Orioles

Steelers hoping to slow record penalty pace

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Steelers hoping to slow record penalty pace

PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Tomlin might be a perfectionist, but he's a realist too.

The Pittsburgh Steelers coach knows penalties are going to happen. He can tolerate mistakes - to a point anyway - and makes no excuses when he sees the flag fly.

It's just that he'd prefer not to see the yellow hankies in flight so often, which at the moment seems to be nearly all the time.

The Steelers (2-2), who have long prided themselves on their discipline, are playing like a team that doesn't have much. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in penalties per game (9.2) and penalty yards per game (86.5) and is on pace to shatter team records in both categories.

``In some instances we have some guys working hard and not necessarily smart,'' Tomlin said. ``Those things usually smooth themselves out as you push through the first quarter of the season.''

Maybe, but at this point there's nowhere to go but up heading into Thursday's game at Tennessee (1-4). While penalties were up across the league when the replacement officials were working, they've come back down to earth a bit since the regular referees returned to work.

Just not in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were flagged nine times for 106 yards in a 16-14 win over Philadelphia last week and were fortunate the repeated miscues didn't send them to their first two-game losing streak in three years.

Personal foul penalties on safeties Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy gave the Eagles 30 free yards on a third quarter touchdown drive that got Philadelphia back in the game and left guard Willie Colon's holding penalty on the first play of Pittsburgh's final possession - the fourth flag Colon drew on the day - pushed the Steelers all the way back to their 10.

Pittsburgh rallied behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger but the Steelers are well aware they don't have a ton of wiggle room as it is and handing out a football field's worth of penalty yardage a game isn't exactly good for business.

``They're just small mental errors,'' center Maurkice Pouncey said. ``It's a part of football. Sometimes it happens. That's something that we've got to tighten up if we want to be the team we want to be.''

Perhaps, but the truth is the Steelers have climbed the ranks of the most penalized teams in the league under Tomlin. Pittsburgh was one of the eight fewest penalized teams in the NFL in each of Bill Cowher's finals three years on the sideline.

Since Tomlin took over in 2007, the trend has reversed. The Steelers have been among the 10 most penalized teams three times over the last five seasons and barring a significant and immediate downturn will make it four out of six this fall.

The flags haven't stopped Pittsburgh from being one of the league's elite teams, but the club's margin for error is slimmer than ever. The Steelers are 0-2 on the road this year, including a 34-31 setback in Oakland last month in which the Raiders used a handful of Pittsburgh infractions to put together a spirited fourth-quarter comeback.

The Steelers insist they're not trying to develop a reputation, but they may have gotten one anyway. Linebacker James Harrison has enjoyed a steady stream of fines over the last three years while Mundy has already been docked $21,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Oakland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey that knocked Heyward-Bey out cold.

A second fine could be coming if league officials feel the 15-yard penalty Mundy received for slamming into Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin on Sunday wasn't sufficient.

If Harrison can be honest, however, he doesn't think either Mundy or Clark deserved a flag.

``Ryan (Mundy), didn't look like it hit helmet-to-helmet, but the guy made like he was hurt and if it looks like the guy is hurt, let's throw a flag and worry about it later,'' Harrison said.

The four-time Pro Bowler and former Defensive Player of the Year added he's not sure all teams are being treated equally, saying he frequently sees players from different teams commit similar acts. One player will get fined while the other avoids trouble altogether.

``I just think they need to display or execute the rules evenly across the board,'' Harrison said.

Cornerback Ike Taylor is a little more diplomatic, saying the referees have ``a tough job'' and that ``life ain't fair'' while nose tackle Casey Hampton says it's nearly impossible to avoid certain collisions.

``You try to hit a guy that's moving full speed and see if you're not going to hit him in the head every now and then,'' Hampton said. ``It's just part of this business, something you've got to work on. Not sure how much more you can do.''

What the Steelers know they have to do, however, is be on their best behavior. Colon, who switched from right tackle to left guard this season, admits he didn't make it difficult on the refs against the Eagles. He allowed his four holding calls were all pretty blatant and blamed his own poor technique and overaggression for drawing the attention of the umpire.

``I've got to do a better job,'' Colon said. ``If they're targeting me, I've got to give them a reason not to.''

Tomlin remains optimistic his team will fall back into the norm and while players like Colon can work on their form, Tomlin will never make his players apologize for playing hard.

``I'd rather say `whoa' than `sic'em,''' Tomlin said.

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

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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.

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

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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.