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A shocking pick at the top of the baseball draft

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A shocking pick at the top of the baseball draft

From Comcast SportsNet
SECAUCUS, N.J. (AP) -- Carlos Correa reached into his pocket as he strolled to the podium, pulled out a small Puerto Rican flag and waved it at the cheering crowd. The 17-year-old slugging shortstop had just made hometown history at the baseball draft, and the Houston Astros hope it's only the start of many big moments for the first No. 1 overall pick from Puerto Rico. "I was very surprised," Correa said Monday night at the draft site at MLB Network studios. "I was like, Is it a dream or is it true?'" Yep, it all actually happened. The handshake and hug from Commissioner Bud Selig. The big smiles in the Astros cap and jersey. The pride of an island that has produced its share of baseball royalty. "This means a lot," Correa said. "We've got a lot of good players there." And plenty have come from there, too: from Roberto Clemente and Ivan Rodriguez to Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado. While some of those signed as free agents, none has ever been the top pick in the draft. Catcher Ramon Castro had been the highest-drafted player out of Puerto Rico, going No. 17 to Houston in 1994. "I feel so excited to be the No. 1 pick," said Correa, who was congratulated by Delgado on Twitter. "I've worked so hard to be here." Correa was one of five players in attendance at the draft, but his introduction was far from the most entertaining. Texas high school outfielder Courtney Hawkins did a backflip -- after being prodded by a television reporter when a video was shown of him landing one -- a few moments after going No. 13 to the Chicago White Sox. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Hawkins, wearing a White Sox cap and jersey, spoke to general manager Kenny Williams right after he stuck his landing. "They said, Go do it,' so I went and did it," a smiling Hawkins said. "But Mr. Williams said: No more.'" Added Selig: "I hadn't seen one before, so it only goes to prove if you live long enough you'll see everything." While the NFL has a few dozen players show up for its draft, baseball has slowly made its event a place to be with the televised first round and major league representatives on hand -- just a few years after it once was held entirely by conference call. The five players in attendance this year were the most since the draft moved to MLB Network studios in 2009. "I hope we can work on that," Selig said. "The more people we can have here, the better I like it, you bet. Five is a good start, but we need to do better than that." Joining Correa and Hawkins were Oklahoma State lefty Andrew Heaney (No. 9, Marlins), Louisiana high school shortstop Gavin Cecchini (No. 12, Mets) and Washington high school catcher Clint Coulter, who went 27th to the Brewers. Heaney, a draft-eligible sophomore, had tears in his eyes after Miami selected him. Sitting with the other prospects in a makeshift dugout, Heaney headed over to shake Selig's hand and soon was wearing a Marlins cap and jersey. "That's about all that went through my mind is, Don't trip,'" a beaming Heaney said. While recent drafts lacked first-pick intrigue, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said the Astros didn't settle on Correa until about an hour before they went on the clock. Several mock draft lists predicted the Astros would select Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, but instead Houston made a somewhat surprising selection -- although Correa was considered one of the top five players available. Appel slid a few spots lower than projected, going to Pittsburgh at No. 8. The Pirates took UCLA righty Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 selection last year. It was the first time Houston had the top pick in the draft since 1992, when the Astros selected Phil Nevin -- passing on a young shortstop named Derek Jeter, who went five spots later to the Yankees. "I have read about that," Correa said, calling Jeter his idol as much for the New York captain's character off the field as on. "I want to be like him. He's awesome." Luhnow said the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Correa "has a chance to be a star" who could hit 20-30 home runs in the pros, whether it's as a shortstop or "ultimately maybe third base." Correa said he'd like to stay at shortstop, and he plans to use his signing bonus to help his family financially. The Santa Isabel native starred at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and is committed to the University of Miami, but is likely headed to Houston's farm system instead. With the second pick, Minnesota took speedy Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton, considered a five-tool player with a bat considered the best among all draft prospects. "Everybody talks about his athleticism," Twins scouting director Deron Johnson said. "He's got a really good swing. We think he's going to hit. We think he'll hit anywhere from No. 1 in the order to No. 3. Tremendous, tremendous upside." University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who has drawn comparisons to Jason Varitek for his leadership and ability to handle a pitching staff, was taken No. 3 overall by Seattle. "For me, my most important thing is I take pride in my defense," Zunino said. "Whether it's calling games, or receiving or blocking, that is what really defines me as a player." Baltimore went with LSU right-hander Kevin Gausman with the fourth pick, adding a potential ace to its system. Kansas City took University of San Francisco right-hander Kyle Zimmer, a converted third baseman, with the No. 5 overall pick. "He was the No. 1 pitcher on our board," said Lonnie Goldberg, the Royals' director of scouting. "I think everyone should know that. He's the guy we wanted." The draft opened with uncertainty about the talent -- many teams considered this crop of players weaker than recent groups -- and several significant rule changes in place. Under baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, teams will have a pool of bonus money from which to sign players. They'll also face a punitive tax and the possibility of losing draft picks if they go over the prescribed bonus total. If a player doesn't sign, the team loses the amount for that slot. Clubs now have until mid-July to sign draft picks, instead of the previous mid-August deadline. "Let's see how it works out," Selig said. "I am very optimistic. I think this will work out very well. And I think these are changes clearly helping the game." The first round and the initial compensation round were completed Monday night, with rounds 2 through 40 conducted through Wednesday via conference call.

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Bradley Beal not buying into off-court drama: 'All I do is come in here and work'

Bradley Beal not buying into off-court drama: 'All I do is come in here and work'

WASHINGTON -- Bradley Beal held court with reporters following Monday’s practice and hours after a report emerged on ESPN about the sliding Wizards are perhaps open for trade discussions involving all their players. Washington fell to 5-11 Sunday after an “embarrassing” loss. The team hoped by now the skid would stop. It hasn’t.
Neither would the use of a power tool near the Wizards practice court where Beal tried answering questions about the report and offering explanations for this shocking season. With rumors swirling – including one about a highly emotional practice - and highly caffeinated opinions everywhere, a significant question is how the Wizards handle such buzz.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m mad or frustrated or angry by it,” Beal said of the report. “All I can do is control what I can control, and that’s totally out of my control. I’ll allow [Wizards team president] Ernie [Grunfeld] and my agent [Mark Bartelstein] to deal with that. All I do is come in here and work, work my tail off every day and make sure we’re better and try to win ball games.”

Beal continued, as did the maintenance work.

“I mean, I’m not going to be naïve to it, you know,” Beal said of the report. “I have a phone just like everybody else does. There were rumors weeks ago. Then, I didn’t buy into them. Now, I’m still not going to buy into them because if that’s my main priority and focus then I’m going to be messed up on the floor.”

On cue, the power tool erupted. Beal, nodding in the direction of the worker joked, “I can’t control him.”

Opponents have largely controlled Washington, which ranks 29th in scoring defense. The Wizards entered this season something of an all-or-nothing team. There were reasons for optimism, namely Beal and fellow All-Star guard John Wall along with improved depth. This bunch also drew numerous skeptics following a frustrating 2017-18 campaign where team chemistry concerns mushroomed.

Experience from other slow starts since he joined Washington in 2012 helps Beal navigate such rough waters. There was a difference this time, an evident change in outlook provided by his son. “A different type of dribbling,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando earlier this month.

“[He] makes me realize basketball isn’t my life. I’ll drop basketball right now to take care of my son. That’s a no-brainer. It’s definitely put a lot of things into perspective for me.”

Beal, 25, led Washington in scoring last season while playing all 82 regular season games for the first time in his career. His work led to more national recognition, eyes opening around the league. New reality kicked in from all angles with the family’s new arrival.

“I think the biggest thing for me is embracing. Embracing who I am as a player. The position I’m in. The years I’ve put in. Being an All-Star. Being one of the best [players] and being a father now. Just embracing what all of that entails, good and bad,” Beal said.

The bad is now a daily headline. Monday it was the possibility of a team teardown. Most often, what’s wrong with the Wizards. Beal is here for now and perhaps the entire length of his career, though he grasps professional basketball is a business. Worlds may change overnight. Beal is trying to figure out how to fix things immediately.

Monday Beal cited past Wizards teams that stopped responding during slides. “You know what that feels like when you just show up every day and go through the motions. We don’t have that [now],” he said. What they have isn’t attitudinally enough even compared to last season’s frustrations.

“Last year we kind of had a little more sense of urgency,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando. “This year we’re a little too lax. We need to be more pissed off.”

Beal’s annoyance popped publically following a 116-112 loss at Sacramento on Oct. 26 by saying players on the court were letting personal “agendas” take over. The take wasn’t surprising, but Beal told NBC Sports Washington he wishes he could have skipped airing grievances through the media. 

The real takeaway from that moment was the recognition of a problem just five games into the season. The fix remains elusive. Beal leads Washington in scoring (21.5) and handles his business often, but like others at times can get caught up with watching on defense and making bad choices when the offense stagnates.

Finding solutions isn’t up to Beal alone yet he’s one of the clear team leaders. Part of Beal’s dilemma: How to lead when you’re not the only influential voice in the locker room.

“I’ve been struggling with that,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando. “It’s not about scoring points. … It’s like, OK, what more can I do to help us win? What am I not doing enough of? I don’t even point at my teammates necessarily first even if I’ve had a great game. It’s like what could I have done more? If that’s what I need to do than I have to do it.

“It is a little confusing. I’m still trying to figure it out, honestly. … It’s not just one thing. The biggest problem if you want to call it a problem is how do you turn around? Win. How do you win? You defend, you rebound, you play your style of basketball. I put a lot of that on my shoulders. If there’s more I can do I’m going to go do it.
It’s definitely something I’m in the process of figuring it out.”

That process is ongoing. The Wizards enter Thanksgiving week in unwanted territory. The new report of potential trades adds another element to the potentially combustible scene.

Beal understands the core group that reached the playoffs in four of the past five seasons might be broken up. He knows there’s little he can do other than play his game, practice with passion and, when home, raise his son with joy. The drama and the outside noise isn’t for him.

“All the behind the scenes stuff, I don’t like worrying about it,” Beal said Monday. “I don’t like consuming my energy with it because basketball is my muse. This is my place of peace, my happy place. If that’s going to be taken away from me, then I’ll be totally messed up. I can’t allow rumors and the possibility of [changes] affect what I do on the floor. At the end of the day, it is a business. [Ernie] has a job. He’s protecting himself. He’s protecting the organization. Nobody can be mad at that.”

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

Mike Rizzo is wading through the offseason with two separate to-do lists. One covers everything Bryce Harper and the other three distinct gaps in his roster: catcher, second base and the third spot in the starting rotation.

The Harper list will ultimately be decided by ownership. Rizzo wants him back. It’s up to the Lerner family how much they are willing to spend on a return. They were the decision-makers on Max Scherzer’s contract. They will again be so with Harper, weighing many of the same things he will, such as legacy, winning and off-the-field futures.

The other list is more mundane. However, it may be more important. The Nationals have multiple quality solutions if Harper signs elsewhere. And no matter where he ends up, they needed to work on the secondary list. Monday, the Nationals reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with catcher Kurt Suzuki, making headway there. So, let’s first take a look at second base before checking on the third rotation spot later in the week:

The in-house option: Split time between Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick

Rizzo told reporters at the general manager meetings he felt good about using the above combination to take care of second base next season. Kendrick would, theoretically, provide a steady bat. Difo would, theoretically, provide athleticism the lineup needs and solid defense at a spot where it did not exist the last three seasons with Daniel Murphy.

The platoon line appears clean: Kendrick would be a right-handed option, Difo, though a switch-hitter, a left-handed choice since he is better against right-handed pitching. Difo could also carry more of the load early in the season assuming the Nationals slow play Kendrick in his age-36 season when coming back from an Achilles tendon tear. Nationals medical staff informed Kendrick he would be “back to normal” if he followed the post-surgery protocols.

“And that’s very refreshing to hear something like that, especially if you have an injury of this caliber,” Kendrick told me in September. “Years ago, it might not have been the same. But now with the advancement of technology and the way they do surgery I feel really confident I’ll be back to normal and playing. Just the process, I’ve got to stick with the process and trust it. “Mentally, I really don’t have a problem with it. I know it just takes time because I’ve had injuries before. So, it’s like, all right, just follow the protocol and I’ll be where I need to be when it’s time.”

Kendrick is doing most of his rehabilitation work at Banner Health in Tempe, Arizona. The facility is just down the road from his house. It also allows him to work with physical therapist Keith Kocher, who Kendrick knows from his time with the Los Angeles Angels. Kocher also knows Nationals director of athletic training Paul Lessard and athletic trainer Greg Barajas. Barajas previously worked for Kocher.

Difo, entering his age-27 season, is nearing the end of the line with the organization. He had just a .649 OPS last season in 408 at-bats. There’s little to indicate an offensive uptick is forthcoming. Both he and Kendrick, who will become a free agent, are likely gone after this season.

Should the Nationals choose this platoon path, they would have to live with Difo’s lack of offense and occasional in-field brain freezes. Davey Martinez likes to hit him ninth when he plays, bumping the pitcher in front of him. He would like Difo to calm his swing and have a more measured approach at the plate.

Relying on Kendrick following the injury is a gamble. But, this pair is an option if the organization believes everything else is in place. A team .723 OPS at the position would qualify for middle of the National League pack last season. Kendrick and Difo combine for a .703 career OPS.

The free agent choices: Old, but reliable

Two of the six Gold Glove finalists at second base in 2018 are on the market. Jed Lowrie, who reinvented his offensive effectiveness during the last two seasons, and DJ LeMahieu, who won his third Gold Glove this year.

LeMahieu is the top option for the Nationals if they want to make a hefty investment. He’s 30 years old, a two-time All-Star, the league’s best defender at the position and the 2016 National League batting champion (hello, Coors Field: .391 at home and .303 on the road that season).

What’s interesting is his career OPS-plus, which is adjusted for a hitter’s park, is well below that of Kendrick. Kendrick has a 107 career OPS-plus, LeMahieu 92. And Kendrick didn’t earn the gap only earlier in his career. He put together a 118 OPS-plus in 2017 when being used properly by both the Phillies and Nationals in a reduced role. However, LeMahieu would be a significant fielding upgrade for a team that needs to be better at cutting 90 feet here, 90 feet there from the opposition.

Lowrie is going into his age-35 season. He delivered two of the top seasons of his career in the last two years. Both earned a 120 OPS-plus. He’s shown more power and more patience at the plate. The question is how much to pay him for those last two seasons, the usual paying-for-past-performance risk. The significant dips in Lowrie’s average and slugging percentage following the All-Star break last season can be viewed as red flags.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Murphy are also among the lot available. None are getting younger.

The trade options: Limited.

To reiterate: Limited. First, the Nationals’ assets have dwindled in recent years. Second, Carter Kieboom could be ready to play second in 2019 if he is still in the organization. Third, there’s no reason to burn an asset to fill this spot now.

A recommended path

Signing Suzuki will help patch catcher. Another move is likely coming there. Perhaps a second low-cost veteran. Remember, the Nationals allotted roughly $11 million to the position last season. Suzuki will cost half that, which leaves room for further investment without increasing the year-over-year payroll in regards to the Competitive Balance Tax. The salary cost stays the same, the tax threshold rises, you find savings at that spot.

Resolving the catcher position, at least in part, delivers second base as one of the few remaining uncertain spots on the roster. Which in turn provides the Nationals wiggle room when making a decision this offseason. So, the recommendation is to stick and wait. Shoring up this spot could be a move for July or even August at a much lower cost. In the interim, the Difo-Kendrick platoon is surrounded by enough current talent to hover near league average without being a significant hole.

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