April 23, 2017

Washington Nationals Winter Meetings: Escobar sent to Angels; bullpen makeover

The Washington Nationals have played it quiet this offseason so far, notable for the ones that have gotten (or will get) away. Jordan Zimmermann was the first to go, signing a below-market contract with the Detroit Tigers even before the winter meetings. Ian Desmond, Denard Span and others will follow.

But the past few days have brought rumors of new bullpen pieces, and finally — some hard news!

The Nats have added some pretty significant pieces to the bullpen renovation: [Read more…]

OPINION: Capitals’ Brian MacLellan making championship-caliber moves this offseason

Once the raw emotion of another difficult ending to the season passed, Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan made his priorities clear. A winger to bring regularity to the Capitals’ top forward line was in high demand, so as to slam shut the revolving door that had been so active in the 2014-15 season. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom played with a total of nine forwards over the course of the year, but any worries about seeing similar inconsistency when this season arrives were extinguished on July 2.

MacLellan engineered a blockbuster trade, sending longtime Capital Troy Brouwer, along with goalie prospect Phoenix Copley and a third-round pick, to St. Louis in exchange for T.J. Oshie of 2014 Sochi Olympics fame.

Joel Ward proved a worthy linemate to Ovechkin and Backstrom in the playoffs, with nine points in 14 games — including a pair of goals that bridged the team’s series against the Islanders and Rangers — but it’s hard to argue that Oshie isn’t an upgrade to the team’s most valuable offensive unit. Just look at this highlight video if you need to get an idea of his hockey sense and the way he works on the ice.

Those pessimistic about the potential that Oshie has to make a positive impact might point to his relatively paltry playoff numbers (5g, 4a in 30 career postseason contests), and that would be a fair critique. But on the flip side of that, the Blues have generally underachieved in the playoffs, with a series record of 1-5 since 2009. Moreover, Oshie has never had linemates of Ovechkin’s and Backstrom’s quality. While that’s not intended a slight to guys like David Backes and Alexander Steen, Ovechkin is the best goal scorer of his generation and Backstrom is hockey’s equivalent of an elite five-tool baseball player.

Personally, I think the Williams signing is the strongest addition of the offseason because it adds an edge to the team that might not have existed before. Brouwer’s leadership in the room will be missed, but there is absolutely no void with a guy like Williams coming to town. His seven career Game 7 wins are nearly double the amount the team has (four), and he’s never lost one. I see him, as does MacLellan, in the second-line right winger role on a completely healthy Capitals squad, serving as a highly effective mentor to Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The latter of those two appears to have finally solved Washington’s second-line center puzzle that took years to complete, and the flashes of brilliance he showed in the playoffs were highlighted by the series-winning goal in Game 7 against the Islanders. In the teleconference the day after he signed, Williams called his Game 7 successes “a product of the teams [he’s] been on,” but his 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy confirms, in my opinion, his ability to succeed as a pressure player on his own. He had the overtime goal in Game 1 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final and the first in their title-winning Game 5. Did I mention that he has an NHL-record 14 points in Game 7s?

He spoke to Caps head coach Barry Trotz the night he signed, and he told the media the next day that it was that conversation that pushed him over the edge. Even before that, the nation’s capital had been high on the list for him, his agent and his family, so much so that he took a pay cut to come to the Capitals. He believes that the ingredients are in place for a championship in Washington; he said so a couple weeks back. I happen to agree with him.

I won’t go so far as to say that 2016 will see Lord Stanley’s Cup lifted by Ovechkin & Co., but the window is wide open for that to happen. Two bona fide top-six forward lines are there, with a balance of snipers, playmakers, heavy hitters and speed. The bottom six forwards — Marcus Johansson (yes, I do think he’ll be re-signed), Brooks Laich, Tom Wilson, Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle and Michael Latta — are all more than capable of stepping up into their roles as needed, whatever they may be.

Brooks Orpik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov can hold down the fort on the blue line, while generating clean breakouts and even directly creating offense when asked to. Last but certainly not least, Braden Holtby has been locked up as the team’s franchise netminder for the foreseeable future. His steady presence helped guide the Caps to within a goal of their first Eastern Conference Final since 1998, and with a good bounce here or correct officiating call there, they would have reached that point and matched up well with Tampa Bay (to be fair, surviving the final two minutes of Game 5 or simply showing up in Game 6 against the Rangers would have gotten the job done).

For longtime Caps fans, it might feel like just yesterday the organization was fading fast under the direction of former GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates. MacLellan and Trotz have quickly revived them back into Stanley Cup contention, and this observer has no qualms about pegging the current iteration of the roster as the best of the Alex Ovechkin Era. Time will tell how much this summer’s transactions help the team come playoff time, but don’t be surprised if the barn on the corner of 7th and F is rocking in late May – and even into June.

McCloughan hire a step in right direction

On Tuesday, news broke that the Washington Redskins will hire Scot McCloughan, former 49ers GM, as the team’s General Manager. The formal announcement should be imminent. It is an important move in the right direction.

Since Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, the team has known two head personnel managers: Vinnie Cerrato and Bruce Allen. This is the first time the team, under Snyder’s stewardship, has gone “outside the lines” in hiring a player personnel director.

Cerrato was a college recruiter, way over his head when tasked to evaluate pro talent. He was a glorified “yes man”, doing Snyder’s billing to attract and acquire every big name available on the market, usually with spectacular failure.

Allen is a marketing man. Always has been, dating back to his time with Tampa Bay. Talent evaluation is not his strong suit, evidenced by the dearth of talent produced form the past several drafts.

So this is a departure, of sorts, with the Redskins hiring an actually qualified candidate for the position.

McCloughan’s resume is strong. He has been involved in player personnel decisions for three teams over 20 years, and each have reached the Super Bowl on his watch or immediate upon departure using players he was responsible for.

McCloughan is a disciple of Ron Wolf, longtime GM of the Packers. He’s been responsible for the drafting and developing of several All-Pros, including Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks and Russell Wilson. It’s a good track record.

If — and this is a big if at Redskins Park — McCloughan is allowed to do his job without interference from the owner’s box, he should be able to construct a personnel and development staff that can compete in the NFL. The Redskins currently have one of, if not THE, smallest scouting department in the league.

McCloughan should change that — very quickly.

But that’s always the caveat, isn’t it? IF. IF Snyder can stay out of areas he shouldn’t be meddling in. IF he can stay away from becoming chummy with pet players, making things more difficult for his coaches and personnel staff. IF he can dedicate his resources in the right places instead of pursuing fool’s gold.

If, if, if.

Redskins fans had high hopes for Marty Schottenheimer. For the second coming of Joe Gibbs. For Mike Shanahan. None of these moves restored any glory to the franchise past glimpses of hope. Instead, they all ended just like every other decision Snyder has made in 15 years: poorly.

This move becomes the latest in high-profile offseason acquisitions for this franchise. They got the right guy this time. Let’s see if they allow him the time, space and resources to do his job correctly.

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Biggest questions for McCloughan on the field:

1) The Redskins own the fifth pick in the NFL Draft. Do they keep it, or move down for multiple picks. If they keep it, will they use it to help rebuild the porous offensive line?

2) Wither RGIII? Will McCloughan see enough from Robert Griffin III to install him at quarterback and make Jay Gruden integrate Griffin better into his offense? Or will the new GM defer to the current head coach?

3) With that in mind, with McCloughan expected to clean house in the personnel and development staffs, will he make similar changes in the coaching area? Will he take a year to evaluate Gruden and how he works with Griffin, or will he start anew?

NATS: Player Appearance by Strasburg

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg will make an appearance at the grand opening of the Microsoft Store at the Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Maryland on Saturday, November 22.

According to the website, the first 200 people in line for the Microsoft opening on Saturday, November 22, will receive one complimentary meet and greet ticket for the Xbox One event with Stephen Strasburg on November 22. Tickets are limited to 200. Must have ticket to enter line. Check facebook.com/microsoftstore to get up-to-the-minute details.

Strasburg even tweeted about the event today.

Stephen Strasburg made his last start at home for 2012 - Miami Marlins v. Washington Nationals, 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Stephen Strasburg made his last start at home for 2012 – Miami Marlins v. Washington Nationals, 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Wizards’ Offseason Questions: Who’s The General Manager?

As the 2014 offseason for the Washington Wizards is now upon us, there are some pressing issues that need to be discussed within the organization. Over the course of this week, we’ll take a look at those issues. First up, the Wizards need to decide who will be their general manager next year.

Ernie Grunfeld joined the Wizards back in 2003 after spending four seasons with the Bucks and eight years with the Knicks. Over those 12 total years, he amassed a 574-378 record. He reached the NBA Finals twice with the Knicks and took the Bucks to the playoffs in three of his four seasons.

Despite all of the prior success, Grunfeld’s 11 seasons in Washington have been full of ups and downs. The Wizards have gone 357-529 with him as their GM with five postseason appearances. In the early days, things were great – Washington went to the playoffs four times in the first five years – but many mistakes were sprinkled in along the way.

In the NBA Draft, mistakes have been made. Oleksiy Pecherov (2006) and Jan Vesely (2011) turned out be royal busts as first-round draft picks. In fact, neither of the players drafted in the 2006 draft are with Washington now. In 2009, Washington didn’t even have a selection in the first round, should have been fifth, thanks to a trade that brought them Mike Miller and Randy Foye.

In all three drafts (2006, 2009, 2011), Washington missed out on drafting possibly their point guard for the future. In 2006, Rajon Rondo was taken following the Wizards’ selection. In 2009, Ricky Rubio was selected with the Wizards’ pick and Stephen Curry would have also been available.

In 2011, Washington passed on Kemba Walker to take Vesely. To be fair, John Wall was drafted in 2010, so they weren’t really looking for a point guard in 2011. Of the forwards taken in the draft, the position the Wizards drafted, Kawhi Leonard (Spurs) and Kenneth Faried (Nuggets) were selected after the Wizards made their pick. Both have been solid players for their teams.

Three different drafts, three different missed opportunities for Washington. Just take a moment now to imagine how different the basketball scene in D.C. would have been with either Rondo, Rubio or Curry as the team’s point guard. Between the three of them, there are five NBA All-Star Game appearances.

The missed opportunities in the draft have certainly set the team back, but the misfires in the Grunfeld administration don’t end there. There have also been contract decisions that were rather, well, puzzling.

At the age of 32, Antawn Jamison was awarded a contract extension for four-years and $50 million. Jamison was a solid player for the Wizards and important part of those four-straight playoff appearances, but no 32-year old in the NBA is worth 50 million.

Two years later, Andray Blatche was then inked to a contract extension for five-years and $35 million. After his pay day, Blatche didn’t even play in 82 more games for the Wizards over the final couple years that he was with the organization.

Possibly the most troubling contract, however, is the six-years and $111 million max-deal that was awarded to Gilbert Arenas in 2008. Due to injuries, Arenas played in just 13 games the year before. After receiving his deal, he appeared in 55 games for the Wizards over the next three years before splitting with the team to go to Orlando.

After the mistakes, misfires and series of unfortunate events, it seems like a no-brainer that Grunfeld be shown the door. However, it’s not that simple. Is it possible that he’s learned from his mistakes? After all, he is the man responsible for the 2013-2014 playoff team.

While he did draft Vesely and missed out on All-Star point guards, he did draft John Wall and Bradley Beal. After their playoff run, both have been heralded as a feared back-court in the NBA. He’s traded for the likes of Nene, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza, who all three played key roles on this year’s team. He put together a bench that consisted of Andre Miller, Al Harrington, Chris Singleton, Trevor Booker and Drew Gooden.

When you look past the dark days, the last several years, with the exception of the Vesely fiasco, have been fairly clean for Grunfeld. He’s made some solid decisions and has put together a good team in Washington that will be competitive for years to come. It’s a team that, unlike 2-3 years ago, free agents would want to come and play on because it’s a team that will win.

Is it enough to erase his past? For a majority of his tenure in Washington, things weren’t as high as they are now. After making the playoffs four-consecutive years, the Wizards then slid into a very depressing state where they finished last in the division three times. Lately, however, things certainly seem to be on the up and up.

Grunfeld’s time as general manager of the Wizards hasn’t been smooth, but it has yielded success. After making the playoffs just once between 1989 and 2004, Washington has been to the postseason in five of the past 11 years. That’s not great, but it’s without question an improvement over what it was prior to Grunfeld’s arrival.

I guess the real question here isn’t who the GM of the Wizards is, rather it’s has Ernie Grunfeld learned from his mistakes? While he’s certainly made his fair share of errors, there’s no denying the credit he’s owed for putting together the current, and successful, Washington Wizards.

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Brian Skinnell is a sports writer born and raised in the Washington, D.C.-metro area. He’s had work published on Yahoo Sports and Rant Sports, and has made several radio show appearances across the country to discuss his works. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+!

Redskins season finale prompts plenty of offseason questions

The story of the Washington Redskins 2013 will be written with words like disappointment, frustration and controversy. After the season finale Sunday against the New York Giants is over, team officials can go about their business trying to evaluate the roster, coaching staff and perhaps even front office personnel in an effort to turn around a franchise that has completed double-digit loss campaigns in three of the last four seasons under head coach Mike Shanahan.

It’s hard not to look at the record and realize that 2012 was the anomaly.

There will be a tremendous amount of turnover regardless: the Skins have 17 expiring contracts among the 53 players on the active roster. How many more are shown the door, especially if Shanahan — or a variety of his assistants — are released from their contracts?

Among the big names that will be free agents as the final gun sounds Sunday are seven of the 11 starting defensive players, including Pro Bowl alternates Brain Orakpo and DeAngelo Hall. And veteran linebacker London Fletcher already announced that this season was “99 percent” his final in the NFL. Wholesale changes were coming to the defense regardless of the success or failure on the field this season.

If defensive coordinator Jim Haslett doesn’t survive the axe in the coming days or weeks, could a return to a 4-3 base defense be in the future? Again, more questions than answers.

One thing should be at the top of Daniel Snyder and Bruce Allen’s list: hire a legitimate general manager and allow that person the autonomy to do his job. Allen might be good with contracts and as a liaison with the league and Redskins alumni, but he isn’t an NFL-level talent evaluator. Turns out, Mike Shanahan really wasn’t either.

The Skins really should divide the labor of evaluating talent and coaching said talent in a more traditional environment. Rarely do mega-control coaches, such as Shanahan, make good GMs as well. We saw that in Joe Gibbs Part II as well. The Skins should find a smart, savvy, tenacious talent evaluator and let him hire the coach and pick the players that coach will manage.

Snyder might not be good at picking coaches, but he sure is getting a lot of practice. His next hire will be his eighth head coach in 15 seasons. That’s not good. If he does indeed relieve Shanahan of his duties, he should resist the urge to go out and spend top dollar for the biggest name available, like he so often does.

Snyder loves to make the big off-season splash. There’s no doubt the Skins in his tenure are perpetual “off-season champions”. But he should promote Allen to Team President and bring in a professional general manager and allow him to do his job. Heck, he’s tried just about everything else, why not actually try convention?

Adam Oates talks Johansson contract, development: “He needs a little more time”

Early Saturday morning, at long last, the Washington Capitals announced via press release that forward Marcus Johansson had been re-signed to a two-year, $4 million contract. He’ll be earning $1.825mil in 2013-14, and $2.175mil in 2014-15.

Johansson, drafted by the Capitals in the first round (24th overall) of the 2009 NHL draft,  scored 22 points in 34 games last season, and was third on the team in assists. Much of his success was due in part to his eventual pairing with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the Capitals top line after returning from a concussion in March.

“We finished very well, and they played very well together,” said Capitals head coach Adam Oates of the Backstrom, Johansson, and Ovechkin pairing. “Marcus is a lot younger than Backie and Ovi, and we’re looking for him to keep growing as a hockey player and improving.”

Oates laid to rest any doubt about where Johansson would be playing this upcoming season. Johansson is listed on the Capitals roster as a center, but Oates said he would be filling the left wing spot on the top line again this season, citing the young forward’s speed and his success with his linemates Backstrom and Ovechkin earlier this year.

“We look for him to play left wing,” said Oates. “They had some success, so I’d like to see where that goes, ‘cause of his speed and the way that we play. His speed is a huge attribute, and you’re going to see that more from a winger than you are a center.”

Oates addressed the topic of Johansson’s development, which many say has been stunted by inconsistent coaching, being shuffled around positionally the last several years, and simply not fulfilling expectations. But Oates has faith Johansson can get there.

“I think honestly, he needs a little more time,” said Oates. “He’s younger than those guys, he needs more time in the league, more games, more feeling the position, more growing into his body, and getting stronger.”

Oates thinks the young forward is in a place where he can develop as a player and prove himself in the NHL, while contributing to the Capitals’ success.

“He’s got a great opportunity to get started with two great hockey players, a good situation, the coaches like him, the GM likes him, and he’s got an opportunity for the next few years to prove that he can be a dominant player in this league, and he’ll be rewarded if he succeeds.”

 

 

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