Thursday, October 31, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Anyone Want To Talk About the Marcin Gortat Trade?

On Friday afternoon, the Wizards traded Emeka Okafor and a 2014 first round pick for Marcin Gortat. On Monday afternoon, the national sports site Grantland had extensive analysis of the trade posted. First, they had a lengthy piece by their NBA writer Zach Lowe which argued that it made sense for the Wizards to make this deal because making the playoffs this year might help them attract a top free agent next year, but wondering whether giving up a first round pick was too high a price to pay for it. And then, there was a piece by Wizards fan and Grantland writer Andrew Sharp, which linked to a number of Wizards fan blogs criticizing the trade as desperate, but then argued that even though that was true, the trade would help John Wall and Bradley Beal become better players.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post, besides the article reporting the trade, ran this informative blog post by Wizards beat writer Michael Lee explaining the Wizards' thinking in making the trade and...well, that was it. The Post sports section has five columnists and none of them found the time to ask any questions about whether trading a future draft pick for what it seems many agree will be a marginal improvement this year (and maybe only this year, since Gortat is in the final year of his contract), was a wise personnel move for a team that has repeatedly made poor personnel moves for the last three decades.(I'm not going to count the two sentences Mike Wise devoted to Gortat in his Wizards preview column earlier this week.) While fans were lamenting the possible shortsightedness of this move, no one at the Post really delved into that issue -- even if only to argue the other side and defend it as a trade that made sense. (The Lee post did mention that some would see the move as shortsighted, but, as I said, was mainly an analysis of why the Wizards would make the move--which was fine, since Lee isn't a columnist and passing judgement on trades isn't his job as a beat writer.)

I will freely admit that I'm not a big NBA fan, and thus, don't really have a strong opinion on the trade. But the trade's exchange of future for present--and the upset it caused among some fans--did remind me somewhat of a trade the Caps made earlier this year that also received virtually no analysis in the Post, and it troubled me. Washington sports fans, along with some in the Washington sports media, constantly talk about how disappointing our local teams are -- particularly this year. There are a number of reasons, some unique to their teams, why each of these teams have not lived up to expectations, but what's the one commonality among all those disappointments? It is deficiencies in personnel.

The Nationals didn't have a good enough bullpen and bench and lacked starting pitching depth this year. The Redskins just don't have enough good players at positions like receiver, safety and offensive line. The Caps, for years now, haven't had enough secondary scoring and can't find more than 3 or 4 good defensemen most years. And the Wizards...well, as I said earlier, they're been a trailblazer in offering horrible contracts, making bad draft picks and consummating shortsighted trades since the 1980s. And yet, too often the Washington Post, the most important and influential sports news source in the area, just doesn't show enough interest in these personnel moves (particularly when it comes to the Caps and Wizards) -- or, perhaps more importantly, holding accountable those who make those personnel moves for the local teams. If anyone can find a serious examination and critique of Caps General Manager's George McPhee's tenure that has appeared in the Post over the last three or four years, please leave a link in the comments -- because I haven't seen it. And while Tom Boswell certainly does analyze Nats' personnel moves, he seems to go out of his way to avoid mentioning team architect Mike Rizzo too much -- in the case of these three post-mortems on the Nats in September, two avoid mentioning the GM entirely, while the other lets Rizzo say that Davey Johnson"threw him under the bus" by placing too much blame on the GM for the team's personnel deficiencies. (That doesn't mean there aren't occasional Post articles that do hold the Nats' GM accountable -- this excellent Adam Kilgore blog post outlined how the hiring of Matt Williams demonstrates the huge amount of power Rizzo holds in the organization -- but such pieces are rare.)

As much as DC sports fans, and the local sports media, lament how the local teams need to show more effort, or their superstars need to play better, or their coaches need to coach better, none of our local teamsbare going to win championships -- or even come close -- without the right personnel. That's why tracking how our teams are built and asking why those building the teams are making (or not making) certain moves is so important. If you look at blogs about the local teams, fans are doing a pretty good job at debating these moves. Why can't the Post do the same?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Martin Erat, Mathieu Perreault and the Post's lack of interest

So imagine that back during the Nats' 2012 season, they had traded their best hitting prospect, Anthony Rendon. It was in July, during Ian Desmond's stint on the disabled list, and the Nats traded Rendon to the Brewers for a solid but unspectacular veteran -- someone like Ricky Weeks, a 30-year-old making $9 million a year not having a real good season but with a history in recent years of hitting more than 20 homers, an OPS over 800, etc. Weeks ended up getting injured late in the season and the Nats lost in the first round of the playoffs, but when the next season arrived, Weeks ended up a bench player -- pinch hitting with a start once or twice a week even as Danny Espinosa struggled to hit. Oh, and also imagine that the Nats, right before the season, decided that they had some hot pitching prospects in the minors they wanted to use, so they traded Ross Detwiler for an A-ball reliever who scouts said was unlikely to ever make the majors. And now imagine that the Washington Post Sports section, other than reporting that these things happened, virtually ignored them.

Yes, that would be ridiculous. Tom Boswell would have written multiple columns analyzing the thinking behind these decisions and whether they were wise, and Jason Reid probably would have chimed in with a column (probably something saying he trusted management to make the right decisions and that the Nats were still likely to win 100 games). Mike Wise might have written a column, too, interviewing Ricky Weeks on how he felt about not playing (perhaps including Ricky Weeks' opinion on the Redskins' name while he was at it.) And the Nats' beat writers probably would have multiple blog posts examining the issue.

Of course, none of these trades were made by the Nationals in the past two years. But similar moves were made by the Washington Capitals. They traded future for present by dealing top propsect Filip Forsberg for the 32-year-old solid but unspectacular Martin Erat, making $4.5 million in a sports with a salary cap. After he got injured last season, he came back this season and has so far been relegated to the fourth line, playing less than 10 minutes a game. And right before the season, the Caps traded Matthieu Perreault, a guy who was their third-leading goal scorer in 2011-2012 and tied for the team points lead last year in the playoffs for the Caps, for pretty much nothing (a fourth-round pick and a player who isn't expected to play in the NHL). And the Washington Post Sports section has virtually ignored them.

When the Erat trade was made last April, it was extremely controversial among fans --many who felt the team had made a shortsighted move. The Post, of course, had an article about the trade. They also printed a relatively brief, 400-word piece by Neil Greenberg backing the trade by noting that Forsberg hadn't proven anything yet in the NHL while Erat, based on statistical analytics, was a solid top-six forward. That was a perfectly legitimate opinion, but it didn't delve into the broader issues that a trade like this represented for the Caps--are they in a "win now" mode with a trade like this and willing to jettison other prospects to acquire veterans for a Cup run? Was this a trade more about short-term gains (making the playoffs last year) at the expense of a better team with a better shot at the Cup two or three years down the road? Those questions were never addressed by the Post -- after Greenberg's piece, the Erat-Forsberg trade and its implications and questions it raised for the future were never discussed again, aside from a piece this preseason by beat writer Katie Carrera when the Caps played the Predators about how both Erat and Forsberg were adjusting to their new teams.

Erat, though, would remain controversial when the new season started. He was placed on the fourth line, playing just nine minutes in his first game and even less in most subsequent games. To her credit, Carerra authored a blog post after opening night with quotes from Erat questioning his role and a very interesting quote from Adam Oates which appeared to be somewhat of an admission that the trade was made more to acquire a stopgap replacement for Brooks Laich than out of some actual plan for the future ("Last year, when we made the trade, Brooksie was hurt, and Brooksie's healthy right now," Oates said.) That was on Oct. 2. It's now 16 days later, Erat remains on the fourth line playing less than ten minutes a night and Caps fans on Twitter and on blogs express puzzlement and anger at why a player making $4.5 million, who was acquired for a top prospect, is being utilized this way. And in those 16 days, no one at the Post has written anything more about it--not Carrera, not a columnist, not Barry Svrluga in an "On Hockey" piece (and actually, this would be perfect for him -- but he's covering the baseball postseason.) It doesn't even seem like anyone (from either the Post or other local media) has even asked Adam Oates or General Manager George McPhee about this puzzling deployment of personnel (I haven't seen either one answer a specific question about it since that Oct. 2 interview, but I'd be glad to be corrected if anyone has evidence to the contrary.)

But the relative silence on the Erat situation is topped by the virtual news blackout on any kind of analysis or discussion of the Caps' trade of Mathieu Perreault for, well....virtually nothing. Perreault had his faults as a player -- he was small and wasn't considered a top defensive player -- but he had good offensive skills, was fun to watch and was popular among fans. And for a team that struggles to score when it's not on the power play, a guy with offensive talent would seemingly be of some value. But when the Caps decided that they wanted rookie Tom Wilson in the lineup and needed salary cap space, they jettisoned the low-priced Perreault (and replaced him in the lineup with Eric Fehr, who had never played center before this preseason.) It was another deal that caused bafflement and upset among Caps fans, but other than the article reporting the trade, there's been no commentary or analysis on anything related to the move (unless you count the one sentence mentioning the trade in this John Feinstein column previewing the season). In fact, that article didn't even contain a quote from George McPhee explaining the rationale for the trade--nor has McPhee been quoted in the Post (or anywhere, for that matter) giving any explanation or answering any questions about why this trade was made. How can that be?

My complaints about coverage of the Caps in the Post have long boiled down to two major issues: that the Caps aren't covered the same way other professional teams in the city are covered -- with serious attention paid to their personnel moves -- and that the team's coaches, front office and decisionmakers rarely, if ever, face any kind of accountability from the media -- and even when they do, it's dwarfed by the attention paid to Alex Ovechkin, who is usually blamed for any loss or setback the Caps sustain. And both criticisms apply here. If the Nats or Redskins or even Wizards traded a young player full of a potential for an older player, and then rarely used that older player, would the Post write one article and then pretty much ignore it as the team started off the season 2-5 and had trouble scoring? And is anyone going to ask Oates and McPhee about the Erat situation and the Perrault trade, either directly in a press conference or interview, or rhetorically in columns and analysis pieces in the paper?

Ironically, after years of the local media incessantly asking what's wrong with Ovechkin, he's the only thing really going right with the Capitals. But from the front office to the coaching to the other players on the ice, there are problems. And, unfortunately, those problems include the Post's coverage of the team.