The Other guys- Hack a Backups

April 12, 2016 by

There’s no question that the NBA is a star driven league.

Every title-winning team has at least one dominant player, most have two and with the high level of talent in the league today, it’s become a near necessity for contenders to put together a roster with three All-Star  caliber players in order to have a realistic chance at winning. The desire to group stars together brought us multiple tanking efforts and offloading of contracts in the last few years, and while it is the stars that get you to the playoffs and ideally make the big plays for you, the back half of your roster is nearly as important.

Ever since Red Auerbach helped popularize the concept of the “Sixth Man” with the 50’s and 60’s Celtics, a powerful bench has been a key component for contending teams.

The teams of the 80’s had guys like Vinnie Johnson, Danny Ainge, Michael Cooper and Andrew Toney (Pistons, Celtics, Lakers and 76ers respectively). The 1990’s Bulls had John Paxson and Steve Kerr hit game winners, and there’s no way the 2000’s Lakers make the runs they did without guys like Rick Fox and Robert Horry. The Heat had Shane Battier and Chris Anderson and it’s impossible to overrate the impact of guys like Boris Diaw and Danny Green for the Spurs. I could go on all day about the number of important guys who don’t get top billing, but suffice it to say, winning or losing the biggest games often goes beyond the top players and boils down to the other guys.

Last years’ Playoffs may have been the high water mark for role players getting their 15 minutes of fame. In the first 3 rounds of the playoffs,  Kelly Olynyk swung the course of the playoffs with his part in Kevin Love’s shoulder injury, Matthew Dellavedova initiated scraps with Taj Gibson of the Bulls and Al Horford of the Hawks; helping to get them ejected in key moments and Thabo Sefalosha’s absence completely scrapped the Hawks’ offensive flow. The Warriors were on life support against the Memphis Grizzlies until Steve Kerr switched his defense to force the Memphis role players to take a larger part in the game. They were unable to step up their game, and the Warriors cruised from that point on. The Rockets were dead in the water when Kevin McHale got tired of James Harden’s B.S. and pulled him in Game 6 against the Clippers. With the league’s MVP runner-up on the bench, Houston went on a historic run led by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer. I’ve seen a lot of strange things in sports, but nothing prepared me for the headline “Clutch plays from Josh Smith key Rockets’ rally”.

Just when we thought we hit the apex of glue guy impact, everything climaxed in the Finals with Andre Iguodala winning the MVP award for his part in “slowing down” LeBron James. Even though he’s 2 percent body fat and looks like a superhero, Iggy represented the scrappy little guy. When he won that MVP, everyone who had ever come off the bench in a sport puffed their chest out a little bit; one of our own had helped beat the best player in the world. 

While we may have hit the super-sub apex last year, that doesn’t mean the importance of these guys has eroded in any way. I can’t say that I have all the answers, in fact, I probably have next to none of them, but that never stops me from trying to find them. It’s easy to pick out the stars in this years’ playoffs, but let’s take a look at which non-stars are going to swing the title.

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You’ve gotta love the Big Diesel.

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My fave 5 (plus a bonus)

April 6, 2016 by

Every time I watch a game with my wife, I bore her to tears with useless tidbits about all the bench guys, role players and reclamation projects on each team. She claims to find this interesting, but she’s a normal human being, so there’s no way on earth that she actually feels that way. So in the name of saving my marriage, I’ve decided to sacrifice the sanity of you the reader by subjecting you to my 5 favorite players to watch in baseball this season. These could be superstars turned ring chasing veterans, former top prospects given a second chance, guys with funny names or just a guy I find myself drawn to for no rational reason. I did a similar exercise last year, and while I didn’t keep up with all my favorites as much as I’d like, I did enjoy keeping tabs on them throughout the year. So in the interest of consistency and entertaining myself, let’s run it back with my Fave 5 (plus one bonus minor leaguer).

Matt Bush- Pitcher- Frisco RoughRiders– The 2004 MLB draft was absolutely stacked. The first round alone produced 7 All-Stars (Justin Verlander, Billy Butler, Jered Weaver,Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes,Gio Gonzalez and Huston Street) 3 pitchers who threw No-Hitters (Verlander, Homer Bailey, Philip Humber) and multiple solid starters (Stephen Drew, Trevor Plouffe and Neil Walker). The later rounds produced mainstays such as Dustin Pedroia, Yovani Gallardo, Hunter Pence and Ben Zobrist. Of all the drafts, the MLB draft is the hardest to get right and has the most moving parts and variables. It’s not always just a question of drafting who you think is best. Teams also have to factor in whether the player will sign or go to college, how affordable they are on the bonus scale and stupidly enough, how the fans will react to the selection. There have been a lot of bad choices made with the first overall pick, but the Padres’ selection of local shortstop, Matt Bush, is possibly the worst on record.

His troubles began before his career ever started, with his arrest and suspension stemming from an assault charge prior to the start of his first minor league season, and got worse from there.   When he did get on the field, he struggled to perform, batting just .221 in his first season before breaking his ankle halfway through the year. His next year on the field wasn’t any better and the Padres moved him to pitcher in an attempt to get something out of his talent. Sadly, injury struck again, as he tore his UCL, necessitating Tommy John surgery. He was never able to work his way back, and was released in 2009. From there, he bounced around to the Blue Jays and Rays minor league systems with further legal troubles at each stop . After a semi-successful season in 2011, he was sentenced to 51 months in prison after he drunkenly ran over a 72-year-old man during spring training.

After 2 years in prison (and 4 years sober),  Bush was released on probation and signed by the Texas Rangers last fall. The Rangers have a history of dealing well with players with substance abuse issues (I.E. Josh Hamilton), and have put him on a zero tolerance policy.  This spring, Bush appeared in 2 games and pitched only 3 total innings. In those innings, he struck out 3 batters, gave up 1 hit and even touched 100 m.p.h on his fastball. This story isn’t complete and doesn’t even have a happy ending yet, as he was sent down to Rangers’ Double-A affiliate to serve as one of their primary set up men.

There’s a segment of our population that could never forgive him for his past mistakes, and I can’t completely blame them, but by all accounts, Bush seems to have his stuff together, and I’m a big fan of redemption stories. There’s no guarantee that he’s going to ever make it as a big league player, and he’ll never shed his “bust” label, but I’m going to be paying attention to the Frisco RoughRiders all season and hoping that even if it’s just for one inning, he can claw his way up to the big leagues.

Billy Hamilton- Outfielder, Cincinnati Reds-   Billy Hamilton is scary fast.  He’s fast enough that if John Candy were around, he’d absolutely try to find a way to make Hamilton push a bobsled. Luckily for us, Hamilton roams the outfield in Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Even with all the speedy young players in the game today, there’s no player who makes me say “whoa” quite like Hamilton. My first exposure to Hamilton came in 2012 when he stole 155 bases in 132 minor league games and also hit an inside the park home run where he made it around the bases in 13.8 seconds. To put that in perspective, the second fastest trip around the bases that season was Peter Bourjos at 14.3 seconds. Geesh.

Hamilton “only” stole 57 bases last year, and still hasn’t developed into a consistent hitter,  but he showed maturity as a player by cutting his number of times caught stealing from 23 to 8 between 2014 and 2015, and clearly the raw speed is still there. We haven’t had a player steal 100 bases in a season since Vince Coleman did it 3 straight years from 1985-1987, but the Reds are going to be absolute garbage this season, and probably the next couple of seasons, so I would love nothing more than to see Hamilton with a permanent green light. Aside from a great ball park and Joey Votto, there’s not a whole lot to cheer for. At the very least, Hamilton can keep us (and Reds fans) entertained for the summer. 

 

Cameron Maybin- Outfielder, Detroit Tigers:  When the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers in 2007, it was viewed as a bit of a coup for Miami, as they acquired high-end prospects in Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo and some spare parts for 2 guys they didn’t feel like paying. The centerpiece to the whole deal, however, was uber-prospect Cameron Maybin. Labeled as a highly coveted “5 tool prospect”,  Maybin was pegged as a game changing player, one capable of anchoring the outfield defensively with his strong arm and great anticipation, while also holding down the middle of a lineup with his speed and power. Unfortunately for Maybin, things don’t always go as expected, and after a poor start in Miami, he was shuttled back and forth between the Marlins and the New Orleans Zephyrs before being traded to San Diego in 2010. It seemed like he had found a home with the Friars when he stole 40 bases and was named the team’s MVP after the 2011 season. He signed a 5 year deal and seemed poised to cash in on his seemingly endless potential. 3 frustrating and injury filled years later, he was shipped to Atlanta as part of the Craig Kimbrel/B.J. Upton deal last year and despite a solid season with Atlanta, he was traded once again; this time back to Detroit.

Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me, but I absolutely love seeing players get second chances, especially in places where they started their careers. I loathe the Detroit Tigers, but very few things would make me happier this season than to see Maybin put together at least one solid season in Motown. He’s on the 15 day disabled list right now with a wrist injury, but once he’s healthy, it looks like he’s going to get every opportunity to claim the starting Center Field job. He’s still relatively young at only 29 years old, and showed flashes of the 5-tool talent last year in Atlanta, so my optimism isn’t entirely blind. Detroit has had a tough time filling the hole in center, and if you can say nothing else about the fans up there, they love their scrappy underdogs. Maybin probably won’t ever turn into the multi time All Star people thought he would be, but it would be cool to see him capture the imagination of the Tigers’ faithful, even if it’s just for a brief time.

 

Ichiro Suzuki- Outfielder, Miami Marlins-It’s crazy to think now, but before he came to the MLB, no other Japanese position player had played in the Major Leagues. There was a healthy level of skepticism regarding his ability to succeed here, but 16 years later, Ichiro has 10 All-Star game appearances, 498 steals, the 2001 Rookie of the Year and MVP, 2 batting titles, single season hit record and 2935 career hits. If you add in his Japanese league statistics, he has 4213 hits and 697 stolen bases in 25 years of professional games. Japanese league baseball is on par with our minor leagues when it comes to talent, but the numbers are still mind-blowing.

When he came into the league in 2001, he was accompanied by a horde of media usually reserved for royalty or a late 90’s pop star. Crowds of photographers from Japan spent every game photographing his every move. From his unorthodox and methodical stretching routine to the Matrix-style sunglasses and samurai level focus, Ichiro was the epitome of cool.  With all the focus on his arrival, it seemed impossible for him to possible live up to expectations. 116 wins, 56 steals, the Rookie of the Year, MVP, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and my favorite throw of all time later, he somehow managed to surpass all the hype.

16 year later, at the age of 42, the hype is gone. There are no hoards of reporters anywhere at Marlins games and Ichiro’s skills have eroded to the point that he’s a glorified bench player. With that being said, he’s still Ichiro. He still plays like a church softball veteran, slapping the ball to the opposite field and still doles out fantastic quotes. Side note: my personal favorite “Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me. I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out”. Oh Ichiro, don’t ever leave, and please, don’t ever change.

 

Byung Ho Park- First Baseman- Twins-  It’s obviously on a much smaller scale, but what Jackie Robinson did for black players, Ichiro did for Asian position players. If not for his massive success, we would still have the idiotic idea that players from the Far East couldn’t succeed in the Major Leagues. Thanks to him, this generation of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean players have a much better shot at making it.

My favorite such player is “rookie” First Baseman Byung Ho Park in Minnesota. After averaging 43 homers and 123 RBI  over the last 4 seasons, Park had accomplished all he could in the underwhelming Korean Baseball Organization. Much like the Japanese baseball leagues, Korean leagues are nowhere near the level of American baseball, but Park’s numbers in a 144 game schedule are still mind-blowing enough to believe he can make the jump to MLB competition. Early returns are somewhat promising, as Park didn’t look overwhelmed in Spring Training, and he’s fortunate to be in a lineup with solid veterans like Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe. Along with young stars in training like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, those mainstays can take much of the pressure off of Park as he adjusts to big league pitching and travel rigors.

The Twins surprised a lot of people with their success last season, and if they can stay healthy, they can make some waves this season as well. Similar to my thoughts on Maybin, I despise the Twins, but it’s a very respectful hatred as they tend to play the right way and churn out quality players. I’m intrigued by how a player like Park can come into such a successful system after years of dominance and adjust his style and game plan to succeed in his new surroundings. The other minor storyline that interests me is the potential of a Korean superstar in lily-white Minnesota. The last iteration of successful Twins was based on Northerners like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, so the concept of this generation being lead by guys like Buxton, Sano and Park is fantastic. Nothing is more fun than watching a blend of cultures succeed, and this Twins team will be no exception. My heart says I should root against Park’s success, but my brain tells me it would be awesome for baseball.

 

Jorge De La Rosa- Pitcher-Colorado Rockies- Nearly every baseball team builds the pitching rotation the same way: You have your number one pitcher, or “ace”, at the top of the rotation, and then ideally 3 or 4 solid options behind him. You want to be able to count on your ace to win at least 2/3 of his starts and then get the rest of the guys to win half their games. There are 2 very different and also very interesting scenarios with a team’s ace. On one end, you have the dominant super-team with a guy who can make a run at historic levels of wins and strikeouts and captivate audiences with his greatness. On the other end, you have pitiful tanking teams who have a guy who has no business being a number one starter. When that perfect storm of bad comes together, you have a chance for something truly dreadful. The most recent example was poor Mike Maroth with the 2003 Detroit Tigers. The Tigers threw out the worst team in the modern era on their way to 119 losses. The biggest benefactor of this ineptitude, Maroth finished at 9-21 with a 5.73 earned run average in his 2nd season in the Bigs. While he was never a terrible pitcher (he had a career record of 41-46 outside of that season), he was completely unqualified to be an ace. With all the awful teams in the league this year, there are a few potential “Maroths” in 2016, but the best candidate is the Rockies “ace”, Jorge De La Rosa.

Like Maroth, De La Rosa has been a very adequate, but underwhelming pitcher throughout his career with a record of 93-75 and a 4.57 E.R.A. When you combine his lack of ability with the awful Rockies’ team and the Coors Field effect, De La Rosa is going to have a long season. Much like a car wreck, ugly baby or political debate, this Colorado team is going to be so bad that I can’t look away. They have just enough young talent on offense to make them interesting, but the shortcomings throughout the rest of the roster are going to make every one of Jorge’s starts must watch TV for me. The whole country has loved watching the Warriors chase the Bulls wins record this year, and I’m going to be equally fascinated to watch De La Rosa chase down Maroth this summer. I know it’s not kind to enjoy others’ failure, but I just won’t be able to look away.

Whether these guys succeed or fail is anyone’s best guess. They could be All-Stars, they could be scrubs, but at the very least, they’ll be interesting, and I know I’ll be watching.

Play Ball.

April 4, 2016 by

“For lo’ the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. Happy New Year, everybody. It’s baseball 2016.” Famed Tigers’ broadcaster, Ernie Harwell opened every spring with this quote from Song of Solomon, and  there are few better ways to open the season than with words from one of the greatest baseball people of all time. Despite the decline in ratings and a general feeling that the sport is outdated and boring, the arrival of baseball season still serves as an organic transition from winter to spring.

One of the things fans love so much about the sport is the belief that anything can happen with the coming of a new season. So you came in last place last year? No worries, the 2013 Red Sox won the World Series the year after losing 95 games. You haven’t made the playoffs in 30 years? Whatever; the Royals made the World Series in back to back years and won last years’ series. The Astros, Rangers, Mets and Cubs all made the playoffs last year after losing a combined  359 games in 2014 and are all being picked to make playoff runs again this year. Those are just a few examples from recent history showing the crazy things that can happen in a given season. We all love to have fresh starts and reboots in life, and that desire along with the limitless optimism is part of what makes baseball so beloved and refreshing.

While every season has its’ share of surprise contenders, the flip side is also true. The undisputed “winners” of last years’ offseason were the White Sox, Padres, Red Sox and Cubs. Of those 4, only the Cubs made the postseason, and the other 3 finished a combined 52 games out of first place. After signing Max Scherzer, the Nationals were proclaimed as a potential super-team that could make a run at 100 wins and walk through to a World Series win. After an awful start, they fired their manager, had players choking each other in the dugout and finished with 83 wins and never had a realistic shot at the playoffs. It’s pretty impressive when a team can have a free agent acquisition live up to the hype (Scherzer), have the undisputed MVP of the league (Harper) and somehow still completely suck.

I’ve stated before that it’s a fools’ errand to make predictions as they’re never completely right, and often make you look like an idiot. Despite that caveat, I continue to make my predictions, since I’m apparently a glutton for punishment. In my defense, baseball picks have been a tradition in my family. My dad and I have been making picks for as long as I can remember and I plan on doing the same with my kids someday. So without further ado, my 2016 predictions, which are sure to be obsolete and proven wrong before the end of the first week of the season.

American League

East Champions:

Toronto Blue Jays– With the bombers in their lineup (Bautista, Donaldson, Encarncion, Martin and Tulowitzki) the Jays bludgeoned opponents into submission last season while scoring 127 more runs than the 2nd most proficient offense in the league. The offensive proficiency was nothing new as the Jays have finished in the top-10 in runs each of the last 3 seasons. The key to their jump up in the standings was the improved pitching staff. Thanks to largely unexpected contributions from the trio of Buehrle, Hutchison and Price, they jumped up to 12th in the league in ERA last season. That’s slightly better than league average, but after years spent in the bottom third of the league, even that improvement made a drastic difference. Unfortunately for Toronto, those three pitchers are gone, along with their 425 innings pitched and 30 quality starts. Wins aren’t the end all-be all of pitching evaluation, but 37 wins is nothing to take lightly.  The front office is hoping that a full healthy season of Marcus Stroman and continued development from youngsters like Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna can help offset those losses, but after last years’ blockbuster moves, the cupboard isn’t as well stocked as it was previously. They’ve gone from having a top-10 farm system over the last 5 years to having one in the bottom 10. Management has made it clear that they plan on going all in this year, and with several key players ready to hit free agency, this is the best shot they’ll have at a championship for quite some time. There’s no question that the offense will hold up, but there are question marks all over the pitching staff. If the young staff can’t take a step forward, we could see a regression to the 2000’s Blue Jays teams that lost a lot of 9-8 ball games and finished in the middle of the pack.

Central Champions:

Chicago White Sox:  It was incredibly en vogue to pick against the Kansas City Royals last season as everything about their 2014 season pointed toward a massive regression. They were (and are) led by a shaky manager in Ned Yost and were the beneficiaries of a massive amount of luck throughout the season. I, and a lot of writers, could not have been more wrong. While the rest of the division fell apart, the Royals blitzed the entire league on their way to their first World Series title since 1985. With that being said, I’m making the same mistake this year and picking against them in the A.L. Central.

Last years’ White Sox team underperformed from the opening day of the season, getting career worst seasons from the Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton and the now departed Adam LaRoche. If you remove Jose Abreu’s production from the team, they operated as a sub-replacement level offense for the majority of the season. Sometimes players just aren’t very good, but the second half production of guys like Cabrera and Eaton give reason for some optimism in 2016. Their mediocrity would have been enough to submarine the offense, but they got historically bad production from their 2nd and 3rd basemen last year, so even league average production would have a dramatic impact. Considering the offensive pedigree of Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier, it’s reasonable to expect more from those positions than league average; the offense can’t help but be better.

His comments about the Adam LaRoche situation showed Chris Sale to be a bit of an idiot, but he’s still one of the 5 best pitchers in baseball and my Cy Young pick for the American League. With Sale, Rodon and Quintana, the Sox only need to get mediocre production from the combination of Danks, Latos and eventually, Carson Fulmer. They made waves with their expensive bullpen acquisitions last season and were rewarded with further mediocrity. Bullpen production has proven to be the hardest thing to predict in baseball, but guys like David Robertson, Nate Jones and Zach Duke have proven that they can get the job done. Everyone is lining up to replicate the Royals and Yankees bullpen setup- dominant set-up men and closers shorten the game to essentially a 6 inning affair- and while these guys aren’t up to that level, they should be good enough to at least help Robin Ventura’s ever-growing ulcer. The Sox are the opposite of Toronto- if they can get league average production from their lineup, the elite starting pitching should be enough to carry them to the top of this messy division.

West Champions

Houston Astros: When 76ers fans dream, they dream that they’re Houston Astros fans. After a decade of success through the late 90’s and mid 2000’s, the bubble showed signs of bursting beginning in 2007 as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio limped to the end of their careers, and as often happens with successful franchises, Houston clung to relevancy with veterans like Carlos Lee and Roy Oswalt buoying the roster, but the rest of the team was downright ugly, with no help in sight from the barren farm system. After consecutive mediocre seasons in 2008 and 2009, the front office shifted gears into a full teardown and rebuild of the franchise. Starting in 2010, they sold off everything that wasn’t bolted down, trading away Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, Wandy Rodriguez and Billy, the clubhouse attendant responsible for refilling the Gatorade cooler. This made them less than popular, both around the league and with their fans, and they lost a combined 502 games between 2010 and 2014. The pain was worth it, as they rebuilt the farm system from the bottom up, going from the 26th ranked system in 2011 to being the 2nd ranked system coming into this season. Having a loaded system enabled them to call up young players and let them learn at the big league level, and they’ve been rewarded with stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Correia. As a team, they overachieved to some extent last season, but the continued development of Springer and Correia, along with a full season of Carlos Gomez and the inevitable midseason call-up of another top prospect or two, this season should build upon last year’s success.

The pitching staff is headed by Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, and backed by solid, if unspectacular hurlers like Mike Fiers, Colin McHugh and Luke Gregorson. They splurged by trading for closer Ken Giles, but ideally, having a lockdown option at the back of the bullpen should allow the rest of the relievers to settle into a rotation, a la the Kansas City Royals. There’s always some risk with younger players, as the league has a tendency to catch on to their weaknesses, but the ‘Stros young guys can really play and will be able to battle through those growing pains. It’s important to remember that these guys were a fluky Royals rally away from probably going to the World Series, so the sky is the limit for 2016 and beyond.

Wild Card Winners:

Kansas City Royals: Come on, I’m not that stupid. Everything about this team says that they’re primed for a regression, but when you win the World Series and bring everyone back, you deserve the benefit of the doubt. Eventually the “swing at everything and give up outs with small ball” technique will backfire on them, but former wunderkinds  Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas  and Lorenzo Cain finally turned into real players last year and showed signs of potential growth moving forward. They drastically overpaid for Salvador Perez, the bullpen will eventually come back to earth and Kendrys Morales is not going to be a 3 win hitter again this season, but there’s still enough talent  in the franchise piggy bank to buy another postseason trip.

Boston Red Sox: So after warning against picking the offseason champions, I’m going to ignore everything I said and pick the Red Sox to snag the second wild card spot. I’m not crazy about the David Price contract, but he is an elite pitcher in today’s game, so I understand it on some level. The Pablo Sandoval contract looks to be one of the worst in league history, but at least the Sox have the guts to play the better guy at 3rd base. I love the bullpen with  Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, and the pipeline has finally delivered on years worth of promise with players like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts to lead them into the post-David Ortiz era in Boston. I’m more than a little skeptical about the team’s defensive prowess and lack of depth in the starting pitching,  but they’ll be able to slug their way through enough of those issues to make it to the second week of October.

National League

East Champions:

Washington Nationals:  Between Matt Williams ineffective leadership, Max Scherzer’s creepy eyes and Ian Desmond’s aversion to catching baseballs, last years’ preseason champion could not have been a bigger disappointment unless they had actually had a ‘Lord of the Flies’ style rebellion in the dugout. Things were bad enough, and then they decided to add world-famous A-Hole Jonathan Papelbon the mix.  Papelbon posted a negative WAR, blew multiple leads and choked out the best player in the National League in front of a worldwide audience. Aside from that, everything went great. The response to all this was to bring Papelbon back and add Daniel Murphy and his mighty October bat into this roiling pot of strangeness.

With all that, why am I picking them? Pitching, a first year boost from Dusty Baker and the insanity of Bryce Harper. Scherzer may be a mutant, but he’s downright dominant on a consistent basis and he allows guys like Stephen Strasburgh and Gio Gonzalez to avoid the pressure of being “the guy” in the rotation. When you can throw Gonzalez and Strasburgh out as your 2nd and 3rd starters, you’ve got a pretty good shot at success. Looking at the bullpen,  Papelbon wasn’t very good at the end of last season, but he was at least competent for the rest of the year, and there’s enough depth in the rest of the pen to cover for him if he blows up at any point this season. Dusty Baker has shown a propensity for wearing out pitching staffs and lineups over a long stretch of time, but he wasn’t brought in to be the long-term manager; they just need to squeeze a year or 2 out of him before he drives everyone crazy.

Even bigger than the pitching and improved coaching, they have a cyborg playing right field in Bryce Harper. After a solid start to his career with 10 wins above replacement over his first 3 seasons, Harper exploded with a 9.9 win season in 2015. To put that in perspective, his season tied him with the age 26 seasons of Tris Speaker and Rickey Henderson, as well as the age 28 seasons for Barry Bonds and Ted Williams. That’s ridiculous company, and at the age of 23, there’s reason to believe he’ll get better as he develops mentally and emotionally to match the obscene physical skills he brings to the diamond. So, to recap the Nats: elite pitching, plus elite superstar, plus shaky fielding and combustible bullpen equals a fascinating, high variance season that I can’t wait to see.

Central Champions:

Chicago Cubs: Early on last season, I wrote about how exciting and far ahead of schedule the Cubs were. At that point they were a couple of games under .500 and just showing signs of becoming the elite team they morphed into. As a lifelong Cubs’ hater, it was the most painful writing experience of my life, but I genuinely loved watching the young stars evolve and grow in real-time. With that being said, nobody expected them to win 97 games and blitz the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs; we just don’t see young teams go from awful to elite that quickly. Last years’ ahead of schedule success has made it easy to look at the glut of talent on the roster, the additions made in the off-season and the weakening of the division around them and anoint them champions of the world, but there are a few minor issues that could cause some problems.

We’ve never seen a stretch like Jake Arrieta’s second half last year- he went 12-1 with a .75 ERA and entered into 1999 Pedro Martinez territory, where we expected greatness every time he took the ball. The only “downside” to that level of greatness, is that it is impossible to replicate over the long haul. Even if Arrieta performs at an All-Star level, which is no guarantee, he’s not going to meet the raised expectations last year caused. The hope would be that the combination of Jon Lester and John Lackey can pick up anywhere that Arrieta may tail off from last years’ ridiculousness. The 4th and 5th starters are question marks at this point, but there’s so much young talent in the farm system, the Baby Bears can afford to part with a prospect or two to add a second tier starter or two.

Aside from the usual year-to-year unpredictability of bullpen performance, the only other potential hangup is the faulty defense at a couple of spots in the field. No team should be pushing harder for integration of the Designated Hitter in the National League than the Cubs. With Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward, the Cubs have more bats than they have positions, and while that’s a good problem to have, I’m sure they’d prefer the ability to throw Soler in the field and just have Schwarber hit things with a stick. They’ve committed to having him behind the plate at least once every time through the pitching rotation, but with his sub-replacement level defense and Jon Lester’s inability to hold runners, they do run the risk of having teams run wild on 40% of their pitching staff. I know I’m nitpicking, but when it comes to winning a title or coming in 2nd, it’s the little things that matter. One poorly timed throw into center field or a 5 steal game by an opponent could be what it takes to send them home disappointed.

Despite those tiny warts, this is a team built to win; not just this year, but for the foreseeable future. The only question remaining is whether they can make the final push through the glass ceiling and send the North Side into complete hysterics this November.

West Champion:

Los Angeles Dodgers: I’m well aware that I’m tempting fate by picking against the San Fransisco Giants, and I do think they’ll win the Wild Card, but daggone, this Dodgers team is terrifying. Lost in all the well deserved publicity received by Greinke and Arrieta last season, was the fact that Clayton Kershaw is The Man. After a “slow” start to 2015, he went 10-1 with 141 strikeouts and only 15 walks in the second half of the season. I know he’s had his postseason struggles, but there’s still no one I want more for the top of my staff than Kershaw. They round out the rotation with solid starters like Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood and finish by handing the ball to a downright scary closer in Kenley Jansen. A top-heavy rotation and bullpen always leaves the risk for injury as a huge concern, but the Dodgers have both the human and financial capital to acquire more talent if needed.

When the new ownership group took over the team and spent nearly a billion dollars in payroll (give or take), the common refrain heard was that L.A. was going to buy their way to a title. What’s actually transpired has been something much scarier. Rather than just throwing money at every major free agent, the Dodgers have poured those seemingly endless resources into the scouting and development of their young players. This has allowed them to build the strongest farm system in the league, while simultaneously competing on the Major League level with the higher priced top end talent. I’m sure they’d rather not have to rely on players like Carl Crawford and Chase Utley as those two limp toward the finish line, but if they can buy just a few months, there’s plenty of help on the way with the further development of young studs like Cory Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. If they can get anything resembling the best out of Yasiel Puig (no guarantee at this point), then they’ll be downright terrifying for years to come.

This has been a team over the last few years that was consistently picked to contend for a title, only to come up short each time when it mattered most. Much of the blame was cast on skipper Don Mattingly, and whether it was fair or not, those failures cost Donnie Baseball his Los Angeles residence. New Manager Dave Roberts is known as a savvy baseball guy who balances old-school thoughts with an analytic mindset. He better hope that they come through big time this year, because few other markets draw attention (both negative and positive) quite like Los Angeles. All the excuses are gone for this group, and much like last year, they enter the season as my favorites to win it all. Whether they can fulfill that promise or not remains to be seen.

 

Wild Card Winners:

Pittsburgh Pirates: Much like the Royals in the American League, the Pirates had been a laughingstock for so long, that it was hard to ever picture them as a successful franchise. Also like the Royals, they promised a revolution based on prospects coming through the system for what felt like forever. Well, those prospects have arrived, and this team is loaded. Andrew McCutchen is a legitimate superstar, and combined with Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, there’s not a better outfield in all of baseball. There’s lots of talk about 5 tool players in baseball, and all 3 of these guys have all the tools. It’s beautiful to see them cover ground in the outfield and make plays on a daily basis that they have no business making. The bullpen has been downright dominant the last few years, and Gerrit Cole is a real Cy Young contender for the coming future. It’s been amazing to see the Bucs go from a downtrodden team to one that is not just good, but also cool. We’ll see them ‘Raise the Jolly Roger’ early and often this season.

 

San Fransisco Giants: Often overlooked with the odd year, even year phenomenon in San Fransisco is the superb job of player development being done. In the last decade, the Giants’ farm system has produced All-Stars in Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, along with B level guys like Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Matt Duffy. Most of their guys aren’t household names, but they can flat-out play. While there’s no discernible superstar in this lineup beyond Posey, there are also no discernible weak spots. Every spot on the roster has a guy who can field his position and hit to at least an average level. Throw in the pitching depth with Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardjiza, Jake Peavy and former ace Matt Cain, and this staff has scary potential. Even if Cain and Peavy are shadows of themselves, there’s enough there with the rest of the staff to make the Dodgers sweat throughout the entire season. I don’t trust the bullpen or bench depth enough to call them a World Series favorite, but there will be no shortage of competition in the N.L. Wild Card race this season.

Like all the other sports, getting to the playoffs doesn’t guarantee anything in baseball. All making the postseason gets you is an entry into the lottery. With scoring down and scouting constantly improving, more than ever it comes down to timing and quite a bit of luck. With that in mind, I tend to pick teams that have either a stronger pitching staff or a surplus of superstar bats. Last year, I picked the Dodgers over the Indians (ouch), and while my pick was bad, my logic was solid.  I am following the same principles this year-  World Series- Blue Jays over Cubs.

With so much to consider for each team, it’s difficult to be concise in breaking down this crazy league. So I’d like to thank you for your dedication, and congratulate you on your fortitude in getting to this point. I’ve pointed it out before, but it bears repeating: nobody know anything about what’s actually going to happen throughout the course of a season. Whether your team is good, bad or mediocre, it’s important to remember that the worst day watching baseball is better than the best day doing anything else. Play ball.

 

Papa Johns, Budweiser and Legacy: what Super Bowl 50 really means from a big picture standpoint.

February 9, 2016 by

Like most fans, I love the postseason. For me, it doesn’t matter what sport it is; when the bad teams stop playing, I care a lot more. Since the White Sox and Bears are garbage, the only joy I can derive from the baseball and football seasons is the pleasure of watching functional organizations compete for titles. Unfortunately, both the baseball and the football playoffs drove me absolutely insane. 

First we had the idiocy of the baseball playoffs with announcers and writers trying to shape the narrative to be about the Royals winning by ignoring analytics (despite all evidence to the contrary), the obscene levels of outrage over Jose Bautista’s epic batflip and the gaggle of new Cubs  and Mets fans that started popping up as their teams became relevant for the first time in a decade.  Then the NFL season came and went, along with discussions of concussions, a variety of “Gates” and a reminder that I should never try to predict things ever again. After all that fun, we moved into the postseason and were treated to racial debates, conversations about “dabbing” and one large-headed quarterback and his farewell tour.

Other than reminding me just how out of touch and super white I am, the playoffs showed once again how important perception and legacy are to players; especially the ones playing the quarterback position. Both Peyton Manning and Cam Newton added significant chapters to their stories on Sunday night. The real trick is figuring out how we’ll look at this 5 or 10 years from now. Read the rest of this entry »

Week 1: What I liked, what I didn’t and quick picks

September 17, 2015 by

Christmas morning, Spring Break, your birthday or to a lesser extent,  the weekend. We look forward to special days with great expectations and anxious minds and before we know it, they’ve come and gone. It’s no different with the opening weekend of the NFL season. For months we break down positional battles, speculate about rookie or free agent additions and for a lot of us, pore over Fantasy Football rankings and mock drafts. We have get-togethers, some elaborate, some not so elaborate, with food, drinks and friends, and just like Christmas morning, it’s over in what feels like a blink of an eye. Despite the whirlwind feel, Week 1 started at 8:30 eastern on Thursday and didn’t end until well after midnight on Monday. I love sports, but dang, that’s a ton of football. With that block of time being consumed by one sport, there’s going to be a lot to digest. Some of it good, some if it bad. Let’s take a look at what I liked, and what I hated: Read the rest of this entry »

Week 1- part two

September 9, 2015 by

San Diego vs. Detroit: Living with San Diego sports fans is one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. If you were to listen to Chargers fans talk about their team, you would think they had gone through a stretch of losing seasons that could rival the Oakland Raiders. When you look at the numbers, you see that they have the 4th highest win total in the league since 2005. There is such a little brother syndrome when it comes to San Diego and Los Angeles that the fans can’t even appreciate the good things they have here. Every year there are calls for Philip Rivers’ benching, and every year he churns out Hall of Fame numbers. Last season, the Chargers went through the roughest offensive line season in recent memory, cycled through running backs like a high school team and still finished 10th in the league in weighted DVOA despite having the 30th ranked rushing attack. That credit has to go almost entirely to Phillip Rivers and his magical bolo tie. With a revamped line and some new weapons around him, he should have a little more support, and that’s going to make for a dangerous offense. Read the rest of this entry »

The year of the Whiners and Cheeseheads- Week 1 preview.

September 9, 2015 by

I’ve watched sports for a long time and I’ve seen off-seasons with labor disputes, free agent movement and even franchise  movement. I’ve seen some crazy things over the last 20 years, but nothing prepared me for how insane the NFL’s offseason was this year. We had an All-Pro and  two young linebackers walk away due to safety concerns, two franchise running backs change teams (Murray and McCoy) and the most asinine court case in recent memory (Deflategate). The only real positives to come out of the offseason were a steadily increasing awareness of the dangers of head trauma and an ever-growing outcry for Roger Goodell’s power to decrease. I already detailed my belief into how the heat and humidity gets us all riled up for the violence of football, but beyond the animalistic desire for blood, everyone is ready to move past the off-field nonsense and just watch the game we love. Read the rest of this entry »

Finally, fall sports are back.

September 6, 2015 by

As I’m writing this, I have the air conditioner on full blast, an ice pack on my neck and an egg frying on the sidewalk. My dog has given up on ever keeping his tongue in his mouth when we go outside and even beachgoers want nothing to do with this. Nothing makes you appreciate the fall quite like late summer, and that holds true for more than just the weather. Sports, like life, go in stages along with the changing weather. Every spring, we look forward to the warmth of summer and the nostalgia of baseball season. By the time the dog days of summer hit, we’re all ready to move on from the heat and relentless plodding of America’s Pastime. Similar to how Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer and the summer sports seasons, Labor Day brings us the pennant race and the beginning of football season. If Americans didn’t already have enough of a violent streak, the seemingly endless heat and humidity seems to make us even more anxious to watch things get destroyed. Whether it’s the figurative destruction of the opposition by eliminating them from playoff contention in baseball, or the literal destruction of our fellow human beings in football, our blood lust kicks up to an all time high every fall.
Over the last few years, more and more evidence has come out linking long-term mental disorders to the concussive and sub-concussive hits involved with football, and that combined with the rash of legal problems and other disciplinary situations the NFL has faced has put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm for the sport. All of life is about compartmentalizing, finding ways to enjoy the positives of life while somehow ignoring the pain and ugliness that exists, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to take this step with a sport that is essentially killing it’s participants in a slow manner while we paint our faces and lustily cheer these gladiators on. With all that being said , I may not enjoy it or care as much as I did when I was in high school and college and these men will never be my heroes, but I still have some ability to sit back and enjoy the display of pure skill and athleticism that football brings.

Predicting records and award winners is a losing game, but it’s one that every writer plays at the start of every season. My baseball predictions were a mixture of self-proclaimed brilliance and horrifying ugliness, but that won’t stop me from taking a shot at the NFL. I already covered the specific players that I’m watching this season, the team side offers some fun as well.
Every season, 32 teams vie for 12 playoff spots and no league turns over its playoff participants quite like the NFL. No other sport offers the opportunity for fortunes to improve from year to year quite like football does. Seemingly every year, at least one team makes a jump from a losing record to the playoffs. Conversely, every year at least one team goes from contention to mediocrity or worse. There is a multitude of factors that can cause this; a jump or decline in turnover rate, injury issues or a lack thereof and even the team’s record in one score games. All 3 of these play a huge role in a team’s fortunes from year to year, and all 3 are primarily based on luck. Since these things are borderline impossible to predict, I use other factors to predict which teams will rise, which will fall and who’s going to stay strong from year to year. Improvement in quarterback play, upgrades to a coaching staff and either improvement to existing talent or an influx of new talent are the best predictors to how teams are going to perform from year to year. This offseason provided a lot of roster movement with star running backs moving around, coaches being hired and fired all around the league and hopeful franchise quarterback being taken in the drafts. Here are my picks for who’s rising and who’s falling, along with the two teams that will surprise and disappoint the most compared to last season. Read the rest of this entry »

How I’d fix it: The MLB All-Star Weekend

July 13, 2015 by

I don’t remember who won or lost, and I don’t care.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to enjoy the Conference Finals

May 23, 2015 by

This is what it’s all about.

Due to the frantic nature of the NBA playoffs, it’s easy to look away for a while and realize that you’ve sleepwalked your way to the Finals. The frequency with which the games are played makes it difficult to really appreciate and enjoy each individual performance, and I find myself viewing each series in a bit of a muddled haze. The one way I’ve found to enjoy single games more is to find things that jump out to me as special, interesting or enjoyable.

Lebron James:

I’m a far cry from being a LeBron James fan and have even been called a hater at times, but we are watching one of the most incredible playoff runs in the history of the league. The last few years in Miami, there were grumblings that Lebron got tired of carrying underwhelming teammates, so moving to Cleveland was based more on upgrading his teammates and less on going home. When the Cavs mortgaged the future for Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov, the grumblings got louder. James took got off to an underwhelming start before taking two weeks off in the middle of the season to rest. Once James came back, he starting putting up numbers like vintage Lebron, but it still seemed as though he would need Irving and Love to really carry through the playoffs. After injuries to Love and Irving, James is back to where he was his first time in Cleveland: surrounded by bums, ring chasers and role players who depend on his greatness to succeed. While Cleveland will get occasional flashes of brilliance from Smith and Dellavedova, at the end of the day, it’s been James who’s pushed them this far, hitting game sealing shots, guarding the other teams best player and putting up ridiculous numbers. (27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and a combined 3.5 steals/blocks per game)
I won’t engage in conversations comparing him to Jordan because I think they’re idiotic and I’m not unbiased enough to go through them, but if Cleveland makes the Finals, it will be the fifth straight season his teams have been there. That puts him right up there with some of the greatest of all time, and any conversation about the best players in league history has to include him. The true sign of a players greatness is how he elevates the play of himself and his teammates when it matters most, and James has gone above and beyond in that regard this year.

The Atlanta Hawks :  

These never happened- are we all cool with that?

The 1980’s Hawks made their name as an exciting team that didn’t play much defense, focused on highlights and individual achievement and rocked a Pac-Man-esque logo design that made the rare Vinn diagram of arcade goers and basketball fans drool with excitement. In the mid-1990’s, they did what a lot of teams and people did in the mid 90’s and made a questionable fashion decision, foregoing the traditional design for something that was meant to be cutting edge and cool, but really just looked stupid and overly complicated.
This season saw the return of my favorite court design, but luckily for basketball junkies and Hawks fans, not the selfish, no defense style that used to accompany the old logo. Nicknamed “Spurs East”, Atlanta zips the ball around from player to player, with no one player bogging down the offense or gunning for his own numbers. Granted, it is the NBA, and guys do want to put up stats for contract leverage, but it’s refreshing to watch this team when they’re really humming. It’s like the raptors hunting in the first Jurassic Park- always testing for weakness and ripping apart their prey with terrifying efficiency.
In basketball, the team with the best player normally wins a series, and with Korver out, Horford and Carroll limited with major injuries and LeBron in “Eff you” mode, the Hawks are definitely on the endangered species list. When they lose to the Cavs, the anti-analytic community will no doubt jump all over them, but losing to a better team shouldn’t take away from what they accomplished this year. They turned around a franchise with unselfish and highly entertaining basketball based on team-first concepts and I love them for that. They won’t be around for much longer, so you should make sure to enjoy them now.

Steph Curry (and his adorable daughter)

I’ll be honest, it’s taken me a long time to really embrace the Steph Curry experience. He annoyed me when he was at Davidson leading the Wildcats on NCAA Tournament runs (mostly because of bandwagon fans) and that carried over to his tenure with the Golden State Warriors. He didn’t seem to really care about playing defense or really even about the result; I knew I was wrong, but he just looked like a guy who wanted to be on SportsCenter. I’ve turned a complete 180 on both Curry and the ‘Dubs. They still dominate SportsCenter, I still get annoyed by all the attention his ball handling gets him,and I’m jealous of how much my fiance loves him, but his ability to take over a game out of nowhere and his level of performance under ridiculous defensive pressure has won me over. Now that I’ve bought in, I realize that I’ve missed out on some really fun viewing experiences and I feel kind of stupid for being a narrow-minded curmudgeon.

While the traditional stats (24 points and 8 assists per game) look good enough, a deeper look at Curry’s ’14-’15 season shows just how good he really is. The step-back threes and dribbling displays are incredible, but what made him the MVP is how Curry makes everyone around him significantly more of a threat. Defenses pay so much attention to him that it creates open looks from deep and at the rim when scrambling defenses are forced to shift and rotate after Curry bends them with his gravitational pull. Every Warriors rotation player shoots markedly better with Curry on the floor. Golden State’s offense falls from a 113.8 offensive rating (the best mark in the league) to 100.8 without him (the equivalent of the Denver Nuggets’ 23rd-ranked figure). While his defense isn’t where it could or should be, it’s  a far cry from where it was when he came into the league. With Curry off the floor, the ‘Dubs give up four points more per 100 possessions than with him on it. All that adds up to  -16.3 differential with him on the bench…. that’s insane. 

Luckily for me, it’s not too late to get my fair share of the Curry experience. The Warriors are ridiculously good, and despite my pick against them in the previous round, there’s no reason to think they’re close to done. Thanks to a ridiculous postseason, Curry is already on the verge of breaking Reggie Miller’s record for three-pointers in a single postseason, even though we’re not even to the Finals yet.A mere six years into his career, Curry has forced his way into the discussion regarding the best shooters of all time, and if you’re going to have a conversation about greatness, a player who can catch fire NBA Jam-style at any time belongs up there with anyone. 

The MVP Matchup:

Almost every NBA season and decade can be associated with individual player. With a few exceptions, you can look back and see who “owned” the era.The 1950’s were owned by George Mikan, Bill Pettit and Bob Cousy.  Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain took turns taking everyone’s lunch money in the 1960’s, Kareem Abdul Jabaar was the reluctant and surly face of the 1970’s and Bird and Magic took turns before the Detroit Pistons became the ridiculously ugly face of the NBA in the 1980’s.Even in the years he was retired, Michael Jordan was the undisputed face of the 1990’s and while there wasn’t a single dominant player of the 2000’s, Kobe, Shaq and Duncan did a pretty decent job of carrying the league. Lebron has been the face of the league, since his first Finals run, but a case of LeBron fatigue has dulled his shine a little bit, and the last couple years have seen the rise of the next generation. Last year, Kevin Durant tore up the league and made everyone cry with his MVP performance, and while we got screwed out of a repeat performance due to KD’s injury, we had two new and very different faces step up in his place. I already covered the MVP, Steph Curry, but the runner up for the trophy, the heavily bearded James Harden, was just as intriguing on a nightly basis.
While Curry is all smoothness and flash, Harden’s game is less visually stimulating, based on an idea of constant attacking and a dedication to an idea. The Houston Rockets are very famously an analytics based team that shoots nothing but three pointers and layups. The idea behind this is that three pointers are worth more (obviously) and layups lead to either easy shots of free throws. Old fashioned basketball meatheads may hate this idea, but James Harden definitely doesn’t. He was third in the league in three-point shots attempted and took a whopping 824 free throws- 150 more than the second place finisher and has gone from a sixth man in OKC, albeit an over qualified one, to the best shooting guard in the league.
They may make millions of dollars, but pro athletes, and NBA players specifically, are ridiculously proud guys who seem to always have a chip on their shoulder. Even if they hadn’t finished 1-2 in the MVP voting, I’d be excited for this match-up, but despite everything players may say, the awards matter to them, and the extra motivation for these two (Curry looking to prove he deserves it, Harden to prove he should have won it) is the perfect icing on the cake. After two games of the series, these guys have not disappointed. Curry continues to defy logic with his offensive brilliance (67 points and 11 three-pointers so far), and  Harden has been phenomenal (33 points, 11 boards, 9 assists and 3.5 steals per game) even with Dwight Howard at half strength and no real second offensive option. Both games have come down to the fourth quarter, and while I fully expect the Warriors to win the title, Houston can easily imagine themselves coming back in this series. If the sports gods are listening, can we please get a seven game series with these two? Thanks.

I’ll admit it, I’m still working my way through my Chicago Bulls related grief, but I’m getting closer to acceptance. There are still rough times, I’ll see the red in the Hawks court and get reminded of the United Center floor, but luckily, we get to watch the best batch of young talent in NBA history. It looks like we’re careening toward a Cavs/Warriors final, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal by any means. There are always surprises and more importantly, there are always things to see along the way. So sometime in the next week, put away the emo music, finish off the pint of Ben and Jerry’s, open up the shades and go back into the world. Just remember, the playoffs will be gone soon, and as they say, “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.”