I havn’t been doing many “Ask Boswell” posts lately; its the off-season and long-time Washington Post writer Tom Boswell isn’t generally taking a ton of baseball questions in December. But, its the week Spring Training opens and Boswell is heading down, so we check in on the questions baseball fans may be writing. Here’s his 2/10/14 edition.
Here’s his baseball-specific questions, and how I’d have answered them. Questions edited for clarity.
Q: Into which of your four categories of baseball managers do you expect Matt Williams to fall? And where would you place Buck Showalter?
A: Before answering, you’d have to know what Boswell’s Four Categories are; they stem from an article he published more than 20 years ago. They are “Little Napoleon,” the “Peerless Leader”, the “Tall Tactician,” and the “Uncle Robbie.” See this Oct 2011 chat for some explanations of the types. I would say that Matt Williams is clearly the Peerless Leader while Buck Showalter features as the Uncle Robbie type. I tend to classify managers into just two main categories: they’re either Disciplinarians or Player Managers. I view Williams as a disciplinarian (how could he not be; his nickname is “the Big Marine”). And I viewed Davey Johnson as more of a Player’s manager. You have to contrast one with the next when you change managers to give players a new message … hard is it to find someone who has the characteristics of both sides of that coin who can last for years and years (think Joe Torre or Bobby Cox). Boswell hedges, saying Williams and Showalter both display multiple characteristics … and then seems to back away from his own theory by saying that characterizing people into simple descriptions isn’t entirely fair.
Q: Why were the Nats interested in Grant Balfour if they already have plenty of late innings relievers?
A: Probably because the bullpen was a weakness last year (bymost macro measures about the 19th or 20th in the league) and a bulldog like Grant Balfour would have only made it better. Ask yourself: would you rather have Ross Ohlendorf or Ryan Mattheus going in the 7th or Balfour? Yeah, I thought so. Mike Rizzo has said that he loves making deals in late January/early February because he knows there are deals to be made. Players without contracts as spring training starts begin to panic, and come down from their salary demands. If you could get a closer-quality guy for just a few million a year … yeah you make that deal every time. Yes I know Balfour eventually signed for 2/$12m, but the point stands. There’s players out there right now that would still improve this team, and you never know what kinds of deals may happen tomorrow. Boswell doesn’t think there was real interest … but then says the bullpen needs to improve in 2013. I’m not sure I buy that; I think there was interest but he had a better offer.
Q: According to a Grantland.com article, MLB has been paying the Nats some money to make up for the TV rights “gap” between what they are getting under the current deal and what they “should” be getting. If true, is this an admission by MLB that the current deal is unfair? Wouldn’t it make more sense to solve the situation as opposed to giving money under the table? Is MLB this powerless that they can’t force a solution between the two teams?
A: Well, we delved into this issue in the previous post here; I can’t wait to see what Boswell’s reaction is. Boswell doesn’t say much … he quotes a member of the Nats ownership group who seemed to imply that the solution wasn’t going to be done before Selig retires. But he somehow “defends” the under-the-table payments as MLB being allowed to operate its business anyway it sees fit. Odd answer. I was hoping for an opinion here.
Q: For the last two years, the Nats have seemed to lack something perennial contenders like the Cardinals and Red Sox seem to possess. In short, it was hard to kill them off. You get a lead; they come back. You stay with them for a few innings; they pull away. Is there any validity to this non-statistical assessment? And will the Nats acquire this toughness in 2014 after the experience of overperforming in 2012 and underperforming in 2013?
A: Well, first, I’d clearly say that the 2012 Nats did not lack for the chutzpa; how do you win 98 games and not have the ability to finish teams off? Their season splits that year against the crummy teams in the league were fantastic. If you’re throwing out the entire 2012 season because of Drew Storen‘s meltdown in NLCS game 5 (where, remember, he had a clear game-and-series ending strike missed before giving up the crucial hit that buried the team), well that’s not fair either. However the evidence clearly points to a distinct lack of clutch hitting team-wide for 2013; see this link at Fangraphs to see how the Nats were dead last in batting average in high leverage situations for 2013.
Do you lay some of this on the manager’s head? Certainly I had more than a few complaints about the way Davey Johnson ran this team last year. Will a more hard-nosed guy instill that toughness by default into his team in 2014? Yeah I do think there will be some of that; the will of the manager leading his team. Can’t measure it very well though.
Boswell gives a nice answer about toughness, gutting out pennant races, Williams’ effect, etc.
Q: Matt Williams is cited as saying that he is developing new tactics to take advantage of the new rule against runner-catcher collisions at home plate. Any idea what those tactics might be?
A: No idea. Maybe have the pitcher half way up the line ready to trip the guy coming home? Boswell teases the change but refuses to divulge it, instead intimating that it should be obvious to figure out…
Q: What might be the personal dynamics between Luis Ayala and Bryce Harper during Spring Training? Would Bryce carry a personal grudge about his plunking by Ayala, or would he blame the Braves as a team?
A: Hmm. Wow, I didn’t realize it was Luis Ayala who hit Bryce Harper. I remember the “important” plunking being done by Julio Teheran. I’d guess Harper would think it is water under the bridge and would blame the team, not the player. And if he didn’t, he’d have a grizzled vet like Jayson Werth or his new manager to tell him to cool it. Besides; what are the odds of Ayala actually making this team? Boswell agrees.
Q: If the Nats were to make one more move, either through a trade or signing of a FA, what do you think it would be? Where is the biggest need for an upgrade exist in the current roster in your opinion?
A: I’d have to say an accomplished major league catcher for backup may be the biggest need right now. After that i’d say another left handed option out of the bullpen, and after that i’d say some better depth in the infield. Boswell says backup catcher then goes on a 1,000 word tangent.
Q: What do you make of the two year (with huge salary escalation in the second year) deals for Desmond and Zimmermann?
A: The deals make sense in a couple ways: the backloaded contract allows the Nats to maintain their payroll in 2015 without going very much higher in 2014. $30M comes off the books from the end of the contracts for LaRoche, Soriano and Span; now they’ve committed about half of that just in 2nd year pay increases to Desmond and Zimmermann. Both players would probably rather have their pay calculated this way; it makes their annual salaries that much higher as they reach free agency. Honestly I think Zimmermann is going to end up playing elsewhere, while the $11M/year for Desmond is still pretty cheap. In the end I’d sign Desmond to the long term deal and let Zimmermann walk, get the Q.O. draft pick and be replaced by one of the big arms we have coming up from the minors. Boswell agrees.
Q: Do you see the Nats putting enough effort to sign international players outside of the traditional (Dominican Republic, Japan, Venezuela, etc) countries and into the Emerging Markets of Brazil, Aruba, Australia, Curacao? They’re starting to play baseball in China!
A: No, and for years they weren’t putting enough effort into IFAs from the traditional places either. Look at our Big Board at the end of last season: where’s all the home grown IFAs? Solano, Leon and Perez are on the 40-man … but they’re all backups/edge of the 25-man roster guys. There wasn’t a SINGLE international free agent in AAA or AA developed by this team by season’s end. The entirety of these rosters were USA-born/drafted players and/or minor league free agents. Just two had matriculated even to Potomac/High-A; two guys signed in 2007 who are now finally in high-A (one of whom was born in 87 and clearly isn’t a prospect any longer). Look no further than at the WBC Dominican roster to see the value of developing talent out of the DSL. At least we’re finally starting to see some guys creep onto the prospect lists out of our DSL graduate lists, guys like Jefry Rodriguez and Pedro Severino being the two best examples. Boswell didn’t really answer; another tangent of a response.
Q: A.J. Burnett: Wouldn’t signing him make a lot of sense for the Nats (assuming he can be had on a one-year deal)? Detwiler to the pen gives us another quality lefty and he’s excellent insurance for an injury to a starting pitcher. And the Nats saved some cash by backloading the two-year Desmond/Z’nn deals. What’s not to like here?
A: Can’t argue. I’ve got us north of $130M in payroll now for 2014; would he do a 1yr/$13M deal and would Ted Lerner go north of $140M? Maybe if MLB kicked in even more cash than they already are, we could turn it around on A.J. Burnett and have, hands down, by far the best rotation in the game. Is that what this team needs? Burnett > Detwiler, so it’d be an improvement. And Detwiler’s bullpen splits have been great. If it makes the team better, and its just about money, yeah i’d be for it. Boswell poo-poos the deal because he doesn’t want to block the pitching pipeline?! Whatever; the goal is to win the frigging World Series.
Q: I don’t believe Davey Johnson quietly fades into the sunset. Does he still have an official role with the Nats? Do you know if he has other plans? Do you expect you’ll see him in Florida?
A: If I was Johnson, and I knew what was right, i’d stay far away from this team. He’s out, Williams is in, and any lingering around just undermines the new guy. And if I was Mike Rizzo, i’d be thinking the same thing. Give him a scouting job or some BS; just keep him away from the team. Boswell says the exact same thing.
Q: I was surprised by A-Rod’s sudden decision to pull his lawsuit against MLB and, despite all the initial coverage. Why’d he give up now?
A: I think he (finally) got some sage legal advice about his prospects. And I think he finally listened to someone giving him sane counsel. He’s got bigger problems ahead, like who is going to possibly give him a shot in 2015 or beyond… Wow, Boswell trashes him with some vindictiveness.