Chico Harlan on the Washington Nationals

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Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and Nationals Journal blogger Chico Harlan was online Monday, May 4, at Noon ET to discuss the Nats and their weekend series with the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Chico Harlan: Hey NatsTown. Hope you're staying dry. If you want to test my meteorological skills, be my guest -- beat writing turned into weather writing yesterday -- but hopefully we can get in these next two games with Houston without any problems. Now, let's talk some ball.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for the great piece about Lastings today. I was deeply troubled by the idea that the big club isn't giving orders to the minor leagues about what they expect in player development. If the Nationals expect Lastings to play in a certain way, that message should be received throughout the organization, not just when Manny Acta is in the room.

washingtonpost.com: Leading Off (The Morning Reading), Lastings Milledge (The Washington Post, May 4, 2009)

Chico Harlan: Silver Spring, glad you enjoyed the Lastings piece; I didn't write it, which probably explains its quality. Matt Gelb, a freelancer from Syracuse and an SU student, caught up with Milledge in the great winterland.

Anyway, I can still address your question. The Nats have indeed been giving directions to Tim Foli, the Syracuse skipper, about what they want from Milledge. But the directions are vague. All they really want is MIlledge to play every day. Where in the lineup? Eh, it doesn't totally matter. Sometimes leadoff. Sometimes second. Sometimes third. Where in the field? Again, sometimes corners, sometimes in CF. Maybe that looks imprecise, but it's entirely because the Nats don't have a great vision for where Lastings projects in the team's future. Probably as a corner outfielder, yes -- but that's provided he can hit well enough. He doesn't have the natural skills of a CF or a leadoff man, so in the meantime, he'll be in Syracuse until his skills develop elsewhere. He'll play himself into a role. What that is, who knows.

(And whether he gets that chance w/the Nats... again, tough to say. He'll be with the Chiefs for a while. Barring injuries at the big league level, it will be months, I imagine.)

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Sean Bergman Fan Club: Chico:

I went to CitiField last Saturday and watched the Nationals embarrass themselves. It was truly a pathetic performance. The final score was 8-2 but it felt MUCH worse. The only bright spot was Sean Bergman's relief performance. I thought, hmmm, a possible replacement for Cabrera? Instead he was on the next bus to Rochester. What am I missing?

Chico Harlan: Well, Bergmann's first name, for one thing. He's Jason. You're also missing an "N."

But I'm just giving you a hard time.

Now, regarding Cabrera: There are two ways to evaluate the guy. First, on "potential." What he can become, best case scenario. For the moment, the distance between Cabrera and that best-case scenario seems as long as Interstate 90. The dude, frankly, is lost. He doesn't throw hard and he doesn't throw with any accuracy. He's neared a few quality starts almost entirely by accident, but the results have been terrible. You know it's bad when pitching coaches and managers are talking about his improvement after a five-walk, 2-K game. That said, the only reason to stick with Cabrera is because of his ceiling. He may not ever get there, he probably won't, but I asked Manny Acta yesterday if the Nats still belief that Cabrera has a fighting chance to be good. The answer was a decisive yes. That's the reason they continue to trot him out there every five days.

Now, I believe a time will come soon when his potential ceases to be worth the wait. It could come within a few starts. And at that moment, the Nats, even without the richest pitching depth, will have a boatload of potential guys who can come in and give you more than Cabrera every fifth day. Granted, that doesn't take much. I think Craig Stammen or Collin Balester will get the first shot. Bergmann, for now, is a reliever, and probably not as likely. The team would rather use somebody who has the chance to figure into its future. Bergmann does not, at least as a guy in the rotation.

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Warrenton, Va.: After looking at the farm system, we do not seem to have a future Chad Cordero. When will the Nats trade Kearns, Dukes, or Johnson for a future closer?

Chico Harlan: Cordero was a rarity. Many closers, if you look around baseball, are actually converted starters. Or at least that's how they came up in the minors. Oftentimes, guys switch to a closer's role when it becomes apparent that their velocity depends on short spurts or when it becomes apparent that their repertoire works better with short exposure.

Closers, also, tend to have a very short shelf life. Again, the numbers bear it out. Almost nobody in baseball remains a closer on a team for more than two or three years.

That's why closers are such a curious commodity -- tough to find, tough to predict, and certainly tough to trade for. If Kearns or Johnson gets traded, I imagine the Nats will target pitching help, but not specifically a closer. If the Nats really want to find a closer for the future, they need a large pool of young power arms -- and then they need to hope that one can develop, withstand the pressure of ninth innings, etc. The jury is still out on Hanrahan, btw. He'll get another chance at the ninth-inning job, probably this season. He still has the stuff to do it. Whether he has the make-up is, obviously, a bigger concern.

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Herndon, Va.: Chico,

Why was Steven Shell let go? I wasn't ever his biggest fan, but it seems like he had a decent enough year last season to earn a spot in the bullpen for this season for a little longer than 5 innings. I know Rizzo mentioned criticism about his "mound presence" and that he disliked his "preparation," but you have any more information that may shine light on why they decided to part ways with Shell?

Chico Harlan: Yeah, the organization (re: Rizzo) didn't think Shell was all that tough of a competitor. And they let him know it. Also, many in the front office recognized his effectiveness of 2008 as a fluke -- a guy enjoying a stretch that he'll never be able to replicate. His control, last year down the stretch, was pinpoint, which is the only way to survive when you have Shell's stuff. If Shell's control was even 90-percent of what it was last year, he's no longer the same guy. And this spring/this April, the Nats saw a lesser version of the reliever.

I'm not surprised Shell picked the free agency route after clearing waivers. He knew the organization wasn't high on him. He deserves a fresh start, and he got one with Seattle.

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Washington, D.C.: Chico,

I know you reported that the Nats haven't talked with Pedro about the closer role. Do you think the continued bullpen struggles will prompt the front office to open that discussion? I can't figure out why closing isn't ideal for both Pedro and the Nats (assuming they could reach an agreement on salary).

Chico Harlan: I don't think it will even come down to closing/not closing for Pedro. He likely wants a better team, a team in a pennant race. The longer he waits, the more valuable he'll become to a team that needs somebody at the back of its rotation.

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Arlington, Va.: What's the business when there is rain before the game starts and the constant postponing calling the game as occurred yesterday? Remember, the forecast called for rain all day and that actually occurred.

Chico Harlan: Before a game actually begins, it's a Nats decision. Kasten was trying to coordinate the team's decision, while consulting with La Russa, Manny Acta, and the umpires. Just a guess, but he was probably talking to the league offices, too. Still, it's the team's call. Once the game begins, the decision making is in the hands of the umpires.

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Herndon, Va.: Chico,

How much longer are the Nats willing to give Daniel Crabrera to "figure things out." It seems like each time out there he one ups himself on ways to embarrass the organization (i.e. setting a record in wild pitches, pitching two innings, etc.). It seems like no matter how bad he is, the Nats are willing to ride things out. Equally as troubling were comments by Manny Acta (or maybe it was St. Claire) stating that he would take Cabrera walking more batters if he could just get the velocity back. The whole situation seems insane and I can't see how Balestar or Stammen wouldn't be a better option at this point.

Chico Harlan: Funny how you're willing to tolerate such overwhelming badness when a guy is earning $2.6 million.

But I agree. Already at this point, he looks like a poor signing. He is only 27, and thus, tagging him as a "potential guy for the future" still has some merit. Or at least a tiny, tiny speck of it. But is Cabrera really gonna have everything click all of a sudden? Already he's in his sixth big league season, and he has never looked worse.

My guess, he's out of the rotation by June.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: Wouldn't it be out of character for the Nationals to offer Strasburg, assuming they draft him, anything remotely approaching the breakout contract purportedly being demanded by Boras? While I can envision the Nats perhaps offering by a marginal amount the largest contract yet to an amateur player, what is really going on here with the talk about a $50 million deal that the Nats would clearly have no interest in?

Chico Harlan: Make no mistake, the Nats will draft Strasburg. It's a no-brainer. Any of the negotiating posturing at this point cannot scare them off. The Nats know Strasburg is a Boras client. They know he wants millions more than any other amateur player ever drafted. And frankly, they know he's worth it. (Not worth his initial asking price -- the floated total of $50 million. But worth something groundbreaking, still. Maybe around $15 or $20 million, as noted expert Jim Bowden has suggested might be appropriate middle ground.)

The Strasburg negotiations might well be the drama of the summer in NatsTown, but that will come with the territory. This is big-stakes stuff, and if the Nats want to emerge as a legitimate franchise, they're gonna have to play these games. They showed a sign of the willingness to compete with the big boys during the Teixeira sweepstakes this winter; granted, that wasn't quite the circus, but the Nats still made a point. They were willing to use money -- lots of it -- when it made sense.

Now comes the bigger test. The Nats cannot give into the initial Boras demands, nor will they. But they have to play the game.

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Soggy Seat Tonight at Nats Park: Two topics on which I'd like to comment (and hope that you will as well).

First, I read the Milledge article this morning and one thing glared at me throughout. His attitude. He still seems to think that he knows best and is unwilling to listen and do what they tell him. I think this is the biggest problem with him and why he will not last long.

Second, the bullpen. I have heard too many people say that they wish that we still had Cordero, Rauch and Ayala. Well, I don't. Cordero isn't pitching right now (yes, he likely will in the fall but that wouldn't help our bullpen in May, June, July and August). Rauch is having a horrible time now and was rumored to be a clubhouse cancer in D.C. Ayala wasn't nicknamed "The Opener" or "Gasoline Ayala" for nothing. Where is he right now? Yes, past records are great but what is important is now. Saul Rivera is a great example of something being up with our bullpen. They are not bad pitchers, they are just having horrible outings. We need to figure out what is wrong.

Chico Harlan: I'll address the Cordero-Rauch-Ayala thing. You are correct, that all of them are either struggling or struggling to get healthy. A present bullpen anchored by those three would be no better, and maybe worse, than what the Nats have right now. Cordero still hasn't pitched in the bigs this year. Rauch has an 8.71 ERA. And Ayala? Well, you saw enough of him last year to know that he always brings a nice can of kerosene to the mound. (He has a 5.40 ERA this year with the Twins.)

Anyway, the Cordero-Rauch-Ayala yearning is based purely on nostalgia.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Chico:

Thanks for the great blog. I enjoy reading it while assigned up here in "enemy territory." Any chance MacDougal is closing games with the Nats, or is he just added depth?

I still can't see Beimel being the answer as a closer, given his lack of "stuff." What's your gut as to who has this job in June?

Chico Harlan: My gut says Beimel. Lackluster stuff hasn't prevented Beimel from becoming a pretty darn effective pitcher the last few years. He's a deception guy, and it's revived his career. He is -- by far -- the team's best relief pitcher. So they might as well use him in the ninth rather than the eighth. He gets R and L out with equal effectiveness, too -- another added value.

MacDougal is purely there as (yet another) fall-back option. He throws hard, but wildness has always been a drawback for him. As Rizzo said yesterday, the Nats will send MacDougal to Syracuse and have the Chiefs pitching coach, Steve McCatty, work with the guy's mechanics. Maybe he figures something out, and MacDougal becomes a smart signing. Or maybe MacDougal remains wild and remains in Class AAA. A low-risk move either way.

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North Carolina: What are the Nats plans for Justin Maxwell? Is he trade bait?

Chico Harlan: Not trade bait. The team likes him -- a lot. He still has a chance to be the CF of the future. He's 25, old for a prospect. But he's missed almost three full developmental years, going back to college, because of injuries. Thus, he's still, developmentally, more like a 22 or 23-yr-old. Another year or so will dictate what happens with his career.

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Baltimore, Md.: Re Daniel Cabrera: At least he's not going to break your hearts, like he did in Baltimore, where he would occasionally have an outing that would make you think he would be the #1 guy on the staff for years -- hard stuff, pinpoint control, good mechanics. And then he would have a half dozen atrocious outings in a row, followed by one with hard stuff, pinpoint control, etc. Be glad you are only getting the atrocious -- it's easier to deal with in the long run.

Chico Harlan: Half-glass-full commentary.

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Chantilly, Va.: How realistic is it to hope that Zimmermann, Lannan, and Martis can develop into a solid 2/3/4 middle of a winning rotation?

Chico Harlan: Ahh, young arms. The most valuable currency in baseball. Can they really all stay healthy? Will they all live up to their promise? If Washington goes 3-for-3 here, and Strasburg joins 'em, they have a terrific stable of arms, among the best in baseball. But let's take SS out of the equation for a second. If two of the three you mention truly develop and are bonafide major leaguer starters two years from now, the Nats will take it. Finding healthy, durable, talented pitchers is that difficult.

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Arlington, Va.: I was at the game on Thursday night, which was at least a close game until the unbelievable Nats implosion (Natsplosion?) in the 9th. Man that was ugly.

Is there any hope for straightening out the pitching staff this year? Especially the back end of the bullpen? I know Beimel should help, but giving away games at the end is the most disheartening type of loss.

One guy in front of me seemed to be the president of the "I Hate Hanrahan" club. I hope Joel can get going again, he seemed to have major league stuff.

Chico Harlan: Whew, it's tough to find overwhelming evidence why this bullpen will be much better by the summer than it is now. Trading for bullpen quality is so difficult. Just look at how many teams across baseball right now are having bullpen problems. Teams need-need-need quality relievers, which means there isn't much of a surplus in the trade market. Could Josh Willingham, at this point, even fetch you a decent relief pitcher? If he could, I think the Nats woulda traded him by now.

Honestly, the best thing that can happen to the Nats pen is that Hanrahan regains his confidence and becomes a sub-4.00 ERA guy who can handle the late innings. He needs to become that piece that Washington expected him to be.

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Sacramento, Calif.: We all know that Strasburg is going #1 in the upcoming draft, but who are some guys the Nats are targeting at #10? This is such an important draft for a team that still has a lot of growing to do within the farm system. Thanks, Chico.

Chico Harlan: Regarding the tenth pick, the team's plans are pretty simple. They're going to make a list of the 10 best players available, and take the highest one remaining by the time their pick comes along. Rizzo was very straightforward about this. Position, he said, doesn't matter. In the past, Rizzo has very much leaned toward college players, though, and it wouldn't surprise me if that's still a consideration. Dating back to his time in Arizona, Rizzo showed a very good track record with college guys, and given that the Nats need help -- quickly -- at the big league level, they might be wise to find somebody who can be in the big leagues within, say, two years, rather than within four.

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Fairfax, Va.: According to the Shuler-Kwame-Ovechkin formula, Strasburg has a 33% chance of being good.

Chico Harlan: Glass-half-empty commentary.

And I'll end with that. Thanks again for the afternoon of questions. Let's hope for some dry baseball tonight.

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