Monthly Archives: March 2011

Baseball Preview Day 7: The Season Preview

The Giants begin their title defense.

The human arm was never meant to throw any object over 70 mph… it certainly wasn’t meant to do it over, and over, and over again 30-80 times a year for 10+ years.

Unfortunately for that theory grown men have been doing it for over 100 years in this little game we like to call baseball. And without pitching your chances of doing anything remotely impressive during the season will be as slim as Tim Lincecum.

Pitching is the most important part of the game of baseball. Teams with good pitching do better than teams without it. Sure you could score a lot of runs, win some games and it could be a bunch of fun. However, more than likely if you don’t have a decent two or three starters or a semi-decent bullpen then your season is over by the time the NFL heads into training camp (assuming of course that we have an NFL season this year.).

The old adage that good pitching beats good hitting is as solid as defense wins championships. Look at last year’s World Series for example; the Rangers for 11 years have been a team predicated on mashing the ball out of the yard and they do so at a great rate with Josh Hamilton and company. Yet after getting by Tampa Bay and the Yankees they had the pleasure of facing the best young staff in the Majors and they got smoked. Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner shut them down and brought home San Fran’s first baseball title and first pro sports title since Steve Young and the 95 49ers.

Before that the threesome of C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettite and A.J. Burnett limited the Philadelphia Phillies potent offense in 2009, and the Phillies did it to Tampa before that.

The Rangers, Phillies and Rays were all teams that scored a lot of runs and did it at a great rate. However, once Cole Hamels, C.C. and Lincecum started to locate, their runs were over.

How important is pitching? Teams trade away the farm for it and stockpile it as if a nuclear strike were happening and the only supplies you could use were toilet paper, water and a left-handed flame thrower.

Without C.C. Sabathia they Yankees dont win the 2009 World Series

The Angels were so desperate to make a run at the AL West last year that they traded a young gun in Joe Saunders for a proven ace in Dan Haren. The Red Sox shelled out 80 million dollars for John Lackey who is at best a number 3 starter. The Mets gave up 4 major leaguers and cash for Johan Santana. The Yankees wouldn’t get Santana because it would’ve meant parting with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. The pitching market is like the drug market, its risky and more times than not you’ll get burned, but you got something good you feel on top of the world.

Pitching means everything. If St. Louis would’ve lost Colby Rasmus for the season you figure that Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols could step up. But losing Adam Wainwright knocks you out of the race for NL Central because he’s an ace on most teams but he’s your number 2 guy.

How have the Giants been able to overcome their offensive deficiencies and Barry Zito’s horrendous 7 year/$126 million dollar signing? Because, their front four have been spectacular and their bullpen was just as good.

Why didn’t the Padres win the NL West last year? Because they rode Mat Latos and had no other pitchers to back him up (that and their offense was terrible but Latos and the pen covered their tails until the last month of the year.).

It’s all due to pitching. As great as Albert Pujols is, Carpenter and Wainwright won that title in 2006. Ryan Howard is a stud, but the 08 Series belonged to Hamels. You can go back to the 90’s and the Twins, Jays and Marlins. Do they win those titles without Jack Morris, Dave Stewart and Livan Hernandez pitching lights out? Nope.

Which brings us to 2011 of course. The perennial favorites to win this year’s title are the Phillies. Why? Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels (and Joe Blanton.). That front four might be the best looking rotation in the history of the game on paper. 3 Cy Young’s, 2 rings and a lot of heat.

Philly’s acquisition of Lee made them the favorites for this year even as the Giants were still getting their names etched into their World Series trophy. Never mind that Chase Utley is banged up, and Ryan Howard has no protection in the lineup, if they score 2-3 runs a game then they’re fine.

Same for San Francisco, Atlanta and Oakland, yes the Oakland A’s have one of baseball’s best staffs with Dallas

That's Trevor Cahill, he's an A, get to know him.

Braden, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson at the top of the rotation. Combine them with a bullpen featuring Andrew Bailey and Brian Fuentes and the A’s could make a series run at the Rangers for the top spot out west.

So who really has the best staff in baseball this year and could go for it all in October? Well as always you have to start from the bottom and work your way up, so…

30. PITTSBURGH PIRATES (last year pitching rank 30th)

ROTATION: Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, James McDonald

James McDonald has a lot of hype and rightfully so after a pretty impressive second half last year. Unfortunately he and the Pirates are staring at another year in the NL Central basement.

29. KANSAS CITY ROYALS (LY: 29th)

ROTATION: Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen

They traded away Zach Greinke and only have a 4-man rotation to start with. They have a boatload of talent in the minor leagues and they may be getting a lot of playing time this year.

28. CLEVELAND INDIANS (LY: 23RD)

ROTATION: Fausto Carmona, Carlos Carrasco, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, Mitch Talbot

Carmona rebounded from a rough 2009 with a decent 2010. However he’s going to need to do a lot more with this young and very raw rotation.

27. BALTIMORE ORIOLES (LY: 27TH)

If this is your ace, then your pitching needs work.

ROTATION: Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman.

The Orioles added Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds to their lineup, which means we’ll be seeing lots of 6,7 run games for the O’s. the downside is that they won’t be wins with a bad pen and an iffy rotation.

(side note: can we all be in agreement that Guthrie is not a number one starter? The O’s have been trotting him out there as such but he’s never won more than 11 games and has never finished over .500. just hand the reigns over to Brian Matusz and call it a day.

26. NEW YORK METS (LY: 7TH)

ROTATION: Mike Pelfrey, Jonathan Niese, R.A. Dickey, Chris Young, Chris Capuano

So, who here thinks Pelfrey and Dickey can replicate there seasons from last year, Niese can become a decent two before Santana returns and that Chris Young is finally healthy? Yeah me neither.

25. SAN DIEGO PADRES (2ND)

ROTATION: Mat Latos (DL), Tim Stauffer, Clayton Richard, Aaron Harang, Dustin Moseley.

Who steps up in this rotation in Latos’s absence. Matter of fact who steps up when he’s back? While you like Richard as a number two after a pretty good campaign last year you have to be concerned that Stauffer and Moseley started 11 games total last year and that Harang has always been an up and down pitcher.

24. TORONTO BLUE JAYS (LY: 23RD)

ROTATION: Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, Jesse Litsch.

Youth, youth, youth. Drabek has been a hot commodity since he was first mentioned in the Halladay talks in 2009. Brett Cecil was a beast going 15-7 with a 4.22 ERA and Morrow and Romero have amazing stuff. If they can put it all together they’ll be really good, but an questionable bullpen with Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch leaves room for improvement.

23. WASHINGTON NATIONALS (LY:19TH)

ROTATION: LIVAN HERNANDEZ, JOHN LANNAN, JASON MARQUIS, JORDAN ZIMMERMAN, TOM GORZELANNY

I really like the arms in Washington even without Stephen Strasburg until next year. Zimmerman could be a stud and a viable number two and Livan is a consistent, innings eater who will fill in nicely as the ace of the staff until Strasburg heals from Tommy John surgery.

Also in case you haven’t noticed, the Nats have done some nice retooling in their lineup by adding Jayson Werth and I think this is the year that Ian Desmond breaks through at the top of the order. The Nats wont be in the playoff mix but they’ll be intriguing to watch.

22. HOUSTON ASTROS (LY:17TH)

ROTATION: Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Bud Norris, Nelson Figueroa

What I like: the front 3 of Myers, Rodriguez and Happ will give teams fits. I always liked Happ when he was a Phillie and he has a chance to be a top of the rotation guy in Houston.

What I don’t like: everything else. Figueroa as a starter? Norris who only relies on one pitch? And don’t get me started on Carlos Lee… lets just move on.

Hopefully the Cubs knew what they were doing.

21. CHICAGO CUBS (LY:21)

ROTATION: Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner

Garza and Zambrano, two head cases in the same rotation… 103 and counting.

20. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (LY:5TH)

ROTATION: Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Kyle McClellan

With Wainwright this is a top 10 rotation, without him they fall out of the NL Central race. Sad to say but unless Westbrook has a career year this is a wait til next year scenario.

(also, who would’ve thought that with all of the Pujols banter this offseason that Wainwright’s injury would be the ultimate doom to their year? Internally Pujols has to love this, because lets say he goes .340/45/140 and the Cardinals make the playoffs with a shoddy pitching staff. How does he not get his 30 mil a year deal?)

19. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS (28TH)

ROTATION: Ian Kennedy, Joe Saunders, Daniel Hudson, Barry Enright, Armando Gallaraga

Have you noticed that in the last year the D’Backs have fleeced the Yankees for Kennedy, the Angels for Saunders, the White Sox for Hudson who all looked better in ‘Zona than they did in their previous locations, and were able to suck the Orioles into Mark Reynolds? If Gallaraga goes 14-9 with a sub 4 ERA the Tigers will be kicking themselves in the teeth.

18. DETROIT TIGERS (LY:25TH)

ROTATION: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Brad Penny, Phil Coke

The “Yeah, but…” rotation of the decade. Scherzer and Porcello are young arms with experience, but can they be top of the rotation guys? Brad Penny has shown flashes, but his struggles in the last two years have outshined those flashes. Phil Coke… look he’s an ex-Yankee and I like him, but a starter… no.

17. NEW YORK YANKEES (LY:15TH)

ROTATION: Sabathia, Burnett, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova

Burnett's our number 2... lord help us.

You didn’t misread that, I have my Yankees at the bottom half of the Majors for pitching and overall this year.

You may think I’m crazy, nuts, going overboard even. The fact is that this team aint making the playoffs. Starting rotation, too many questions. Jeter leading off… not gonna work. Mark Teixeira trying to have a fast start, not gonna happen.

There are too many grey areas with this team to have faith in them. Will they win close to 90 games? Sure, why not? But contend? No way. For the first time in 15 Yankees fans will have to settle for wait til next year.

(and you can erase that top paragraph if Nova pitches as well as I think he will and this Manny Banuelos kid comes up and starts lighting it up in June. I’m realistic about this team, but I have lots of hope.)

16. TEXAS RANGERS (LY: 10TH)

ROTATION: C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando

Their best starter is also their best reliever. Their biggest mistake for this season is not starting Neftali Perez out of the gate. If Holland can figure it out finally and Lewis and Wilson recapture that postseason magic then they’ll be fine. However, it’s going to be hard when you’re not sneaking up on anyone and you’re no longer the underdog.

15. FLORIDA MARLINS (LY: 16TH)

ROTATION: Josh Johnson, Javier Vazquez, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad, Anibal Sanchez

I’ve wanted to pick the Marlins to win this division for years. And right when they unload Uggla who hindered them defensively, pick up Vazquez who is a remarkably better National League pitcher than he is an American Leaguer, and have and awesome rotation that’s finally healthy, the Phillies get Lee and the Braves staff returns to its mid-90’s form. Good grief.

14. LOS ANGELES DODGERS (LY: 13TH)

ROTATION: Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilli, Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Garland

Five innings eaters with good stuff takes you a long way. Except when Jonathan Broxton is your closer. If Broxton were Heath Bell then the Dodgers would be in the top 10 and contending for the World Series. But that’s not the case.

(by the way, this maybe Matt Kemp’s last season to get his head out of his rear and become the player he should become. Mr. Hollywood should be a .320/30/100 guy right now and should be the face of this team, but his bouts with laziness and love of the limelight are hindering him. One more year of this and its bye-bye la-la land for Kemp.)

13. SEATTLE MARINERS (LY: 9TH)

ROTATION: Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Doug Fister, Erik Bedard, Michael Pineda

King Felix meet Michael Pineda. Take him under your wing and lead him into good habits and guide him to his American League rookie of the year award. Then say bye to him when you’re traded after this season.

12. COLORADO ROCKIES (LY: 20TH)

If the Rockies want to contend, this guy has to step up.

ROTATION: Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel, Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers

Troy Tulowitzky could win MVP, Carlos Gonzalez could win the Triple Crown, the Rockies could make the World Series… and none of this will happen unless Jimenez slaps some consistency into De La Rosa and he becomes a reliable number two.

11. ANAHEIM ANGELS (LY: 14TH)

ROTATION: Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Scott Kazmir, Joel Piniero (DL)

I couldn’t tell you why, but I am not particularly thrilled with this Angels team. They have a great rotation, decent closer and a lineup that can produce 800 runs. But I just feel that this team is missing a piece. Maybe a speedster, a great reliever, something. Stay tuned.

10. MILWAUKEE BREWERS (LY: 26TH)

ROTATION: Yovani Gallardo, Zach Greinke (DL), Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson

As long as Greinke stays away from a basketball court this team will be dangerous. Prince Fielder in a contract year with Ryan Braun and Corey Hart will score a ton of runs, and Gallardo is the happiest man in baseball that he finally has some help in the rotation.

9. MINNESOTA TWINS (LY: 11TH)

ROTATION: Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker

More important for the Twins is that Joe Nathan returns after Tommy John surgery. More importantly Justin Morneau returns from a season ending concussion. As long as they don’t play the Yankees late in the year then they’re a AL contender.

(did you know the Yankees were taking a look at reacquiring Pavano this off-season? I want to know who smacked Cashman first after hearing that possibility a Steinbrenner or Jeter?)

8. CINCINNATI REDS (LY: 12TH)

ROTATION: Edinson Volquez, Jonny Cueto (DL) Bronson Arroyo, Travis Wood, Mike Leake

Was last year a fluke? Hardly. They get Volquez at 100% and Aroldis Chapman for a whole year. Not to mention Joey Votto and Jay Bruce leading a highly potent offense. Only one question, who’s arm will Dusty blow out first? (I joke, I joke.)

7. BOSTON RED SOX (LY: 22ND)

If Beckett and Lackey don't return to form, you guys are going to be more than winded.

ROTATION: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matzsuzaka

The Red Sox can win the World Series if:

  • Josh Beckett’s back holds up
  • John Lackey proves he’s worth 80 million
  • Clay Buchholz proves last year was a glimpse into a promising future
  • They find someone to take Dice-K’s dead weight
  • Adrian Gonzalez is the real deal
  • Carl Crawford doesn’t descend into an oblivion
  • And if Daniel Bard becomes their closer and Jonathan Papelbon becomes Kansas City’s closer

Got it?

6. CHICAGO WHITE SOX (LY: 18TH)

ROTATION: Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Jake Peavy (DL), Edwin Jackson

I’m risking my sanity again on betting that the ChiSox wont blow up into a gelatinous mess and that Peavy regains his mojo along with Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko bopping home runs at will. I give it 3 months.

5. OAKLAND A’S (LY: 5TH)

ROTATION: Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy

I’d like to call this one the pick that will drive my buddy Scully up a wall. I’m putting a lot of faith into a team that will score like the Nashville Predators and is relying on Josh Willingham to do the offense’s heavy lifting.

But this rotation is a dream. Cahill was a dark horse Cy Young candidate last year, Braden is coming into his own after pitching a perfect game last year and Anderson is an innings eater with great stuff. It’s a less fragile version of the staff that they had in the early 90’s and one that can carry them to the ALCS. I really believe that.

4. TAMPA BAY RAYS (LY: 8TH)

ROTATION: David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann

Risky pick that will drive Scully mad number two. But really, who’s going to hit that rotation? The Rays have more pitching than North Korea has nukes. One problem, their closer is Kyle Farnsworth…

And with that I’ll lead into this, I like the pickups of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. Why? Because this team needed plate discipline and guys that could take pitches. This team strikes out so much that it’s mind-boggling. For all of their talent none of these guys can practice any patience. Now with Damon and Ramirez they get guys that can work counts, draw walks and extend at bats that will wear down pitchers.

3. ATLANTA BRAVES (LY: 3RD)

ROTATION: Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Braves are back to their stellar pitching ways with Hudson, Lowe and Hanson who might be a dark horse for the Cy Young.

What’s different is the guy in the dugout. For the first time since the 80’s Bobby Cox is not managing the Braves. Fredi Gonzalez takes over for one of the game’s winningest managers and the Braves most memorable personality.

What he leaves behind is a team that could be a World Series contender if things fall into place. Besides the starters the lineup gets a huge boost with the acquisition of Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward looks to improve on an impressive rookie season.

But the key is the rotation and bullpen, Jurrjens and Hanson are improving everyday and Hudson, though not an ace, is a quality start every time he goes out. However, if Lowe cant pitch consistently the Braves wont make it to September. Lowe is this staff’s most important cog because of his experience and ability to make enough pitches to extend his starts into the sixth and seventh innings. If he can’t do that then the bullpen will have a hard time closing games out even with Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill bringing the heat.

As Lowe goes, this team goes.

2. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS (LY: 1ST)

Sick of us yet?

ROTATION: Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Sanchez, Bumgarner, Zito

Best staff and bullpen in the game period. You cant, and wont score runs on them. Even with Brian Wilson on the shelf for a month Sergio Romo will be able to hold it down until he returns.

The concern is can they stand the heat being the defending champs? They have to deal with every team’s best shot all year long and have to consistently score runs, which is something that they struggled with last year.

However, the offense has more pop this year with Buster Posey playing a full season and Pablo Sandoval dropping 40 pounds. (plus Brandon Belt coming up sooner than later, write that down.).

Plus, this is the freaking Giants. They’re the most loose, free spirited team in the league. They got this.

1. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (LY: 6TH)

ROTATION: Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt, Blanton

No Utley, no Lidge, no problem. The scariest rotation since the mid-90’s Braves. Have fun National League.

So with Philly as the number one pitching staff in the league then you’re thinking that I’m picking them to win the World Series… well not exactly.

They’ll make the Series, but Boston will win it. Why? Even with all of those concerns you feel like Boston will put it together. Beckett will be healthy, Buchholz will have a great follow up season and Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford will be spectacular. They tried the whole defense and pitching thing last year but decided to make their line up manlier and it will pay off.

The have enough pitching and their guys can pitch when it counts. I like the Phillies but I wonder if Hamels is all the way back mentally and how will Halladay pitch in big game situations because against the Giants last year it wasn’t well.

The Sox have those type of guys and they’re on a mission. After an abysmal 2010 the Sox are going for broke and don’t be surprised if they come up all roses.

Wow, I picked the Red Sox to win it all, I feel dirty.

You’re probably wondering, “wait a minute, if they don’t have the best pitchers how can they have the best team after your argument.” Because sometime it’s not how much pitching you have, but the right pitching. That’s baseball for ya.

AL EAST- RED SOX

AL CENTRAL- WHITE SOX

AL WEST- A’S

AL WILDCARD- RAYS

NL EAST- PHILLIES

NL CENTRAL- BREWERS

NL WEST- GIANTS

NL WILDCARD- BRAVES

ALCS- RED SOX- A’S

NLCS- PHILLIES- GIANTS

WORLD SERIES- RED SOX- PHILLIES

NL MVP- PRINCE FIELDER

NL CY YOUNG- ROY HALLADAY

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR- BRANDON BELT

NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR- RON ROENICKE

AL MVP- EVAN LONGORIA

AL CY YOUNG- JON LESTER

AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR- MICHAEL PINEDA

AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR- BOB GEREN


Baseball Preview Day 6: The Philly Phab Phour

Everything is sunny in Philadelphia.

We in sports have become obsessed with cliques, crews, Big 3’s and things like that. We marveled at how Miami was able to bring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together, we salivated over the possibility of Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson catching passes from Carson Palmer, and we marveled at how the Celtics brought Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce together.

 

This past winter, the Philadelphia Phillies trumped them all.

 

When Cliff Lee announced that he was signing with Philly Monday December 12th it sent shockwaves throughout baseball.

 

Lee was the coveted prize of the free agent market and the two teams that had the inside track on him were the Yankees (of course), and the team that traded for him the Texas Rangers. But when it flashed across most TV screen that he was going back to Philly (who traded him to get Roy Halladay) people began placing their bets for the 2011 season.

 

It was clear that at that point the Philadelphia Phillies were the favorites to win the World Series in 2011.

 

Pitching wins championships, and if that’s the case then why not hand them the trophy right now. The Phillies rotation is a who’s who of the best in the game on the mound in any situation.

 

Roy Halladay is the ace. A two-time CY Young winner with amazing control who is coming off of his best season ever going 21-10 with a 2.19 ERA and two no-hitters. Following him is Lee, arguably the best lefty in the game with a penchant for coming up big in big situations (ask the Yankees about that). Following him is Roy Oswalt who was trapped in Houston letting his powerful fastball and pinpoint consistency be overshadowed by the team’s recent downturn before the Phillies added him before last year’s trade deadline. Lastly there sits Cole Hamels. Hamels was once thought to be the future ace of the Phillies and proved it with a 2008 postseason to remember when he led Philly to its first World Series title since 1980. Hamels was the World Series MVP and was primed to start a gigantic run as one of baseball’s best lefties before a lackluster 09 kept him down. Last year saw Hamels get back on track with a sub 3 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP, not bad for your fourth starter. Oh yeah and there’s Joe Blanton… he’s got a ring too as the number 5 starter… no biggie.

In case you were wondering Joe Blanton is also in the Phillies rotation.

When looking at that rotation on paper its no wonder that everyone from the media, to the bloggers, to the casual fans began fawning over them even before pitchers and catchers reported.

 

This staff brings back memories of the mid-90’s Atlanta Braves with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Steve Avery taking the hill and straight owning opponents.

 

However, its time to rain on Philly’s parade just a little.

 

As impressive as this staff is they might not even be the best staff in the National League, let alone baseball. Out west the San Francisco the Giants are the defending world champs with 4 of the best young arms in the game (and Barry Zito) and, oh by the way, they beat this same Philly team last October.

 

Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez and Bumgarner are just as good and just a talented as Philly’s Phab Phour and they’ve proven it. The Giants are lying very low as possible title contenders and they have as much claim to throne as anyone.

 

Also Philly might want to take a look in its own division for some competition. The Atlanta Braves have their most potent staff in years with Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy. With that rotation and the addition of Dan Uggla to the lineup Philadelphia wont just run away with the division like everyone expects.

For the first time in years the Phillies wont need to rely on Ryan Howard and the offense to do the heavy lifting.

Speaking of offense, can Philly score enough runs to win ball games? I know, I know, that sentence sounds foolish when talking about the Phillies because over the last few years they’ve been one of baseball’s best run producing machines.

 

However, Chase Utley is still banged up, without him in the lineup or Jayson Werth for that matter, Ryan Howard might put up career low numbers and Jimmy Rollins is coming off of back-to-back poor seasons. It sounds weird to say but what may hold Philadelphia back is their inability to produce enough runs to get victories for Halladay and company.

 

Taking all of this into consideration, Philly is still the team to beat. I’m sorry but there is nothing scarier than seeing Philly on your schedule and seeing a former World Series MVP, two former CY Young winners and one of baseball’s best power righties coming at you at any point during a series. It’s a murderers row of arms that if healthy can with 100+ games without breaking a sweat.

 

Let me ask you this; going into a series if you’re Cincinnati, Atlanta, San Fran or anyone, do you really think you can go to Philly, play games 1 & 2 against Halladay and Lee and get a split before coming home and facing Hamels and Oswalt? If you said yes then you’re a liar.

 

This staff was put together to intimidate and to win. One look at them and you walk into a clubhouse thinking please God let us get one hit. No other staff does that; no other team is like that.

 

Ever since Philly won the title in 2008, Ruben Amaro has made it a priority to stay on top and get back as much as possible. With the Lee acquisition to coincide with Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt, Amaro may have out done himself.

 

No matter the questions about the offense or the concern of the health of Brad Lidge, the Philadelphia Phillies are the World Series favorite backed by the baddest rotation in baseball. Miami might’ve gotten a lot of attention with their Big 3 but they got nothing on the Philly Phab Phour.


Baseball Preview Day 5: Jeter At A Crossroad

Derek Jeter is now in the twilight of his career.

In my early years of watching baseball I fell in love with a bunch of players. I loved Andre Dawson and his power and defensive skills, I loved Ryne Sandberg because I always wanted to be a middle infielder, and I loved Mark McGwire and his unmatched power at the plate.

However, I’ve never loved a player like I do Derek Jeter.

Ever since his rookie year in 1996 I’ve followed Jeter closely, defended him in silly arguments against haters who downplay his importance to the Yankees. I’ve bought his Jordan brand sneakers, three screen-print jerseys, annoyed every one of my friends by stating his greatness (or overstating it depending on who you ask.).

To say that I’ve been a little obsessed with Jeter is an understatement. Jeter has been the quintessential Yankee. He has five rings, a World Series MVP, he’s made plays that have defied logic, he’s come through with clutch hits so many times that I’ve lost count. When he retires he will be remembered as possibly the greatest Yankee ever. And that day of retirement is slowly approaching.

Jeter is now 37 years old. He is coming off of the worst statistical season of Hall of Fame career. He set career lows in batting average and on-base percentage and had his lowest totals in home runs and RBI since 2003 when he missed the first two months with a separated shoulder. There were times when I remembered watching him at the plate and I said to myself “maybe he should move down in the lineup.” In fact I wrote a blog about it in anger. Yep I was angry at Derek Jeter for the first time in my life.

However, it’s not his fault that he’s no longer a top of the order guy. It’s called age and no one can escape it.

Jeter is at the point of his career where you can’t count on him to come through in the late innings like he did in the early 2000’s. He can’t sprint across the field and flip balls to Jorge Posada, cant range to his left and jump off of his back foot and throw a strike to first base from mid-air; it’s not feasible at this point.

Unfortunately plays like "The Flip" will no longer be feasable for Jeter to perform.

However, his demise in some ways has been greatly exaggerated. Last year after winning his 4th gold glove, critics bashed Jeter’s selection saying that he was unworthy of the award due to his lack of range and how his saber metrics numbers just didn’t add up.

(Ok, listen. People hate Derek Jeter I get it. People have gone to great lengths to downplay his skills in the field whether it is in books on defense or with this saber metrics crap. But saber metrics is the most meaningless mathematical equation in sports. That’s right, more than RPI rating, passer rating and the BCS. Saber metrics is some stupid number that judges a players skill through objective views and people use it as a basis to prove that some players are better than others.

Last year people were saying that Alexei Ramirez deserved the Gold Glove because his saber metrics numbers were better than Jeter’s… Ramirez 20 errors and a .974 fielding percentage… Jeter led the league with the fewest errors (20) and the highest fielding percentage (.989). It’s like going car shopping; do you want the car loan with the highest interest rate or the lowest one? Exactly. Shut up.)

I understand to the eye that Jeter isn’t as good in the field as he was 10 years ago, but he’s not a liability like Manny Ramirez. He’s still a very capable shortstop and is able to make plays when they are needed.

What does scare me is that this year his regression could coincide with the simultaneous regression of Alex Rodriguez and that could spell trouble if the Yankees have two DH’s playing on the left side of the infield and Jorge Posada is already occupying that spot as we speak.

The fact is that Jeter isn’t the only player at a crossroads in an organization that is at one collectively. This Yankees team is by far the weakest one in years. There are questions about Jeter, A-Rod, the pitching, the youth, who’s going to hit, who’s on their way out and what’s next for the Yankees after this year?

Deals that need to get done, and soon, are for Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher. Jorge Posada is on his way to retirement and Jesus Montero is waiting in the wings to take his place. The Yankees farm system is one of the best in the Majors and Brian Cashman and company are wondering whether or not to let em rip, or keep spending money on free agents.

Jeter is essentially the least of the Yankees worries. However, he still represents a large part of this team.

He is still the face of the Yankees. He is 76 hits away from becoming the only Yankee to have 3,000 hits during his life time with the team. He is on the verge of owning 5 more Yankee records during the next 3-4 years in New York. He is still the main attraction of the team even in his final years.

That’s why this fall’s contract negotiation mess was so disheartening for all that were involved. Jeter was asking for too much money even with all of the possible approaching accolades and the Yankees front office let the talks drag on and become public. It left a sour taste in Jeter’s mouth as it did with the fans and the front office.

It made me wonder how the most famous player, and arguably the game’s most important one, could seemingly be undervalued by the team that he brought back to prominence.

Derek Jeter face has been that of the Yankees and other business ventures off of the field.

A deal did get done but not without more public anguish. How could they spend almost 60 million on a guy that is coming off of his worst season and aint getting younger? Here’s my counter, how did Mike Hampton, Carlos Beltran, Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle get gigantic deals when they never really proved their worth?

Jeter’s deal is for services rendered. He was the best shortstop in the league for years. He led the Yankees to 5 titles; the team has made the playoffs every year that he has been in the league except one. He’s an 11-time all-star, SI sportsman of the year, was one of the game’s most consistent players for over 11 consecutive years. If anyone deserves one last big pay day it’s him.

Am I biased? Of course I am I’m a Yankees fan. I’ve seen five parades in Manhattan; I have countless championship tees and hats since 1996. I’ve spent hours of my life in front of TV living and dying with this team in the last 15 years and it’s been due to their success thanks to Derek Jeter.

Was he as powerful as Miguel Tejada or Alex Rodriguez? No. was he better defensively than Omar Vizquel? No. was he a better hitter than Nomar Garciaparra? No. did he play at a higher level than any of those other guys from that era of shortstops, more consistently and with more success than any of them? Yes.

That’s who Jeter was and is. He’s not intimidating, he’s not going to leave you in awe of his raw talent and skill, but he will outwork you and leave it all on the field when it’s all said and done. That’s why Jeter ran into seats for a foul ball during a May game against the Red Sox, that’s why he became Mr. November versus the Diamondbacks, that’s time and time again in every situation people counted on Jeter to lead the Yankees to victory, and he did it more times than not.

But those days are unfortunately over. As Jeter inches closer to every conceivable Yankee record he also comes closer to the end of his brilliant career.

This Derek Jeter that we’ll see in the next 3-4 years won’t be as great as the one that we’ve seen in the previous 15, but it will be something to watch a guy I grew up with and loved every time I watched him play become possibly the greatest Yankee to ever put on a uniform.

No book on defense, over analysis with saber metrics or criticism from an outsider can ever take that away.


Kentucky Returns To Where It Belongs

A sight that Kentucky fans have been for for a long time.

All of the expectations, the crazy hopes and dreams of Wildcat Nation, the hunger to win and to always be on top… turns out Kentucky was always right to feel that they should have better.

 

Kentucky beat North Carolina yesterday to head to its first Final 4 since Tubby Smith’s first season in Lexington in 1998. Since that national title year, Kentucky has become unconsciously unrealistic in their expectations of what and where their program should be. At least to u and I.

 

The constant criticism of Smith, the quick hook for Billy Gillespie, who was clearly in over his head, the need for a big time name to lead their program… it was maddening in every sense of the word to the average outsider.

 

But Kentucky always knew what it was worth. Its hopes and dreams were answered when John Calipari left Memphis after leading the Tigers during a great 10 year run to come to Lexington.

 

Calipari has long been considered one of the game’s best coaches and was the man that most felt could handle the enormous pressure that comes with being the coach at Kentucky. He also came with baggage and two vacated Final 4 appearances due to recruiting violations.

 

It was a huge risk for Kentucky to hire Calipari, but they knew in order for them to reach the mountain top they needed that kind of coach. In two years he hasn’t disappointed.

 

Last year’s stellar class featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and a slew of freshmen that led the Wildcats to the Elite 8 before falling to West Virginia and then bolting for the NBA. This year all Coach Cal did was reload with Terrance Jones, Doron Lamb, Brandon Knight and almost Enes Kanter before the NCAA ruled him ineligible.

 

Though not as touted as the last class, Kentucky’s fab freshmen led them to their second consecutive SEC tournament title and Knight in particular has been a savior for Kentucky in every possible way. Knight hit game-winning buckets against Princeton in round one and

Brandon Knight has eclipsed John Wall in equal time at Kentucky.

against Ohio State in the Sweet 16 to put them in a position to make the Final 4 and he dropped 30 on West Virginia in the second round to help them pull away and 22 against UNC.

 

Along with veterans Josh Harrelson and DeAndre Liggins, Kentucky has put together its most cohesive unit since the 2003 squad, which was heavily favored to win the national title but didn’t make it out of the second round.

 

Yesterday versus UNC you saw a team that didn’t melt down late in games like the previous Wildcat squads did under Smith or Gillespie. When UNC kept fighting back and Harrison Barnes started getting hot Knight and Liggins stopped them with huge 3’s late in the game and Darius Miller blocked a Barnes three point heave to seal it for Kentucky.

 

Once it was all said and done Kentucky returned to where it felt it always should be, the Final 4.

 

It took them three coaches, millions of questions and lots of criticism but Kentucky is right back where it belongs, in the Final 4 playing for a shot at its 8th national championship.

 

For some programs, 13 years since its last Final 4 would seem like a normal occurrence. At Kentucky they demand better. Looks like they weren’t so crazy after all.


VCU Sticks It To The Haters

Hate if you want, but VCU is going to Houston.

So… Who still thinks VCU doesn’t belong in the NCAA tournament?

After the long and much talked about selection of VCU over Colorado an Virginia Tech, looks like the committee was absolutely right.

VCU was more than tough enough to hang with the big boys and showed no fear in mowing them down one by one. The Big Ten, Big East, ACC, Big 12 and PAC-10 all fell from their perches to the little school from Richmond, VA who who played bigger than their namesake.

The conversation at the beginning of the tournament was how could the NCAA allow a third team from a small conference like the CAA over another big conference school? The reality is that the CAA might’ve been better than most other conferences (hi, ACC and Big Ten).

Shaka Smart never let any of the attention get to his team. The very animated and energized coach kept his players focused on the task at hand. He put the game in his point guards hands and even though Joey Rodriguez chucked up some bad threes at times, he remained poised and made the necessary plays to help VCU reach the Final 4.

After beating a suspect USC team they handled downtrending Georgetown and beat up Purdue to make the Sweet 16. Brandon Burgess led VCU with 26 including a last second layup to stun Florida State to setup their Elite 8 matchup with the Kansas Jayhawks. To say that Kansas was not like any other team that they’ve faced is an understatement. To be honest with you, VCU faced the middle of the road teams of each conference that they faced. Georgetown, Florida State, USC, and Purdue were not thought about in the national title discussion. Kansas was a national title contender that was the clear favorite after Ohio State fell to Kentucky.

And none of that mattered as Shaka’s boys treated the Jayhawks as if they were the Delaware Blue Hens.

Shaka Smart had led his team to an precedented NCAA tournament run.

VCU raced out to a 14 point halftime lead as Jamie Skeen and company hit 9 of 17 threes and shut down the Kansas offense completely. Markieff Morris suffered through the worst game of his season turning the ball over 8 times and couldn’t stay out of foul trouble. They held Kansas to a season low 27 first half points and 11% from three point land. It was a dominating performance that made it seem like VCU was the one seed.

However, Kansas came back firing in the second causing several turnover and. Cutting the Rams lead to 2. With the partisan crowd rocking and the Rams fading, Smart never lost faith in his boys. He never called timeout and let them work through it. They rewarded him by jumping back up by ten behind Skeen’s shooting and Rodriguez’s ball handling including a great pass to Burgess for a deuce at the 8 minute mark.

That was it for the Jayhawks. They couldnt hit a shot for over four minutes and the Rams salted the game away as Kansas cried on their bench.

The celebration wasn’t like you would’ve expected. The Rams were cool and calm not being too overly exuberant. They dance an their few fans cheered loudly as Kansas walk off to another disappointment.

Their greatest achievement in all of this is that they have bragging right over rival George Mason, because, they are this year’s George Mason. They shocked the world just like their CAA compatriots, as and 11 seed, and beat the tournament favorite to do it.

So for anyone that said VCU didn’t belong, this is for you. Five wins in two weeks against a team from all major conferences except the SEC.

In a sense you could say the VCU Rams already are national champions.


They’re Baaaaaaaaack!

Butler proved that last year was no fluke.

Last year I wrote a blog stating that the Butler Bulldogs should now be perceived as a major program after their run to the Final 4.

 

This year they have more than proven me to be a prophet.

 

After Butler’s 74-71 overtime victory over Florida in the Southeast Regional final, the Bulldogs reached their second consecutive Final 4. In the last 11 years only Florida, Maryland and UCLA have done that exact same feat. Those are heavy hitters folks.

 

Funny thing about this year’s team is that they were on the verge of not making it back to the dance. After last year’s improbable run the team suffered a few setbacks. Super Sophomore Gordon Haywood went to the NBA and combined with their heartbreaking loss to Duke The Bulldogs suffered from a long Final 4 hangover.

 

They came out of the gate super slow going 4-4 with huge losses to Louisville and Duke and a close road loss to Xavier. After they seemed to pull it together by winning the Diamond Head classic in Hawaii they suffered a 24-point thrashing at the hands of Milwaukee-Wisconsin and then lost three straight conference games including an embarrassing loss to 9-21 Youngstown State. At 14-9 the Bulldogs were battered and bloodied and seemed destined for the NIT than the NCAA and winning the Horizon League title was their only sure bet.

 

So naturally they picked themselves off of the mat and kept going.

 

Just like last year’s 24 game winning streak, Butler has reeled off 13 straight games including their 4 wins in the NCAA tournament. Butler has become masterful in close game situations, as 9 of the 13 wins have come by 8 points or less including outlasting a much bigger and stronger Florida team.

 

Butler does it with defense limiting two opponents to over 70 in their last 14 games. Against Florida they outrebounded the Gators 36-33 and held them to 3-14 from behind the arc.

Brad Stevens might be the best coach in college right now.

This is a testament to Brad Stevens’ brilliance as a head coach. You can make the case that Stevens is currently the best coach in America after this four year run in Indianapolis.

 

After losing his star to the NBA and watching his team become the target of every mid-major program, Stevens just kept it moving and kept pushing his players. Once Haywood left, Shelvin Mack stepped in to take on the bulk of the scoring responsibilities. Matt Howard shook off a poor NCAA tournament last year and as been great down low, and Ronald Nored is still the defensive beast this year coming off of the bench.

 

While most coaches would have panicked after a mid-season lull, Stevens stayed the course and let his team figure it out and it paid off. In doing so Stevens now heads to his second Final 4 and is the youngest coach to ever reach two Final 4’s. He now has the same amount of appearances in the Final 4 as John Calipari, Gary Williams, and Bob Huggins and has more appearances than Thad Motta, Tubby Smith and Bill Self. That’s not a bad bragging point.

 

12 months ago after the shot that almost was, we wondered if we would ever see Butler come close to the opportunity that it had to win it all that night. We wondered could the little school from the little Horizon League conference, or any mid-major for that matter, replicate what had almost happened that night.

 

12 months later we get to find out.

 

Once and for all Butler proves their aint nothing small about their program. You can officially remove the mid from their vernacular. These guys are just major.


Hands Down, Kemba’s The Best

Kemba Walker has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's the best player in the nation.

While Jimmer Fredette was all the rage of the NCAA lighting up scoreboards and putting up ridiculous numbers, Kemba Walker took a backseat.

 

Walker was the NCAA’s main attraction after an unreal start to the season that saw him put up 30-point games like it wasn’t a problem. He hit clutch shot after clutch shot and took UCONN from preseason unranked to the top 10.

 

Then he tailed off. Why? Because he knew he couldn’t do it all by himself. Truth be told, Walker and Fredette were walking the same path during this season as the top two players in the nation up for the player of the year. Both were little guards who put up big numbers and only hoped that their teammates got involved.

 

Yet while Jimmer jacked away to his hearts content, Kemba decided to do what all great players do and that’s make his teammates better.

 

During UCONN’s lull in the Big East season Walker saw his points per game average drop but had an increase in assists. In wins and in losses Walker was getting guys like Shabazz Napier, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Jeremy Lamb involved more in the game. He was freeing up and finding Alex Orakhi underneath the rim, he was getting everyone involved and making them better.

 

The results were mixed at the time, but once the Big East tournament hit, you saw that it was going to payoff in the long haul.

 

Lamb more than any other player on the roster has emerged as a gigantic threat opposite of walker. Lamb has put on a show scoring 24 versus San Diego State and 19 in the West region final versus Arizona.

 

Because of Lamb’s success in the last 2 months teams now have another problem to watch be wary of when facing the Huskies.

Jeremy Lamb is one of the main recipients of Kemba Walker's change in approach in the last 3 months.

However, when the chips are down, when you need a bucket, and when you need a big play, that’s when Kemba Walker takes over.

 

During the Huskies 9 game in 19 day win streak (which has to go down in sports history as one of the most stupefying streaks ever) Walker hasn’t played less than 33 minutes, topping 40 minutes 4 times. He hasn’t shot under 40% in any game, he buried Pittsburgh with a devastating crossover and game-winner over Gary McGhee, he shredded the Aztecs defenders with ease whether it was 6 foot D.J. Gay or 6-8 Billy White.

 

The nickname Iron Man doesn’t seem sufficient enough to describe Walker and his brilliance; he’s been a superhero and then some for UCONN. He’s led the Huskies far beyond anyone’s expectations since they took the court versus Stone Brook back in September. Now with two games left he has them at the peak of the mountaintop even though he has to be gassed.

When Walker and coach Jim Calhoun bear hugged each other at midcourt after their win over Arizona in the West regional final, you saw how deep a connection Calhoun has with his star pupil. Calhoun’s season has been one to forget off of the court, as he will be suspended for three Big East games next year due to recruiting violations. Through it all Calhoun has held his head above water and having Walker there to lead his team and overshadow that dark period has definitely been a blessing.

 

Calhoun has been known to be very hard on his players because he demands so much out of them. In Walker he hasn’t to be and their bond is more special than any I’ve seen with Calhoun in his 20+ years at Storrs.

 

Jimmermania was fun. He was a blast to watch and did some impressive things. But when it comes down to who the player of the year was this year in the NCAA, there’s no question it’s Kemba Walker.

 

He’s done everything asked of him and more this year. It seems like every time we look up, Walker is at it again and carrying UCONN to another victory. With possibly two games left in college career, who’s to say he wont do it again.