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2014 Redskins Offseason: Five Takeaways On Defense
by Al Galdi
Jul 24, 2014 -- 2:18pm
Robert Griffin

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

1. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, like RGIII, appears liberated

Our ESPN 980 Redskins insider Chris Russell has spoken about how former head coach Mike Shanahan at times dictated to Haslett how to call his defense: zone as opposed to man coverage, focus on stopping the run before anything else, etc.  Haslett on multiple occasions this offseason has essentially said that he will now play his players to their strengths, clearly implying that that was not the case in the past.  Haslett’s entering his fifth season as the Redskins’ defensive coordinator, and the defense has been a problem to some extent in each of his first four seasons with the team.  

I do believe that Shanahan did get in Haslett’s way to the detriment of the defense at times, but I’m also not naïve enough to believe that, as with the RGIII-Shanahan relationship, the problems were all on the now-fired head coach.

What’s maybe most interesting about the Redskins’ defense is the extent to which players from a bad unit were re-signed.  There are 32 teams in the NFL.  The Redskins in 2013 finished:
     •    31st in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.04)

     •    Tied for 30th in the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (29.9)

     •    29th in lowest opponents’ fourth-down conversion percentage (12-for-17 or 70.6 percent)

     •    26th in yards after contact allowed

     •    11th out of 16 NFC teams in takeaways (26)

     •    Tied for 21st out of 32 NFL teams in sacks (36)

And yet the Skins re-signed the following defensive players this offseason: linebackers Brian Orakpo, Perry Riley Jr. and Rob Jackson, defensive lineman Chris Baker, corners DeAngelo Hall and E.J. Biggers and safety Brandon Meriweather.  

The implication seems pretty clear: the head coach and the scheme were more responsible for last season’s bad defense than the actual players.  We shall see.   


2. This is a show-me season for Orakpo

He’ll be playing on a one-year, $11.455 million franchise tender, which he signed on March 27 off being franchised on March 3.  Orakpo maintains that he’s worth a big-money, long-term contract.  It’s telling, though, that after five seasons the Redskins still haven’t given him that deal (the deadline for a longer-term contract for this season came and went on July 15).   

Orakpo’s career sack and turnover totals scream that he is a good but not great pass rusher.  He’ll supposedly have a chance to rush the passer more this season as opposed to being asked to do things (pass coverage) that weren’t his strengths.  This is where the veracity of the Shanahan-restricted-Haslett claim becomes so key.


3. How worried should we be about the Redskins’ biggest free-agent defensive signing?

We learned on June 18 that defensive end Jason Hatcher was to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and miss four to six weeks.  He turned 32 on July 13.  The Redskins signed Hatcher to a reported four-year deal with $10.75 million guaranteed on March 14.  That’s not big money, but it’s decent money, and it’s for a player who the Redskins are counting on to be starter on a defensive line that needs to generate more push.  

Eight of Hatcher's career-best 11 sacks last season came against the NFC East.


4. Keenan Robinson has emerged as the leading candidate to replace London Fletcher as a starting inside linebacker

Two things make this surprising:
     1)    Robinson has not played in a regular-season game since the Thanksgiving win at Dallas in 2012.  He suffered a season-ending torn right pectoral muscle in that game and then suffered a season-ending torn left pectoral muscle on Day 1 of training camp in 2013.

     2)    The Redskins signed a number of inside linebackers this offseason, including Darryl Sharpton, Adam Hayward and Akeem Jordan (all three of whom, by the way, are said to be quality special-teams players).

Robinson is a 2012 fourth-round pick.  He and offensive lineman Tom Compton are what the Redskins obtained via the 2012 fourth-round pick acquired from Oakland for quarterback Jason Campbell in April 2010.


5. Haslett early in the offseason revealed a surprising and important stat

He in February said on multiple shows, including Inside The Locker Room on ESPN 980, that the Redskins were in nickel 62 percent of the time in 2013.  This once and for all should end the debate of the 3-4 vs. the 4-3.  The significance of a team’s base defensive alignment is overrated, especially in a pass-happy NFL in which teams are playing nickel more often.


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2014 Redskins Offseason: Five Takeaways On Offense
by Al Galdi
Jul 23, 2014 -- 2:51pm
Robert Griffin

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

1. The good regarding RGIII: he seems happy and healthy

Quarterback Robert Griffin III seems to genuinely like new head coach Jay Gruden, who has made it a point to say that he’s going to consult with RGIII on what plays are called.  Yes, the two are in the honeymoon stage of their relationship, but this is refreshing given the toxicity of the RGIII-Mike Shanahan relationship.

The most encouraging aspect of RGIII’s offseason is that the brace is off his right knee and, per ESPN 980’s Chris Cooley (who threw with RGIII in the offseason), he looks very good from a mobility standpoint.  “How good?” of course is the question, but it’s important to remember that the brace impeded RGIII’s speed last season in addition the actual recovery from surgery, and him being “just fast” in 2013 as opposed to “electrifyingly fast” as he was in 2012 was a big issue last season.  Speed can help to cover up a lot of blemishes.


2. The bad regarding RGIII: he couldn’t help himself on multiple occasions

RGIII’s cryptic comments of the 2013 offseason were a major part of his dysfunctional relationship with Shanahan, who himself made a number of mistakes.  This has been a quieter offseason, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some eye-brow-raising comments from RGIII:

April 2014 - RGIII, in an interview with CSN Washington, described what #TheMovement means: “We’ll actually get a chance to play the brand of football that we want to play, determined by the players, and coach Jay Gruden’s gonna allow us to do that.  So whenever you see me tweet #TheMovement, it’s just saying, “What is the movement?  What do we want to be known for?   And I’ve talked to my teammates about it.  We decide what our identity is.  We’re gonna play whatever kind of brand of football that we want to play, and that’s part of our movement, and we’re excited about presenting that to the fans this upcoming season.  And we can’t promise many things.  We can’t promise how many wins or how many losses, but we can promise you this: It’s gonna be exciting.”

July 2014 - RGIII, in an interview with FOXSports.com, said, "What I think is going to help us most this year is that everybody in that building is going to be for us being successful and for us winning.  There are no ulterior motives.  That will be great.  Jay has been phenomenal.  (President and general manager) Bruce Allen has done great job of getting the right guys in that locker room.  I tip my hat to them.  They have given us everything we need to be successful.  We're going to work our butts off for them."

July 2014 – RGIII, in an interview on a local radio station, said, “I called [quarterback guru] Terry [Shea], because he was the guy that was there with me when I first came out, to get drafted and work on my craft.  So he was a guy that I knew had my best interest at heart.  And he knew what I looked like beforehand, before the injury and before some of the mechanical things that I was asked to change.”

Even if RGIII was right in what he was saying in each of these interviews, taking not-so-subtle shots at Shanahan and perhaps others only makes RGIII look petty and small.  Does that matter when it comes to how he plays this season?  No, but it’s unnecessary and perhaps reveals a lack of self-awareness, which is something that could impact how he plays this season.

Bottom line though, RGIII is a phenomenal talent who works hard and is only two years removed from a historically-successful rookie season.  Just because he may be flawed personally (and by the way, how many of us weren't at 24?) doesn't mean he can't get back to being great.


3. The Redskins have, on paper, their best receiving corps since The Posse

Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts of course have a long way to go before being viewed as favorably as Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders were.  But the Redskins haven’t had a top-three at receiver this good since the early 1990s.


4. The Jackson signing is a risk worth taking given the cost

There are many reasons to worry about Jackson as a Redskin, including 1) Even if the alleged gang-ties angle was overblown, why was Philadelphia willing to release him given that he was coming off a career season? and 2) Why didn’t his former head coach, current Kansas City head coach Andy Reid, decide to sign Jackson?  

That said, Jackson signed a reported two-year deal with $16 million guaranteed.  That’s less guaranteed money than Miami’s Mike Wallace ($30 million), Seattle’s Percy Harvin ($25.5 million) and Minnesota’s Greg Jennings ($17.8 million) have received in recent years, and I would take Jackson over any of those other guys.


5. Change has come for the offensive line, but will it be better?

The Redskins had two major offensive-line signings in free agency (guard Shaun Lauvao and guard/center Mike McGlynn), drafted two offensive linemen in the third round (tackle Morgan Moses and guard Spencer Long) and on March 14 released center Will Montgomery.

The hope is that moving Kory Lichtensteiger from left guard to center and inserting Lauvao (who reportedly signed a four-year deal with $5 million guaranteed) at left guard will fortify the interior, which was the problem last season (right tackle Tyler Polumbus likely graded as the Redskins’ second-best offensive linemen after left tackle Trent Williams according to Cooley, contrary to what many believe).  But right guard Chris Chester is coming off a bad season, too.

Backups like Josh LeRibeus (who is in much better shape this year as opposed to showing up overweight last season), Maurice Hurt, Adam Gettis and Tom Compton may be factors, but it’s telling that they haven’t received much playing time the last two seasons.

Another thing to keep in mind: the Redskins have enjoyed incredible health along their offensive line the last two seasons, with just one missed game by a starter (Polumbus didn’t play in the Week 16 win at Philadelphia in 2012 due to a concussion).  Will such a remarkable run of health continue in 2014?


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Five Takeaways From The Nationals Taking Two Of Three Against Milwaukee
by Al Galdi
Jul 21, 2014 -- 3:39pm
Bryce Harper

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Game 1: 4-2 loss on Friday night (July 18)

Game 2: 8-3 win on Saturday night (July 19)

Game 3: 5-4 win on Sunday afternoon (July 20)


1. The offense was great


The Nats batted .327 (35-for-107) in the series, including 8-for-30 with runners in scoring position.

Center fielder Denard Span went 7-for-13 with a walk in the series.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman went 6-for-12 with five RBI in the series.

Left fielder Bryce Harper, debuting a new stance (less bend in his knees, hands held lower and relaxed left elbow so it pointed at the ground behind him), went 5-for-10 with two walks in the series.

Right fielder Jayson Werth had a walk-off double in Game 3 and went 5-for-12 with a walk in the series.


2. Werth’s walk-off double highlighted more than just himself

Second baseman/third baseman Anthony Rendon scored from first on Werth’s walk-off double in Game 3, calling to attention an underrated positive for the Nats this season.  They exited this series second in the National League (behind the Brewers) with an extra-bases-taken percentage (XBT%) of 45 according to BaseballReference.com (http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL/2014-baserunning-batting.shtml).  

XBT% is the percentage of the time a runner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double when possible.  XBT% is another way of measuring base-running in addition to stolen-base percentage, a category, by the way, in which the Nats exited this series first in the N.L. (50-for-59 or 85 percent).


3. We got good, mediocre and bad outings when it came to the starting pitching

Stephen Strasburg had a prototypical Strasburg outing in Game 1: a lot to like statistically (nine strikeouts in seven innings, just four hits and one walk allowed) but ultimately just enough bad to lose (four runs, made up of a solo homer in the first, a solo homer in the second and a two-out two-run single in the third).

Tanner Roark was terrific in Game 2, allowing one run in seven innings.

Gio Gonzalez struggled in Game 3, lasting just 3 1/3 innings and giving up three runs on four hits and three walks versus five strikeouts on 88 pitches.  Gonzalez was dealing with some unique circumstances, as he 1) was coming off the All-Star break and 2) had his start pushed back one day after flight issues caused a delay in his return to D.C.   


4. The bullpen continued to excel with the exception of two outings

Closer Rafael Soriano had a rare off game this season, giving up a run on two singles and a walk in the top of the ninth of Game 3 for his third blown save.  But also in that game were Craig Stammen, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard combining for six strikeouts in 4 2/3 scoreless innings.

Jerry Blevins gave up a two-run homer to right fielder Ryan Braun in the top of the eighth on Game 2.


5. On the road again

Next up for the Nats is a nine-game road trip that is comprised of three three-game series at three teams (Colorado, Cincinnati and Miami) in three different divisions.

The Nats this season are a respectable 23-23 on the road versus 30-20 at home.


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Five Takeaways From The Orioles Losing Two Of Three At Oakland
by Al Galdi
Jul 21, 2014 -- 3:38pm

Game 1: 5-4 loss on Friday night (July 18)

Game 2: 8-4 win on Saturday afternoon (July 19)

Game 3: 10-2 loss on Sunday afternoon (July 20)


1. The starting pitching was good in Game 1 but bad in Games 2 and 3


Chris Tillman allowed two runs in 6 2/3 innings in Game 1, recording six strikeouts versus four hits, a walk and a wild pitch.

Wei-Yin Chen allowed three runs in five innings in Game 2, failing to last at least seven innings for the 16th time in 19 starts this season.

Kevin Gausman allowed five runs in four innings in Game 3, giving up nine hits, two walks and a wild pitch versus six strikeouts.


2. The offense was good until Game 3

The O’s batted .290 (20-for-69) over Games 1 and 2 but totaled just three hits in Game 3, which saw Sonny Gray allow two runs in 6 2/3 innings and record eight strikeouts.

DH Nelson Cruz went 1-for-13 in the series.


3. Center fielder Adam Jones had an interesting series

The good: he had a three-run homer, a two-run single, a walk and two stolen bases and finished with two runs in Game 2.

The bad: he went a combined 0-for-7 in Games 1 and 3 and committed a major gaffe in Game 3, thinking his catch of a fly out in the bottom of third came with two outs and not one.  DH Yoenis Cespedes jogged home from third for about the easiest run scored on an RBI sac fly that you’ll ever see.

 
4. Three outings marred the bullpen

Closer Zach Britton suffered his third blown save of the season in Game 1, allowing three runs without recording an out.  He gave up two singles and then a walk-off three-run homer to third baseman Josh Donaldson.  Britton did strike out the only batter he faced for a save in Game 2, which he entered with men on first and third and two outs.

T.J. McFarland and Ryan Webb combined to allow five runs (four earned) in 1 2/3 innings on six hits and a walk in Game 3.


5. Get used to this

This series marked the start of a 10-game trip at the three best teams in the American League West (A’s, Angels and Seattle) and the start of a 16-game stretch against those three teams.


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Four Areas In Which The Nationals Can Be Better After The All-Star Break
by Al Galdi
Jul 17, 2014 -- 3:02pm
Washington Nationals

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

As I chronicled earlier this week, there are many reasons why the Nats are entering the post-All-Star-Break portion of the season as arguably the best team in the National League.  But there still are areas in which major improvement is possible.  Here are four:


1. Outfielder Bryce Harper


He’s the lone Nats regular who has provided below league-average production (-0.2 Baseball Reference oWAR; 90 OPS+).  Missing 59 games with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb obviously didn’t help, but other Nats who have missed significant time (third baseman/left fielder Ryan Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos) have above-average offensive numbers.  Harper’s capable of much better than what we’ve seen so far this season.


2. The bench

Second baseman/shortstop Danny Espinosa, outfielder Nate McLouth, infielder/outfielder Kevin Frandsen and catcher Jose Lobaton all have received significant playing time due to the Nats dealing with so many injuries and yet have combined for -0.8 Baseball Reference oWAR.  

Espinosa remains a defensive standout but has 97 strikeouts versus 16 walks.

McLouth received starter’s money (two-year deal reportedly worth $10.75 million) but has an OPS+ of just 59 (100 is average).


3. Games against Atlanta

This is obvious but a must-mention.  The Nats lost seven of their first eight games against the Braves this season before winning the final two games of a four-game series at Nationals Park in late June.  The Nats are 9-24 against the Braves starting with a loss on August 22, 2012.


4. Two relievers

Yes, the bullpen has been the Nats’ biggest strength, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in it has been great.  Jerry Blevins (4.73 ERA) and Ross Detwiler (1.41 WHIP) are two guys who have underperformed, though Blevins’ 2.80 FIP suggests that he has pitched better than his ERA indicates.  The decline of Detwiler, who was the sixth overall pick of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft but was the first man removed from the competition for the last rotation spot during spring training, has been drastic.


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Five Reasons Why The Nats Lead The N.L. East At The All-Star Break
by Al Galdi
Jul 14, 2014 -- 6:16pm

For all of the moaning and groaning done regarding the Nats, they find themselves at the All-Star break precisely where many expected: atop the National League East as arguably the best team in the N.L.  The Nats are one percentage point ahead of Atlanta for first in the N.L. East and have by far the best run differential in the N.L. (+61; the next best is the Dodgers’ +50).  Here are five reasons why:


1. Getting healthier


Every team deals with injury, but the Nats have shouldered a particularly heavy load so far this season.  Outfielder Bryce Harper (57 games missed), catcher Wilson Ramos (46 games missed), third baseman/left fielder Ryan Zimmerman (44 games missed), first baseman Adam LaRoche (14 games missed), center fielder Denard Span (seven games missed), reserve Scott Hairston (26 games missed) and starting pitchers Doug Fister (34 games missed) and Gio Gonzalez (27 games missed) all have been out for significant time.  

But the Nats became an increasingly healthy team in June, during which Zimmerman (June 3), Ramos (June 26) and Harper (June 30) came back.  And the results picked up.  The Nats are 24-14 since Zimmerman (.783 OPS) returned.  

2. The bullpen has been excellent

Nats relievers are second in the N.L. with a 2.67 ERA and third in the N.L. with a 1.18 WHIP.  

34-year-old closer Rafael Soriano, coming off a season in which he had a career-worst six blown saves, has been outstanding (0.97 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 22-for-24 on saves).  

Tyler Clippard, off a rough start to his season (5.40 ERA over his first seven appearances) has a 2.03 ERA and team-best 11.92 K/9 and was the lone active Nat on the N.L. All-Star team.  

Drew Storen, off a nightmarish 2013, has a 1.20 ERA and 0.90 WHIP.  

Rookie Aaron Barrett (2.64 ERA, 10.57 K/9) has been a pleasant surprise.

Bullpens are year-to-year entities, but this so far has been a season in which the Nats’ pen is dominant.


3. The rotation has settled into what we thought it would be

Nats starters got off to an underwhelming start, thanks largely to a peculiar trend of allowing first-inning runs and the absence of Fister (who didn’t make his Nats and season debut until May 9 due to a right lat strain).  But Nats starters at the All-Star break are second in the N.L. with a 3.28 ERA and third in the N.L. with a 1.20 WHIP.  

Stephen Strasburg leads the N.L. with 149 strikeouts and leads the Nats in quality starts (14), xFIP (2.48) and Fangraphs WAR (2.9).  

Fister (2.90 ERA over 12 starts) and Zimmermann (2.8 Fangraphs WAR) have been good as well.

But the biggest surprise has been Tanner Roark, who leads all qualified Nats pitchers in ERA (3.01), WHIP (1.13, good for ninth in the N.L.) and Baseball Reference WAR (2.3).  He was very good in his time with the Nats in 2013 (250 ERA+ over 14 games (including five starts)), but that the success has continued to this extent this season is remarkable.  Not bad for a guy who was a 28th-round selection in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft and was acquired from Texas in the Cristian Guzman trade in June 2010.


4. Four offensive standouts

Third baseman Anthony Rendon leads all qualified Nats in slugging percentage (.490), batting average (.287) and Baseball Reference oWAR (2.9).  Perhaps most impressive: eight of his 13 home runs have been either game-tying or go-ahead homers. 

First baseman Adam LaRoche leads all qualified Nats in OPS (.840) and on-base percentage (.383).  This from a guy in his age-34 season and coming off a 2013 in which his OPS declined by 118 points.  All of a sudden, his inevitable departure from the team after this season (there's a $15 million mutual option in his contract for 2015) doesn’t seem quite so inevitable.  

Right fielder Jayson Werth is second among qualified Nats in on-base percentage (.366) and Baseball Reference oWAR (2.3).  He slumped in June (.590 OPS) but has been on fire in July (1.465 OPS, 19 RBI in 11 games).  

Shortstop Ian Desmond has a bad on-base percentage (.294; the major-league average for shortstops so far this season is .308), but he leads the Nats in homers (16) and RBI (57).


5. Better defense

The Nats' defense, a major problem early in the season, has progessed to where most of us expected it would be.  According to FanGraphs, the Nats' defense cost them 14 runs over the first 37 games but then prevented 32 runs over the next 56 games.  Overall, the Nats are tied for sixth in the majors with 18 defensive-runs saved.

A specific aspect of the defense that warrants mentioning is the defense of the running game.  The Nats struggled mightily the last few seasons in this department, finishing 29th out of 30 major-league teams in opponents’ stolen-base percentage in 2012 and last in MLB in 2013.  But the Nats lead the majors in opponents’ stolen-base percentage so far this season (.566), as Nats catchers are 23-for-53 on runners trying to steal.  That’s even more impressive when you consider that Ramos has played in just 37 games due to a broken left hamate bone suffered on Opening Day and a right hamstring strain.


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