Previously appearing on WTOP.COM…

 

I’ll say one thing about Scot McCloughan;  the Redskins General Manager has actually helped turn draft day into something to look forward to in this area.  One of the major reasons behind the Redskins run of eight last place finishes from 2004-2014 was its inability to stockpile talent through the draft…thanks to trading many of their picks before doing “creative things” like selecting three receivers in the second round when the crying need was for offensive line depth.  You could say this approach began when Bruce Allen took over in 2010 and brought in coach Mike Shanahan;  the team had ten selections in the top 105 picks from 2005-09 (last four years of Vinny Cerrato’s regime) while boasting 17 such selections in the last five years.

Why the top 105?  Because while it’s nice to talk about all of your picks…once you get past the top 100…the likelihood said player sticks with your team decreases dramatically.  For every Alfred Morris (major hit at 173), there’s a Dennis Morris (174) who doesn’t play a regular season down in the league.  I originally used 100 as the trip-line, but under the Allen administration there have been a slew of picks 102-106 that make more sense when grouped in the top 100.  At that point everybody’s board varies so much these were kids that the Skins’ brain trust had as top 100 guys.

Successful drafts can be somewhat subjective;  in theory bad teams will see more of their picks make the roster that year because, well…they’re a bad team.  Also, a new GM’s players are more likely to make the team just like a new coach’s draftees will get more of a chance to stick than a previous coach or personnel guy’s people.  That’s why the headline “the top seven 2015 draftees made the roster” deserves an “exactly”…just like “the top five players picked in Jay Gruden’s first draft made the team” merits the necessary shrug.

Since 2010 there have been three drafting combinations:  Bruce Allen/Mike Shanahan from 2010-13, Allen/Jay Gruden in 2014 and Scot McGloughan/Gruden last year.  How did each fare?  Time for the avidly awaited year-by-year rundown…a lot less depressing than the Cerrato stumbles.

 

2010-  six picks with two in the top 105.  Trent Williams and Perry Riley became starters with Williams reaching four Pro Bowls.  But from their other picks, only Terrence Austin would play more than 3 games in the NFL.  And this was a last place team.  Still, it’s tough to expect much from a seventh round selection and the Skins had three that year.  Funfact:  the Skins were rumored to be trading up with St. Louis so they could get the #1 overall pick and quarterback Ryan Reynolds Sam Bradford but held at #4 to select a lineman.  Why anyone would send multiple picks to the Rams for a QB when roster depth was a major concern remains beyond me.

2011-  twelve selections with four in the top 105.  And only four seventh rounders!  Seventh rounders are the ultimate scratch ticket–it’s nice when one gets you $20 but stockpiling them is no way to secure a solid retirement.  Ryan Kerrigan (5 seasons a starter with one Pro Bowl), Jarvis Jenkins (3 years a starter before his departure) and Maurice Hurt (9 games started before injuries derailed a nice story) lead the class, while non-starters like Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Leonard Hankerson and DeJon Gomes each contributed during their time in Ashburn.  Funfact:  Maurice Hurt’s given name is “Sparrow Maurice Hurt, Jr.”…in case you were curious.

2012- nine selections with three in the top 105.  It’s tough to look at this draft and not get sucked into a seven-hour conversation about Robert Griffin III:  from what went wrong to the proper price for a franchise QB to which Subway sandwich is the best (my money remains on the Italian BMT with pepper jack cheese, chipotle dressing, lettuce, banana peppers and olives).  Away from the glare of the comet that began with a bang before ending with 16 inactives, the Skins got talent early and often this year.  Kirk Cousins is the quarterback of the future (or until the Skins refuse to give him a long-term deal and he walks) and Josh LeRibeus made 11 starts last season.  Keenan Robinson and Tom Compton were also starters during stretches of their time in burgundy and gold.  Funfact: Sun Chips Garden Salsa is the the proper pairing for the BMT.

2013- seven selections with two in the top 105.  The first rounder went to the Rams and just like Vinny Cerrato made the 2008 second his “receiver round”, this one will go down as the “defensive back draft” for Allen & Shanahan.  Problem was-David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo had even less time with the Skins than the infamous triumvirate of Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Malcolm Kelly.  A pair of offensive players who each have had their injury issues remain on the roster:  Jordan Reed is a game-changing matchup nightmare beyond everybody’s expectations while Chris Thompson is a decent change of pace runningback.  Funfact:  the Draft stretching to 3 days…with the first round on Thursday really makes life tough when your team has dealt their top selection.

2014- eight selections with four in the top 105.  The first Jay Gruden draft brought an infusion of offensive line help (Morgan Moses and Spencer Long) as well as eventual defensive starters (Trent Murphy and Bashaud Breeland) with a fifth rounder (Ryan Grant) who’s played in every game over the last two years.  Is there a star in this bunch?  Not likely.  But you need a 53-man roster filled with glue-guys and special teamers.  This class appears to be a solid part of the foundation.  Funfact:  drafting kicker Zach Hocker in the seventh round with Kai Forbath still on the roster gave training camp the ultimate competition between “Saved by the Bell” and “Karate Kid” fans.  NO MERCY!

2015- ten selections with four in the top 105.  Scot McCloughan’s first draft (although he only had four months to prepare with a roster he was getting to know on the fly) yielded one starter in first rounder Brandon Scherff while delivering impact players in Preston Smith (8 sacks as a rookie), Matt Jones (if he stops fumbling this is the running game’s meal ticket) and Jamison Crowder (59 catches and a special teams presence).  It’s only one year, but the quality of last year’s draft already exceeds the 2011 & 2013 hauls from a roster-building standpoint.  The promising career of Kyshoen Jarrett (16 games played, one interception) may be hampered by nerve damage in his shoulder…while Arie Kouandji and Martell Spaight just seem like the kind of guys who stick on a roster for a year or two, maybe play special teams and then the next April you’re wondering where they went.  Funfact:  for the first time since Bruce Allen came on board, the number of seventh round picks did not exceed the first rounders.

 

Verdicts for those scoring at home:  a decidedly mixed bag.  You could say that 2010 brought minimal depth, but if you’re going to get Williams and Riley’s longterm impact you’re more than okay with the late round misses.  Many of the 2011 draftees turned out to be the middle of the roster guys who depart with a coaching change…and one can’t dismiss the player on the field and in the locker room Kerrigan has become.  The enigma that is 2012 could turn from boom to bust to boom if Cousins builds on his breakout season…while 2013’s failure may be somewhat salvaged if Reed remains healthy and productive.  The jury remains out on the last two years, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.  When Bruce Allen took over this team in 2009, they were easily the most mismanaged in the NFC East.  Since then, Draft Day have been more encouraging than infuriating.  

 

Previously Appearing on WTOP.COM…and even though the coaching search is over, word is that Brooks hasn’t put his name on the dotted line just yet.

 

Last May the world of the Washington Wizards revolved around the shaky sun of “what if”.  What if John Wall didn’t fracture his hand in Game 1 against Atlanta?  What if Paul Pierce’s three counted in Game Six?  What if the Hawks didn’t hit a last-second shot in Game Five?  Last fall, plenty of optimism surrounded a young team that had made the playoffs consecutive years and was only going to get better.  Only they didn’t.  For the 2015-16 Wizards, the high point was a 2-0 start that came crashing to earth with a home loss to the hot-mess Knicks.  A 6-5 mark in December would be the last time they’d have a winning record.  A maddening game of tag with the .500 mark while chasing teams ahead of them seemingly running in place would take over the season’s final three months.  A three-game winning streak to end the season would provide little consolation as a 41-41 mark meant no playoffs and the end of the Randy Wittman regime.  What happened?  What now?  And What’s next?

 

What Happened?

It became apparent early in the season that this team was not the same defensively as the previous two units that made the postseason:  last year’s team allowed the 10th fewest points in the league and was second in lowest opponents’ field goal percentage.  They were tied for third in rebounding margin, ranked 6th in turnover margin and were 14th in defending the 3-point shot.  This season’s edition finished 21st in points allowed, 23rd in opponents’ shooting, 25th in rebounding margin,  and 26th in turnover margin as well as defending the three.

Perhaps going with a smaller lineup and playing at a quicker pace exposed this team.  Coach Randy Wittman said that after the All Star Break they tinkered defensively and were much better down the stretch.  They also lost 284 man-games to injury, third most in the NBA.  But this was still a team that could never find the consistency necessary to make a playoff push.  The locker room was also reportedly fed up with Wittman’s motivational style and more than a few had checked out by April.  Wittman should be remembered as the guy who inherited the hot mess of Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee and made this franchise somewhat respectable.  Instead, he’ll be recalled as the coach who got the Wizards to a certain level but couldn’t break the 50-win barrier.  There is consolation for Wittman:  he departs DC as the winningest Wizards/Bullets coach in the playoffs (12-9, .571).

 

What Now?

General Manager Ernie Grunfeld has been with the team since 2003 but has made for all intents and purposes just one coaching hire:  Flip Saunders in 2009.  (Eddie Jordan was hired 11 days before Grunfeld joined the team and Ed Tapscott finished the 2008-09 season after Jordan was fired, while Randy Wittman was promoted from assistant when Flip was fired before being retained as head coach).  What sort of coaching hire will he make this time…and how much power would he give up to get the coach necessary to lead John Wall & company to the next level?  Ex-Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau has already been snapped up by Minnesota…and that might be a good thing as he has a history of playing starters a ton of minutes and Bradley Beal is known for his minutes restriction.

Scott Brooks is the hot candidate.  The former Oklahoma City coach has a history with Grunfeld, having played with the Knicks in 1996-97.  He also has a .620 winning percentage in the NBA and has experience dealing with superstars of John Wall’s level (ever hear of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?).  His recent history with Durant may be an intriguing bargaining chip as the Montrose Christian product is due to become a free agent this summer.

Mike D’Antoni is the guy who you would have wanted to hire if he was fresh from leading a basketball revolution in Phoenix…as opposed to the one who led the Knicks and Lakers on long roads to nowhere.

Mark Jackson was successful in building Golden State to the point where Steve Kerr could take over and lead them to a title, but Jackson had issues getting along with others in the Warriors front office.  Would Ernie be cool with “creative conflict”?

Sam Cassell was an assistant with the Wizards during the early years of Beal and Wall…and he’s won as a player (3 NBA titles with Houston and Boston).  Can this team afford to burn a year of John Wall’s prime in order to get a rookie head coach up to speed?

 

What’s Next?

The new coach might not have 100% say in personnel matters, but this will be a different team in 2016-17.  While their top five players (by minutes played per game) return, seven become unrestricted free agents while two more become restricted free agents and Drew Gooden has a non-guaranteed team option.  That leaves plenty of cap room for summer shopping.  Anybody notable hitting the market this summer?  Anyone with DC area ties?  The elephant in the Wizards’ long-term planning room for the last few seasons has been Kevin Durant…and even though his mother says KD’s stating put in OKC, the Wiz will make a genuine run at him.  Other frontcourt big splash possibilities include power forwards Al Horford and Larry Sanders as well as small forwards Harrison Barnes and Nicholas Batum.  A big question surrounds the status of Bradley Beal: he is a restricted free agent and is reportedly looking for a max contract.  But the guard has shown a knack for being banged up, having made 60 starts just once in his four year career.  Does the ghost of previous max deals (ahem, Gilbert Arenas anyone?) haunt this front office as they make a decision on Beal?

What also remains to be seen is which-if any-players with expiring contracts return.  Brazilian big man Nene’s off to compete for his nation at home in the Summer Olympics;  who knows what happens after that as he’s 33 years old and has been limited as of late by injuries.  Drew Gooden has played well when healthy-but he’s 34 and needs ice bags on his knees more often than not after games. Jared Dudley admits he’s “not a first, second or even third option for most teams” but wouldn’t mind returning.  Ramon Sessions played in all 82 games this past season and averaged 18 points and 10 assists while starting the last five games of the year.  Both are decent “glue players” every good team needs, but each is 30 years old.  Garrett Temple is 29 and mentioned that the Wizards were the first team where he actually felt like he was owning instead of renting (4 years in DC after spending first his two years with five different teams)…but may be one of those players who gets lost in the shuffle with a coaching change.  Alan Anderson says he’d like to return to justify the 4 million dollars the Wizards paid him for just 13 games…but what will he cost and what should a GM risk given Anderson’s recent injury history?

Twelve months removed from what felt like the best May in the franchise history since the 1970’s…the Wizards brass has more than enough questions on their plate.  The next twelve weeks will go a long way towards determining how Ernie Grunfeld’s tenure as team architect will be remembered.

 

In baseball over a 162 game season it’s helpful to be either good or exciting.  The Nationals are both in fantastic form so far this season.  The 14-4 start is the best-ever in franchise history and they’re winning in memorable fashion.  Sadly, Sunday’s sweet 16 inning marathon somewhat obscures Saturday’s gem tossed by Tanner Roark as well as Friday’s win that featured both power (Jayson Werth going yard again) and pitching (8 strikeouts by Gio Gonzalez).  Can this team sustain a .777 winning percentage over six months?  Highly unlikely.  But while they’ll eventually return to the stratosphere-this is one fun run to be witness to.

Last Week’s Heroes- Bryce Harper followed up a monster week with one where he merely slugged .783 and homered three times.  Jayson Werth looks better with every game played in left field (nice rob Friday night).  Yusmeiro Petit posted a 1.86 ERA over 9.2 innings out of the bullpen.  And don’t sleep on Tanner Roark’s 15 strikeouts from Saturday’s victory (easy to do so after Sunday’s marathon).

Last Week’s Humbled- Anthony Rendon hit just .200 with no RBI over 30 at-bats.  Max Scherzer allowed an early homer and 5 earned runs over 5 innings in a loss to Miami.

Game to Watch- Sunday in St. Louis Scherzer takes his 2-1 mark to the mound against the Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez (3-0, 2.70 ERA).  Nothing like a Sunday showdown to wrap up a series.

Game to Miss- the sad process of elimination takes any Scherzer and Strasburg starts off the table.  I’m also curious about Joe Ross’s blistered index finger as well as how Tanner Roark will fare following a 15-strikeout effort.  Gio Gonzalez, despite a 1.42 ERA and a 20 to 4 strikeout to walk ratio over 19 innings, loses out.  And that’s even with the coolest hair/beard combo on the staff.

Dessert is a pivotal part of every meal.  It’s not the most important part, but can definitely take things to the next level or provide a major dampener.  The Nats were THIS CLOSE to a series sweep of the Phillies…only to come apart in the 10th inning of a 3-2 loss.  Instead of the rough patch happening in the series opener, or during the Capitals playoff game– the extra inning meltdown was front and center on a Sunday afternoon.  It’s Jonathan Papelbon’s first blown save of the season (in six attempts)…but the sting of having it happen against his former team (at their place) leaves a less than ideal taste as the Nats continue their roadswing.

Bryce’s Big Bat- Harper takes NL Co-Player of the Week honors after hitting .346 with 4 HR and 12 RBI.  His 100th career round-tripper was a grandslam.  And even more impressive, his homer Sunday landed in the Phillies’ bullpen bathroom.  Distance and accuracy…

Last Week’s Heroes- Wilson Ramos hit .526 and is a great testimonial to the benefits of LASIK eye surgery.  Gio Gonzalez had two solid starts, notching 12 strikeouts to 3 walks while holding hitters to a .156 batting average.

Last Week’s Humbled- Danny Espinosa batted just .105…not what you need when there’s Trea Turner hitting .424 at Triple-A Syracuse.

Game to Watch- Wednesday Joe Ross takes his 2-0 mark to the mound in Miami.  The Marlins pitch ex-Oriole Wei Yin Chen.  How good is the kid?  And how has the veteran adjusting to the NL?

Game to Miss- Monday Tanner Roark faces Jose Fernandez in the first game of a four game series.  Not only do the Capitals face Philadelphia in Game 3 of their first round series, AMC’s “Better Call Saul” airs its season finale.  Sign me up, Slippin’ Jimmy…

Previously appearing on WTOP.COM…

 

It happens every spring… beauty and awe before they’re gone all of a sudden.  The Cherry Blossom season more often than not mirrors the Caps postseason:  heavy anticipation, attention-grabbing quick bloom,  and then after one or two rains it’s all gone.

The Capitals have enjoyed a checkered postseason in their history…unfortunately getting double-jumped by Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Rangers on multiple occasions while having to hear the refrain “King Me” a lot more than they’d prefer.  But in the middle of the wreckage of many a spring on ice they have also had their moments–it’s just tough to locate the highlights amongst the heartbreak.  Two provide a nice bookend to get us started…

 

Highlight Honorable Mention: 1983.  In Bryan Murray’s first full season as head coach, the previously hapless Caps (8-67-5 in their first year…and it took six seasons to post a winning percentage above .400) actually make the playoffs and lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders.  Just like being nominated for best documentary, it was simply an honor to be the first speedbump that season for Mike Bossy, Billy Smith & company.

Heartbreak Honorable Mention: 2015.  Losing to the Rangers is never fun…and blowing a 3 games to 1 series lead is even more painful.  Thank you, Curtis Glencross for your contribution to Caps Collapse History.  Still, they bounced the Islanders (although losing game 6 meant they couldn’t close out Nassau Coliseum).  They won a game the same night the Wizards and Nats prevailed…and it was coach Barry Trotz’s first season.  Of course, the key to getting over heartbreak is rationalization.

 

Highlight #5: 1994.  Sadly, it’s a little bit of a challenge to find roses amongst the playoff thorns for this franchise.  But in 1994 they bounced recent nemesis Pittsburgh (who beat the Caps en route to Stanley Cups in 1991 & 92) in six games…outscoring the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr from the get-go.  Don Beaupre stood on his head for four games…while Joe Juneau and Michal Pivonka led a balanced attack that more than took advantage of their opportunities.  The Caps won the series clincher 6-3 and had other games where they lit the lamp 4 and 5 times.  What happened to that NHL?

 

Heartbreak #5: 1986.  The eighties was a fantastic decade to follow the NHL-their playoffs were front and center on ESPN and the divisional playoff format led to upset-ridden Aprils.  The Patrick Division featured three teams in one metropolitan area and three more within manageable drives of one another.  An eighty game marathon to determine who’s the best…followed by five and seven game sprints to see who survives.  The Capitals finished with the third best record (107 points) in the league that year…but second in the division to Philadelphia.  When the Flyers were upset in the first round by the Rangers…the path was clear to a Stanley Cup Finals clash with defending champ Edmonton.  Only the Rangers (who finished with a pedestrian 78 regular season points) had more in the tank…bouncing Mike Gartner and company in six games.  Small consolation:  Edmonton lost in their divisional finals as well that year.

 

Highlight #4: 1984. You never forget your first series win.  Especially when it’s a sweep.  Against the team less than 3 hours up I-95.  And especially when it ends the career of Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke.  Long before he was ruining the Flyers on a short-term (as General Manager) and long-range (as Senior VP) basis, Clarke was one of the scrappiest (some will say dirtiest) players in the league.  He was the face of the franchise in Philadelphia…and to sweep him into retirement by beating the Flyers in the Spectrum was the extra onions on the cheesesteak.  Yes, they lost to the Islanders in the next round.  But still…

 

Heartbreak #4: 1989.  Finally, a Patrick Division regular season championship.  This would be the team that would finally emerge from the early rounds…only to learn that in the divisional playoff format turnabout isn’t just fair play, it’s often expected.  The Caps got bounced by an aging Philadelphia team in six games.  These weren’t the Broad Street Bullies…or even the Cup runners-up from 1987.  How bad were these Flyers?  Their 80 points was the team’s fewest since 1972 and they’d go on to miss the playoffs the next five seasons.  Which brings to mind the question about banner protocol.  Do you have to return the regular season championship banner if you lose in the first round?

 

Highlight #3: 2012.  A team in turmoil fires its coach early in the season and brings in a legend (Dale Hunter) to put the house in order.  After finishing two games over .500…the grittier version went into Boston and won a game seven (thank you Joel Ward!) before taking the #1 team in the conference (Rangers) to seven games in the next round.  The foundation was set.  And Coach Dale Hunter would be back to take this franchise to the next level.  Only he didn’t…choosing to return to his role as president and owner of the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League.  The team would stagger and then crumble under Adam Oates.  But we’ll always have that spring…

 

Heartbreak #3: 2009.  After winning the Southeast Division (let the record show that it was called the SouthLEAST for much of its existence), the Caps trailed the Rangers 3 games to 1 before taking games five, six and seven (so it does happen the other way sometimes!).  A thrilling conference semifinal showdown against Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby brought three overtime affairs and a 3-3 series tie heading into a Game Seven at Verizon Center.  Sadly, this finish would be more floundering than fantastic and the Penguins won a 6-2 clincher that wasn’t as close as the score looked.  That Pittsburgh would go on to win the Stanley Cup would be little consolation this time.

 

Highlight #2: 1990.  An underwhelming regular season saw the Caps finish with a losing record for the first time in eight years.  Naturally there was a midseason coaching change.  Oddly enough, coach Bryan Murray was replaced by his brother Terry.  Thankfully Bryan didn’t go all Fredo (he remains smart and deserves respect).  Despite an 18-14-2 finish under Murray 2.0, little was expected.  And with low expectations comes a surprising first round triumph over New Jersey.  Followed by shocking the first place Rangers in five games.  Even after getting swept by a better Boston team in the Cup Semis, the team’s first and only Patrick Division banner remains a high point during their stay in Landover.

 

Heartbreak #2: 1987.  Again, sometimes its how the movie ends that enhances everything before it.  The seven-game showdown with the Islanders was one for the ages.  Another 3 games to 1 lead with a game five at home.  Haven’t we written this script before?  Yes…but only this time the game seven went down to the wire and beyond.  A late one-goal lead disappeared with 5 minutes left in regulation.  Four overtimes later Pat LaFontaine ends the Capitals’ season…and a game that began at 7pm concludes at 1:58 am.   Easter morning was a groggy one for many families in the area.

 

Highlight #1: 1998.  After finishing third in their division, the Caps rode hot goaltender Olaf Kolzig to the finals for the first time in franchise history.  Never mind that they got swept by Detroit.  And never mind that they took advantage of a busted bracket (upsets of Pittsburgh and New Jersey meant they would have better records than each of their playoff foes in the first three rounds).  Even the teal eagle jerseys couldn’t ruin this run.

 

Heartbreak #1:  2010.  After winning the President’s Trophy, the high-flying offensive juggernaut looked as though it was ready to finally crown Alex Ovechkin (career high 59 assists), Nicklas Backstrom (career highs in goals and assists) and Mike Green (before the injuries).  After taking a 3-1 first round series lead over Montreal (and posting 19 goals)…they somehow forgot the league changed the format to best-of-seven back in the 1980’s.  Yes, the Canadiens Jaroslav Halak somehow conjured up the spirits of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy to limit the #1 offense in the league to 1 goal in games 5, 6 and 7.  But to lose in the first round after 82 games of positive reinforcement?  The Bruce Boudreau regime would never be the same–making its eventual departure less than 20 months later.

I know the Nationals played on Opening Day…and hosted their home opener as well last week.  So why does it feel like this is actually the first week of real baseball?  Blame the scheduled off days…plus Saturday’s “cold day”.  Thus, they’ve only played four games entering week two.  So instead of simply a snapshot, we have an underdeveloped polaroid.  They’ve looked good (gritty wins in Atlanta), disappointing (1-for-12 with runners in scoring position in the home opener) and redemptive (Werth proving his worth with a blast Sunday).

Orioles Magic!  Who would have thought that the birds would win six straight to begin the season-especially with their pitching staff resembling a gasoline fire in spring training?  Their previous two 5-0 starts (1944 in St. Louis, 1970 in Weaver’s World) also resulted in World Series appearances.

Things they do look awful C-C-Cold:  Was it a surprise to anybody that there was snow in the northeast and unfriendly temps on the shores of Lake Erie?  Either delay the regular season schedule one week (and have each team play 8 weekend doubleheaders over the 6-month season) or have warm-weather (and dome) teams host the first week of the regular season.  It’s the price of doing business in early April when a big chunk of your locations are in the northeast and midwest.

Hoover?  Really?  This year’s sixth wheel in the Racing Presidents will be Herbert Hoover.  I know he’s next in line for the White House Christmas Tree Ornament…and I collect one each fall as well as send one to my mother for her birthday (Mama Presto has a December 8th bday:  it’s a cool tradition because it won’t overshadow her Christmas gift and she can definitely use it during the holiday season).  But Herbert Hoover?  The guy kind of presided over one of the lower points in this nation’s history (Buchanan takes the cake for allowing the nation to dissolve in 1860-61).  What’s worse–he wears 31 as he was the 31st president of the US.  Meaning if Max Scherzer struggles AT ALL this year…I’m blaming Hoover.

Last Week’s Heroes- Daniel Murphy hit .462 with a homer and 5 RBI while Joe Ross struck out 5 Sunday over 7 innings.  Yes, Bryce Harper homered twice and Max Scherzer struck out 7 over 7 frames on opening day–but it’s nice to get contributions from their second-tier players.

Last Week’s Humbled- Michael A. Taylor followed up a superb spring training with a less than ideal opening week, hitting .063 with 5 strikeouts and no walks from the leadoff spot.  Again, it’s early.  But again, Taylor despite all of his strengths might not be suited best to hitting first in the order.

Game to Watch- Tuesday Gio Gonzalez makes his regular season debut over a week into the season thanks to off days, cold days and simply principle.  The lefthander squares off against Jhoulys Chacin…who makes his debut as well.  It almost feels like television’s midseason premiere night!

Game to Miss- Thursday Tanner Roark pitches against Atlanta’s Julio Teheran in a late-afternoon affair.  Not only do we have the Capitals hosting Philadelphia in Game 1 of their first round playoff series, but taxes are due the next day.  Civic duty first, Stanley Cup watching second…

After a winter of retooling, goodbyes, and hellos…the Nationals are back and ready to rebound from a disappointing 2015.  Many (myself included) have them winning the NL East…and there are more than a few cases for confidence and concern.  This team might not make the playoffs, but they’ll certainly give DC an interesting ride through the spring and summer months.

Causes for Confidence– Bryce Harper is the reigning NL MVP and is only 23 years old.  He drove in nearly 100 runs last year despite having a constantly eroding lineup around him.  Max Scherzer tossed two no-hitters and brought the ace mentality to the pitching staff.  The other contributors in the lineup (Anthony Rendon) and rotation (Stephen Strasburg) are among the best in the game when healthy.  And Dusty Baker is running this team.  Nothing like having a proven skipper being in charge…and in his three previous stops Baker’s teams have improved by an average of 20 wins.  Granted, signing Barry Bonds as a free agent may have been a factor in the 1993 Giant success–but still…

Causes for Concern– left field is a potential minefield with Jayson Werth coming off of a less-than productive season while still not completely comfortable in the other corner position (between the angle of balls hit to how they’re hit).  While Gio Gonzalez’ 2012 season is the outlier of his career, does the lefthander’s ERA continue to slide upward (3.36 to 3.57 to 3.79 the last 3 years)?  Will oft-injured players like Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman be healthy?  And then there’s the bullpen:  is Jonathan Papelbon a fuse waiting to go off?  Just as important will the middle relievers consistently provide the bridge from the rotation to the ninth?

Last Month’s Heroes– during the season we’ll have weekly heroes (and humbled), but a tip of the cap to the Monster of March:  Michael A. Taylor.  The 25-year old hit .453 with 5 homers and 16 RBI in Spring Training.  Yes, those numbers mean nothing Monday afternoon…but it has to be encouraging for there to be an option if something goes wrong in the outfield.  Tanner Roark had a solid spring as well, going 2-0 with an ERA of 2.00 over 5 games (4 starts) while striking out 17 over 18 innings.  If Roark can man the #4 spot in the rotation with play like that, 2016 could be somewhat sweet.

Last Month’s Humbled– with the caveat that it was only March (and early April):  Danny Espinosa took a while to find his bat in Florida…the shortstop hitting .139 with 4 walks and 11 strikeouts.  He’s hitting 8th so they don’t need monster production, but he’ll need to repeat last year’s early success to keep management from even thinking about calling up Trea Turner.  Gio Gonzalez allowed a team-high 12 walks over 19 innings while Joe Ross posted a 6.75 ERA in Spring Training.

Game to watch– the first week, aren’t they all?  I’m looking forward to Thursday, April 7th.  Stephen Strasburg perhaps in his final season with the Nats gets the ball for the home opener.  We get the Racing of the Presidents (although I’ve been told that Coolidge does not choose to run in 2016) returning…and hopefully some good seventh inning stretch music (Saturday’s exhibition played “It’s not Unusual” by Tom Jones, a definite upgrade over “Friends in Low Places” while not coming close to “Take On Me”).

Game to Miss–  Sunday April 10th.  Joe Ross makes his first start of 2016 against Miami while the Masters final round percolates on CBS.  I know it’s just a 1:35 start but the Marlins pitch the forgettable Jarred Cosart.  Laundry and spring cleaning need to get done as well…and one has to take the lining out of one’s jackets for the spring season.  Let’s ease into this 162 game marathon…shall we?   

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