Orioles

Chiefs line holding its own during miserable year

201211251244458525252-p2.jpeg

Chiefs line holding its own during miserable year

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Here's a situation that would send shudders through any head coach: Starting a rookie left tackle next to a rookie guard next to a center playing out of position, all against the NFL's best pass rush.

That's exactly what the Chiefs did last Sunday against Denver.

With left tackle Branden Albert out with an injury, and veteran guard Ryan Lilja now at center because of another injury, Kansas City's reshuffled line looked nothing like coach Romeo Crennel expected when he broke training camp a few months ago.

But lo and behold, with rookies Donald Stephenson and Jeff Allen starting alongside Lilja, the patchwork offensive line played well in a 17-9 loss to the Broncos, providing the shakiest of silver linings to the eighth straight loss in a season of misery.

``If they play with that kind of attitude and energy, like I tell them - that kind of energy and effort, that makes everything better for everybody,'' Crennel said.

The offensive line is rarely a sexy topic. Even more rarely is it the one thing that coaches, players and fans can feel good about.

Usually, those anonymous big guys up front are only singled out when they give up a sack, or get called for a penalty. When a running back breaks a long run, he's the one in the spotlight, not the guys prying open holes along the defensive line.

Or when a quarterback stands stoically in the pocket, surveying the field, and then delivers a perfect pass down the seam, the pass-catch combo gets all the love - certainly not the five guys up front who were sacrificing their bodies to give them enough time to make a play.

``Most of us are used to each other,'' right guard Jon Asamoah said. ``I'm used to Lilja and he's used to me. We're on the same tempo. I don't know. We spend so much time together, we've developed that through games and practice, things most people don't see.''

There are plenty of reasons why they're 1-10 and barreling toward one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and the offensive line has been part of the problem.

They've given up plenty of sacks, allowed pressure to force several fumbles in the pocket, and rarely created much running room for Jamaal Charles and Co.

It hasn't been entirely their fault, though.

Second-year center Rodney Hudson was poised to take over the position from veteran Casey Wiegmann, but he broke his leg in late September and landed on injured reserve. That forced Lilja, a career guard, to slide over to center.

Allen, the Chiefs' second-round pick out of Illinois, moved into the void that created at left guard. He got off to a rough start in the NFL, routinely blown back by bigger, quicker defensive tackles, but has started to hold his own over the past few weeks.

Stephenson, the franchise's third-round pick out of Oklahoma, got his when Albert hurt his back a couple of weeks ago. It was trial-by-fire against Cincinnati, but he performed well last week against Denver, holding its fearsome pass rush at bay most of the game.

The Broncos came into the game with a league-leading 35 sacks, but the only ones allowed by the Chiefs were to Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard, and only Woodyard's was for a significant loss.

``Yeah, Cincinnati, I was trying to feel it out,'' Stephenson said. ``This game, I knew that if I tried to go out there and try to feel it out and figure out how the game was going to go, I'd probably get my butt kicked, so I came out aggressive and knew I had to play hard.''

Stephenson said it helped to be able to practice with the first team all week, just as he's been doing this week with Albert still questionable for Sunday's game against Carolina.

``The more you prepare yourself through the week and how hard you practice, it kind of gives you more confidence,'' said Stephenson, who grew up in the Kansas City area.

``If you don't prepare right and you don't practice right, you have a right to go in there a little bit nervous, because you don't have confidence in what you did all week.''

NOTES: The Chiefs have several injury concerns this week. Lilja (knee) and Albert (back) did not practice Wednesday, along with Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali (knee), wide receiver Dexter McCluster (head/neck) and safety Kendrick Lewis (shoulder). ... The Chiefs released linebacker Bryan Kehl. Crennel said he expects to fill the roster spot later this week.

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

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

yusniel_diaz.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

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.

Quick Links

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

usatsi_10910276.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

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.