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Nats, Redskins, and more -- Ask Boswell

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Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Sports Columnist
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell was online to take all your questions about the Nats, pennant races, the Redskins season opener and more.

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Washington, DC: Hey Boz, There's a reason Dunn has never been on a winning team: He's a one dimensional player who is really bad at almost every part of the game except hitting. No speed, horrible glove, bad baseball instincts. Despite the low average, Carlos Pena would be a major upgrade.

Tom Boswell: That is the core of the Nats debate. My read is that they think they can get Pena, a Scott Boras client. But that's not accomplished until they actually sign him. His excellent on defense, a strong (serious) clubhouse leader and he's from my wife's hometown of Haverhill, Mass. So, I'd love to see him come and succeed.

The first time I met Pena, he immediately knew my father-in-law (the best pitcher ever to come out of the area), and the youth teams he'd coached as well as the name of his business.

However, there is definitely another side to the Dunn-Pena argument. If you look at the Pena of '07-'08-'09 and you can get him for the same money Dunn is making now, then, yes, it's a great swap, assuming you can do it. In those years, Pena was 46 homers, 121 RBI, .282, then 31-102-.247 and 39 (A.L. home run champ)-100-.227.

But does that guy still exist? This year, he's 26-78-.203. The Nats have sliced and diced the stats of many players, including Pena. They, I assume, see the chance for a "rebound season" (and a bargain for two years.)

I see something different. But I swallow volumes of stats in search of simplicity, not more complexity.

What I see in the bookend numbers from '07 to '10.

Just three years ago, Pena was 46-121-.282. This year, his pace is 30-91-.203.

Three years ago, Dunn was 40-106-.264. This year his pace is 40-106-.268. (Seriously).

Pena is a Red Flag player to me __ might rebound but might crash. As much chance of one as the other. But, on a two-year deal, a Pena disaster does more harm to the momentum of the franchise than a Pena success does good. Dunn is a Green Flag player __will stay consistent or degrade slowly. Also, who takes the Red Flag player when he is two years older and has a history of 25 games of injury/yr while Dunn never gets hurt.

Look up the "Most Similar Careers" to Pena: Dick Stuart, Glenn Davis, Jim Gentile, Tony Clark, etc. All wonderful at their peak. But after the first real Red Flag year, they collapse. Stuart, at 32, had a red flag year (OPS down from .925 to .716 in three years) but it was concealed by 28 homers and 95 RBI, like Pena this year. The next year, Stuart hit seven homers; the year after that, out of baseball.

I watched it happen to Gentile as a kid; he was 46-141-.302, like Pena in '07, then four years later a Red Flag (17-53-.243) at 31. The next year, finished. I covered Glenn Davis with the Orioles as he bombed out. Same thing. I can't explain it. But I can observe it.

Dunn is a stat xerox machine. He's probably not going to stop until he's 35 or older. See "similars" Killebrew and Reggie Jackson. No Red Flag years until 35-36. Even then they have a comeback or two.

If you look at Pena from '07-thru-'10, you can play with the stats and see "bounce back" and "bargain" for '11-'12. I understand that. But you can get so much "BAbip" in your head, confusing you with stat noise, that you miss the obvious: a drop from an OPS of 1.037 in '07 to a batting average of .203 right now.

Sure, it can work out either way. But I'm a boil-it-down guy. I have a rule: "How Stupid Would I Feel If..." If you sign Dunn and it fails, you were just unlucky. If you let Dunn go to sign Pena and it fails, you will feel...well, 'stupid' will not do it justice, imo.

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Washington, DC: Setting aside whether it would actually happen, don't you think it makes sense for the Nats to put their best offer on the table for Cliff Lee? Not only would it be a huge upgrade in 2011, and some insurance against Strasburg's health, but a top 4 of Strasburg-Lee-Zimmermann-Maya sounds like a playoff contender in '12 and '13 (the last two years of Ryan Zimmerman's bargain contract).

Tom Boswell: Some players just aren't going to come to a 90-loss team that is probably losing it's 40-homer firstbaseman. You can't get Lee.

However, I think that including Maya in the discussion for next year is the right way to go. Yunesky's start got almost completely overshadowed or forgotten this week. Because he gave up three runs, and a tape-measure homer, to the first four hitters he faced in his debut, then gave up an RBI hit to the other pitcher, it was easy to think that his line __5-5-4-4-2-3__ was representative of his stuff. It's not. If he takes the same stuff, variety of pitches and command to the mound that he had Tuesday, he'll be good-to-very-good next year. Of course, maybe that was his good night, not an average one! So, lets see his five starts this month.

But he has six pitches, all of them good and his three kinds of breaking ball are above MLB average. Or that were on Tues. He had pretty good command of all six types of pitches by his second time through the batting order. And he works all four quadrants of the zone. He's probably going to give up homers because he likes to work the top half of the strike zone. That's okay.

His four-seam fastball is 90-91, which is enough if you can spot it and he seems to. His four-seam "swing back" fastball is as good as Livan's. His change up is nice. He throws a hard curve, a sharp late slider and a big rainbow Livo curve. The second time he saw Ike Davis, who'd taken him (very) deep, he threw consecutive pitches that were 92 m.p.h. and 67 m.p.h. I don't want to get carried away because I was almost too impressed when I watched the tape of him this morning. It confirmed what I thought I saw at the park. A real polished pitcher who's very athletic, competitive. And he can even bunt.

But he's not overpowering. He has to 'work" every hitter. Maybe he's a 3.75 ERA guy or maybe I'm over-rating him and he's more like 4.25-4.50. We have a lot of those types, but so far only Zimmermann and Lannan who look like they can get under the league average 4.10. And Strasburg if...

Anway, I can't wait to see his next four starts. He's fun to watch __like Livan but with an extra 5 m.p.h. on his fastball and even more variety on his breaking balls. He has a rep for coming inside. He likes to work hard up-and-in with fastballs and sliders, too. Like that. If Livo makes an 85 m.p.h. sinkler and a 64 m.p.. slow curve work, why can't this guy do just as well (or better) with pitches at every speed level from 67-to-92?

Will he be sharper next spring? How will he hold up when asked for 33 starts and 200+ innings immediately in '11? I could be completely wrong off one start, but I think he's a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter in his prime on a .500 team. And the Nats need that.

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Upper NW: Hey Bos, two questions on unrelated topics.

#1. Why do people refuse to give Maryland any credit for their win over Navy? Yes Navy run up almost 500 yards of offense but as the game wore on, the Maryland defense, which was as physical as I have ever seen it, got stronger and stronger. Navy didn't punt until the fourth quarter and had a 3 and out on the next possesion after their first punt. The last Navy drive would have also been 3 and out if it hadn't been for the facemask penalty. Finally, the physical beating that Dobbs took had to have been a factor in him getting stuffed on the goal line.

#2. As it relates to Adam Dunn, is he really going to get a 4 year $55 million deal this off-season? Two years ago Washington wasn't exactly a hot destination for any baseball player and Dunn ended up here because there wasn't any better offers for him. Has he really created such a better market for himself this time around?

Finally, the Lerner's (along with Jim Bowden) turned out to be right to let Alphonso Soriano walk away and I don't know of anybody who thinks Bowden is a better GM than Rizzo. If Rizzo says Dunn is not worth it; then Dunn isn't worth it.

Tom Boswell: I had conflicted feelings because I've always been a fan of both programs since I was a kid __Joe Bellino-Staubach at Nay, then all the fine teams at Maryland later.

In a sense, both teams won _though the Terps won a lot more, obviously, with the blow to Navy's full-season hopes and Dobbs' goals. Maryland desperately needed to show heart, get a close win, regain some confidence and let the Fridge walk talk for a week. Or at least not be beaten to his knees by all his critics. ll that got accomplished.

But, of course, in yardage, and in the sense of which team will probably do better over the whole '10 season, Navy "won." One Dobbs fumble was simply a great vault-the-line sack by Maryland on its goal line. But even leaving that out, Navy left a lot of easy points on the field and sure didn't play smart at the end of the half.

I'm a big fan of Dobbs, enjoyed a long talk with him last year when he was sick as a dog but wouldn't cut off the interview. He said, "It's nothing. We're all sick all of the time." When you have 4,000 people in one dorm, the germs have a heck of a homefield advanatge. But they probably have a big edge on a submarine, too, so get used to it. Sorry he won't be in the Heisman discussion now after the fumbles and the final play. But I think he can still have a wonderful season.

Second point: the long-shot chance that the Nats still might get Dunn back on a two year deal. First, getting Pena would have to fail. I suspect they prefer him head-up on a two-year, whether they should or not. I understand the argument, but am not sold. Second, Dunn would have to be seen as an albatross __just as he was two years ago__ because he's a "natural DH" who won't be a DH. That could happen. But I suspect that the switch to 1st base will make hima lot of money __certainly $40M-for-three-years. Why? Because he's only got eight errors. He's not clownish. He has a fine arm to all bases. And the same (often stupid) "advanced stats," now show him as only a slightly below-average fielder.

Somebody is actually going to believe it and think he now has a position. Also, a zillion team have overcome a bad-fielding 1st baseman who was a slugger.

Here's the main reason Dunn will probably get a fat three-year deal. Dick Stuart, maybe the worst first baseman ever, averaged 20 errors a year and couldn't reach his hat. But his teams went 658-603. If the '60 Pirates could win World Series with Dr. Strangeglove as their leading home run hitter, then more than one team will want Dunn.

His fielding was far from the Nats biggest problem this year.

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Indirect Question: So, in your column are you basically saying that the Nats brass has looked at Ian Desmond's fielding performance and decided the problem is that the first baseman can't catch ?

Tom Boswell: They think 10 of his errors could be solved by a GG 1st baseman and that another half-dozen could be erased by better judgment in not throwing the ball on plays were he has no chance to get the runner. And experience may calm down his jittery "bad hands."

It's a point. What worries me is that Desmond's fielding percentage has only gone up from .936 in the minors to .945 in MLB at SS. Most players who become stars at SS show much more improvement under the better MLB conditions __better fields, better 1st basemen (hummmmm).

In 259 games at SS in the minors, Espinosa had a .963 fielding percentage. That will only improve if he ends up at SS in the majors. Worst case, w Espinosa at 2nd and desmond's range partially wsasted at 2nd, the Nats solve the error problem at SS and have a heckuva middle infield for a long time.

Espinosa is on the same career path as Desmond a year ago. Make a good showing in September, then see if you can kick down the door in spring training to make the team on Opening Day. If not, then have a good couple of months at AAA and come on up for good.

Sometimes you "flash" on players when you see a rookie for the first time. With espinosa, I flashed on Paul Molitor immediately. Of course he won't be that good. But it's a plus if you fit a prototype. Espinosa is listed at 6-feet, 190. Molitor was 6-0, 185. But Espinosa will have to fill out some to be Moltor's size when he's mature. (No, I did not say that Espinosa is Molitor!)

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Section416akatheAlps: How much does player input count in matters like keeping Dunn? As you pointed out in your column, Dunn protects Ryan, and he has great numbers. Ryan has said he wants Dunn to stay - first time he has ever taken that public a stance. Has Rizzo at least acknowledged this? I can't help but thing that they are looking at this situation too narrowly.

Tom Boswell: It counts for almost nothing unless the front office thinks that the player in question is a great leader. The Nats think Dunn is a great guy. Big difference.

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Washington, DC: Quote from Mike Rizzo, via Ben Goessling:

"We like Adam Dunn. We think he's part of the plan. We're going to stay in communication and try and get him signed. If we can't get him signed, it'll be unfortunate, but we're certainly going to have somebody at first base that's going to be a bat for us, and I hope it's Adam, because he's done a lot for the organzation and he's a heck of a good player."

I'm convinced that Rizzo is a pretty straight shooter. Shouldn't this be taken at face value? The Nats want to sign Dunn, and know what he would accept. Perhaps they simply think that he can't get as much as he wants on the free agent market?

Tom Boswell: They want to keep the door wide open, as they should: for the same kind of two-year deal Dunn has now.

Dunn is part of the plan for 22 more games. Then he's part of the plan in the sense that he's one of several alternatives if six different things happen. If he'll take a two-year deal, he can stay any time he wants. So, on their terms, sure, he's part of the plan. It's semantics and teams/execs/agents play that game all the time. It's like a foreign language that has to be translated.

There are few in baseball who think that Dunn, after a year at 1st with 8 errors, can't do better on a free agent deal than any contract that the Nats would see as consistent with the Plan.

For 30 years, I've watched teams not resign potential free agents, but lead the fans to believe __right up until the last day of the season__ that the fan favorite is probably/maybe going to stay in town. Then when he leaves, they spin it, which is their right. But the team knew all along that they ween't going to keep the player. The paying public has a right to know the general lay of the land. This horse __or Dun-key__ is already out of the barn.

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Bethesda, MD: Can you see Bernadina as a leadoff man in the Johnny Damon mold?

Tom Boswell: The Nats have three very interesting possibilities at No. 1 and No. 2. Bernadina has hit poorly at 1-2 with an OPS of .660 combined. But hitting 6th, he has an OPS of .946 with 18 RBI. He seems to like 6th. And you could drop him in right there next year behind Zimmerman, 1st baseman, Willingham. Maybe in a platoon with Morse.

Espinosa has hit in both No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the minors. Desmond has gone crazy hitting second this year. In 161 plate appearances at No. 2, he's hitting .347/.382/.517 with a .899 OPS. In 148 PAs at No. 8, he's hitting .254/.304/.388 with a .692 OPS. Feel free to say, "Wow." That's why they call No. 2 "Htting in the rocking chair." When hitting 7th, same Desmond pattern __no protection, chases breaking balls and has an OPS of .724.

If you have a rangy SS with an OPS anywhere north of .800, you have an All-Star. There are some who think Desmond is already the team's clubhouse leader.

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Fairfax: There seems to be something that the Nat's brass is missing. They should be taking the opinions of the fans in the stands into account. Dunn is a fan favorite. He puts butts into the seats. He has been a major reason that my wife and I have gone to a dozen games this year, when we could have saved a couple $K by staying home and watching the games on MASN. Dunn also seems to be a clubhouse favorite. Intangibles, by definition, are tough to value, but Dunn comes with some great intangible factors that put fans in the seats and smiles in the dugout.

We were contemplating a partial season ticket package next year. We're now going to hold off on spending any serious money on the Nats until the Nats decide whether they want to spend some serious money on Dunn.

Tom Boswell: This is probably an uncomfortable day for the Nats. Fans shouldn't decide. But they should be in the picture.

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Washington, DC, Eyestreet: The 2010 Redskins open the season with a running back who missed half the previous season with a concussion and has had declining numbers two straight seasons. Am I wrong in guessing that the Cowboys defensive coaches will stack against the run and then make the Skins beat them by passing to a very weak receiving corps? How would you scheme to beat the McNabb-led Skins?

Tom Boswell: "Make McNabb beat us" is not a game plan that has done too well over the years! McNabb usually beats 'em.

Like everybody, I can't wait for the Opener. Not just because of the D.C. debut of Sanny and Donovan but because the Cowboy game is so pivotal for whether the Skins have a shot at a 8-8 to 10-6 "shock 'em" season or the more likely 7-9 type year.

The 'Boys have looked bad in pre-season, line issues, etc. Talking to our Gene Wang the other night: "They're gonna KILL the Cowboys." There's a view from an informed (D.C. guy) fanatic!

If you can't beat the Pokes at home with all the new-coach new-QB emotion, you don't have to jump off the roof. But this is certainly one of the tough need-to-win games on the Skins schedule.

(I'll go 24-21 Redskins. But my job is analysis of reality, not fortune telling about the future.)

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Fairfax: So Great Leader/Great Guy? Who, if anyone, on this Nats team is a "Great Leader?" Pudge Rodriguez? He'll be gone after 2011, 2012 at the latest. Zimmerman? He seems more of the "Great Guy" type. Any player who will take this team by the lapels and shake them, saying "This losing is unacceptable!"

Tom Boswell: That's one of the issues. Dunn cares. But he's also a happy guy. I mentioned to him the other day that his good humor, his demeanor, his ability to shake off K's or L's and come back the next day and perform exactly the same might actually work against him. He said that he'd thrown his last tantgrum in the 7th grade and his coach had had a long talk with him about it. "And I've never done it since."

He didn't say that there are more important things in life than baseball, but people suspect him of thinking it. If the team around you wins and you smile, you are a great part of the chemisty. If the team loses, as Dunn's have, and you are annoyed for 15-30 minutes after the game, then shake it off and don't look miserable the next day, you seen as, possibly, being part of the problem.

"Wisdom" is not a virtue that scouts grade. Dunn might have too much of it for his own good __at least when it comes to contracts. But it may help him in life. And that steadiness, and a ton of talent, may also help him get to 600 homers.

If you had an interior next year of Desmond, Espinosa, Zimmerman and Pudge/Ramos, their chemistry might be considerably different depending on whether the other "presence" was Dunn or Pena. As for Derrek Lee, at 36, that would worry me, despite the GG in his past and a fine season as recently as '09.

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Baltimore MD: With O's dismal power hitting figures this year, do you figure they will make a run at Dunn if the Nats pass? Thanks.

Tom Boswell: Showwalter and McPhail have very strong and informed ideas about almost everything in the game. I hope I can talk to them in the next couple of weeks about some of them. I don't know how they feel about the Dunn Type. (Kent Hrbek with the Twins was a fine fielder on their championship teams). Could you promise him 100+ games at 1st? Can such promises be kept? Would you want to obligate yourself that way? Would a player be wise to believe such words over a multi-year period?

When managers/coaches change, then what they tell you about your roll on the team can change. Just ask Albert Haynesworth.

Oh, just have to put this in. I was talking about Dunn with an agent. He said, "Dunn is an albatross."

That's pretty bad. But it's not as bad as what the Redskins have.

An Albertross.

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Clarksville, Md.: Boz: You'll recall the 1959 Washington Senators, although lacking in many other areas, had a poor man's murder's row of Allison (30 HR), Killebrew (42 HR), Sievers (21 HR), and Lemon (33 HR). I submit the Nat's group of Dunn, Zimmerman, Willingham, and Bernadina/Morse (not to mention Desmond/Espinosa)could have output next year to rival or surpass the '59 group, assuming they stay healthy and are kept together. In short, they would be a pretty potent power lineup hard to pitch around (as were the '59 Senators). In my estimation, this potential run scoring ability would more than offset Dunn's poor fielding; any chance the Nat's brass will look at it this way?

Tom Boswell: I've mentioned this to various Nats folks __some on both sides of their Dunn debate. I suspect the synergies of a batting order of Espinosa-Desmond-Zimmerman-Dunn-Willingham-(platoon)Bernadina/Morse-(platoon)Pudge/Ramos might be dramatic.

That's a good LH-RH balance, too.

Of course that is a very ooooold idea that has won dozens of titles. So, come on, how smart can it be when you can talk about UZR instead. Oh, sorry, Dunn's UZR is just fine this year at 1st. And his WAR __wins-above-replacement-player__ is 3.6 to Pena's 1.1. And WAR includes defense. So, pretend I didn't say that. These chats are so darn spontaneous.

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Virgil, NY: So then why didn't they trade Dunn when they had the chance?

Tom Boswell: I assume, like any team, that they weighed the value of trade offers they actually got against the two compensation draft picks, plus the possibility that they'd sign him at their price.

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Arlington,Va: OK, Bos, your final playoff participants in MLB, pennant winners and WS champ?? Also, is Dunn really averse to being a DH? C'mon there are probably any number of AL teams who might sign him for at least 3 yrs and take no liability for his defense. Plus, in an emergency, the guy can play the OF or 1B. Can you imagine Dunn-key and the short porch in the Bronx?

Tom Boswell: Since my pennant-race piece last Sunday the Phils have looked great. The Pads have stabalized somewhat. But, man, they are putting a huge load on Latos. The Reds did it with Leake and look at how he's gone south with the increased innings. I wonder where Strasburg, Latos and Leake will be in two years and what we'll be saying about how they were developed and who was lucky or unlucky. And Tommy John surgery is FAR from the unluckiest thing that can happen to a pitcher. A shouder is.

Dunn really, really doesn't want to be a DH. He says he loves to play the game, enjoys it and that sitting in the dugout drives him crazy and preys on his tendency to worry too much. Yes, Dunn's like so many people. If you see a well-cultivated "mask," it's either exactly who the person is or it's who they WISH they were. The first time I met Dunn, I said, "I bet you're a worrier." He was surprised and said, "I drive myself crazy." The bubble gum is like Ken Griffey's backwards hat or Lee Trevino's constant chatter. It's not always what you think it is.

Also, I suspect that Dunn knew long ago that when you're 6-6, 280, have a beautiful swing and hit the ball 420-feet to the opposite field with ease that you might be a possible Hall of Famer. And DH is a bad way to get to Cooperstown. Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew __two Dunn "comparables" at the same age__ both had about 500 games at DH late in their careers. Maybe Dunn doesn't want to have>1,000 games "against" him in the Cooperstown debate if he has a long career. He says all the men in his family tend to stay young a long time, no history of 'getting old fast.' Just the opposite.

Look at Jim Thome (still only 530 games at DH at age 40). Is that Adam Dunn in 10 years __nearing 600 homers, 1700 rbi. Yes, it probably is. But Thome is trying to get into his 10th post-season.

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Washington, DC: Boz, Isn't it shortsighted to think of signing Dunn as all or nothing. By all, I mean, that he will play out his entire contract with the Nats. Giving him a 4 year deal from $12-15 per year would not preclude the Nats from being able to move him before the contract expires (unless he gets injured). Tons of far worse and more expensive players are moved at or after the trade deadline every year.

Tom Boswell: Dunn could be very tough to move in the 3rd, much less 4th year of a deal. Also, wouldn't he have 10-5 trade veto rights? Haven't studied that. I'd do three years with him at $40M. But I don't worship the guy. I would not do four years.

He's a bridge to Harper-Strasburg-etc. And he's great for fans, credibility. But you don't want him to be an anchor on the '14-'15-'16 teams that will have both Stras and Harper in what might be peak years.

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Arlington: Amazes me the change of manager can make such a difference. What sets Buck Showalter apart?

Tom Boswell: Showalter is smart, intense and he's got some put-the-fear-of-God-in-'em in him, too.

What on earth has he done to that pitching staff?

Right now, they must be playing better than any team in history that STILL has a negative run-differential this year of>-180 runs!

BTW, the best sign that the Nats have made significant improvement this year is that they were dead LAST in run differential the last two seasons __reinforcing that their loses were justified. An average of -180 runs for '08-'09. This year, they are only -61 runs. They have a better record than six teams but they have a better run differential than NINE teams. (Including the Brewers and Astros.)

If they have really jumped over nine teams in basic ability in one season, and have J Z'mann, Strasburg, Harper, Espinosa, Ramos, Storen in their future as much bigger pieces of the puzzle, then this has been a very good season. (And you'd certainly want to rehire the manager who oversaw that improvement, especially with such bad early showings from his No. 1-2 starters).

Is that the way to see tham? I'd blend the two measuring sticks.

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Fantasyland: So the Nats are seriously going to let their first potential Hall of Fame-destined player walk because they think their "Plan" is all of a sudden going to miraculously come together and they need someone "better" at first? Give me a break.

There are hardly any perfect players. Dunn is a great bat, you take the good with the bad and build around him. You don't create yet another hole before you even know whether guys like Ramos and Espinosa can stick.

As a "fun" exercise, I went back and took a look at some of your columns from a few years ago when Kasten was talking about all the "pieces" that the Nats supposedly already had in place, and how they were close to contention. The only "piece" left is Zimmerman. Not surprising; that's what happens in baseball. But the fact that the Nats are now planning as if each and every prospect is going to pan out, such that it is OK to cut ties with Dunn, is absurd.

Tom Boswell: I agree. Kasten had a Plan. Rizzo has a Theory. I got fairly animated with Mike the other night and said, "The Plans and Theories are great for team presidents and GM's who want to build dynasties and talk about world titles. But when does Washington just get a TEAM? A decent team for people to watch and enjoy. And isn't Dunn part of that?"

I probably didn't say it quite that well. But I certainly said it.

See you all next week. Thanks again.

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