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A's gear up for new season with added expectations

A's gear up for new season with added expectations

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Center fielder Coco Crisp strutted back into the Bay Area with puffed-up hair and a retro-style beard. Red-headed right fielder Josh Reddick slicked back his locks and added even more inches to his bushy beard as part of an ongoing competition. General manager Billy Beane still had his hair combed clean but picked ``a terrible time,'' he said, for a sun spot to be removed from his nose.

The Oakland Athletics are back, and with plenty of new looks.

In front of a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 fans at neighboring Oracle Arena, players and coaches returned to Oakland on Sunday to drum-up support before heading to spring training in a few weeks. FanFest, the meet-and-greet event the team canceled for three years until holding it again last January, swelled with so much support the team had to turn people away.

After an improbable run to the AL West title last season, attention on the low-budget club could be greater this summer. Unlike a year ago, the A's aren't sneaking up on anybody.

``It's better than having no expectations,'' Beane said.

Players said they started to realize their newfound fame during the offseason.

Reddick spent time back home in southeast Georgia. He bought his first house in Guyton, Ga., and a new English Bulldog named Murray - after Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.

``Felt like it was right,'' he joked.

Reddick said people recognized him more no matter where he went, and he even hosted his first charity event - a home-run derby to support his hometown of Rincon, Ga. Same went for several other players, whether they stayed in Northern California or returned to home for the shortened down time.

All of it was the result of Oakland's surprising success.

The A's played a video montage to start FanFest that highlighted the improbable run: They finished 94-68, capturing the AL West title on the final day of the regular season over Texas for the franchise's first playoff berth since 2006 and became the only team in major league history to win a division or pennant after trailing by five games with fewer than 10 to play.

After losing the first two games in the division series at Detroit, the A's rallied at home to force a decisive Game 5 at the Coliseum, where Tigers ace Justin Verlander pitched a four-hitter in a 6-0 victory.

``Expectations haven't changed,'' Reddick said. ``We have firm belief we can do it again this year.''

Reigning AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin grabbed a microphone on stage following the video and team introductions. He quieted the roaring crowd of A's fans and took a few seconds to savor the moment before asking, ``What's up Oakland?''

Typical Bo-Mel, as players call him.

``My job is to get everybody with the right mindset, the right focus, knowing that we have to try to build on last year, create the momentum, understand what we did last year but know that each and every year is separate,'' Melvin said later. ``And that we have to work even harder, focus just as much, not worry about the distractions, outside things, whether that's expectations or anything like that and just focus on what we were good at last year in playing for that day.''

Creating the same clubhouse atmosphere could be tough.

The A's playoff berth came with a payroll of $59.5 million - lowest in the majors - and 12 rookies. They did it with significant injuries to their starting pitchers, and they did it after losing right-hander Bartolo Colon to a 50-game suspension in August for a positive testosterone test. Oakland then re-signed him in November.

Most of the team remains intact, with the notable exceptions of outfielder Jonny Gomes, pitcher Brandon McCarthy and shortstops Cliff Pennington and Stephen Drew. The A's dealt Pennington to Arizona in October in a three-team trade for outfielder Chris Young. Melvin said Young will be part of a five-man rotation - that includes designated hitter - with Reddick, Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith.

Crisp and Reddick, the team's most vocal leaders left, said this year's club will have to find its place. Some of the bonding even started at FanFest. New Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima said Young taught him his favorite new American idiom: ``For real?''

Crisp some changes might include tweaking the pie-in-the-face celebrations and the ``Bernie Lean'' dance that became staples last summer. He joked that Pee-Wee Herman's old routine is one possibility.

``Things are going to change up a little bit with our chemistry,'' Crisp said. ``I think that's the main thing, that's what made us so good last year was just our chemistry was perfect pretty much. That's going to be something we're going to have to work on in spring training and figure out our new identity.''

The A's once again will be underdogs in the AL West. The high-priced Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton away from hard-hitting Texas, and both division rivals could threaten Oakland's crown.

Players said money didn't matter last season, and they don't think it will this time around either.

``Other teams made a lot of improvements. That doesn't mean we can't have a similar or better season than last year,'' Cespedes said in Spanish. ``We just have to put in our heads that we're a good team together and to go out and enjoy the game. Don't put so much pressure on ourselves.''

The team's architect agrees.

``The one sort of narrative I never really bought into was that we snuck up on anybody last year,'' Beane said. ``I don't think you sneak up on somebody in 162 games.''

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

The first round of the NBA Draft played out expectedly for what the Wizards had planned for the night. In Troy Brown, they clearly got the guy they wanted all along, seeing as there were many interesting prospects they passed on to choose him.

The second round was a bit more chaotic. Team president Ernie Grunfeld said there were a few players picked just ahead of them at No. 44 that they had their eyes on. They contemplated trading up, but no perfect deals were presented.

So, they decided to think long-term, like really long-term. In choosing Ukrainian point guard Issuf Sanon, the Wizards understand it may be years before he plays in the NBA.

"We hope to have him developed in a few years," Grunfeld said.

Sanon, just 18, plays for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia. He may stay in Europe into his 20s before he comes to the United States.

The Wizards have utilized the draft-and-stash model with other players. Their 2015 second round pick, Aaron White, has been playing in Europe for the past three seasons.

Sometimes those players never convey and contribute for the Wizards. But sometimes they do and Grunfeld pointed to a player already on their roster as a model to consider.

"We drafted Tomas [Satoransky] at an earlier age, he went overseas [and] he played at the highest level and it got him ready for the NBA," Grunfeld said.

The difference between now and then is that the Wizards have a G-League franchise starting this fall, the Capital City Go-Go. Because of that, it seemed more likely going into the draft that the Wizards would use the second round pick on a guy who can play there right away. 

Grunfeld, however, opted for roster flexibility. By keeping Sanon in Europe, the Wizards can have another open roster spot. They could either fill that spot, or leave spots on the end of their roster open as they did for much of last season.

"We want to preserve a roster spot, so just because you draft someone in your second round, if you sign him, he still has a roster spot even if you let him play for the GoGo," Grunfeld said.

Sanon may have a bright future. He is a 6-foot-4 point guard with impressive athleticism who doesn't turn 19 until October. He said he models his game after Russell Westbrook, as a guard who can score the ball. More will be known about him once he plays for their summer league team in July.

The Wizards passed on several interesting prospects to pick Sanon. Still on the board were Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Hamidou Diallo of Kentucky and Svi Mykhailiuk of Kansas, three players they brought in for pre-draft workouts. But instead, they went with a long-term investment, hoping they found the next Satoransky.

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