Ask Boswell

Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell was online Thursday, March 19 at noon ET to take your questions about the Nationals spring training, the World Baseball Classic, the latest sports news and his recent columns.

The transcript follows.

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Capitol Hill: Mr. Boswell,

Do you think Adam Dunn had an unusually rough night defensively last night or have we very quickly learned that Dunn simply is not a reserve first baseman?

Tom Boswell: Don't panioc yet!

This WBC has had the advantage of showing all sides of Dunn to Nats fans and to the team itself. He's shown his power, his walks and a few strikeouts, too. But, all in all, I'd say he's looked better than I expected __except at 1st!

He can probably play the OF somewhat better than his reputation, as long as his knee is ok (as it is). He's more of a team personality and more enthusiastic than assumed by many. But putting him at 1st base, even based on one bad game, may be too big a gamble. Leave him in the OF in DC until he gets established.

Josh Willingham can make the transition to 1st base more easily than Dunn if Nick Johnson is traded. Not many know it but Willingham in the minors polayed 180 games at catcher, 67 at 1st base and 30 at third base. You don't start 277 games at those positions if you are a klutz or have poor throwing arm. So, there's no immediate issue her.

But, from talking to Dunn, I think he sees himself as a 1st baseman at some point in his 30's. Just reading between the lines. But nothing urgent.


Linthicum, Md.: Re: last night's Marlins/Nats game, did you ever see a runner try to score on an IF fly before? I'm 92, had full-season Orioles tickets for 30 years, and that's a first for me. Baseball is a wonderful game and I cah't wait for April 6, when time really will begin all over again.

Tom Boswell: Linthicum,

Great to hear from you and that you're looking forward to another season. Was talking to my father-in-law, 88, last week, and he can't wait either.

I have, of course, seen runners try to score on pop ups caught by infielders, includeing some that caught balls in foul ground. But I've never seen it on a literal "infield fly." I didn't see last night's game. Any more info on it, please. Thanks.


Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Boswell,

Really enjoying the Classic. Quick question - why are they using the DH?

Tom Boswell: By using the DH, it gets more players involved, allows more "stars" to hit and removes the risk of a top pitcher getting hurt while hitting or running the bases.

Also, around the world, I assume thyere are leagues __like the American League__ that don't have the DH. So, you might be asking a pitcher to hit for the first time in his life. Does anybody who's a student of international baseball know the balance __worldwide__ between leagues with the DH and without it. My sense is that the DH is winning that battle, but I don't know (and would like to).


Herndon, VA: Boz,

The game against Puerto Rico was some of the most thrilling baseball I've seen in years (involving a team I care about in a meaningful game). It's obvious how much Team USA cares about this tournament. As for the game against Venezuela... I'm excited to have Adam Dunn on the Nats, but let's hope Nick Johnson stays healthy.

Thanks and keep up the great work. You're the standard by which baseball columnists should be measured.

Tom Boswell: Thanks very much. I was on a brief birthday-vacation for my wife in the Keys and had to follow the WBC game on the "trailer" under the only ESPN channel I could get. My wife was saying, "How's Davey doing?" I really got a kick out of following the rally on the unline __like an ancient ticket tape from the '20's maybe__ "US has men on first and second with no outs, Jeter up." Etc.

After the addition of Joe Beimel, the spectacular spring so far of Jordan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson's ability to stay healthy for a few weeks, plus Dunn, of course, there's plenty of room for spring enthusiasm.


Crazytown: Boz, am I crazy for looking at the Nats' roster and thinking they might actually be pretty decent this year? It looks like the team actually has true major league talent at every position, instead of the roster full of stop-gaps and retreads we've become accustomed to at Nats Park. Add in the buzz on Jordan Zimmermann's pitching performance this spring, and I'm hoping this could be the Nats' best season since their first. Please, destroy my hopes and dreams and force me to confront reality.

Tom Boswell: Your head is in the right place. It's silly, in March, to be blowing up your own excitment.

However, I did some research (ut oh) on how frequently teams do __or do not__ show really spectacular improvement in just one season. In the last 50 years, including every team in the game, there have only been 57 times when a team won 20 (twenty) more games than the previous season.

If you do it on a per-team basis __since there were only 16 teams back in '59, etc__ it works out to a 3% chance that any one team will be +20. Very hard to do. But you see tons of teams go +10 or even +15. That's not rare.

So, if you want to see the nats as a 70-75 win team, you're just being enthusiastic, not nuts.

But if you go around telling people that you think they will be 81-81 __+22 wins__ you are really making a very bold and unlikely prediction. It's more likely that a team will improve significantly for two CONSECUTIVE seasons to go from bad-to-good.

I'm sure there will be more Z-mann questions. But the adddition of just one true quality starter makes a big difference. I like Lannan a lot and am glad he got the Opening Day start. He was in the top 10 in baseball last year in what I call quality-plus starts __m inimum six innings and no more than two runs allowed. (Not earned runs, just runs of any kind, which makes it a little tough to get a quality-plus start.) He could easily have won 12-to-14 games for decent team. BUT when Lannan isn't sharp or the ump squeezes him or teams that take pitchers deep in counts foul off a lot of his pitches, he can have a handful of quite ugly games that blow up his ERA. I don't mind that at all. What impresses me is the very high ratio of games when he IS sharp. When he has "it," he has the grit and confidence to turn it into a very good game. Or he did last year. We'll see if he continues. I see no reason he won't.


Mishawaka, Ind.: The Committee didn't show enough respect for the power teams. It's abominable that teams like Georgetown and Notre Dame are relegated to the NIT, despite the McD's All Americas that populate their rosters. Meanwhile, you have mid-majors like BYU, Boston College and Xavier in the tournament. Shameful.

Tom Boswell: Mishawaka,

I'm guessing you're kidding.

Teams with as much talent as Georgetown this season that just can't get ouyt of their own way don't deserve to be in the NCAA field. I enjoy the mid-majors. Let the McD All-Americas win more games if they want to be part of the fun. There is NEVER a great or even "very good" major conference school that gets left out. If a "pretty decent" school with a big name like GU or Notre Dame can't win enough games to get in, that's their problem. I hope we get to see Monroe and GU grow up some together next year.


Florida: If hopeful assumptions about players' health and development come true, the Nats could have ML average players or better at every position except 2B. The bullpen, with the addition of Beimel, should be ok. But the starters after Lannan (assuming Zimmermann starts at AAA) will be about average (Olsen, Cabrera) or below (everyone else).

So are the Nats a good starter away from being a .500 ballclub? And if so, why give up on Hill?

Tom Boswell: You make a lot of good points.

First, I should note that the Nats have now done everything that I have said that they should do since the end of last season. I've certainly never had THAT happen before! I don't know how to react to it.

*Lower ticket prices. They slashed the bleacher seats, which were overpriced, that I constantly moaned about. They could cut 'em a couple of dollars more. But a big improvement. They surprised me by lowering the prices substantially for nice lower-deck corner box seats. With the recession, they've also cooked up various 11-12-and-13 game mini-plans __which I thought they should have done in '08__ for people who don't want a 20-game plan.

*I jumped up and dopwn that they shoyuld 1) go hard after Teixeira, 2) get either Dunn or Orlando Hudson if they didn't get Tex and not make excuses, 3) add a quality middle-inning free agent reliever.

They offered $188-M for Teixeira. The long shot did come in. They got Dunn a lot cheaper than I thought they could. I'd have bitten earlier and overpaid. Hudson didn't pass the Nats physical. And, though I thought they'd waited too long, they actually got Beimel.

That "good starter" you mention will presumably be a VERY good starter __Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick. That, if it gets done, could make a huge difference for years.

I'll answer a Hill question next.


Arlington, Va.: The release of Shawn Hill saddens me. Perhaps it punctures the illusion of Spring as a time of hopefulness and illustrates too clearly baseball as a business. Your thoughts on the merits and impact on the fanbase?

Tom Boswell: I'll keep this simple. Since the Nats arrived back in town, Hill was my favorite player in the organization. I'm very sorry to see him go. I hope he wins 100 games __somewhere.

I'd rank him in the top three for natural athletic ability relative to his position for any Nats in the '05-'08 period. The injury that got him in a downward spiral from the rundown between third and home a couple of years ago. He thought he was Jackie Robinson for a few seconds and hurt his left shoulder. For a picther, his athleticism was remarkable.

His mechanics and power sinker were really high quality. Looking at him in No. 41, he reminded me of a less-talented Tom Seaver. Hisw competitiveness was among the best of all the Nats as well as his intellect and ability to analyze the game. Just a crime that he constantly got hurt.

I'll dig deeper on this, but it looks like the Nats wanted to sign Beimel, but wanted to save 5/6ths of Hill's $775,000 salary for '09. He beat them in arbitration and yesterday was the last day the Nats could release Hill and only pay 1/6th of his '09 salary. So, did this send a chilling message to other players about arbitration?

I can't get outraged about the release of a guy with seven career wins and a history of constant serious injury.

Baseball is a tough, tough business. I had a long talk with Hill in Florida 2 1/2 weeks ago. He thought that, just about now, he'd really feel good. "If I do, I'll telkl you that it's 'Game on,'" he said.

Now, it's game off.

We'll find out if there's a way for the Nats to resign Hill to a minor league contract. But I think that there will be teams who take a chance on him. I would. It's been reported that Hill left Acta's office looking like he'd been crying. I wouldn't be surprised if Acta felt that a tear, too. This guy was really respected on the Nats. he felt like a natural leader, too.

BUT the Nats now have a parade of young arms __with Strasburg, Smoker, Detwiler, etc.__ also on the way in the next 15 months. The Nats obviously think that this is the year to find out a lot about Balester, Martis and Zimmermann, assuming Lannan, Olsen and Cabrera are in the rotation. Waiting For Shawn" was making people rfip their hair out. They simplified the problem, saved some money and signed Beimel.

This is the definition of a Tough Decision.

Feel free to root for Hill.


Manassas, Va.: Hey Boz, 2 questions for you.

When did the NCAA field become so great and the NIT known as the "not quite good enoughs"? Sounds kind of like NCAA football, unless you're playing for THE bowl game, its just another bowl game.

Why doesn't ESPN take the WBC seriously? Honestly I'm sick of 1st Takers saying its not as big in the US because its not the Olympics. There's no medals involved and no pro players! In case they've been out of the loop, the Olympics kicked baseball out of the Olympics because of no MLB players. This IS our Olympics after all. No, this tournament would NOT work in November after the World Series because its too dang cold and football and hockey are in full swing!

Sorry for the rant....

Tom Boswell: Manassas,

No, that's a very good rant!

The NIT was a big deal long ago in my youth __no jokes about whether the earth had cooled yet in those days. It has been a consolation prize, or embarrassment for a team like GU, for many years.

The WBC is the Olympics for baseball. It's taken very seriously in plenty of countries. And I think a lot of U.S. fans will find it this year, especially with a beat-up U.S. team in the semifinals and two of the pre-tournament favorites (Cuba and the Dominican) already knocked out.

It's a fluke format __double elimination. But it's fun. And it's far from ":meaningless," even though U.S. players are still only in spring-training form.


Arlington, Va.: Please, please, please tell me that this was the worst season Georgetown will ever have, and that it was all due to inexperience, which will be fixed next year.

Tom Boswell: That was the worst season John III will ever have __with a future NBA standout as his center__ and much of it will be fixed next year. I hope. It was no fun watching that team.


Harrisonburg, Va.: Could the fact that Shawn Hill took the Nats to arbitration and won have had any affect on his release?

Tom Boswell: As mentioned above, whether it did or not, it will always hang in the air as a possibility __a message.

This was cold-hearted business. If I were Dmitri Young, Austin Kearns or Nick Johnson, I'd hear the implication __stay on the field and produce or go.

However, this also has the feel that Mike Rizzo really believes in the Nats pitching pipeline and that, with Zimmermann,looking so good and Strasburg presumably coming, he doesn't want it clogged up with sentiment because a lot of decisions will have to be made in the next couple of years. Jack McGeary's now fast-tracking his path with the Nats and spending less time at Stanford. If he ever pans out, remember to give Bowden credit for "stealing" a first-round pick in the middle rounds with a creative signing.


Chantilly, Va.: Tom: Mishawaka's comments might be a jab at Gary Williams, who yesterday commented on the radio that 15 or so of the NCAA automatic qualifiers "couldn't win a game in the ACC."

As Dan Steinberg points out this morning, two of those automatic qualifiers are Morgan State, which beat MD at MD, and American, which last year, with the same team, beat MD at MD. Who's Up? Mid-Majors Or Middling Majors?

Tom Boswell: Ha!

However, let me add that, in the last month, few teams have given me as much pleasure as watching the Maryland team jell. Everybody knows they have no size. But I never thought __even with Gary's exceptional coaching skills__ that they would become such a cohesive unit. They are a true team right now, getting everything out of their ability. Vasquez is going to be a fine NBA player, It think. Never thought I'd be cheering for Dave Neal! And Mosley, Milbourne, Bowie and Hayes know their roles perfectly.

Can't wait for the gam,e against California this afternoon. However, Md dared NC State and Wake to shoot threes over their zone. Neither could __or not well enough. California is one of the best long shooting teams in the country. And they have a 7-foot center (Jordan Wilkes).

I'd love to see Gary get a shot at Calipari's untested Memphis powerhouse. Calipari has always made my skin crawl and I remember how much I enjoyed seeing Gary and Md beat him at UMass (No. 2 seed) in '94.


NOVA: "Hudson didn't pass the Nats physical. "

What? Huh? Missed that one.

Tom Boswell: Now you know.


San Jose, Costa Rica: Hi Boz,

Please forgive the potential stupidity of this question, but if the Nats are willing to release Shawn Hill due to his injury history, why don't/can't they do the same with Nick Johnson?

Tom Boswell: You'll probably see them release Young and his $5M contract. He doesn't seem to be able to get on the field. And he's not a Manny favorite. As for Nick, he had trade value, if at all healthy, and the Nats can always eat whatever percentage of his $5.5M contract is necessary to move him. If you release him, you pay him for '09 and get nothing.

Johnson is playing, has value and a track record. Hill has none of that. He just had "potential." FWIW, Bob Boone swore that his stuff looked as good as it ever had in early March. And he saw every pitch Hill threw all spring.


Rotation Planner: Olsen throwing in the mid-high 80s, Cabrera can't find the strike zone, Lannan's a soft-tosser that tip-toes around the strike zone and you have three 22-year-olds after them. We don't have nearly enough starting pitching. We will get hammered. What do you think?

Tom Boswell: The Nats pitching is, of course, the core question that the whole season turns around. Olsen hasn't looked good yet __13-19-(8-8)-6-7. His attitude got a lot better last year is Florida but is his fastball as good as it was? I assume he'll be very similar to the starter of the last three years __and that would be very useful. Right now, the spring ERA's for Ziummermann and Lannan are 0.00 and Martis is 1.13. One run allowed in 26 2/3 innings. I know, it's March. But the Nats have the best young starting pitching __and some depth__ that they've had since they came to town. Yes, that's a low hurdle. (Remember late '05 when Bowden ran out of starters with the team still in the wildcard race!?) But it's also progress.

Believe me, releasing Hill sends the emssage that the Nats, particularly Rizzo, think that the young pitching is real, and strong enough in numbers, to stop praying over Hill every spring.

The bullpen is still a concern. Beimel helps. But the pen is still quite thin.


The weekly question about adding a veteran starting pitcher: So at least for now, it looks like the Nats are going to begin the season with a starting rotation whose most experienced member is...(gak) Daniel Cabrera. While I recognize the potential of guys like Lannan, J. Zim, Martis, Balester and even Olson, does that make any sense at all? Or will they do the logical thing and make a late spring trade or waiver pickup?

Tom Boswell: What is different this spring is that the young pitchers we are discussing for the rotation have real potential __Zimmermann, Balester, Martis. In the past, the questions were about whether you could squeeze 25-30 starts out of Odalis Perez, Tim Redding,Jason Simontacchi.

The Nats now have journeyman AAA starters who are fighting just for a middle-inning bullpen spot. Remember Jason Bergmann. And Garret Mock. They are not bad guys to have as the 7th, 8th, 9th starters on your emergency depth chart.

See everybody next week. Good luck in those brackets. Look for six of the Sweet 16 to be from the Big East or ACC.


ArlingtonNatsFan: I'm very disappointed in the decision to release Hill. It feels totally budget driven to me. I realize he's only pitched a couple of innings and has made a trip to Dr. Andrews already this spring. But Patterson was obviously broken when he was released. They are basically betting Hill is going to break. Totally different. Hill has a big up-side. Tough to just let that go. We're not that deep in the rotation. What do you think?

Tom Boswell: Arlington,

Just saw your question. You frame the issue well. Hill is not Patterson, who had lost his fastball. Hill may still have a fine career and, perhaps, haunt the Nats. It is the NORM for pitchers to have multiple injuries in their careers. Within the last week, I spent a lot of time reviewing the injury history of MLB starters. It's even worse than I thought. You have to be very patient these days. The Nats were patient. Were they VERY patient? Their rotation is deeper. But is it deep enough? I'll be very interested to see where Hill lands.


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