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Angels head home despite big stars, high salaries

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Angels head home despite big stars, high salaries

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) The Los Angeles Angels went out and got Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They might end up having the youngest MVP in baseball history and a Cy Young winner.

They've also got plenty of time to ponder how it all went wrong after the most anticipated season in franchise history ended with a fizzle.

The Angels finished third in the AL West at 89-73, a record good enough to win the AL Central or to earn a wild-card berth in the NL. Instead, the franchise with Pujols, Mike Trout, Jered Weaver and a payroll north of $155 million will be home in October for the third straight year, the longest playoff absence of manager Mike Scioscia's 13-year tenure.

The Angels were very good, but just not quite as good as the AL's best - including Oakland and Baltimore, who stunningly blew past Los Angeles with a fraction of the Halos' star wattage or spending power.

``Failure is a relative term,'' said Jerry Dipoto, the Angels' first-year general manager. ``I don't want to call that a successful season, but I don't know I would deem that a failure. We came up short. That is for certain. Now we have to go figure out how not to be short next time.''

With big decisions to make on the futures of veteran players, Dipoto and owner Arte Moreno could choose several paths to retool the Halos. Torii Hunter, Dan Haren, Zack Greinke and Ervin Santana are just a few of the regulars who might not return.

Los Angeles was among the majors' elite except for two stretches: A 6-14 start to the season while Trout was still in the minors, and a 5-13 skid in the first 19 days of August. The first slump left the Angels playing catch-up in the division race, and the second knocked them too far back to get into wild-card contention.

It's not what anybody expected when the Angels signed Pujols and Wilson to hefty free-agent deals last December, capped by a joyous pep rally outside Angel Stadium. It's certainly not what seemed possible after Trout got rolling in his sublime rookie season and Weaver proved nearly unhittable for long stretches of his first 20-win season.

``After we got C.J. Wilson and Albert, what we did in spring training was awesome,'' said Hunter, the Angels' unofficial team captain and a pending free agent. ``But the first six weeks of the season were bad. If we had those six weeks back and just played average baseball, I don't think we would be in this position.''

Their offense bumbled through that early-season stretch, only starting to work consistently when Trout arrived from the minors. But when the bats got going, the pitching stumbled: Everybody except Weaver hit a rough stretch, from top-line starters Haren and Santana to the back of a bullpen that blew an AL-worst 22 saves, an astonishing number for an 89-win team.

``To not control our own destiny down the stretch is not what we sought after,'' Haren said last week. ``But the way we played in April and then a stretch after the All-Star break left us in this situation.''

After batting .190 with no homers in April, Pujols eventually recovered from that horrific start to the first season of his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels. The three-time NL MVP batted .285 with 30 homers, 50 doubles and 105 RBIs, posting respectable numbers while learning the intricacies of a new league.

But El Hombre was overshadowed by Trout, the 21-year-old speedster who burst onto the AL scene with one of the greatest rookie seasons in major league history. He led the AL in runs (129) and stolen bases (49), hit 30 homers with 83 RBIs, finished second in the batting race at .326 behind Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera - and the numbers still can't capture the excitement he injected into nearly every game he played.

Weaver had a remarkable season despite two brief injury absences, throwing a no-hitter and finishing 20-5 with a 2.81 ERA with 142 strikeouts while holding batters to a .214 average.

Wilson pitched well at times during the first season of his five-year, $77.5 million deal, but struggled through an 11-start winless stretch. The left-hander later revealed he had been pitching with bone spurs in his elbow that will require offseason surgery.

The rest of Los Angeles' 2013 rotation is uncertain. Contract options on Haren and Santana both seem likely to be declined by the Angels after the veterans struggled down the stretch, although Haren would consider returning for less money.

Greinke largely pitched well as a midseason acquisition from Milwaukee, going 6-2 with a 3.53 ERA, but still wasn't enough to push the Angels over the top. He's a free agent who will get a huge payday this winter, likely forcing the Angels to pay top dollar if they hope to keep him.

Yet Orange County seems to be an ideal place for Greinke, the introverted former Brewers and Royals hurler who reportedly balked at playing in big cities in the past. The Angels offer all of the benefits of major-market franchises, including top-dollar contracts, but few of the drawbacks, such as a media microscope or supercritical fans.

And then there's Hunter, the beloved 37-year-old outfielder who just finished an outstanding fifth season in Anaheim. He batted .313 with 16 homers and 92 RBIs, repeatedly coming up big down the stretch while chasing his first World Series ring.

Moreno realizes fans are eager for Hunter's return, and he seems fond of the veteran slugger. But the Angels haven't tipped their hand on his fate before beginning an offseason that could change the Halos yet again.

``This is an organization that I really came over to be with, and thought I would retire here,'' Hunter said. ``If it doesn't work out, I had a lot of fun here. I love these guys. Hopefully we can get something done. They have a lot of things to try and clean up before they even think about offering me a deal, and I understand that. So if I have to, I guess I have to go elsewhere.''

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AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle contributed to this report.

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

The NHL draft is fast approaching. The first round will take place on Friday and it could be a busy night for the Capitals.

Washington currently holds the 25th pick in the draft. It will be the highest pick this team has had since taking Ilya Samsonov 22nd overall in the 2015 draft. The question, however, is will they stay there?

The more you look at the team’s situation, the more a move in either direction looks like a realistic possibility for the Caps. Here’s why.

Why the Caps could move up

In most situations, an NHL team should pick the best player available. Since most NHL prospects, including most players taken in the first round, will take years to develop before they see NHL action, it does not generally make sense to draft for an immediate need. When teams become fixated on drafting a certain position, it can lead to those teams passing on elite talent at other positions.

For Washington, however, they no longer can afford to ignore the team’s need for a difference-maker at forward.

You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find the last time the Caps drafted a forward in the first round when they drafted Jakub Vrana. Since then, however, they have drafted a goalie, two defensemen and have traded out of the first round completely.

The dearth of forward talent among the team’s prospects is starting to catch up to it. In a year in which the Caps need forward depth but have very little money to fill it, an ideal solution would be to plug any holes on the bottom six with cheap prospects.

Without any top-end forwards in the system, however, that is not really an option.

Riley Barber (sixth-round pick) is an unrestricted free agent and said he does not see himself re-signing with Washington. Nathan Walker (third-round pick) is also a UFA and, though he sounded more open to re-signing with the Caps than Barber, there is no guarantee he does not leave in free agency. Shane Gersich (fifth-round pick) and Garrett Pilon (third-round pick) still look like they need another year in Hershey. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (fifth-round pick) has a whopping 16 games of North American experience and it is hard to know what exactly to expect from him. Kody Clark (second-round pick) and Riley Sutter (third-round pick) still need time to develop.

This team needs a high-end forward prospect, if not for this year then for the near future. It needs that guy who can infuse a bit of youth and excitement, as well as skill, back into the lineup when he gets a call-up. We are not talking about the next Connor McDavid here, just a top-six forward to add to the system because right now it does not appear Washington really has any top-six forwards besides the guys already in the NHL.

That needs to change.

There is value to be found late in the first round of the draft—Marcus Johansson was taken 24th overall in 2009, Evgeny Kuznetsov was 26th overall in 2010 and Andre Burakovsky was 23rd overall in 2013 just to name a few—but waiting for a good forward to drop into their laps this year may not be the ideal strategy knowing they need to pick a forward in the first round.

Moving up the draft will ensure they can grab one of the top forwards available. If they move up high enough, perhaps they could even snap someone who could potentially be ready to help the team in the latter half of the season, though that is a lot to ask of a young forward.

The point is Washington cannot afford to go with the usual “best available” mentality and see who falls to 25. General manager Brian MacLellan will have to get proactive and move up to ensure he gets the best available player at the position of need. We may not be talking Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, but even moving up to the mid-round can dramatically affect the quality of prospects available.

Why the Caps could move down

Elliotte Friedman had an interesting note on the Caps in his latest 31 Thoughts column. He listed Washington among one of the most aggressive teams in trade talks saying generally of the NHL “we could see some frenetic attempts to move up and down.”

Friedman also wrote, “Other teams believe the Capitals are in total ‘go for it’ mode.”

When a team is in “go for It mode” and trying to win a Cup, the first-round draft pick can be useful trade bait to help bring in a significant piece and bolster the roster. Granted, Washington has very little cap room available so any trade would likely include sending salary with the pick which would, in turn, lower the value of return, but this team is just one year removed from winning the Cup. It is not as if they need to make a major addition to be a contender.

Trading away a first-round pick would be the exact opposite of addressing the team’s need for high-end prospect forward talent as written above, but it is hard to build a team for now and for the future. With Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Co. all in their 30s, it would be understandable why MacLellan would choose to go all-in on winning another Cup in the next few years.

Whether the Caps move up, down or stand pat, we will have all the latest analysis on NBC Sports Washington’s coverage of the draft starting at 8 p.m. on Friday.

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With John Wall's injury in mind, defense should be big priority for Wizards in 2019 draft

With John Wall's injury in mind, defense should be big priority for Wizards in 2019 draft

The Wizards will not truly know what they have in John Wall following his Achilles surgery until he returns to game action, and that may not be until the 2020-21 season. He is expected to be out at least 11 months, but there is a chance he misses a full year and owner Ted Leonsis has already endorsed the idea, if it is the best course for his recovery.

The Wizards, though, can start taking measures for Wall's return as soon as this week with Thursday's NBA Draft. Using the draft, trades and free agency, they can begin to build a roster around Wall to increase the odds he comes back an effective player.

Much of the analysis of how Wall will be affected by the injury has focused on the offensive end and whether he will lose some of his trademark speed. But there is an argument to be made that the defensive end will be a larger concern and the best area to find Wall some help.

Offensively, Wall will still have strengths to play to even if he is no longer the fastest, quickest player on the court. He is one of the league's best passers. When committed, he rebounds well for his position. And he could expand his game to the post with a size advantage over most of his opponents.

Would a more consistent three-point shot help? Sure, but he can still be effective.

Defensively, it might be a struggle and especially early on. He will be tasked with staying in front of cat-quick point guards like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker. Wall already had his defensive issues before the surgery and matters will only be more difficult now after an injury known for affecting lateral quickness.

What the Wizards can do is try to build a defensive foundation around Wall to mitigate those potential problems. They can surround him with physical perimeter defenders and install rim protection behind him. Then, Wall would be asked to do less. He could focus on playing sound team defense and directing his opponents into traffic created by his teammates.

The problem is that the Wizards will essentially have to build their defense from scratch. Though they have some capable defenders like Bradley Beal and Troy Brown Jr., and though Dwight Howard's rebounding will help, the Wizards are coming off a year in which they had one of the worst defensive units in the league. 

The Wizards were 27th in defensive rating and 29th in points allowed. They gave up the fifth-most three-pointers and at the fourth-highest percentage. And they surrendered more field goals within five feet of the rim than any other team.

Defense has been highlighted as a major long-term need by the Wizards' current staff, though they still hold the 'interim' label until further notice. Under head coach Scott Brooks, the team has made strides on offense but has lost their way defending the ball. They want more balance moving forward.

Several of Brooks' assistants are not under contract for next season and the team has explored hiring a defensive specialist, according to a person with knowledge of their plans. One assistant who could be replaced is Maz Trakh. He is in contract limbo and has not been present at the team's pre-draft workouts.

NBA coaches, though, can only do so much. A defensive renaissance will have to come from the players.

The Wizards will have some options that could help when they are on the board with the ninth overall pick in Thursday's NBA Draft. It could be a shot-blocker like Bol Bol, Brandon Clarke or Jaxson Hayes. Nassir Little would add toughness to the perimeter. Sekou Doumbouya would give them versatility.

Revamping their defense probably wouldn't include re-signing Bobby Portis or Jabari Parker, the latter of which has a team option the Wizards are likely to decline later this month. Thomas Bryant and Tomas Satoransky aren't lockdown defenders, either, but do offer some upside on that end.

With limited money to spend, free agency won't offer any quick fixes for the Wizards. The best they could likely do is find cheap players to help begin an overall culture change. 

When it comes to the draft, the Wizards do not have the luxury to draft solely for need. They have to get the best player available, no matter the position. That could even be a point guard, despite Wall being due $170 million over the next four years.

But it might be smart to favor defense over offense and the same applies to free agency and beyond. That approach could come in handy once Wall is ready to go.

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