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James goes from spectator to contributor for 49ers

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James goes from spectator to contributor for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) LaMichael James has transformed himself from a rookie spectator forced to watch the first three months of the season to a key contributor to a Super Bowl team in a matter of weeks for the San Francisco 49ers.

After being inactive the first 12 games of the season, James has become an impact player for the 49ers in their run to the Super Bowl next week against Baltimore.

His long kickoff return set up the go-ahead score in a late-season win in New England. His experience running the zone read helped Colin Kaepernick rush for 181 yards in a win to open the playoffs against Green Bay. Then James got into the scoring act himself last week, starting San Francisco's comeback in a 28-24 win over Atlanta in the NFC championship.

``I had a lot to learn,'' James said. ``I'm still learning. I'm very blessed to be in the situation I'm in.''

Fresh off scoring his first professional touchdown in last week's win over the Falcons, James is finally fulfilling the expectations the Niners had for him after drafting him in the second round last April following a stellar college career at Oregon.

``From the first time he stepped on the field, he's been dynamic,'' coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Getting on the field was the hard part. James was inactive the first 12 games as he had to adjust to playing from a huddle after being part of Oregon's fast-paced offense for three years and to learn a much more extensive playbook than he was used to with the Ducks.

James dutifully worked at learning his craft, making his contributions as a scout team running back and receiver and soaking in whatever tips he could get from starter Frank Gore and running backs coach Tom Rathman.

``It was very different,'' James said. ``I'd never really been in a huddle until I was in high school. Actually, sitting in a huddle and then having to remember it - and not just run it - that was a little bit different for me, but it all works out.''

James got his chance after Kendall Hunter went down with a season-ending Achilles' injury in New Orleans on Nov. 25. The Niners needed a change-of-pace back to team with Gore and James proved to be a perfect fit.

James was helped by the fact that the Niners offense had changed a bit with the switch at quarterback to Kaepernick from Alex Smith, with the team using more of the read-option plays James was so proficient at in college.

``Once he started getting comfortable, we saw a dynamic football player,'' safety Donte Whitner said. ``It's a testament to him to be able to sit on the sideline and be on the developmental squad, as we like to call it, here for so long and actually knowing that you can play football. Actually coming from a big university, playing in a lot of big games, playing a lot of big games and being a big-time player, and having to sit out and be humbled like that, that's a testament to him and the character he has.''

James rushed for 5,082 yards and scored 58 touchdowns in three seasons for the Ducks, including 471 yards of offense and four touchdowns in two games against Stanford when Harbaugh ran the Cardinal.

Playing for a perennial title contender at Oregon has prepared James for the big stage of the NFL playoffs. He played in three BCS bowl games, including the national championship game against Auburn at the end of his second year in January 2011. He capped his college career by rushing for 159 yards and one touchdown in a 45-38 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin last January.

``I don't think there's too much difference from playing a BCS game at Oregon,'' James said of the NFL playoffs. ``I think it's really helped me out playing big games like these. It's second nature to me. I really don't think it's too big a deal.''

He has shown that so far, playing his best on the biggest stage. After making his debut against Miami on Dec. 9 with eight carries for 30 yards, James delivered his most important play of the regular season the following week in a prime-time game at New England.

He returned a kick 62 yards after New England rallied back from 31-3 down to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play as the Niners went on to the win that proved to be the difference in the NFC West race with Seattle.

The big plays have kept coming in the playoffs. He was the decoy on Kaepernick's 56-yard option keeper that gave San Francisco the lead for good two weeks ago in the 49ers' playoff opener against Green Bay.

He then had five carries for 34 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run that started the Niners comeback in Atlanta that has them preparing for the Super Bowl.

``He always has been a smart player,'' Gore said. ``First, coming in the offense was kind of different. Now the offense is similar to what he did in college. That helps him a lot.''

NOTES: LB Ahmad Brooks (shoulder) practiced for the first time this week. ... TE Garrett Celek (foot) is still sidelined.

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AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report

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The Orioles mishandled their search for a new general manager and still ended up with a home run hire

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The Orioles mishandled their search for a new general manager and still ended up with a home run hire

The Baltimore Orioles let a lame duck general manager engineer the most important trade deadline in recent franchise history, showed interest in some of the most uninspired executive candidates on the market, attended the GM Meetings without yet having a new GM, and somehow still managed to land the best possible candidate on the market. After spending months, if not years, digging deeper and deeper into a self-imposed hole, they figured out a way to come out smelling like roses.

It’s finally official. The Orioles have hired Mike Elias to as Executive Vice President and General Manager, and he’ll be given full autonomy to oversee all baseball operations. It’s a perfect fit.

For the first time in what feels like years, the Orioles are making a decision that’s been universally lauded.

Elias leaves the Houston Astros having played a key role in their long rebuilding process, a task that at the time seemed similarly daunting to the one in front of him in Baltimore. His experience with a “trust the process”-style rebuild is one of the reasons he is such a perfect hire for a team that lost well over 100 games and holds the top overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft.

Elias is young (35), intelligent (graduated from Yale), experienced (former scout with model organization St. Louis Cardinals and assistant GM for the 2017 World Series-champion Astros), and has a scouting background (oversaw player development and all minor league teams for Houston). If popular narratives are to be believed, Elias’ youth would imply that he is hungry to prove himself in his first GM job, and that he is analytically-inclined, as most young front office executives are in 2018.

That last point is crucial, as the struggles of the Orioles in 2018 have largely been attributed to a consistent lack of interest in modern analytics, research and development, and player development. The Astros have also been quite active in the international markets, and area the Orioles have famously avoided for much of their history, and the hire of Elias could mean the franchise is interested in joining the rest of baseball in mining talent from Latin America.

It’s also interesting to note the Astros’ nearly unprecedented success with starting pitchers, especially as it compares to the Orioles’ equally unprecedented lack of success in the same area. The Orioles, once proud employers of some of the best pitchers in baseball, haven’t properly drafted and developed a homegrown pitcher in decades. Chris Tillman and Erik Bedard have ranged from serviceable to impressive for short stints, but Mike Mussina (in the ‘90s!) is the last true ace to come through the Orioles system.

The Astros, on the other hand, have established themselves as the industry standard for pitching development in recent years, both with young draftees and with acquiring “retreads” from other teams, tweaking something about their repertoire, and enjoying the results.

It helps that the Astros play in one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball, but if Elias can bring to Baltimore any improvements for how to handle pitching staffs, that alone would make him worth the investment.

One point to emphasize from the official announcement is the public assurance that Elias will have full decision-making power in his role. Orioles ownership has a tough reputation around the league for being meddlesome and hamstringing their GM’s from operating as best they can.

If the announcement is to be believed (and frankly, it’s hard to imagine a rising star like Elias committing to the organization if he didn’t believe it himself), then this marks a sea change from how Peter Angelos has operated in prior seasons. His sons appear much more interested in letting the baseball people handle baseball things, and that’s cause for optimism for O’s fans.

They could have gone with the “tried and true.” They could have gone with the old-school. They could have gone with a baseball lifer. They could have gone with Ned Colletti.

No shots at Colletti, who by all accounts is a good administrative mind and a good man. But much like Buck Showalter is a terrific manager who was no longer the right fit in Baltimore, a GM of Colletti’s ilk is not what the Orioles franchise needs right now. 

Bringing in Elias, no matter the long and winding road that brought the Orioles to that decision, signals a changing of the guard in Baltimore. It signals a complete revamping of the way the front office operates. Everything from the process by which decisions are made, to how young talent is evaluated, to how modern analytics are applied to everything the franchise touches, is going to change under Elias. And, more likely than not, change for the better.

Make no mistake. This is a home run hire, and yes, pun very much intended. There’s finally cause for celebration in Birdland.

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

Despite their struggles in 2018, the Washington Nationals nearly came away with two major awards this season. Juan Soto, despite having the most impressive offensive season for a teenager in baseball history, finished a distant second behind Ronald Acuna in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Max Scherzer, despite becoming just the 17th pitcher ever to strike out 300 batters in a single season, fell to Jacob deGrom in the NL Cy Young race.  

So, who’s most likely to take home some hardware a year from now? Of course, any National could theoretically win a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger, but let’s focus on the big ones, which player is most likely to win, and who his biggest competition will likely be. We’ll go from most likely to the biggest longshots.

1. Max Scherzer, NL Cy Young

He may have fallen short this season, but Scherzer is pretty clearly still the National with the best chance of winning a major award next season. Sure, he’s already 34, and it’s not easy to predict when a pitcher will break down, but this is an arm that has defied conventional ideas of “wearing down.”

Scherzer’s biggest competition is the reigning winner deGrom, a potentially healthy Clayton Kershaw, a potentially healthy Noah Syndergaard, and Aaron Nola. Beyond them, a potentially healthy Stephen Strasburg could also find himself in the conversation. Noticing a pattern here? With so many injury-prone aces, health will almost certainly play a major role in this race.

Scherzer has won two of the last three Cy Youngs, and he undeniably pitched at a Cy Young-level in 2018 as well. The question is who else steps up in 2019 to challenge him?

2. Victor Robles, NL Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year awards are tricky. At the top of ballots, you often see the most highly-touted prospects in baseball. Acuna, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Jose Fernandez, and Bryce Harper all won in the National League in recent years. But you also have surprise rookies who come out of nowhere, either because it wasn’t expected that they’d be ready so soon (like Soto) or because they weren’t seen as top talents before their respective breakouts (like Aaron Judge).

Still, Robles’ pedigree and the potential opening in the outfield with Harper in free agency means the stars could be aligning for an awards push. Robles is one of the most talented prospects in baseball, and he’s proven himself enough in the minors to show he belongs. The only thing missing has been the opportunity, which is now right in front of him.

His competition likely will come down to a trio of young shortstops: Fernando Tatis, Jr., Nick Senzel, and Brendan Rodgers. Tatis is the most talented, but is younger and coming off an injury last season. Rodgers doesn’t have that one flashy elite skill to catch the eyes of voters. Senzel, however, already looks like a .300 hitter, and on a surprisingly decent Reds offense will probably be Robles’ biggest competitor.

3. Anthony Rendon, NL Most Valuable Player

No offense to Rendon, who has led the Nats in Wins Above Replacement in each of the past two seasons, but this is probably the choice that gives me the least confidence. He’s really, really good, but is he MVP-worthy?

The nice part about playing the National League is that there’s no Mike Trout or Mookie Betts to dominate MVP voting year in and year out. The downside is that means there are as many as a dozen hitters in any given season to compete with, plus pitchers like Kershaw and Scherzer who are strong enough to take votes away as well. Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Buster Posey are all stalwarts who will grab the attention of voters, not to mention the inevitable youngster who will pop up unexpectedly.

Rendon is well-rounded, underrated, and a truly valuable star worth keeping in Washington for many years to come, but his talents aren’t flashy enough to draw the attention of voters, there’s no strong narrative surrounding him winning, and while he plays on a good team, he’s not generally looked at as the most important piece on the roster. This one probably isn’t happening.

4. Dave Martinez, NL Manager of the Year

Those fans who weren’t exactly thrilled with Martinez’s performance in the dugout during Year 1 are probably going to laugh at the prospect of him winning Manager of the Year, but allow me to make the case.

Manager of the Year is never about the actual best manager in baseball. Frankly, there are far too many unknowns for writers to ever really identify who the best manager is. And managers of elite teams rarely get the credit they deserve. The guys who win are typically skippers of teams expected to be bad entering the season but end up making a surprise run to the playoffs. Think the Braves and A’s in 2018.

If the Nats bounce back and return to the playoffs in 2019, national writers will notice. Plus, if Harper leaves this offseason, the narrative will be there for Martinez to receive a ton of credit. It may not be accurate, but with this particular award, perception matters more than reality.

The Nats making the postseason again is a very realistic scenario, and if it happens, Martinez should at least get national consideration for the award.

5. Bryce Harper, NL Most Valuable Player (as a National)

Ahhhh, the fun one. Or, maybe, the tricky one.

Obviously, if Harper was guaranteed to return to the Nationals, he’d be much higher on this list, probably the top choice. Based on his pedigree and name brand, he’d at least be the clear favorite from the Nats roster to win MVP. And if the choice was simply that he’d win with any franchise, then he’d be higher as well, but knowing (or rather, not knowing) what we know right now? That makes this a tough one to place.

While I’d probably guess that he’s not coming back to Washington (it’s hard to imagine the team going too much higher than their already-rejected $300 million offer), it’s still definitely a possibility. And, if he does, we’ve already seen what an MVP season from Harper looks like. Strange as it is to believe, he’s only just now entering the age at which most MLB players hit their primes. The best may be yet to come for Bryce, so it comes down to whether or not you think he’s coming back.

If yes? This is the new number one. If not? Well, that’s why he’s a longshot.

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