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Bargnani, Raptors quietly confidence of better '12

Bargnani, Raptors quietly confidence of better '12

TORONTO (AP) No bold predictions, no promises of reaching the playoffs. There is instead a quiet sense of optimism around the Toronto Raptors heading into the season.

A year after general manager Bryan Colangelo preached patience with a young, building team that was all about gaining experience, the Raptors made several key moves in the offseason in hopes of significantly improving the team.

Colangelo added three potential starters to the roster in point guard Kyle Lowry, Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas and athletic swingman Landry Fields, while losing Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson.

``There's that feeling there could be something special about this group, but time will tell,'' Colangelo said.

The Raptors, who open the season at home Wednesday against Indiana, finished 23-43 last year in a lockout-shortened season with low expectations. Few expect them to improve all that much this year - something second-year coach Dwane Casey said may work in his young squad's favor.

``With that lack of respect, that should get us motivated to come into this gym each and every day to bust our tails.'' Casey said. ``That right there tells us how much lack of respect the league has for us, and how much we have to continue to work to perform every day we walk on the court.''

Casey is a big reason for Toronto's optimism. The former Dallas Mavericks assistant took a team that was at the bottom of the league in defense to finish in the top half last season.

They remained in the bottom third in offensive stats, however - something Casey focused on with a benefit of a full training camp this season.

``The numbers are staggering what happened last year (defensively),'' Colangelo said. ``But with respect to the pace, the offense, offensive efficiency, offensive production, we talked a lot this offseason about how we're going to improve that.''

There hasn't been a clear face of the franchise since Chris Bosh patrolled the floor, and Vince Carter before him, and this season is no different.

The team will look to center Andrea Bargnani to provide a good chunk of its scoring. Bargnani was having a breakout season last year - and showed an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for defense - before a calf injury cost the team's leading scorer 35 games. The Raptors' season unraveled right along with him.

Bargnani and Valanciunas could make a formidable front court. The Raptors selected Valanciunas with their No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft, leaving him in Lithuania for a year of development. The 20-year-old, touted as the future of the franchise, definitely gives Raptors fans something to be excited about - rare athleticism for a big man coupled with a puppy-dog enthusiasm for the game.

Acquired from the Houston Rockets after a failed bid to land Canadian star Steve Nash, Lowry is expected to add heart and hustle to a Toronto team that hasn't enough of either in recent seasons. The 26-year-old, a vocal leader who will push his teammates, is expected to start ahead of veteran Jose Calderon, who will lead the second unit as one of the better backup point guards in the league.

Fields has been touted as Toronto's so-called ``glue guy.'' Out of Toronto's returning players, athletic swingman DeMar DeRozan, has polished his post-up game and along with Bargnani, will be a focal point of Toronto's offense. The 23-year-old remains among the weaker starters on the defensive end.

``DeMar's one of the most talented wings in the league and he's learning every day to be efficient,'' Casey said. ``He understands that, he's getting to the foul line, doing what we ask him to do, going in the low post.''

Toronto's three new starters have bumped players to the bench, which gives the Raptors' more depth than they've seen in a while. Calderon, Alan Anderson, Linas Kleiza, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis averaged 24 starts last year.

They're joined by hard-working guard John Lucas III, athletic rookie Terrence Ross and Dominic McGuire, a strong defensive player who was given the Raptors' final spot on their 15-man roster.

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T.J. Oshie says he was held out of the lineup longer than he wanted to be as a precaution

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T.J. Oshie says he was held out of the lineup longer than he wanted to be as a precaution

On Nov. 14, T.J. Oshie suffered a concussion on a hit from Josh Morrissey. The concussion sidelined him for nearly a month. He finally returned to the lineup Tuesday for a game against the Detroit Red Wings, but it sounds like he was medically cleared to return sooner.

During the team’s morning skate on Tuesday, Oshie revealed he had wanted to return a week sooner, but had actually been held out as a precaution.

“I've been good now for about a week and a half,” he said. “This is the longest [concussion] I've sat out. I wanted to play last week. We were pretty careful about it, and the guys that were in the lineup did an outstanding job of allowing them to give me that rest.”

This was the fifth documented concussion of Oshie’s career. While there is still much we do not know or fully understand about concussions and their effects on the brain, it certainly appears as if the severity of a concussion and concussion symptoms can worsen with successive injuries. As a result, the team’s medical personnel took no chances when it came to Oshie and held him out of play even after he was medically cleared to return.

“I felt good so what we did paid off,” Oshie said following Tuesday’s game. “It was an open conversation, a bunch of conversations between me and [Jason Serbus] our head medical trainer and really all our whole team of doctors. We went through it day by day. As it lingered on it was a couple of days by a couple of days and once I started feeling good they let me go. We took it slow and I got a week in of bag skates so legs-wise I felt pretty good out there. That was kind of the process for me.”

Oshie admitted there had been times in the past he thought he was ready to return, but it was clear after returning he had not fully recovered which could have been a factor in the team’s decision to be extra cautious.

“Every concussion's different. This one was different than all the last ones. It's really just not coming back until you're ready. I've had some where you think you're ready to play and you're pretty sure, maybe not 100 percent sure, and then a couple games in you get hit or your head hits something or whatever it is and you don't have a concussion but you have a headache now every time you get hit for sometimes a month or so.”

Oshie suffered a concussion last year after a hit from San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton. He returned to game action 15 days later, but did not look quite right initially and registered only a single point in his first seven games after returning.

If you believe the team’s decision to hold Oshie out had anything to do with that, however, Oshie disputes that notion.

“Last year I don't think I came back too quick,” he said. “I wasn't able to find ways to score, really. I was missing some passes that I normally don't miss. Everyone kind of jumps on the goal-scoring drought stuff, but I felt like I was doing a lot of good things away from the puck. I was keeping the puck out of our net and I was creating chances for teammates to score. It was a learning experience, but I felt like I was 100 percent when I came back last time.”

But why was it even necessary for the team to hold Oshie back? With his repeated history of concussions, not to mention his family’s history with Alzheimer’s, it may be surprising to some that Oshie had hoped to return earlier or that he wanted to return at all.

While the long-term effects of repeated concussions are still being studied and debated within the medical community, it is not a stretch to believe that repeated blows to the head can be detrimental to one’s health.

Oshie was asked if he felt concerned after suffering repeated concussions. His answer? “Not really.”

“I feel like when I go out there, if I get concerned about what's going to happen to me, I'm not going to play at the top of my game,” Oshie said. “Doesn't really concern me. I just kind of roll with the punches every day and if it does, it does. Hopefully it doesn't.”

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Roark is out, who could be in?

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Roark is out, who could be in?

LAS VEGAS -- Let’s strip the name and take a blank taste test. Wednesday, the Nationals sent an average of 197 innings out the door. That’s 591 outs. It’s not something to shrug off.

Trading Tanner Roark for a reliever, a minor-league one at that, extracts a path to almost 600 outs. The Nationals need to find a new one. Choices to do so aren’t very enticing.

They are back in the starting pitching market because of Roark’s regression the last two seasons coupling with an increase in pay. He’s expected to earn around $10 million out of salary arbitration. The Nationals are gambling they can find equal effectiveness through another starter -- or two.

There’s money to allocate now. It’s not much for the remaining upper tier of free agents. It’s sufficient to bring in someone on a one- or two-year deal and perhaps apply to a more versatile bench piece than a straight backup at first base.

Washington made Patrick Corbin the highest-paid pitcher this offseason. He was priority one. In a vacuum, he may not be worth six years and $140 million. But not all players carry the same value with every franchise. The Nationals had a clear need for another potent starter, and preferably a left-handed one at that. They received the combination with Corbin.

The challenge for the Nationals is handling this market after Charlie Morton and Lance Lynn complicated it. Morton signed a two-year, $30 million deal with Tampa Bay. Lynn received a three-year, $30 million contract from the Texas Rangers. If the Nationals didn’t want to pay Roark $10 million, they surely don’t want to pay another pitcher something near what Morton and Lynn received, even if it allows more control. Roark was entering the last year of his contract.

Dallas Keuchel remains atop the available starters. By WAR, the next-best available pitcher is 34-year-old Anibal Sanchez. He put together what appears to be an outlier season in 2018 following three consecutive years of significant regression. Sanchez’s ERA-plus went 80, 73, 70 before spiking to 143 last season, the third-best mark of his 13-year career. Sanchez has also averaged just 138 innings pitched on average the last four years. That’s a lot of outs between the workload Roark handled and Sanchez has as he heads into his age-35 season.

Next on the list by WAR? Gio Gonzalez. Moving on.

After that? Not much inspiration. Left-hander Wade Miley pitched well in just 16 starts last season. He has a carer 4.26 ERA. Miley has not put together a strong full season since 2013.

Matt Harvey? Trevor Cahill? Clay Buchholz?

Brett Anderson? James Shields? Jason Hammel?

These are not exactly places to hang your hat.

However, the Nationals have little choice. Their solution to replace Roark’s outs will come from outside the organization. Depth at Triple-A Fresno is negligible. Options in Double-A to help the rotation now are non-existent.

They have one intriguing pitcher lurking: Henderson Alvarez. The Nationals signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

“Chance to make the team, if not, to pitch in Triple A for us,” Mike Rizzo said of his outlook on Alvarez.

Alvarez threw a no-hitter in 2013. He was an All-Star in 2014. Shoulder surgery was followed by shoulder discomfort, then another shoulder surgery. Alvarez didn’t pitch in 2016. He started three games for Philadelphia in 2017. He then pitched in the Mexican League in 2018, where he finished with 4.60 ERA in nine starts. The wildest of wild cards here.

Washington has also kept an eye on Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who is available through posting system.

Somewhere, they need to find another 180 innings.

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