Orioles

Another division win puts Fox in elite company

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Another division win puts Fox in elite company

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Instead of talking about the Super Bowl, Broncos coach John Fox focuses on the small goals his team has to meet to get there.

On an almost daily basis, he sets incremental, easy-to-digest benchmarks - cut down on turnovers, get a little better every game, play your best football come December - that rarely bring up the words ``Super Bowl,'' but are certainly formulated with that in mind.

``As a coach, that's kind of your job, just looking for little carrots out there to maybe give guys a little extra juice,'' Fox said. ``You look at different things and set those kinds of goals.''

When the Broncos reached one of their goals by wrapping up the AFC West on Sunday, Fox joined a couple of coaching stalwarts from the 1970s, Chuck Knox and Ted Marchibroda, as only the third coach in NFL history to take over a team with a losing record and win back-to-back division titles in his first two years.

It was yet another in a long list of Denver's achievements to be met with almost no fanfare inside the locker room.

``You do this to win championships,'' Fox said.

He's talking about Super Bowls, not divisions, and his team, with a 9-3 record, a seven-game winning streak and Peyton Manning playing some of the best football of his career, is shaping up to be as legitimate a contender as anyone.

The Broncos play at Oakland on Thursday. Currently, they are the fourth seed in the AFC, with a game against Baltimore set for Dec. 16. Denver has a significantly easier schedule than two of the teams ahead of it, Baltimore and New England, so the No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that goes with it are both within reach.

Don't bother asking Fox or any of his players too much about that sort of big-picture stuff, however.

``The most important thing right now is to keep on stacking days, keep on stacking weeks, keep taking it one day at a time,'' linebacker Von Miller said. ``I feel like we've scratched the surface of the team we know we can be. We've just got to keep on going to be that team that we all know we're capable of being.''

Like almost every player in the Denver locker room, Miller stays on point, taking things one game at a time, refusing to create a distraction or give an upcoming opponent easy bulletin-board material. They live by one of Knox's many mantras: I don't hear what you say. I only hear what you do.

Setting that tone is Fox, the coach, who has the backing and guidance of quarterback-turned-executive John Elway, then had Manning fall into his lap. Some say that makes his job easier. Some say it makes it harder because of the pressure to win - and win now - that goes with being surrounded by those people, those names.

Fox's hiring was viewed skeptically in large portions of Denver. Yes, he was a veteran coach with a winning record (He's now 96-86) and one Super Bowl appearance, but he was coming off a 2-14 record in his final season at Carolina.

Hidden beneath that terrible record was the fact that his players played hard for him all year and that Fox, a lame duck coach with a depleted roster, kept smiling and stayed positive through the entire thing.

When Elway was looking for a coach in Denver, the Broncos were coming off a 4-12 season that included the midseason firing of Josh McDaniels and the awkward presence of McDaniels' first-round draft pick, Tim Tebow, who didn't get into the starting lineup until after the coach was gone.

``When I looked at this building when I first got here after the 2010 season, everyone was demoralized,'' Elway said in a recent interview. ``The one thing that stuck with me with John was the positive attitude. Outgoing. Friendly. Positive. To me, that was the No. 1 characteristic. It was the simple fact of the way he was. I felt he could get this organization rehabilitated, get everyone excited about playing football again.''

And, Elway said, there was Fox's ``knack for football,'' honed over 34 years in the business, first as a graduate assistant in college, then through five stops in the NFL, starting as secondary coach in Pittsburgh in 1989, before he got the head job in Carolina in 2002.

Never did that knack work better than during the 2011 season, his first with the Broncos.

Unfazed by the prospect of building a system around a player, rather than making the player adjust to the system, Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy set aside their egos and, many might say, set back offense by about 50 years by bringing the read option back to the NFL to give Tebow an offense he could function in.

Then, when Manning came to Denver, Fox and McCoy listened to their quarterback while reconfiguring the offense again.

The entire time, Fox's specialty, defense, has been rock solid. The Broncos are ranked third in yards allowed this season. Last year, defense helped the Broncos win five games in which they didn't crack 20 points.

Asked whether his coaching philosophy changed from one year to another, under such drastically different circumstances, Fox didn't divulge much.

``Not really. You're in this to win,'' he said. ``It's only fun if you win. You try to bring that culture, that environment, to the team.''

Notes: The Broncos put out an official injury report because they have a game in three days but they did not practice. Fox listed LB Wesley Woodyard (ankle) and WR Matthew Willis (knee) as ``out.'' ... Fox said there was no reason to panic about K Matt Prater, who has missed three of his last five field goal attempts. ``He's made a lot of big kicks for us. I've seen it happen to many kickers before. You just go back and work on it,'' Fox said. ... Due to the compact schedule, the Broncos had Monday off. They'll practice Tuesday and Wednesday and leave for Oakland on Wednesday night.

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What exactly did the Orioles get in return for Manny Machado?

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What exactly did the Orioles get in return for Manny Machado?

So, the Orioles made some headlines earlier this week. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but minor league pitcher Asher Wojciechowski exercised his opt-out clause and is no longer with the organization. Please keep Orioles fans in your thoughts during this trying time.

As everyone reading this is undoubtedly already aware, the Orioles *also* made a trade yesterday, sending 26-year old superstar Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In return for their once-in-a-lifetime talent, the Orioles received a whopping five prospects from the Dodgers’ minor league system.

Yusniel Diaz, OF, 21

It’s fitting that this trade is being compared to the Erik Bedard trade, which was also a five-for-one, because Diaz could be a poor man’s Adam Jones. He’s not the prospect Jones was, but he could end up being a really nice player.

Talent evaluators are split on his ultimate ceiling. Some describe him as a bona fide stud, and others leave him off their top 100 lists. I’ve seen him ranked as high as 31st overall (by Baseball Prospectus), which, if accurate, is a terrific main piece in a package for a star rental. 

Most consider Diaz’s main flaw as a prospect to be his in-game power, though anyone watching the 2018 MLB Futures Game would be confused by that, as he became the second player ever to hit multiple home runs in the game. It’s possible that more power develops as he matures, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first player to hit for more power once reaching the Majors, but for now, it’s not a strength. I wouldn’t expect him to top 20 home runs in most seasons.

His bat-to-ball ability is his clearest strength, as he projects to consistently hit for a high average. His batting eye, while formerly a weakness, has become a strength in 2018, as he’s actually walked more times than he’s struck out (a rarity in this day and age). That will play well with O’s fans who are tired of seeing their players challenge strikeout records.

Dean Kremer, RHP, 22

Kremer isn’t a major name, which is a disappointment for O’s fans and one of the reasons their haul felt so uninspiring. Compared to more highly-touted prospects like Dustin May, Kremer looks like the team settled.

That said, he’s currently sporting the best K/9 ratio in the minors, and could end up being a diamond in the rough. He’s come a long way since being a 14th-round pick two years ago, and you have to wonder if the Orioles’ much-maligned pitching development can pick up where the much more successful Dodgers instructors left off.

Kremer is also notable for being the first Israeli-born player ever drafted in Major League Baseball.

Rylan Bannon, IF, 22

Bannon was an 8th-rounder last year and is having somewhat of a breakout this season. He’s leading the league in home runs, though playing in a notorious band box of a home park is skewing those numbers.

Bannon is undersized, but has a reputation of a good, if not elite, fielder. He’s a third baseman, but will likely spend some time at second as well. If the power breakout is real, he could end up a solid starter for the Orioles down the road. Again, that’s about all you can hope for in trades of this nature.

Zach Pop, RHP, 21

Pop has been described as potentially a future “right-handed Zach Britton,” which every O’s fan would take in a heartbeat. Of course, he’s not ranked like a future All-Star, as even in the weaker Orioles farm system he’s likely no better than around 25th. 

Still, the filler players in big trades like this are just lottery tickets, and considering his lack of pedigree, Pop seems like a relatively “safe” pitcher with projectability. He strikes out a lot of batters and gets a lot of ground balls, and at the very least can likely become a decent middle reliever.

Breyvic Valera, IF, 26

In a best-case scenario, Valera becomes the Orioles’ Ryan Flaherty replacement. If you squint, you can see somewhat decent upside in each of the other returning players, even despite their modest prospect rankings, but Valera is a clear utility player. 

He gets on base and hits for contact well enough to stick around and has proven capable of defending multiple positions, so there actually might be a spot for him at the end of the Orioles bench.

Overall

This trade has been described as anywhere from adequate and somewhat deflating to a great haul O’s fans should be excited about. Four of the five players have decent ceilings, though the chance of all four (or even just two of them) reaching those ceilings is highly unlikely. It’s just the nature of baseball.

Ultimately, this trade will be judged on the success or failure of Yusniel Diaz, who is the clear centerpiece of the package. Whether or not he succeeds will be partially up to him, and partially up to the front office and player development team.

If this trade is the beginning of the core for the next competitive Orioles team, then it’ll have to be considered a success. If these players each bust out of the league, then it was still the correct decision to trade Machado instead of settling for draft pick compensation, but it will still sting all the more for O’s fans seeing Manny soar to new heights elsewhere.

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has walked all over back-to-back years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager. 

At times during the first half of the season, relief pitchers felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said.

On a more tricky note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said.

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run.