Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Theo the Savior

I'm going to try to post more frequently, like maybe once a week. This is one of the best times of the sports year,  so I need to do some thought sharing/ranting about what I know best (or at least pretend to). Let's start with the Chicago Cubs acquisition of Theo Epstein.

If you squint, you can see the halo
The Cubs are set to name the Boston Red Sox general manager to become their new president of baseball operations [EDIT: It just became official and was announced on Tuesday, during the off day of the fall classic).  Owner Tom Ricketts was out to make a big splash as a new GM, with names like Brad Pitt Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, and Andrew Friedman joining Theo at the top of the list to replace Jim Hendry, and it he has.  Let's pause here and talk about Jim Hendry for a second. He came into the season on very thin ice, his team riddled with bad contracts and underperforming players.  It was an odd ending for a man who started off his tenure very promising. He acquired Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton in 2003, as well as few other moves that propelled to Cubs to their first playoff series win since 1945 (and withing 5 outs of the World Series, which makes my heart hurt to type).  He got Nomar Garciaparra (from Theo Epstein) in a deadline deal in 2004, which was a great move considering who he gave up.  This is where I believe things were taken out of his hands. Give a franchise that is so associated with losing a small taste of victory and they will give anything to get there again. I'm not trying to give Hendry a pass, but I think he was overpressured to add big names and free agent talent, like Alfonso Soriano.  Either way, it was clear the Hendry's time was done. The man I wanted for the job was Andrew Friedman, the GM of the Tampa Bay Rays.  His ability to scout and acquire young talent is the single most important impressive thing in today's MLB.  Teams like the Rangers, Rays, and Braves show the league how crucial it is to develop a farm system to continually feed players into the majors and acquire key veterans for a playoff push. Friedman showed he could do all that with a absurdly low payroll.

Theo is coming into a pretty dire situation.  Big paychecks, a weak farm system, and a lack of baseball fundamentals have killed the Cubs for the past few years.  My biggest issue with the Cubs, and what drives the losing, is a complete lack of identity and direction.  Think of the best teams and they all have a strategy; the Yankees pay for big bats, the Braves stress pitching, etc.  Look at this year's World Series teams, the Cardinals and the Rangers. The Cardinals use Tony LaRussa to overstrategize their way to wins, and have a number of dependable role players (and Albert Pujols doesn't hurt). The Rangers want pitchers who eat innings and a crazy strong lineup that is dangerous from top to bottom.  These teams both had front offices that said, "Here is my plan, let's build to it and not waver from that path."  The Cubs don't have that, which leads to only one identity-losing. Think of North Siders roster.  How would you say they built their team? What do they value? How do they plan to win games? These are all questions that must be answered for a team to contend.  And this isn't for just on the field stuff. What is the identity inside the clubhouse? When the BoSox won the Series in 2004, they had Kevin Millar and Johnny Damon leading their whole "Cowboy Up" thing. This past year, the Brewers had a goofy yet cocky attitude that carried them into the NLCS.  Epstein's first challenge is to establish a direction for this team.

I guess he was the best hitter ever
Theo will not actually be the GM for the Cubs, but will instead take on the role of "President of Baseball Operations." Basically, he will oversee everything, from the big league roster to the farm system, and be the man to set the direction of the franchise. Epstein will be bringing his former protege, Jed Hoyer, who had been the GM of the San Diego Padres.  What guys like Theo and Hoyer bring to a team is their understanding of sabermetrics.  For those who don't know, sabermetrics is a specialized, objective analysis of baseball, which was made most famous by Beane and "Moneyball".  They include stats like Batting Average on Balls In-Play (BABIP), which looks to identify over or underperforming players, or On-Base % plus Slugging % (OPS), which adds the ability to get on base to the ability to hit for power (a OPS over .900 is considered excellent).  One of my favorites is Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. This looks to see how many wins a team would get with a certain player over a "replacement level" player.  This gives an actual stat to how valuable a player is to his team. For example, the single season WAR for Babe Ruth in 192 was 14.7.  This means that if you replaced him with an average replacement player, your team would win 14.7 fewer games.  Sabermetrics are (for the most part) able to quantify scouts analysis like, "Great vision at the plate," or "He has game-changing speed." It is a great tool to build teams and analyze up and coming talent, especially in a sport that is as hit and miss as baseball.

Seid and I compared the situations that Theo came into to what he would be seeing in Chicago from a roster perspective.  How do the 2011 Cubs compare with the 2002 Red Sox?

C - CHC Geovanny Soto vs. BOS Jason Varitek: Statistically, the are very similar. We can use a metric we just learned about, OPS, and see that both catchers have essentially the same percentage.  Soto has more power, Varitek had a better  average.  From leadership and defense perspective, I will take Varitek. His work behind the plate and in the clubhouse is key to taking a team deep into the playoffs.

1B - CHC Carlos Pena vs. BOS Tony Clark: Both are lame duck players. Pena was exactly as advertised, leading the team in HR's and strikeouts, but was only on a one year contract. Clark was disappointing and was replaced by the likable Kevin Millar.  Between the 2, I would definitely choose Pena. 1B will be a big spot to fill, just as it was in 2002. Both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder will be on the market, but will demand long and lucrative contracts. More on this later.

2B - CHC Darwin Barney vs. BOS Rey Sanchez: These players both have very similar stat lines-a .315 on-base % and low power numbers. Barney has better speed number and just finished his rookie season. I'd take Barney between the 2, but Sanchez was replaced by the underrated Todd Walker in 2003. There isn't a great market for second base, and I think Theo will see what he has in the youngster.

Help me Stari-Lin Kenobi, you're my only hope
SS - CHC Starlin Castro vs. BOS Nomar Garciaparra: This is a toss up, big time.  Castro is undoubtedly the Cubs best player, leading the MLB in hits at age 21.  He still has potential to grow into and has a bit of work to do on his defense. Garciaparra was in the prime of his career at this point, posting great all around numbers and doing it all for the BoSox.  If I'm making a run at a title in the next 2 years, I'd take the veteran Garciaparra.  In the Cubs case, Castro is perfect because he has so much ahead of him and has the chance to be the centerpiece for the next 15 years.

3B - CHC Aramis Ramirez vs. BOS Shea Hillenbrand: On the surface, ARam has better numbers. He lead the Cubs in slugging % last year. However, his numbers in the past few years have come once the Cubs are already out of the pennant race.  These players are pretty similar, with neither really standing out as great. Hillenbrand was replaced by Bill Mueller in 2003, which was a good move for the Red Sox. Ramirez has an expensive team option that can get picked up, which could go either way. The Cubs want to shed payroll, but there are no other options at 3B for 2012, unless prospect Josh Vitters is ready to go.

LF - CHC Alfonso Soriano vs. BOS Manny Ramirez: Oh my. This one is no contest. Ramirez was in the prime of his HOF career, while Soriano flouders under the weight of a huge contract and is the poster child for the Cubs underperformance.  Both have been rightfully accused of playing in their own little world, but Manny was still able to do amazing things. There is no situation where I take Soriano over ManRam.

CF - CHC Marlon Byrd vs. BOS Johnny Damon:  This one is another no-brainer IMO, and I'm going to go with Damon.  Both are great clubhouse guys, and I love watching Marlon play. I don't think I've seen a man enjoy the game of baseball as much as he does.  However, Damon's stats overcome that. Damon had great speed mixed with a bit of power that made him an ideal top of the order guy.

RF - CHC Tyler Colvin  vs. BOS Trot Nixon: The Cubs had a myriad of rightfielders in 2011, but Colvin will be the man that Theo will inherit.  He was unable to build on a nice rookie year and finished 2011 with  an OBP of .204 and only 6 HR. He did have a strongish end  to the year.   Nixon was considerably higher in all offensive  categories and was in the prime of his career.  I'd take Nixon if I'm building a playoff team, but Colvin could prove that he is worth something in  2012.

SP - CHC Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, Carlos Zambrano vs. BOS Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, John Burkett,  Frank  Castillo, Tim Wakefield: Theo got 2 fantastic pitchers in the primes of their careers in Martinez and Lowe. Both have sub-2.60 ERA's in 2002, while the Cubs didn't have a single man under 3.00.  Matt Garza had the lowest ERA with a 3.32 and also led in K's with 197. The rest had ERA's just south of 5.00, Cashner was injured for most of the year, and we all know what Big Z's deal is.  I won't even address the back half of the BoSox rotation, because that top-2 is great for a GM to build on, plus Tim Wakefield was a capable number 4 or 5 in 2002. Again, Boston's starters are the easy choice here, and it really isn't close.

CL - CHC Carlos Marmol vs BOS Ugueth Urbina: I'm not going to touch rest of bullpens, because those are always in flux. Urbina had 40 saves for the Red Sox, but wasn't anything special. Theo dumped him for Keith Foulke, and Urbina eventually went to jail for trying to kill his farm workers. Marmol had a stellarr 2010, but followed up by blowing 10 saves in 2011. He was very inconsistent and his performance hinges on his ability to control his nasty slider. I take Marmol because he still has some great talent, and the trend of up and down performances of closers.

Theo's performance in Boston has been highly scrutinized over his time there. He did bring on a number of bad contracts, like John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Julio Lugo, as well as some questionable trades.  However, he did do something no GM in Boston had done in 86 years- He brought them a World Series, and then another one in 2007.  In my books, that speak for itself, especially since the  2007 team had a large quantity of home grown talent. Epstein displayed a keen sense for spotting value in up-and-coming talent and underappreciated veterans.  The ability to develop a respectable farm system is what I am looking forward to the most, and is something that Tom Ricketts has promised to pour money into, saying today, "In his new role, Theo will be given the resources and opportunity to build a strong foundation and the winning culture that our organization and fans deserve."  Guys like Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youklis, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jonathan Papelbon all came up under Epstein.  He also was able to acquire players like David Ortiz and Curt Schilling, who keyed championship runs, as well as Adrian Gonzalez,  who could make a case for AL MVP in 2011.

So here we are. Theo was officially introduced by the Cubs today and had some good things to say about what he plans to do as the mastermind of the Cubs.

"I am so excited to spend your money."
  • "It truly feels great to be a Cub today," and his new job "the ultimate challenge." (couldn't be more right there)
  • "Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game," He stressed "sustained success" and noted that the Cubs' 2011 draft marked a "clear philosophical change" in his eyes. (as I said above, this is the
    most important contribution)
  • "I firmly believe that we can preserve the things that make the Cubs so special and over time build a consistent winner, a team that will be playing baseball in October consistently and a team that will ultimately win the World Series."
  • "When I got to Boston they hadn't won in 86 years. We didn't run from that challenge. We embraced it. We decided the way to attack it was to build the best baseball operation that we could, to try to establish a winning culture, to work as hard as possible and to bring in players who care more about each other and more about winning than the people around them thought or the external expectations, the external mindset. That's something that is going to be important to us here as well.
As a first step with the Cubs managerial situation, Epstein intends to meet with Mike Quade in person over the next week.  Epstein also intends to "take a creative look at the big league team."  I think this means that Quade is done, and I think this is for the best.  Despite me saying that Quade was the right choice, he looked to be in way over his head the whole season and continually played veterans like Reed Johnson over Colvin in a lost season.  Names like Ryne Sandberg and Terry Francona will float around as replacements for the Cubs skipper.  He also has some personnel decisions to make, such as what to do with Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez, as well as potentially taking on Pujols or Fielder to play first base for the next 10 years.

In the grand scheme, this is a good move for the Cubs and a potetially history-making decision by both the team and Epstein. If he can take the Cubs to a MLB championship, he will go down with Mike Ditka in Chicago sports lore. However, if he fails, he loses the genius tag he earned in Boston and the Cubs stay where they are. The North Siders needed a serious change in the front office and a new sense of direction, and Theo provides that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Michigan at Midseason and Post Season Baseball

So I haven't blogged in quite a bit. Things have picked up here in redneck Maryland.  I have been gone many weekends, visiting Ann Arbor, Boston, and Dayton. I've also been doing some preparation for a rotation with a contractor in Seattle and Palo Alto to design with a new piece of fuels lab equipment for 6 months. Mike Thompson can relate ("I understand how tedious blogging is now. It takes me at least 3 hours per entry...").  But enough about me. You want to hear me rant.

I was inspired by Mike Thompson's blog about his European shenanigans (read it here) and his thoughts on our little brother from East Lansing. I have his permission to quote him in this post, because he is spot on.  So let's start with the Michigan-MSU game from this past weekend.

Every Wolverine fan knew this was a huge game for Michigan.  Outside of maybe Notre Dame, UM had not played a quality opponent, or at least one that we would be able to judge ourselves against the nation's top teams. The trends were pretty much all in favor of Michigan, IMO. MSU had a weak O-Line against one of Michigan's strengths (a weak offense overall really), Hoke pumping up the game, and oh yea, Denard.  The first drive was so promising, with the Blue moving down the field and Denard being Denard.  But that's where it ended. Michigan's linebackers couldn't stop anything, which always will lead to losses (aka 2008-2010).  Al Borges clearly freaked out about a few short runs and began trying for long passes in high winds.  These don't work in low winds for Michigan unless Junior Hemingway out-leaps the DB.  What happened to the offense Michigan ran against Minnesota I will never know. Either way, Michigan was clearly outprepared and outplayed and have an embarrassing 4 game losing streak to MSU.

The story everyone is focused on, especially in Ann Arbor, is the, ahem, questionable sportsmanship of the Spartans.  Missed the game?  Check out some of the MSU antics:

Win or no win, every Spartan player, coach, and fan should be horrified at that display.  William Gholston was responsible for not one, but two ejectionable offenses. Marcus Rush (#44) was put right back on the field after throwing Denard to the ground well after he threw the ball.  It's sad to say this, but it seemed like MSU would have been happy with a loss if it mean Denard Robinson left the game injured.  And then ESPN color man Chris Spielman pulled out this gem after one of the personal fouls- "Dantonio represents clean, hard hitting football." Are you serious? He continued to put people in the game who deserved to be thrown out and
has not been afraid to reinstate players who participate in criminal activity. But it doesn't just stop at Dantonio. It is running amok in the Spartan fanbase. I'm going to generalize a bit and of course I realize that there are great MSU fans and bad UM fans.  But it's hard to watch MSU fans.  Here is where Thompson says it best - "They act like children and then complain about being called such, making us feel like they are definitely definitely children."  This is so true.  You've heard the phrase before, play like you've been there before. MSU is not capable of this, like, at all. I get that UM-MSU is the Spartan Super Bowl and that this game makes their whole year, but to not care about an opposing player's well being in the "spirit" of winning? That is so wrong. I'm not from Michigan and didn't grow up in the UM-MSU atmosphere, so this game never meant as much to me. I didn't have to hear kids I went to high school with go on about how dominant the Spartans are.

I'm sure the whole "little brother" thing is pretty annoying for Sparty. But it's not like it wasn't deserved. Michigan has won twice the games MSU has in the series and Sparty does act like someone's little brother. They get overly excited to win against someone with more history, when that older team has way more important things to worry about (tUoOSU), but go and cry to mommy (Tom Izzo) when things don't go their way.  Win or lose, Sparty acts with zero maturity.  MSU can't win against UM forever.  It will be fun to see how MSU fans act once Michigan starts to win again.

MLB Playoffs

The 2011 World Series is set and for the 66th straight year, the Cubs are absent. Oh well, maybe next year (and look for a possible post on the Cubs new GM and offseason plans).  The St. Louis Cardinals will face off against the Texas Rangers in this year's fall classic. If you remember, I picked both of these teams to miss the playoffs (and even the Cardinals to finish 4th in the NL Central).  Neither of my World Series picks, the Giants and the White Sox, even made the postseason.  If you also remember that I am a Cubs fan, you will realize I have no idea how to evaluate a winning baseball team.

I think that this World Series shows why the MLB playoffs needs a little tweaking.  I am not saying that neither of these teams deserve to be here.  I am just questioning how a wildcard team can play with basically zero disadvantage and then gets home field for the World Series.   I'm sure I've shared my feelings on the All-Star Game deciding home field advantage (if not, I THINK IT IS STUPID BUD SELIG YOU STUPIDPANTS).  The wildcard shouldn't have a major disadvantage or anything, but there should be some bonus to winning the division. I also think that the LDS is too short.  I like that there are only 8 teams in the MLB postseason, as opposed to half the league in the NHL and NBA, especially when it comes to pitching.  However, I don't see the reason why all the series can't be 7 games. I think this helps the better team out slightly by getting rid of fluky performances and requires a much more careful handling of the pitching staffs.  In short, my fix for the postseason is all 7 game series and a better record means home field.

This is sure to be seen again in the 2011 postseason (sorry,
Tigers' fans)
As far as the series goes, look for both teams' bullpens to be heavily used. Both of these bullpens are a huge reason that the teams are where they are.  Each team has starters that have the potential to do great things, but have zero consistency outside of Chris Carpenter.  It will all come to whether or not the Cardinals can survive the Rangers offensive onslaught.  Texas' lineup is very solid from top to bottom and all of them have the ability to come up in clutch situations. These games could all turn very sloppy, very quickly.  I don't think the Cardinals have the pitching to keep the Rangers offense at bay and they don't have the offense to be able to catch up in multiple games.  The lack of pitching in this series for me means a short one and another year of a weak WS since 2002.  I'm calling the Rangers in 5.

NHL Opening Week

The 2011-2012 hockey season is underway and my Blackhawks are 2-2. I expect a middling record while coach Joel Quenneville figures out the lines and how all the new pieces will fit together.  Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa look like they will absolutely dominate this year as long as the latter stays on the ice. They should be able carry the team until my boy Jonathan Toews ends his yearly October funk and does what he is capable of. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook should soon find themselves on the blueline together again, heading up a deep defensive corps and a goalie looking to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.  The Hawks also added a lot more grit to the team this year, which will hopefully help them be strong down the stretch.

Many experts are picking Chicago to take the Central this year, but I don't think so. The Red Wings look very dangerous and have gotten out to a quick 4-0 start.  The forwards are of course stellar (any team with Pavel Datsyuk will be).  The key this year will be the D-men. The back line is where I think the Wings fell short last year, despite the Herculean effort of the ageless Nick Lidstrom.  The only thing standing in the way of the Wings are injuries, which have led to earlier than expected (in Wings terms) exits from the playoffs. If they can keep their guys on the ice, I fully expect the Wings to take the Central (which is the strongest division in the NHL).

My pick last year for the Stanley Cup Finals (Washington in 6 over LA) was very wrong.  LA suffered from injuries and a lack of depth, while Washington just can't win in big games.  The Kings fixed some of that by acquiring Mike Richards and Simon Gagne in exchange for some excellent young talent. Washington just has to show they can win when it counts, and until then, they should not be trusted.  Last year's Finals teams, the Bruins and Canucks, both took steps backward. The Canucks are still weak on the back line and Luongo has to think about his Finals' performance all season. Boston is still a great team, but they seem to be falling prey to the hangover that plagued the Hawks last year.

Onto my picks for this year.  I know what I said about not picking teams you can't trust. However, I feel real good about the Sharks this year. They got a proven defenseman in Brent Burns and swapped Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat, who has shown he can perform in the playoffs.  They have gotten to the doorstep so many times that I feel like they can push through, much like the Canucks in 2011. From the Eastern Conference, I love the Tampa Bay Lightning. They surprised everyone by going to the Conference Finals with a young squad and a couple of key veterans. Sound familiar? The Blackhawks stormed into the 2009 Conference Finals before losing to a more deserving and talented Detroit team, much like the 2011 Bruins.  The Hawks came back the next year and took the Stanley Cup.  Steven Stamkos is the real deal and the team has the Red Wings touch in Stevie Y (like the Blackhawks and Scotty Bowman...see what I mean!?) That's why my 2012 Stanley Cup Final prediction is the Tampa Lightning over the San Jose Sharks in 7.  By that time, we should all be able to watch the coolest goal horn ever lighting up on national TV:

That will do it for now.  I will hopefully be posting soon on the Cubs activity since their season ended and my offseason plan for the team, along with a few thought on the NCAA, NFL, and NHL (and lolz not the NBA).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

OSU Followup and Current Events

At the urging of one Ms. Kinsey Brock, I will share my thoughts on the OSU/Pryor fallout and maybe throw a few other current sports things in there too.

"Which car should I drive home after the game, Coach?"
It's hitting the fan. And it's hitting our friends in Columbus hard.  Now that Tressel is gone and the NCAA investigators have crawled around OSU, take about what the expected punishment will be.  Some say that it will lessened now that Tressel is gone, especially if he was the sole source of all the problems.  However, the real crime at OSU wasn't that players were getting cars and selling memorabilia. It's that Tressel and the OSU AD covered those dealings up and continuously lied, even after things were brought to the surface.  OSU's punishment must be at least what USC received (loss of scholarships, 2 year bowl ban) and truthfully deserves more.  This won't truly cripple the program, but will be a nice black mark that all faithful Michigan fans can look back on with fondness.

Shortly after head coach Jim Tressel stepped down, news broke that QB Terrelle Pryor was going to skip his senior season.  This was probably to be expected, especially since a story about him selling $40K in autographs came out as his attorney told the media that Pryor was done at OSU.  It would have been real interesting had Pryor stayed, especially when he returned from his suspension. I'm sure a majority of tUoOSU fans blame him for running golden boy Tressel out of town and the mix of boos and cheers raining down from the Horseshoe would have been pretty fun to hear. This is more good news for Michigan, but Pryor never really tore Michigan up.  Of course his stats were pretty padded against the Wolverines, but he just happened to be the Buckeye QB when Michigan had its worst defense in history.  An eye test during the 2009 showed Pryor being shut down at times by a truly porous defense.

Leaving OSU before his senior season but after the NFL could prove killer for Pryor. 2 guys in recent memory did this - Maurice Clarett from OSU and Mike Williams from USC. Clarett petitioned for early entry into the NFL after he was suspended for his sophomore year. He was rejected by the NFL, sat out 2 full seasons and was taken in the middle rounds the next year. He never came close to succeeding and is now rotting in jail somewhere after multiple arrests (edit: Apparently he is playing in the highly regarded UFL). Mike Williams petitioned alongside Clarett and was also rejected. He didn't have near the behavioral issues Clarett did and was inexplicably taken 10th overall by the Lions during their overdrafting WR phase. Williams never lived up to his promise and left the league, but is now playing for the Seattle Seahawks after a nice 2010 season. I think Pryor will fall somewhere in between these guys. He doesn't have the issues with the law Clarett did, but definitely has some prima donna attitudes. He held a LeBron-style press conference to announce his college decision and has said some peculiar things (Remember his, "I mean everyone kills people, murders people, steals from you, steals from me, whatever," when asked about Michael Vick?) He never really had really successful season, even last year. His crowning game was the 2010 Rose Bowl vs. Oregon, but never really dominated the way many expected him to. He doesn't have the talent of similar mobile QB's like Vick or Vince Young, and taking a year off to try to play what is probably the most difficult position in sports doesn't help. He has the athleticism, but doesn't have the intangibles, like football smarts or leadership Pryor would actually benefit greatly if the NFL lockouts its whole season. No doubt some team will take a flyer on him, but I don't see success in Pryor's future.

MLB at the 1/3 point. Well, my preseason predictions for the 2011 MLB season started off looking really bad, but they are now proving to be pretty accurate.  Here are a few storylines at this point of the season:

-The AL Central was completely backwards through April and most of May.  The Cleveland Indians rode superb pitching and timely hitting to the best record in baseball for a good chunk of the early season, and the Royals weren't far behind.  Meanwhile, the Twins pitching couldn't beat anyone and injuries ravaged the offense.  The White Sox hitting struggled badly after an opening day outburst and the bullpen was blowing a game every other day. The Indians are now fading and the Tigers are rising to the top. I'm still predicting a close finish, but it most certainly won't include Minnesota.

- The Pirates are playing .500 baseball, which has given Pittsburgh hope that they can finally have a non losing season for the first time in 18 years.  The Pirates have had inexplicably good pitching, led by Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton (who retooled his motion after Roy Halladay).  The NL Central is pretty bad this season, as the 2 worst NL teams, the Cubs and the Astros, reside in the Central's cellar.  The Cardinals have once again shown that they can win no matter what, riding Kyle Loshe and Jamie Garcia to the NL Central lead, even with Pujols "struggling" against any team that's not the Cubs.

-The Red Sox are who we thought they were. Even Dennis Green was concerned with the way Boston started the season.  Their marquee hitters couldn't hit, namely Carl Crawford, and their pitching was underperformingSox are leading the AL East have have been dominating the Yankees, especially in Yankee Stadium, where they are 5-0.  They remain a serious threat to take the AL pennant and could put up huge numbers in the second half.

And BIG NEWS! The Cubs still blow. Mike Quade has proven that he is pretty much in over his head, making a number of questionable in-game decisions and puzzling lineup cards.  I thought he would be perfect for the Cubs as a career minor league coach, improving fundamentals and growing the Cubs young talent.  While Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney have been bright spots, the Cubs are near the bottom of the league in home runs, walks, and stolen bases.  The have given up 36 unearned runs and are on pace for over 100, which goes along with the lowest fielding percentage in the NL.  The bullpen has been pitiful and injuries killed the back end of the rotation. The most frustrating is the batting average with runners in scoring position. The Cubs are hitting .268 (second best in the NL), but with men in scoring position their average plummets to .213 (second worst in the NL). This will should be Jim Hendry's last season on the North Side, so hopefully he can trade away some of the Cubs' older higher performing players, like Kosuke Fukudome, by the trade deadline.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Tressel Era is Done at tUoOSU

I didn't think a day off could get much better. The sun is out in here Southern Maryland, plus I got to sleep in. But then I woke up to the news that Michigan-destroyer Jim Tressel resigned as head coach of Ohio State.  This is truly tremendous news for all Michigan fans. However, the news of Tressel's resignation is just the tip of the iceberg on the whole scandal.

-I can't wait for OSU fans to paint Tressel as some sort of martyr.  The fact that he resigned and wasn't removed  by the NCAA or fired will just fuel their beliefs that Tressel was a stand-up guy who just got caught by the haters.  No school can but the blinders on like Ohio State.

-This news cannot have ANY impact on the investigation of the school.  Although the (supposed) source of the violations is now gone, the way the whole violation story broke clearly showed that the entire athletic department is flawed.  OSU should have victories and/or scholarships removed, be put on probation, and maybe even have a short bowl ban.  The NCAA must unravel the whole thing, including the tattoos and the cars.  For USC to receive a 2 year bowl ban and OSU to only get a 5 game suspension shows why the NCAA is one of the more hypocritical organizations in sports. For more insight, see the past week's episode of South Park.

-This firing is fantastic for Michigan.  There have not been many coaches that owned the Blue like Tressel did.  His 9-1 record against the Wolverines had all Michigan fans yearning for the days of John Cooper.  Now that the vest is gone, Michigan MUST MUST MUST start its own winning record against whoever the new coach  is. No game will be bigger than the Game in 2011.  It would be really bad for tUoOSU to continue their win streak against Michigan.  The taunting will be 10 times worse in the Post-Tressel era.

Don't get me wrong. I couldn't be happier that Jim Tressel is no more. Maybe it is just the Cubs fan in me that looks to the other side so soon.  Great stories pretty much always come with stipulations. Either way, it's a great day in Ann Arbor and it's great to be a Michigan Wolverine.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

MLB 2011 Preview: The Playoffs

Now that you have an idea of what to expect from each team, it's time to recap the divisions and talk about what the MLB 2011 postseason has in store for baseball fans (the playoff teams are in bold).

AL East:
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

AL Central:
1. Chicago White Sox
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Minnesota Twins
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Cleveland Indians

AL West:
1. Oakland A's
2. Texas Rangers
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
4. Seattle Mariners

NL East:
1. Philadephia Phillies
2. Atlanta Braves
3. Florida Marlins
4. Washinton Nationals
5. New York Mets

NL Central:
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

NL West:
1. San Francisco Giants
2. Colorado Rockies
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks

This will give us the follow LDS matchups:

Boston Red Sox vs. Detroit Tigers - This will be a matchup of teams that are very similar.  Both teams thrive on offense, but have aces that can shut down opponents and a solid bullpen.  The prospect of two of the best first baseman in the game going head to head is exciting, but it will be their surrounding casts that will tell the story in this series.   In the end, the rotations and bullpens are very equal, but the Red Sox revamped offense will just be too much for the Tigers and will take the series 3-1.

Chicago White Sox vs. Oakland A's - The A's have a very good rotation and bullpen that can get on a roll like the Giants did in 2010.  However, White Sox will be ending the year very hot after battling with the Tigers and Twins for the division.  Chicago's pitching will be effective against a weak A's offense, giving the White Sox power to win the ALDS 3-2.


Philadelphia Phillies vs. Cincinnati Reds - I know these are the same matchups as 2010, so I expect them to play out a lot like last year.  The Reds offense is real fun to watch (a nice comeback on Opening Day), but the Phillies pitching is just way too good.  The Reds have the offensive talent to take a game from the Phils (unlike last year), but in the end, Phils win 3-1.

San Francisco Giants vs. Atlanta Braves - This will be a much improved Braves team taking on the Giants in the NLDS.  The Braves pitching can be very effective and the offense can challenge the Giants stellar rotation.   But this will once again be the time for the Giants offensive playoff leader to step forward and the pitching to dominate.  The Braves keep it close, but the Giants win 3-2


Red Sox vs. White Sox - The battle of the Sox will come down to which team is playing hotter.  I am really high on the White Sox this year (their talent, not the team) and think that they take this series.  The Pale Hose have a underrated rotation and a lineup that can produce alot of power.  Despite the Red Sox outstanding offense, the White Sox are built to win now and have the drive to get back to the World Series. The Chicago White Sox win the AL pennant 4-2


Giants vs. Phillies:  I am so excited to watch these 2 rotation battle it out.  A series with potential like this is the reason we all watch baseball.  Halladay vs. Lincecum, Cain vs. Lee, Sanchez vs. Hamels, and Bumgarner vs. Oswalt.  The Phillies do hold the edge in the starting pitching, but these won't all be complete games.  The Phillies bullpen is very weak, while the Giants only improved theirs after winning it all last year.  I also have serious questions about the health of the Phillies lineup.  Although the Phils rotation is hard to pick against, I will.  The Giants take the NL pennant 4-3.

World Series:

Giants vs. White Sox:  Plain and simple, the Series will once again come down to pitching.  I have been waiting for a quality World Series since 2002, when the Angels took down the Giants.  However, this may shape up to be another disappointing championship.  The Giants pitching is so good that they can shut down the White Sox offense.  If Chicago can keep its power alive, their pitching can challenge the weaker Giants offense.  But as we saw in 2010, a high powered offense can be neutralized.  San Francisco's pitching will once again take them to the promised land.

My pick for the World Series: The San Francisco Giants over the Chicago White Sox 4 games to 1.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: NL West

The final division preview for 2011 is the NL West.  Not many people predicted that the World Series winner would come from the NL West.  The Giants rode phenomenal all-around pitching to take the MLB crown after beating the Padres out right at the end of the season.  This season should turn out like an other in the NL West - tight play from almost every team in the division all the way until September.  Their are 4 teams that have a shot at this division, but pitching will once again decide who takes the West crown.

The Freak Tim Lincecum should return to his
Cy Young ways in 2011
The San Francisco Giants are the defending World Champs for the first time since arriving from New York.  It was a team that got very hot at the right time and drew life from their pitching.  Tim Lincecum has been all anyone could ask for so far in his career.  He already has 2 Cy Young's and was the ace of a World Series winning rotation, even though he was having a down year.  He will continue to be one of the best pitchers in baseball and lead a very talented staff.  Matt Cain and Jonathon Sanchez are a formidable pair at 2 and 3, while youngster Madison Bumgarner looks to build on a great rookie season and postseason performance. Barry Zito is their 5th starter, and though his is vastly overpaid, he is able to lock down that spot and eat innings for the Giants.  Brian Wilson proved himself one of the top closers in the league last year and should be in 2011 as well, although he will start the season on the DL.  Wilson is not alone, as San Fran returns with a deep bullpen again this year.  Offensively, the Giants will look to do the same as last year; provide timely hitting to compliment their grade A pitching.  Rookie of the year catcher Buster Posey will be looked on to carry the lineup, so he cannot afford a sophomore slump.  Slugger Aubrey Huff will be there to help him out, as will Freddy Sanchez, Andres Torres, and Pablo Sandoval.  It was announced today that top prospect Brandon Belt will start the year at first base and will look to keep the NL rookie of the year in San Francisco.   The Giants didn't lose any key pieces from their championship squad and actually got better.  As long as the bullpen can stay healthy, the Giants have a great chance of defending their title.

The Colorado Rockies started of their 2010 very hot, with ace Ubaldo Jimenez and his sub-1.00 ERA looking like a Cy Young lock.  However, that's why they play the whole season, as the pitching struggled int he second half.  The Rockies had a quiet offseason and weren't able to get the middle of the rotation starter that they could probably use. They do have a very nice offense, in the right park to have a good offense in. The lineup is centered around shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, although outfield Carlos Gonzalez stormed in the NL MVP race last year with a .334 average and 34 home runs. These two will provide nice pop for a lineup that also includes the speedy Dexter Fowler, the ageless Todd Helton, and third baseman Ian Stewart. On the pitching side, Jimenez is joined by Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel, and Jhoulys Chacin.  This is not the best rotation in the NL, but can be effective when paired with their above average offense.  In order for the Rockies to be contenders in the West this year, the offense will have to come to play every day and the pitching must be consistent all the way through game 162.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are one of the most talented teams in the league.  This talent just has not lived up to its potential in the past few years.  The Dodgers no longer have Manny Ramirez, who took the team on his back when he was acquired from the Red Sox in 2008.  LA also has had to deal with a messy off the field issue, as the owners of the team, the McCourts, fought over the team in a nasty divorce.  In order for the Dodgers to return to the top of the division, all their stars will have to play like they are able to.  This starts with centerfielder Matt Kemp, who can be a top 10 talent when he wants to be.  He should bounce back this season, especially with Don Mattingly stepping in as the new manager for the retired Joe Torre.  Kemp is joined by Andre Ethier, Casey Blake, and James Loney in the lineup.  Ethier hopes to play like he did in early 2010, putting up MVP numbers before a hand injury derailed his season.  The rotation is led by Clayton Kershaw, a young strikeout pitcher who hopes to grow on his previous 2 seasons.  Chad Billingsly, Hideki Kuroda, and Ted Lilly are all very capable pitchers, but will need to show consistency to help out the offense.    They will also need to eat lots of innings, as the bullpen is fairly week outside of closer Jonathon Broxton.  The Dodgers certainly have the talent to take the NL West this year, but they may fall into an out of control downward spiral by midseason.
Ace Mat Latos will be relied on to build on his
fantastic 2010 season

The San Diego Padres surprised pretty much everyone last year, including yours truly.  No one really predicted that the Padres would be battling the Giants all the way through September.  They keep with the "year of the pitcher" that took over the MLB last year.  San Diego rode stellar pitching from opening day, with young starters Mat Latos and Clayton Richard leading the way. The Friars did lose Jon Garland, Kevin Correia and Chris Young in the offseason, but did pick up effective starter in Aaron Harang.  Tim Stauffer and Will LeBlanc close out the Padres strong rotation.  The bullpen will once again be very deep, and closer Bell should have another great season.  Offensively, the Padres will focus in developing their young talent.  They traded their best offense player, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, to the Red Sox for some of their top prospects, like prize pitcher Chris Kelly.  In order to make up that hole in the lineup, the Padres will need young players like Chase Headley, Kyle Blanks, and Cameron Maybin to step their game up and fulfill their potential.  The Padres will also lean on Ryan Ludwick and Brad Hawpe to provide some offense for San Diego.  The Padres are a very hard team to predict.  Although I am putting them fourth, they have the potential to push the Giants to the finish once again.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have not been able to get back on track since the 2001 World Series.  They have suffered through a number of unfortunate injuries, notably to Cy Young starter Brandon Webb.  Webb is gone, as is Dan Haren.  It looked like their young talent was going to take them back to the top of the West, but they either dealt will injuries or couldn't perform at their promised talent level.  The D-backs top of the lineup is very nice and could probably compete with any other team in the league.  The 1-4 is SS Stephen Drew, 2B Kelly Johnon, and outfielders Chris B. Young and Justin Upton, the latter being an uber-prospect who has yet to hit his stride.  However, the offense drops off sharply, with names like Russel Branyan and Melvin Mora.  The rotation is also pretty weak, led by Joe Saunders and Ian Kennedy.  An name to keep your eye on is Daniel Hudson, who was acquired from the White Sox last year.  He was fantastic (1.69 ERA) for the D-backs at the end of last season and will most likely end up being their best pitcher in 2011.  Arizona's closer is J.J. Putz, who is looking to put his career back on track since suffering a myriad of injuries.  The Diamondback do have a nice core of young players, but the surrounding cast is very poor and will keep them in the NL West basement for most of the year.

As for the finish, I am keeping with my theme of "pitching is really really really important."  Going with that, I think the Giants will take command of the West by May and will not give it up for the rest of the season.  The Padres, Dodgers, and Rockies have the pieces to dethrone the G-men, but they will need to overcome the second best rotation in the NL.  A NLCS of the the Giants versus the Phillies is a very exciting prospect for many baseball fans.  My pick for the 2011 NL West: The San Francisco Giants.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: NL Central

Now that we moved past the Phillies and their ridiculous starting rotation, we can move on to what should be a very competitive division in 2011, the NL Central. The Reds surprised everyone but themselves by taking the Central, then getting promptly trounced by the Phils in the NLDS.  Cincinnati returns as the favorite in the NL Central, but will face some stiff competition for the divisional crown.

NL MVP Joey Votto will look to defend
his crown and propel the Reds
The Cincinnati Reds rode a ton of homegrown talent into the NL playoffs last year and will look to do the same in 2011.  They are a very likeable team that sports a fantastic starting lineup.  First baseman Joey Votto lived up to the expectations and walked away with the NL MVP in 2010.  Though his numbers may take a small dip, he will still be the cog in the middle of the Reds' lineup.  The outfield of Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and Jonny Gomes is excellent and each player should expect an increase in performance.  Brandon Phillips is one of the more skilled second baseman and will share the middle of the infield with World Series hero Edgar Renteria.  The lineup will be able to carry the Reds, but don't count out the pitching rotation.  Although the youth of the staff was a big reason they got swept in the playoffs, the rotation should take a step forward this season.  Edison Volquez can be very dominant when he is healthy, while Travis Wood and Mike Leake will improve on impressive rookie debuts.  Leading the starters in Bronson Arroyo, who will never truly shut down the opposition, but can be a very effective pitcher.  The Reds closer to start the season will be Francisco Cordero, but look for Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman and his 105 MPH fastball to step in as the season progresses.  It's always tough to repeat as division champ in the NL Central, but the Reds have the talent to do it.

The Milwaukee Brewers spent their offseason sacrificing their future for immediate success.  They did a very good job doing so.  They made one of the more underrated free agents signings, getting SP Shaun Marcum and his 3.64 ERA.  They then traded their top prospects to acquire 2009 Cy Young winner Zach Greinke from the Royals.  These moves immediately turned a big weakness, starting pitching, into a strength.  Greinke and Marcum now lead a staff that as includes Yovani Gallardo, an very exciting young pitcher who can blow away the competition.  Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson round out a now solid rotation that will help the Brewers compete in the Central.  This is to compliment on of the best lineups in the NL.  Ryan Braun has gotten better each season and will continue to provide outstanding performance for the Brew Crew.  Although it may be his last season in Milwaukee, 1B Prince Fielder will provide tons of power and can carry the team through rough times.  The lineup also includes Cory "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night" Hart, Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee, and speedster Carlos Gomez.  The offense will continue to provide for the Brewers, but the big difference this year is the pitching.  A much improved rotation will make Milwaukee true contenders in the NL Central.

The St. Louis Cardinals started off spring training with the NL Central crown in their sights.  They then suffered the biggest loss of the spring, starting pitcher and Cy Young contender Adam Wainwright to an elbow injury.  This threw a top heavy rotation into disarray.  Chris Carpenter now steps into the ace role, though he is an injury risk himself.  Jamie Garcia had a good season converting from the bullpen, but he will be hard pressed to match his numbers from last season.  The 3 and 4 starters are Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse, who can be effective but don't strike fear into any lineup.  The bullpen is OK, but will have a lot of pressure to make up for a depleted rotation.  The Cards will rely on their offense to carry them through the season.  The good news there is that the Cardinals still sport a very nice lineup.  I mean, I will take any lineup that has Albert Pujols in it.  St. Louis made a nice offseason pickup in Lance Berkman, which will give the Cards an outfield with Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus that can really hit the ball well.  Yadier Molina has shown himself to be a decent at the plate, which compliments is stellar defense.  The team will play the 2011 season with the Pujols contract situation hanging over their heads, which will add some pressure to a lineup that will have to carry the pitching.  However, if there is a manager that can pull them through the distractions, it Tony LaRussa.  All this said, the Cardinals took steps backward (aided by the Wainwright injury) to start the 2011, and will need all around great performance by everyone to challenge the Reds and the Brewers.

3B Aramis Ramirez will be the X-factor for
the Cubs offense
The Chicago Cubs. Oh, the Chicago Cubs. My favorite team in all of sports will continue to be the reason my sports life is miserable.  Outside of Marlon Byrd and Carlos Marmol, every player on the 2010 vastly underperformed and drove the Cubs to a 5th place finish and a return to the land of sub-.500 baseball.  After a very promising 2008 and 2009 seasons, Lou Pinella gave up by June and "retired" from managing in August.  The Cubs hired interim skipper Mike Quade over fan favorite Ryne Sandburg (you can see my recap of this here).  The bright side for the Cubs is that they enter the season once again with lowered expectations.  This did not keep the Cubs from making some offseason acquisitions (both from the Tampa Bay Rays).  They signed Carlos Pena to fill the hole at first base and traded some top prospects for pitcher Matt Garza.  While he isn't the ace the Cubs needed, he will be a solid addition to a staff that is good top to bottom, even though it lacks that top line guy.  The Cubs hope Carlos Zambrano, who clearly embraced the departure of Pinella, can continue his great end to the 2010 season (sub 2.00 ERA and 8 wins).  Funny man Ryan Dempster is the leader of the staff, while Randy Wells and youngster Andrew Cashner round out the staff.  Thankfully, Cashner beat out embattled starter Carlos Silva, who exchanged pleasantries with Quade when he was cut.  Carlos Marmol will hope to repeat a stellar 2010 season as the Cubs closer. The lineup can be could as long as the hitters can live up to their potential.  Pena joins Byrd, Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovanny Soto, who are all very capable hitters.  The key will be the performance of 3B Aramis Ramirez, who could be entering his last season in Cubbie Blue.  He has the talent and leadership to carry the North Siders offense.  The Cubs have the potential to compete in the Central, but just have way too many "what-ifs" to truly contend.  Instead, the Cubbies should focus on building for the future and taking key division games from their rivals.

The Houston Astros actually finished off the 2010 fairly strong, even after trading ace Roy Oswalt to the Phillies.  The Astros have had to battle a rapidly aging lineup, a depleted pitching staff, and a weak farm system to attempt to return to the playoffs.  They just don't have the talent right now to compete with the previously mentioned NL Central teams.  Their lineup consists of the talented Hunter Pence, speedy one-trick pony Michael Bourn, and home run hitter Carlos Lee. 1B Brett Wallace has a chance of having a good season, but the rest of the offense in incredibly underwhelming.  As far as the rotation goes, their best pitcher is Wandy Rodriguez has taken good steps forward in the past few seasons.  J.A. Happ, acquired in the Oswalt trade, will have the opportunity to be an impact player this season.  Brett Myers is coming off a great year, so expecting him to return to Earth quickly based on past performance.  Unfortunately for Stros fans, the Houston franchise is pretty stagnant with the need of a new direction.  They will struggle through the 2011 season, only hoping to steal some wins from the teams atop the division.

Young 3B Pedro Alvarez will be small ray of sunlight
for the hapless Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates having been the running punchline of the NL for at least the past ten year.  The front office has proven to be completely incompetant, trying to save money by trading away their best talent for mediocre prospects.  The only thing that keeps the Bucs fans coming is the truly gorgeous PNC Park.  Their pitching staff has been a complete joke and is not looking any better.  The rotation consists of Kevin Correia, Paul Mahom, Ross Ohlendorf, and James McDonald.  They are all capable or surprising teams from game to game, but none are able to put together consistent numbers.  Closer Joel Hanrahan will have some good save opportunities simply because most of the Pirates games will be so close.  On the offensive side, Pittsburgh has two exciting players, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez.  McCutchen is actually a very good player, able to hit for average and power, and can steal 30 bases a season. He is still young and will only continue to get better. Alvarez is a top draft pick who is getting his first real shot in the majors and is full of great potential.. He should be the power hitter the Pirates build around for the next 10 years.  The rest of the lineup is full of castaways and Triple-A level players.  There is little hope for the Pirates, who sport the #19 farm system according to Baseball American.  Unless someone with money and a real vision can take over the Pirates, the will continue to dwell in the NL Central cellar.

Baseball's largest division should be neck and neck down to the wire.  The Reds and the Brewers are the favorites in the division, but the Cubs and Cardinals can challenge if everything goes just right.  Both Cincinnati and Milwaukee boast outstanding lineups and good pitching staffs.  In the end, I am going with my gut and picking the Reds, putting a lot of faith in their ability to repeat their 2010 results.  However, the Brewers have the urgency necessary to take it down to the last week of September, so don't be surprised to see the Brew Crew in the postseason.  My pick for the NL Central in 2011: The Cincinnati Reds.

Monday, March 28, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: NL East

We move on to the league that require a higher baseball mind - the NL. Pitching showed itself to be king in the 2010 season and the general manager's took note.  Quite a few of the game's best left the AL to go pitch for the National League, turning a few teams into serious contenders.  We will start with the NL East.

Reacquiring SP Cliff Lee will give the Phillies a
historically good rotation
The Philadelphia Phillies have been the class of the NL for the past 3 seasons. They rode home grown talent to the 2008 World Series, won the pennant in 2009, and took home the NL's best record in 2010.  To make matters worse for the rest of the league, they surprised everyone by coming in at the last minute and signing top free agent Cliff Lee, who apparently loves the organization.  The signing gave the Phils a rotation with four (FOUR!) pitchers that could be the aces of any staff in baseball.  There's defending Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, new signee Lee, home grown World Series MVP Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, acquired by Philadelphia last year in a trade with the Astros.  The staff is rounded out by Joe Blanton, who most teams would welcome as a middle of the rotation starter.  This staff alone could propel the Phillies to the World Series and shutdown the more powerful AL lineups.  However, a spring that started so promising for the Phils has gone south quickly.  Starting 2B Chase Utley revealed that his knee issues are still lingering, preventing the Phillies best all-around hitter from starting the season with the team and may cause problems through the whole season.  The Phillies also have a big hole in right field, which has been vacant since Jayson Werth signed a big contract with the Nationals.  They hoped the spot would be filled by top prospect Dominic Brown, but he broke his hand in spring training and may not come up to the majors until June.  Either way, it is very unlikely that he can match Werth's performance and value to the team.  Ryan Howard is not a consistent enough hitter to carry this offense, nor is Shane Victorino.  They will have to work together with SS Jimmy Rollins to drive the offense until Utley can return.  The real issue with this team, in my opinion, is a verk weak bullpen.  Brad Lidge is no longer a quality closer/pitcher, leaving setup man Ryan Madson as the only consistent option in the pen.  In the end, the Phillies rotation is just too good to let an aging lineup and poor bullpen to keep them out of the playoffs.  On a side not, for such a hated sports city, the Phillies have a very likeable team.

The Atlanta Braves are just one of those organizations that do it right.  They grow great talent through their system and pick up key veterans to help out year to year.  After a short hiatus from the postseason, the Braves returned to the playoffs last year in Bobby Cox's final season.  The 2010 team set the table for the 2011 season, the Braves first for new skipper Fredi Gonzalez.  Their rotation is not as heralded as the division rival Phillies, but it will still be one of the stronger staffs in the NL.  They are led by youngster Tommy Hanson, who I expect will take a huge step forward this season.  The middle is very solid with Timmy Hudson and Derek Lowe.  Jair Jurrjens struggled with injuries last year, but has the potential to shut down opposing lineups.  Atlanta did lose closer Billy Wagner, so young relievers Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters will have to be up to the task of finishing games.  The Braves lineup should be strong this year, with rookie of the year candidate Jason Hayward looking to improve on a nice first year.  They signed 2B Dan Uggla to add some more pop to the order, but that does add quite a few more errors to an already shaky defense.  Add in Brian McCann and rookie 1B Freddie Freeman, and the Braves offense should be able to complement their pitching.  They aren't one of the flashier teams in the league, but they will use solid baseball fundamentals to be a solid contender in the NL.

OF Mike Stanton will have to build on a good rookie
campaign for the Marlins to contend in the NL East
The Florida Marlins have scouts that most team dream about.  Twice the team has won the World Series since 1997 and twice they have totally gutted their team to save cash.  The Fish have still managed to build a good team that could be a surprise contender if they pitching can come through and stay healthy in 2011.  The ace of the staff is Josh Johnson, who sported a 2.30 and finished 5th in the NL Cy Young voting. However, he has had some trouble with injury in the past and has battled soreness all the way through spring training.  The rotation is rounded out by Ricky Nolasco, who lives and dies by the strikeout, Anibal Sanchez, and newcomer Javier Vazquez, who should improve now that he is back in the NL.  Offensively, the Marlins are led by Hanley Ramirez, a rare player with both power and speed (and like any star player, not a great attitude).  Florida also has a nice pair of young outfielders in Mike Stanton and Chris Coghlan, while many are predicting 1B Gaby to be a fantasy sleeper.  The bullpen will be shaky, with Leo Nunez closing out games for the Fish.  The Marlins have a lot of young potential and if everything comes together, they can be a serious threat in the NL East.  I just think that injuries, defense, and inconsistent pitching will keep the Marlins from contending in the East.

The Washington Nationals have been the bottom feeders of the NL East since moving down from Montreal.  It seemed like they would never move past expansion-type players.  The bottom feeding has allowed the Nats to build their farm system, which now contains 2 of the most exciting prospects in baseball, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.  Unfortunately, Strasburg was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery after a very promising start to his MLB career. The injury was a real shame because it seemed Washington was handling him perfectly, slowing building up his pitch count with plans to shut him down after a certain number of innings.      Harper was the #1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and though the young catcher has incredible potential, Nats fans won't be seeing him until 2012.  The Nationals were very big spenders in the offseason, acquiring Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche to replace Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham.  Werth will probably see a drop in numbers since he is moving to a weaker lineup who's only other top-tier hitter is 3B Ryan Zimmerman. The Nats rotation is young and unproven, but has the potential to make up for a weak offense.  The staff "ace" is Livan Hernandez, who continues to pitch late into his career.  Young pitcher Jordan Zimmerman could be a surprise bright spot for the Nationals this year, while John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny both have potential to put together nice seasons.  In 2011, the Nationals just don't have the offense and consistent pitching to keep up with the top teams in the NL East, but they can look forward to 2 stars carrying them into the future.

The New York Mets are a truly hapless franchise.  They are a big market team, but are always overshadowed by the Yankees and seem to be in a constant state of mismanagement.  They found a way to get caught up in the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, throwing their ownership status into disarray.  They also suffer a number of killer injuries every season and have dropped off quickly from the top of the East.  Offensively, the Mets do actually sport a nice lineup, though have to battle a ridiculously huge ballpark.  David Wright has been one of the league's top third baseman since the mid 2000's, Jason Bay can thrive in a good offense, Jose Reyes can steal lots of bases, and Ike Davis has the potential to build on a solid debut season.  However, the injuries that have haunted the Mets continue.  Carlos Beltran has yet to play a full season in New York and this season will be no different.  Ace pitcher Johan Santana will be shelved until at least July with shoulder issues, leaving the Mets with a young and turbulent rotation.  The Mets will rely on Jonathon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, and R.A. Dickey to pitch the Mets through their off-field troubles, which include closer Francisco Rodriguez's legal troubles.  The Mets have some offensive talent, but they situation surrounding the team will be too much for the forgotten New York team.

The NL East should be a two team race this season.  The Marlins, Nationals, and Mets just have too many holes and questions to contend with the highly skilled Phillies and all around solid Braves.  Choosing a winner for the division comes down to pitching.  Philadelphia just has way too much talent in their rotation to not take this division and move on to the World Series.  I do think the Braves have a players and the consistency to take the wildcard spot over teams like the Brewers, Rockies, Padres, and Cardinals.  My pick for the 2011 NL East: the Philadelphia Phillies, with the Atlanta Braves taking the NL Wildcard

Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: AL West

It's time to wrap up my preview of the the American League.  The AL West is baseball's smallest division, but a matchup of 2 very good pitching staffs and a great offense defending the AL pennant, the West should be an exciting, though mostly forgotten race.  Here are the capsules for the 2011 AL West:

Starting pitcher Trevor Cahill will be the ace of a young
pitching staff 
The Oakland Athletics were a team that no one expected anything from in 2010.  The A's haven't really threatened the AL since the trio of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito were dominating the AL West using Billy Beane's moneyball scheme.  They never got to the World Series and the team eventually broke apart. The rotation that the A's have assembled for this season can rival that staff of the early 2000's.  Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson both had breakout seasons in 2010, while Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game on Mother's Day.  Braden may not have as good of a season, but he won't have to dominate as the team's 4th starter.  Cahill is the team's ace and earned an All-Star selection last year, and Anderson is a very talented left hander who came back very strong from a midseason arm injury.  Gio Gonzalez should emerge this year as a powerful, yet wild, starter.  The back end of the rotation is Brandon McCarthey, a talented but oft-injured newcomer.  The bullpen is just as solid, anchored by closer Andrew Bailey, who should be fine after an injury scare in spring.  However, the A's batting lineup is bad. Like, really bad.  Beane brought on David DeJesus, Hideki Mastsui, and  Josh Willingham to help improve the A's meager power numbers (they do play in the spacious yet ugly Network Associates Coliseum).  Daric Barton is a bright(er) spot in the infield and underrated catcher Kurt Suzuki backstops Oakland.  I have a feeling that the A's can be this year's Giants - outstanding young rotation and bullpen coupled with poor offense and lots of hope in timely hitting.

The Texas Rangers surprised everyone last year by taking down the favored Yankees to clinch the AL pennant before succumbing to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.  This led to an interesting offseason for the Rangers.  A big reason they got into the playoffs and to the WS was pitching stud Cliff Lee (who may be the Marian Hossa of baseball) is no longer with the team.  I thought that Texas was in the best position to sign Lee until the Phillies came and snatched him away.  Instead, the Rangers acquired Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli to bolster their already fantastic offense. However, it did leave them without a true pitching ace.  It also led to longtime Michael Young demanding a trade.  If the Rangers are able to keep young, their offense should be near the top in every category. Their outfield of AL MVP Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Julio Bourbon provide a huge hitting threat, along with new 3B Beltre and second baseman Ian Kinsler.  Elvis Andrus will provide plenty of steals at the top of the lineup.  The rotation consists of C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Tommy Hunter, though Hunter will probably enter the season on the DL.  Derrick Holland is in a position to take a big step forward.  The bullpen is ok, though it's anchored by breakout closer Neftali Feliz, who will return to the closer's role after toying with starting during the spring.  Their downfall in 2011 could be the same as their downfall in the World Series - a lack of shutdown pitching that can take over when the offense struggles.  

1B Kendrys Morales will have to stay away from
celebrations or stop hitting home runs
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had a disappointing 2010, finishing below .500 and 3rd in the West. It was a surprising season for one of the AL's most consistent clubs, one full of unfortunate injuries. I mean, a broken ankle due to a home run celebration?  It was clearly not the Halo's season to shine.  They lost out on their main free agent target, Carl Crawford, to their postseason rival Red Sox.  Their big move was trading Mike Napoli to the Blue Jays to overpaid, yet effective, OF Vernon Wells.  Their lineup is one of the older ones in the league, centered around Torii Hunter and Morales.  The Angels need players like Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood to come forward and prove that they can contribute to LA's offensive effort.  The starting rotation is solid, spearheaded by Dan Haren and Jared Weaver, both great pitchers who are worthy of the ace title.  The 3-4-5 of Ervin Santana, Joel Pinero, and Scott Kazmir have promise, but they all have the ability to pitch well below their potential for long stretches.  The bullpen is quality, but closer Fernando "Rollercoaster" Rodney leaves a lot to be desired.  The Angels should improve from 2010 simply from avoiding the freak injuries they suffered, but their mediocre lineup and questionable back end of the rotation will keep them from overtaking the A's and the Rangers.

The Seattle Mariners were a model of futility in 2010, which is a shame because they really tried to build their team the right way.  The season started with Cliff Lee (his name show up so much) and Felix Hernandez leading what could have been a good rotation, and Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik made sure that every player he signed could play solid defense.  However, the lineup was so awful that the pitching staff had nothing to work with.  Going nowhere by midseason, they traded Cliff Lee in the division to the Rangers, receiving top prospect Justin Smoak in return.. King Felix did deservingly win the Cy Young, but it was all for naught as the Marniners finished with the worst record in the AL.    This season will most likely be worse for Seattle, who did nothing to improve in the offseason.  Unless Justin Smoak and Jack Cust can step up, Ichiro's 5,000 hits a season will once again go to waste.  Outside of Hernandez, who finished 2010 with a crazy good 2.27 ERA but a 13-12, the rotation will be ineffective at best.  The bullpen is in unrest, especially with the injury issues of wild closer David Aardsma.  The Mariners front office may be looking to trade King Felix, who just signed a 5 year extension last year, before the deadline in hopes of a spectacular prospect package.  A team like the Yankees will be sure to come calling by midseason.

The 2011 season in the AL West could turn into a 3 team race, but I think the Angels will fall out of it by the time September rolls around.  It will come down to the A's pitching versus the Rangers hitting.  We have seen a big shift from hitting to pitching over the past few seasons (steroids anyone) and the World Champion Giants rode great pitching through the whole season.  This is why I give the edge to the A's. I know they are young, but so are were the Giants.  They added veteran role players and will be in position to add key players  in July.  My pick for the AL West: The Oakland Athletics.

Friday, March 25, 2011

MLB 2011 Preview: AL Central

My MLB 2011 season preview continues with the AL Central.  This is quite the interesting division, with 3 teams battling for playoff contention, one team mismanaging tons of incredible young talent, and another team with no real direction at all (just like their football and basketball teams).  Here are the capsules for each team:

It is no secret that my most hated franchise in professional sports is the Chicago White Sox.  That's why it kills me to say that they have assembled a team that can make a deep run into the playoffs.  Owner Jerry Reinsdorf opened his wallet to keep longtime Sox firstbaseman Paul Konerko on the South Side and sign Adam Dunn to hit the ball out of the too small craphole that sits next to the Dan Ryan.  They join a lineup with the ever-improving Alexei Ramirez, the rejuvenated Alex Rios, and the healthy Carlos Quentin.  All jokes aside on the joke that is the Cell, this is a dangerous lineup that can use speed and the long ball to beat you into the ground. Dunn is a great addition to a lineup that already had a bunch of power (and Sox fans, don't talk to me about "Ozzieball." It never existed to begin with). The pitching staff is solid as well, as John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson will silently put together one of the better rotations in the league.  The embattled Bobby Jenks is gone as closer, replaced by a capable reliever in Matt Thornton and the young beanpole Chris Sale.  The Sox are a great team up and down and have a good shot to make it back to the World Series, which they won in 2005.  I can only hope that Satan's child Ozzie Guillen and GM Kenny Williams kill each other via Twitter.  Otherwise, fans of the lesser Chicago team are in for a fun season on the South Side, as long as the injury bug stays away.

1B Miguel Cabrera's most recent DUI mugshot
The Detroit Tigers blessed with the same choking power as my Chicago Cubs.  No matter how well they start a season, they always seem to blow it by September.  Their 2011 season rides on the ability of star first baseman Miguel Cabrera to stay on the field and out of legal trouble.  The best hitting first baseman this side of Albert Pujols had issues with alcohol, including an physical altercation with his wife and a DUI right before spring training.  There has been no word on possible suspensions from Bud Selig and Tigers fans are hoping that it stays that way.  If it does, Detroit is in for a nice season.  They had quite a bit of payroll to play with over the offseason and used it to sign Victor  Martinez and Brad Penny.  Martinez is an excellent addition to an underrated lineup and will provide some nice protection for Cabrera.  Austin Jackson will look to take a step forward as a leadoff hitter and base stealer, and Magglio Ordonez has been one of the most consistent BA hitters in the past decade.  The starting pitching should also be in for a good season.  The pitching has been a letdown in Motown since the Tigers were in the World Series, but this season looks to be different.  Ace Justin Verlander continues to get better, Max Scherzer and his different colored eyes should have another good season, and Rick Porcello got his act together by the end of last season.  Add in Brad Penny, converted reliever Phil Coke, and a very good bullpen and the Tigers staff will be able to keep games close.  This is a team that has the talent to make the playoffs.  They just need to get out of their own heads and just play baseball.

The Minnesota Twins are a wonderfully consistent team.  They make the playoffs year in and year out, even when everyone in the league counts them out. However, they just can't seem to get out of the first round, alot like the Oakland A's of the early 2000's.  Ron Gardenhire is a great manager who builds his team the right way - solid pitching and defense.  A good lineup doesn't hurt either.  Lead by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, the Twins can hit with any team in the AL.  Unfortunately, Morneau has had some injury trouble in the past few seasons, including a concussion he still is getting over.  Last season, Jason Kubel and Delmon Young, who finally looked like the player they traded Matt Garza for, stepped up and led the Twins into the playoffs. New second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka has come on nicely in spring and should be able to provide some power if Morneau is missing at the beginning of the season.  On the pitching side, the rotation is led by Francisco Liriano.  It was great to watch him have an excellent season in 2010 after he was riddled with injury  following an incredible rookie season.  Minnesota will look for Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey to keep eating up innings and holding down the back end of the rotation. My concern is that resigned pitcher Carl Pavano will have a disappointing season, as he pitched way above his previous level in 2010.  Joe Nathan is back in the closer's spot, and though that may not last long, Matt Capps can step in as he did last season.  While injuries are a concern for any team, they can especially kill the Twins this year.  Morneau is still battling concussion symptoms, Mauer has had back issues, and Liriano and Nathan have notorious histories with injury.  A healthy Minnesota squad could finally make it into the ALCS, but the injuries have me backing off this team.

3B prospect Mike Moustakas should find his
way into the MLB in 2011
The Kansas City Royals have been a laughing stock for quite a while now.  They have been horribly mismanaged and have not handled a number of promising prospects well.  They have traded away their talent every year at the deadline and just dealt their Cy Young pitcher Zach Greinke to the Brewers.  The good news is that all the trading is starting to show and their youth (rated #1 by Baseball America) may be ready to step forward.  Mike Moustakas, Billy Butler, and Kila Ka'aihue are ready to prove themselves in the big leagues.  Ka'aihue has been tearing up the spring leagues and has absolutely raked in the minors, making many wonder why he wasn't brought up sooner.  Moustakas is a very promising third base prospect and Butler has been solid for the past few seasons.  Pitcher Mike Montgomary is waiting in the AAA Omaha and is primed to be the team's next ace.  While all of this is so promising, 2011 will still be a tough year in KC.  The pitching is very weak after losing Greinke, Gil Meche, and Brian Bannister. The top of the rotation consists of Jeff Francis, washed up from Colorado, and Luke Hochevar, who is coming off a long DL stint after a 2010 ERA near 5.  Closer Joakim Soria will be a bright spot in a forgettable bullpen.  The Royals are in for yet another losing season, but Royals fans (are there any out there) should not dispair - there is hope for the future.

The Cleveland Indians have done an excellent job taking on the image of Cleveland sports. Just like the Browns (one trip to the playoffs since 1999) and the post-LeBron Cavs, the Tribe have succeeded in toying with the hearts of Cleveland fans.  2 pitchers who won Cy Young's with the Indians (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) are now aces on other, much more successful teams, and former catcher and fan favorite Victor Martinez has returned to the division with the Tigers to torture the Tribe. Worse, the prospects the Indians received in all those trades have not panned out as they had hoped.  As for 2011, the Indians will be giving a lot of time to developing that young talent into a team that can return to the top of the Central.  Catcher Carlos Santana should continue to improve after a good 2010, though it was shortened by injury.  CF star Grady Sizemore will hopefully be able to put in a full season, while Shin-Soo Choo also looks to come back as the Indians' best hitter.  LF Matt LaPorta, prize of the Sabathia trade, and Michael Brantley will be given every opportunity to finally fulfill the promise they have.  Up and down starting pitcher Fausto Carmona will lead a young rotation, which does have some good young arms in Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Mitch Talbott.  Since they are my dad's favorite, I really hope that a new front office can right the ship that has allowed a ridiculous amount of great players to leave town (or traded them away).  The Indians will spend 2011 preparing for the future, but can really only hope to battle the Royals for fourth in the division.  On the bright side, the Marlins aren't a desirable destination, so no Indians will be taking their talents to South Beach.

This will be a 3 team race in 2011 and will go down to the wire, as it has done for the past few seasons.  Don't be surprised to see 2 AL Central teams playing a game 163.  As for a winner, I think the White Sox improved the most over the offseason.  The addition of Adam Dunn and the continuing development of their pitching staff will carry them into the postseason.  If they can't come through, it will probably (God-willing) end Ozzie Guillen's reign of Terror in Chicago.  The Tigers are my wildcard pick for the AL.  While many think that the wildcard team will come out of the East, I think that the Tigers have the ability to stick with any other team in the AL.  The Twins have a shot, but as I said, injuries will keep them out of the postseason.  My Pick for the AL Central: The Chicago White Sox, with the Detroit Tigers winning the AL Wildcard.