Wizards

BJ Upton, Braves finalize $75.25M, 5-year deal

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BJ Upton, Braves finalize $75.25M, 5-year deal

ATLANTA (AP) Jason Heyward was in the audience as B.J. Upton was introduced Thursday as Atlanta's new centerfielder.

That made manager Fredi Gonzalez smile as he realized he didn't have to worry so much about finding the third starter in his outfield.

``Shoot, we may not even need a left fielder,'' Gonzalez said. ``With him playing center and Jason, who just won a Gold Glove, in right, it's going to be fun watching these guys cover some ground in the outfield.''

Upton was given a No. 2 Braves jersey after finalizing a $75.25 million, five-year contract - the biggest ever given a free agent by the franchise. He gets a $3 million signing bonus payable by Dec. 31 and salaries of $12.45 million next season, $13.45 million in 2014, $14.45 million in 2015, $15.45 million in 2016 and $16.45 million in 2017.

The 28-year-old spent his first eight big seasons with Tampa Bay. He hit .246 with 28 homers, 78 RBIs and 31 steals this year and replaces Michael Bourn in center. He is not expected to fill Bourn's role as a leadoff hitter.

Braves general manager Frank Wren said adding a right-handed hitter gives more balance to a lineup that includes left-handed hitters Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and Heyward. Wren said the right-handed power from a centerfielder made Upton especially attractive.

``It's one thing to have a leadoff hitter, which has been great for us, having that true leadoff hitter,'' Wren said, referring to Bourn. ``We feel like we can find that or create that. But to get someone who can play center field at (Upton's) caliber and can also hit 20 to 30 home runs, that's a different dimension. We felt like that would really add to our offense and make our offense deeper.

``We were so left-handed dominant over the last number of years,'' Wren added. ``Now to be able to better balance our lineup left and right, that was something we felt could really enhance our team.''

Martin Prado is expected to move from left field to replace the retired Chipper Jones at third base. Wren said he believes third base is Prado's best position, but he said Prado's versatility gives the team options during talks at next week's winter meetings.

``It narrows our focus a little more, whether it's leadoff or left field or that combination,'' Wren said. ``Martin Prado can continue to play left field ... and he can go to third base, so we have some flexibility with the way our roster is constructed.''

Wren said internal options in the search for a new leadoff hitter include Prado and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who hit .289 as a rookie.

Upton, also courted by Philadelphia, said he was won over when he visited the Braves on Nov. 15. Gonzalez, Wren and former manager Bobby Cox were part of the Braves' welcoming committee.

``I came in on that trip and really never felt like that before,'' Upton said. ``They really made me feel like I was part of the Braves family. ... Bobby was great. It feels like I've known him for years. These guys, they got me. There's no other way to put it. They had me when I came here and I left and I felt really good about it.''

Upton's home run totals have increased in each of the last three seasons, but he has hit below .250 with more than 150 strikeouts in four straight years.

Upton said his goal is to hit ``better than I've been the last three or four years.''

``I expect a lot out of myself,'' he said. ``I felt, yeah they were OK years, decent years, but I think I can be a lot better. Hopefully I can get the batting average up and cut down on the strikeouts and other than that continue to do what I'm doing.''

Bourn hit .274 with 42 stolen bases this year but he had 155 strikeouts, almost as high as Upton's 169. The Braves believe Upton's big advantage in power over Bourn, who hit only nine homers, more than makes up for the additional strikeouts.

Wren said losing a first-round draft pick to Tampa Bay was not a factor because the team will gain a similar selection when Bourn signs elsewhere.

``The first-round pick we'll pick up for Bourn will be somewhere in the 26-to-30 range and we lost like the 26th pick,'' Wren said. ``So it's negligible, probably within five picks of each other. It won't really be a difference at all. That's the projection we have now.''

Heyward, who had 27 homers and 21 stolen bases this season, said adding a similar power-speed player in Upton is ``awesome'' for the team.

``He's able to do some things you have to worry about on the offensive and defensive side of the ball,'' Heyward said.

Upton won't be the only star in the Braves' lineup, but he'll be in the spotlight, thanks to the big contract.

``I hope there's no added pressure, but I've dealt with things like that in the past,'' he said. ``I know what's expected of me. I won't put any added pressure on myself. I'll just go out and do what I can to help this team win.''

Upton's parents and agent, Larry Reynolds, attended the news conference. Upton said his brother, Arizona outfielder Justin Upton, wanted to join the family but couldn't make travel arrangements.

B.J. Upton said playing with his brother ``has been a big, big topic of conversation'' for the two.

``Obviously he's under contract for three years,'' Upton said. ``Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it going to happen? We don't know.''

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2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

To wrap up the 2017-18 season, we are looking at each player on the Wizards' roster. Today, we evaluate Jodie Meeks' season...

Player: Jodie Meeks

Position: Shooting guard

Age: 30

2017-18 salary: $3.3 million

2017-18 stats: 77 G, 14.5 mpg, 6.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.1 bpg, 39.9 FG%, 34.3 3P%, 86.3 FT%, 49.1 eFG%, 111 ORtg, 112 DRtg

Best game: 11/29 at Sixers - 21 points, 4 rebounds, assist, steal, 5-for-11 FG, 3-for-6 3PT, 8-for-9 FT

Season review: The Wizards took a flier on Jodie Meeks last summer in what seemed at the time to be a low-risk contract with a potentially high reward, if he could stay healthy and play to his career norms. They were in obvious need of help at backup shooting guard and three-point shooting for their bench.

Meeks fell short of those expectations for a variety of reasons. Though he stayed healthy for the first time in years, he could not make shots at the clip the Wizards were hoping for. His field goal percentage was not far off from what he posted in recent years, but his three-point percentage was nowhere near the 38.8 percent he shot in his previous four seasons.

Meeks bottomed out midseason, shooting 28.9 percent from three in December and 28 percent in January. Those numbers ticked up beginning in February, but Meeks never fully gained the trust of his coaching staff. He rarely got hot enough to alter games and his best stat-lines often came in blowouts. 

There was a domino effect from Meeks' struggles, as starting shooting guard Bradley Beal had no one to spell him. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any NBA player this season.

For Meeks personally, it was a bittersweet year because staying healthy was no small feat. He had a run of bad luck and finally broke out of it this season. On the other hand, he never made the impact he felt he was capable of and that wasn't easy for a guy joining a new team and a new locker room.

Meeks' 2017-18 season was ultimately defined by more than his shooting woes. First, he expressed interest in a trade in February and did not get his wish. Then, he was suspended for allegedy using performance-enhancing drugs after the regular season ended. He was out for the playoffs and will miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season without pay as he waits out a 25-game ban.

Meeks may or may not serve that suspension as a member of the Wizards. He has a player option for next season worth $3.5 million. He has yet to inform the team of his decision, but the expectation is that he will pick it up. Given how poorly his season went and ended, it would likely be the smart move financially for him to opt in and hope for better results next season.

Potential to improve: Shooting percentage, perimeter defense, passing

More player season reviews:

John Wall, PG

Bradley Beal, SG

Otto Porter, SF

Markieff Morris, PF

Marcin Gortat, C

Kelly Oubre, Jr., SF

Tomas Satoransky, PG

Ian Mahinmi, C

Ty Lawson, PG

Tim Frazier, PG

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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

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