-Rod, the Nats have had more press lately than any other MLB team. Will they keep things going by firing Bowden?

Tom Boswell: See all the "fun" we didn't have for 33 years!?

The last few weeks __Dunn arrives, "The Player to Be Named Later," Will Bowden Be Fired__ this really is the standard stuff that has entertained fans for generations. Do you fire the GM?If you do, does it actually help the team? How does it change the functioning of the organization?

The bonus-kickback story is dead serious. But the rest of it feels like "Baseball is back," more than it does "Oh, horrors!"

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Canisteo, N.Y.: Mr. Boswell,

Any chance that the your column will spend more ink on the Caps? Enjoyed your efforts about them recently but would enjoy seeing your additional stories about the Great Eight et al.

The team can provide you and your readers with more raw and, a least for the next few years, winning hockey excitement but none of the intrigue that the Nats seem to be mired in.

By the way, your work is always a pleasure to read, no matter the subject.

Tom Boswell: Thanks. I'm not watching all those Caps games for nothing! I'm looking forward to writing about them more. I still remember how much fun the Caps run deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs was with Ron Wilson. Looks like we're about to see several years of that!

Gotta watch a game, write a column, maybe walk on the beach outside my hotel in Cocoa Beach, perhaps hit a few golf balls this weekend, see friends who are dropping in.

If you've never done it, or even if you have, spring training may be The Great Economy Vacation right now. Nice public course golf, tiny ticket prices, nice hotels begging for visitors, etc. See you all next week.

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