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The Nationals: Start of the Season

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Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Chico Harlan was online Thursday, April 9, at 2 p.m. ET to chat about opening season for the Washington Nationals.

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washingtonpost.com: Chico will be about 10 minutes late. Please join us then.

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Chico Harlan: Folks, sorry I'm late to the party. It's not even fashionable these days. Blame it on Airtrain, I suppose. Or the Atlanta airport. (That's where I am right now, just arrived. Funny, you'd think somebody like me who flies sometimes two or three times a week would eventually get used to flying. Not here. It still terrifies me. Anyway, I'm glad to be back on the ground.)

So, let's get on with the chat. I'll be taking all questions about Chase Utley, Jamie Moyer, Ryan Howard -- err wait a second.

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Harrisonburg, Va.: Hey Chico,

Have there been any stirrings of Elijah Dukes forcing his way into the lineup in place of Milledge in center? Would the club ever send Lastings to Syracuse to learn to play the CF position more consistently? And would it be crazy to try Milly at 2B? Thanks.

Chico Harlan: I'm just going through the lineup of waiting questions here, and a good half seem to be about Milledge. So I'll share thoughts here and there, playing off some of the angles you guys bring up. First of all, so long as Elijah Dukes is on the bench, Lastings Milledge's job is NOT secure. The very benefit, maybe the lone benefit, of having five outfielders like this is that everybody must perform to stay on the field. There is no other way to say it. Dukes is the only other guy among the 5 OF who is suited for CF, so absolutely, he can force his way into the everyday lineup ahead of Lastings. Somehow, in spring training, Milledge looked adequate -- routes were OK, not abhorrent, and I got the sense his fielding would take a jump from the 2008 levels. ...

Well, the first two games have exposed just how much work Milledge still needs. I don't want to get totally caught in the trap of drawing mega-conclusions from that small sample -- if we're playing by those rules, than Kearns is an MVP candidate and Nick Johnson will win the batting title -- but Milledge has not shown the ability to make the tough plays that win games. Sometimes, he even makes the routine plays look shaky.

Yes, I do believe the Nats, if really pushed to the limit, could send Milledge to Syracuse. Let's just say I've heard Nats employees, without mentioning particular players' names, mention that "certain young guys" still have options. Milledge is one of them.

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Falls Church, Va.: Once Manny made grand announcements and named Milledge center fielder without a competition and leadoff hitter with no real alternate option, do you think maybe Lasto's pressing hard to try and prove he's worthy? Do you feel Manny could have made less of a show out of it and just let them all duke it out?

Chico Harlan: Is Milledge pressing too hard? Maybe a bit. So far, that seems to be everybody's problem. Olsen is pressing. Maybe Lannan was pressing. Dukes, some coaches say, has been pressing. In a way, we talk about pressing so much that I don't even know what it means. In what other job is "trying to do too much" an explanation for underperformance? I'm typing too fast to turn this into some well-reasoned essay about the jargon of sports, plus, it's not germane to this forum -- but maybe Chuck Klosterman or somebody can take it on. Provided he isn't trying too hard to write well.

Anyway. More background about Milledge.

When Manny named Milledge the lead-off guy, there was no grand proclamation. No press conference. It was just another day of the manager sitting down in the clubhouse, chatting with a few reporters. The question was asked if Manny had decided on that part of his lineup. He said Milledge would bat first. It wasn't even a matter of Milledge winning a competition, just like there was no competition for the No. 2 spot or the No. 5 spot; Manny just looked at his lineup and decided who fit where.

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Ashburn, Va.: Why do you think Manny Acta is so committed to Milledge, especially when there are better options (Dukes) available? Or do you think it's just a matter of time until Milledge is displaced?

Chico Harlan: Too early to judge. Acta made a fairly strong commitment to Milledge even yesterday saying, in essence, he IS our center fielder. Three games into a season -- two of which Milledge has started -- is just not enough. It's enough time to raise concerns, but not to prompt change.

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Judiciary Sq.: Chico:

Why don't the Nats hit Dunn 3d and Zimm 4th? Not only would you overcome the L-L issue of Dunn and Johnson hitting back to back, but, more importantly, you would have a much higher OBP guy (Dunn) hitting before your RBI guy (Zimm)?

Chico Harlan: But don't you want your true power guy hitting fourth, maximizing the guys on base? Dunn and his 40 HRs will net you more when put directly behind Guzman/Zimmerman than they would placed directly behind Milledge/Guzman. And though I like the L-R-L idea of Dunn, Zim and Johnson, right now you have a R-L-L where the last lefty, Johnson, actually hits left-handers better than he hits right-handers. So that muddles the match-up problems for opposing managers.

No matter how you throw these guys together, the 2-6 or so appears to be the strength of this team.

But hey, what about Nick Johnson as a very unconventional lead-off man? In some ways, it's a totally flawed idea. He can't play every day, and you don't want him running all that much -- especially with that inartful corkscrew slide of his. BUT, he gets on base a ton, he's a patient hitter, and if you're playing the math, he gives your lineup an immediate edge. Just a thought, if the Milledge plan fizzles.

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Section 134: When will the Nats announce their full season ticket sales and how much of a decline do you expect to see?

Chico Harlan: Kasten addresses this issue once a year -- normally in March. Well, this year he didn't, and I've been told he'll explain the season ticket sales sometime during the next series. Just a guess, but I'm thinking that ticket sales could drop 20 percent or so.

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Loyal fan, Section 416: Chico, the Nationals and their fans have been laying out the welcome mat for the opposition for the entire Lerner ownership period. The Rocky theme song has been played with the Phillies in the house. Yankees "Day-O" and Mets "Everybody clap your hands!" resound nightly. And most egregiously of all, the Red Sox theme song "Sweet Caroline" has been appropriated, a so-called beloved usher named Coach has choreographed a dugout dance to it, and the sing-along generates more crowd response than anything short of a Zimmerman walk-off HR. Through it all, Boswell, Svrluga, Sheinin and the other guardians of propriety in sports rivalry have said nothing. (I'll give you a pass on that, since you weren't here.) Their silence led Kasten to believe that it was all okay, that this is how we do business as sports fans in D.C. We're all-inclusive. We're welcoming. It's all good. Now, he goes up to Philly and talks on the radio, and the Post turns on him. Isn't this just a case of too little, too late on the paper's part?

Chico Harlan: Mostly, I'll let your question stand as a comment. But I want to defend the Post a bit, and simply say that the initial transgressions you mention are trivial, and probably inconsequential, compared to the Philly invite things. So much of the stadium experience -- even the music -- is all homogenized; getting anything unique is almost impossible. Even Sweet Caroline, grating as it is for the 81st time in a season, doesn't really register as problematic. Kasten's Philly thing is entirely different, and Boz called him on it.

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weak on the bump: Chico: Rob Dibble said multiple times during the Fish series that our pitchers needed to pitch inside and/or send a message that Florida batters couldn't just t-off on us. If Dibs saw that, I assume Randy St. Claire did? Either way, that was not major league pitching in the first series. Maybe batting practice at the MLB level....

Chico Harlan: Did Dibble have that suggestion when D-Cabrera was pitching? I'll say this: when Cabrera is pitching, you get lots of high heat inside. And outside. And in the dirt. And WAY inside. And at the batter's shoulders and hands.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you have a sense of how the players feel about Stan's overtures to Philadelphia fans? I'm sure most pro athletes would say the fans have no effect on how they perform, but Stan basically invited people to come to their home park and boo them. I would be a little irritated.

Chico Harlan: Yesterday morning, the last time I was around the players in any sort of relaxed chatting atmosphere, the players were making the dreaded Quick Turnaround -- a night game, then coming back for a 12:10 start. It's doubtful, in the few hours of sleep they had in between Game 2 and Game 3, that they even heard of Kasten's comments. Honestly, I didn't read of them until yesterday in the mid-morning, just before the game was about to start. I think the players were in the same boat. Sometimes, that world can be a bubble of sorts. I doubt they're too irked either way. This is more an issue for the fans.

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Washington, D.C.: Chico, Bos said it all when he said, "Hope springs eternal, then comes the season." Do you see any tiny glimmers of hope after the first three games? If so, what are they they so I don't move to Bali where I will be spared any Nats news whatsoever.

Chico Harlan: The lineup, the lineup, the lineup.

Maybe Zimmermann and Martis, depending. At least when they pitch, there is reason to stick w/them through the struggles. I'll throw Lannan in that group, too.

But otherwise, the starting pitching worries me. A lot.

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Sec 114, Row E: Dunn should be batting third. That way he bats in the first inning every game. Every game there'd be a chance that he goes deep and the Nats get on the board.

And if he doesn't go deep, he'll be on first base after a walk -- and at the worst, as he heads back the dugout, Zimmerman will have seen the pitcher throw everything that he had that day.

Manny's lineup is pretty dumb.

Chico Harlan: One comment. I'll just publish.

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Section 205, Nationals Park: Do you expect that Chad Cordero would ever consider resigning with the Nationals? If not, why not? Lastly, do you think that Josh Bard will be on the roster all season?

Chico Harlan: Cordero already signed with the Mariners.

As for Bard... chances are, the Nats won't be able to keep all three catchers beyond April. They'll have Anderson Hernandez coming back from injury (though that probably sends Gonzalez to Syracuse) and then, they'll have Zimmermann coming up, slicing the number of position players by one. At that point, the Nats have to make a decision: Do they keep Nieves or Bard? I like Bard's chances, because he's a switch-hitter, and Nats need lefties on the bench, and he has a stronger bat than Nieves.

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Radford, Va.: Over/under number of years until Nationals have a winning season: 6

Over/under number of seconds Kasten and the Lerners would care: 15

Chico Harlan: Kasten cares. I know this. The man made a stupid comment, I know. (I also have some first-hand experience in that department.) Don't interpret it as a sign he doesn't care. He's fully invested in this job.

But as for the Lerners... it sure would be nice if they had a more public way to show their interest in the franchise -- even if it just meant sharing their ideas/thoughts every once in a while.

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The core problem with this year's team: After three poor to terrible starting pitching performances, the Nats look to get a turnaround from a 22-year old who's made four Major League starts? Kasten and Rizzo have left Acta out to dry, at least at the start of the season, with the rotation they chose. The sooner the Nats get a lift (either from J. Zimm or a veteran they pick up somehow), the better.

Chico Harlan: I hate to say it, but I think the release of Shawn Hill was a mistake. Not saying whatsoever that he'll ever be healthy, or that he'll ever fulfill his potential. BUT, the Nats had him. He's 27. If he ever gets it together, he's a No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher. How can a team with such a thin line of veteran arms just disregard a guy like that?

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Stafford, N.Y.: Chico the idea of batting Johnson leadoff isn't a bad one at all. In fact, it's a great one. He gets on base. What more could you ask for out of the guy who gets the most plate appearances all season? You don't need speed at the top -- just good base running. Don't "steal" yourself out of a potentially big inning.

Chico Harlan: Okay, so if Johnson bats leadoff, I guess here is what I cobble together...

Johnson -- 3

Guzman -- 6

Zimmerman -- 5

Dunn -- 7

Dukes -- 8

Kearns -- 9

Flores -- 2

Hernandez -- 4

Pitcher

It's a little heavy on the righties at the bottom.

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Chuck Brown: "So much of the stadium experience -- even the music -- is all homogenized; getting anything unique is almost impossible."

Umm... Bustin' Loose...

Chico Harlan: Clint has yet to be mass-produced. They only made one.

I retract some of my original comment.

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Lorton, Va.: Is the Nats coaching staff an upgrade from last year?

Chico Harlan: A massive upgrade. I cannot quite articulate this with stats, or anything other than some emotional sense of being there, seeing them work with players, seeing the response of these players. Eckstein is drawing daily raves from players; many have never seen a hitting coach so obsessed with the nuance of the swing. Eckstein is a workaholic who studies each player's swing individually, and does not preach some abstract style. He individualizes EVERYTHING. Players love him for it. He is the most immediate upgrade. Listach is absolutely a fantastic guy with a good mind for the game; Grissom is similar, and players have respect for both. It helps that they're former big leaguers who aren't so removed from their careers. Riggleman is very quiet, more distant than the others, but very much a sounding board for Acta.

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Burlington, Ontario: Hi, Chico. Given that the Nats don't have a true ace and assuming John Lannan pitches similarly to last year (and not like he did in his first start), wouldn't the Nats be better able to maximize their win total by moving Lannan to third in the rotation so he doesn't always have to regularly face the other teams ace? I'm thinking they should sends a sacrificial lamb against the opponent' ace (Cabrera?) since the Nats are likely going to win few of those games no mattter who starts for them and I think Lannan would win more games out of the three spot than Cabrera will.

Chico Harlan: Lannan won't always be matched up against the ace. Within a week or so -- maybe less -- every team's conflicting off days will mean that the rotations don't match up with both 1s going on the same day. Even Friday, for instance. Derek Lowe is starting for Atlanta. Shairon Martis for the Nats.

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Alexandria, Va.: Based on the track record of the Lerners and Stan K., is it realistic to get our hopes up that they will not only draft but sign Stephen Strasburg?

Chico Harlan: They need to sign him. Simple as that. The Crow misadventures last year have left them in such a fundamentally weak position with almost no bargaining power. At some point, they must do whatever it takes. Funny thing -- but I wonder, will the Nats, in the long run, actually cost themselves money by refusing to sign Crow? Think about it... Whatever money they saved on his bonus could well be mitigated by the extreme demands of Scott Boras, who knows the Nats can't fail two years in a row to sign a top-line pitcher. I don't exactly have a framed Ivy League economics degree, but am I wrong for believing that Crow's failure gives Strasburg an even higher premium?

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Chico, obviously we are in desperate need of a starter. Anyone on the immediate horizon that we could get for Milledge, Willingham, et. al.? Overhear anything juicy in the front office? Thanks.

Chico Harlan: If the trade market for Willingham was so hot, he would have been traded by now. I like Willingham a lot as a player, but I don't think they can get a worthwhile starter for him, at least not straight up. If they trade him, they'll probably settle for a higher-end prospect. But really, anybody who has an ERA under 5.40 might be worth a look at this point. I wonder whether Odalis Perez is regretting his decision?

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Cap Hill: Does Dukes still have that security guy following him everywhere he goes? If so, is that a good sign?

Chico Harlan: Yes, James Williams is his name, and he's still with Dukes. I wouldn't take it as a good or bad sign -- just a sign that Dukes still needs guidance, and that plan mostly worked in 2008. So the Nats are sticking with it.

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Misplaced Marlins Fan, D.C.: Chico, you have any good arepas down there at Dolphin Stadium??

Chico Harlan: Wait -- a food question. I don't dare touch it. But ask Jesus Flores about good arepas. He somehow knows where to find them in every city.

On that note, I'm gonna go. Gotta get out of this airport and head... well, somewhere into the thick Atlanta traffic. Thanks for the questions, folks.

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