Friday, December 30, 2011

Durant Draining

Over the summer I argued here that Kevin Durant had surpassed LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as the league's top talent, and since the start of the regular season he's done nothing to prove me wrong.  All he's done is average a ridiculous 38.8 minutes per game while providing elite production across the board; 31.3 points, 7.3 boards, 4.5 dimes, 2.3 treys, a steal and a block, numbers that any fantasy owner should salivate over.  With star point guard Russell Westbrook bricking shots and committing turnovers, the lanky small forward has picked up the slack and carried the scoring load for the Thunder.  Check this stat out, courtesy of ESPN's TrueHoop Blog; KD has racked up 125 points thus far, while the other OKC starters combined have scored 135.  He's confronted Westbrook about his subpar performance, drained a game-winning buzzer beater against the defending NBA champions, and helped the Thunder beat tough teams such as the Magic, Grizzlies, and Mavs (sorry Timberwolves, but you don't qualify as a "tough team") and claim the title of the sole 4-0 team in the Association at the moment.  He's emerged as a leader and seems to have a more powerful court presence; the Thunder are his team, and he's finally starting to act like it.

Granted, the NBA season isn't even a week old yet, but if Durantula maintains his prolific scoring, the 2010 MVP runner-up should be the frontrunner in the Most Valuable Player race.  Consider that he's just the fourth player, along with Kobe, Michael Jordan, and Adrian Dantley, in the last 30 seasons to reach 30 points in his team's first four games of the season.  With offense already suppressed by the lockout and likely to stay down as teams limit the minutes of their stars, the 23 year-old's amazing abilities to stay on the court and put the ball in the hoop become even more valuable, so he'll make a great case for himself if he can at least match his numbers from the past two seasons while keeping Oklahoma City at the top of the Western Conference. 

Obviously Durant has a long way to go, but so far, so good for budding superstar.

Sox Acquire Andrew Bailey

A few weeks ago Boston's front office announced that the team intended to convert Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon's former stud setup man and heir apparent to his predecessor's vacant closer role, into a starting pitcher.  I couldn't help but think about how they did the same thing with Pap, their All-Star fireman who was also 26 and coming off a great season in which he finished a distant second in the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year voting to young flamethrower Justin Verlander, during spring training of the following year.  Fortunately the rumors never materialized; the Sox kept him as their ninth inning man, ended the year with Jason Varitek leaping into his arms on the mound in Coors Field, and watched him evolve into one of the game's elite closers over the next half decade.  Texas created the same hoopla last year (and are already at it again) with 2010 AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz, but ultimately decided to keep him in the pen and came within one strike (twice!) of bringing home the franchise's first World Series trophy two months ago. 

So I thought Boston was just blowing smoke to stir up some press in the notable absence of any major offseason acquisitions.  But the team is in transition mode after last season's historic September collapse, and the front office is shaking things up.  Bard, with his high 90s heater and late game experience, seemed perfectly suited to inherit Papelbon's job, but he will not be the team's closer in the foreseeable future.  In a winter where the free agent market was flooded with closers, the Sox have opted to trade for their needs, first by dumping brittle shortstop Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland on the rebuilding Astros for Mark Melancon, and then by shipping Josh Reddick and a pair of minor leaguers to the hapless Oakland Athletics for closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney in a five player swap.

Boston appears to be the clear winner of this deal.  Reddick has played almost a full season's worth of games in the majors, and the results (.290 OBP, 82 strikeouts against 22 walks) have been underwhelming, and his is a case of addition by subtraction.  He's too aggressive at the plate and is the definition of streaky, but at 24 he's still young enough that he has some trade value for a team willing to take a chance on him.  His replacement, Sweeney, should fit right in here since he is much better at getting on base and is a capable defender as well.  He can provide some depth in rightfield (vacant with J.D. Drew's free agency) as a platoon option/bench player, but his lack of power (career .378 slugging percentage and fourteen home runs in over 1,500 at-bats) prevents him from playing every day. 

But the top prize and biggest name in this deal is Andrew Bailey.  In him the Sox get a proven closer and the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year who's saved 75 games over his three year career with a tidy 2.07 ERA and 0.95 WHIP.  The 27 year old bumps Melancon to the setup role and gives Boston a solid back end of the bullpen, although it isn't nearly as intimidating as the fearsome Bard/Papelbon duo.

I must admit that I am somewhat skeptical about how Bailey will transition to Boston.  After all, the two time All-Star has never pitched for a contender in his life, has never felt the pressure of a playoff race or dealt with an intense media and rabid fan base on a daily basis.  Moving from the AL West to the AL Beast won't be easy, either, just as the switch from Oakland's cavernous football stadium to the entury old bandbox in the Fens will be quite the change of scenery.  And although he claims to be healthier than he's ever been, I'm a little worried about the right forearm strain that kept him on the shelf for the season's first two months in 2011.  He also missed a month in 2010, and he just seems fragile, not nearly as safe or durable as guys like Heath Bell.  I'm sure he'll do just fine in Boston, and he might even be the second coming of Keith Foulke, but closers are always volatile and if he went Rafael Soriano on us I wouldn't be totally shocked, either. 

But getting back to Bard, I feel like moving him to the rotation doesn't make much sense.  I understand that John Lackey's lost season leaves a gaping hole in the rotation, and that the front office whiffed on all available free agent starting pitching (i.e. Mark Buehrle, C.J. Wilson,). But Bard has completed 197 big league innings, a typical yearly figure for your average modern starting pitcher (right in line with what Josh Beckett and Jon Lester tossed last year despite missing a few starts), except as a reliever he's milked those innings out of three seasons.  He inexplicably broke down in September (10.64 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, 11/9 K/BB ratio), limping to the finish line and costing Boston a playoff berth despite a workload nearly identical to 2010's; believe it or not, he threw 36 fewer pitches and appeared in three consecutive games only twice in 2011, so what gives? Francona clearly didn't overuse him, yet he was woefully ineffective when the team needed him most.  I'm afraid of the Joba Chamberlain effect, where a star reliever is ruined by his high-profile organization fixing something that ain't broke, but luckily it's virtually impossible for the young fireballer to be any worse than sunk investments Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Bard has the repertoire to be an effective major league starter, and God knows the Red Sox need him to be, but if Bailey and Melancon go bust (as Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler did last year) then their bullpen, and probably their season, will be doomed.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Patriots Drop Dolphins

New England had already defeated Miami pretty easily all the way back during their season opener in Week 1 by a score of 38-24, when reigning MVP Tom Brady saw rookie Cam Newton's 422 passing yards on Sunday, then raised him by ringing up 517 of his own on Monday in the late summer Florida heat.  Miami's loss kickstarted a seven game losing streak to open their 2011 campaign, but as the season neared its halfway point the Dolphins suddenly turned their year around by going 5-2 (and one of those losses was a heartbreaking 20-19 defeat in Dallas during Week 12) over the next two months.  Sure, their schedule had eased up a bit, but they seemed to be getting stronger as the season wore on heading into Saturday's rematch with the playoff bound Pats.  This time they would be playing on a chilly Christmas Eve in Foxborough, but neither the cold nor New England's six game winning streak seemed to deter them early on.

Because heading into the lockeroom at halftime, Miami had managed to shut out New England's top tier offense on the way to taking a 17-0 lead.  After allowing Brady to eat their secondary for breakfast, lunch and dinner during Week 1, the Dolphin D turned him into a nonfactor by sacking him three times and limiting the star quarterback to a brutal 7/19 passing.  Brady couldn't hit his receivers, the offense seemed out of sync, and every series ended with a punt into the gray winter sky except for a rare missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, who redeemed himself with a pair of long FGs later on.  Matt Moore (two first half TDs, three overall), Reggie Bush (113 yards on 22 carries) and company were rolling, and seemed likely to hand the Patriots just their fourth loss of the year.

But you can never count the Patriots out, especially when Brady is the King of comebacks (apologies, Tim Tebow) and following what was arguably their worst half of the season--the 17 point deficit was their largest of the year--they recovered with their biggest second half comeback in nearly a decade during the second half.  Brady quickly erased any memory of his terrible performance by going 20/27 the rest of the way, accounting for his team's three touchdowns by rushing for a pair and finding Deion Branch (who had an otherwise quiet day, as did Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) for another.  Brady's return to form sparked a New England rally that tied the game in the third quarter and took the lead in the fourth.  Miami scored with just over a minute left to trim the Pats' lead to 27-24, but it was too little, too late and the home team held on for their twelfth win of the year that clinched their first round playoff bye.  Wes Welker, who finished the day with 138 yards on a dozen catches, shattered the franchise record for most receiving yards in a season set by Randy Moss during New England's perfect regular season four years ago.

The AFC East champions will battle the Bills (6-9) during their regular season finale on New Year's Day.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why the Mavs Won't Repeat in 2012

The Dallas Mavericks championship run that culminated with a thrilling six game Finals triumph over the Miami Heat last summer was as satisfying as it was improbable.  As Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry and others celebrated their much deserved first title after combined decades of dedication, the cocky and disrespectful trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh lumbered off the court without the championship they had all but guaranteed the previous summer.  Dallas featured aging stars, scrappy players, overachievers, unlikely heroes and misfits who joined forces to assemble one of the most likeable squads in the Association.  No one had more heart or chemistry than this ragtag group of veterans, and as Miami's polar opposites they were the perfect opponent to delay the Heat's impending dynasty.

Unfortunately for Dallas and its fans, I don't think they have what it takes to repeat as NBA champs.  I feel like they overachieved last year, that everything went right for them and they caught lightning in a bottle.  This is obviously still a very deep, talented, and experienced team, but they have plenty of formidable obstacles to overcome if they want to earn another ring in 2012.

Age/Injury-Seemingly everyone on this team is on the wrong side of 30.  The shorter season could help keep them fresh for the playoffs, but at the end of the day they don't have enough young impact players.  Kidd will turn 39 in March and his 18th NBA season might be the one that does him in.  His scoring, rebounding, and assists all fell off last year and he's at the twilight phase of his career.  The Mavs managed to stay healthy last year but should suffer their fair share of bumps and bruises this season, especialy since everyone brings 110 percent against the reigning champs.  Basketball is a young man's game, and this team is built around old men.  We all saw age catch up with the Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs last year, so I expect Dallas to fall prey to Father Time in the near future.

The Loss of Tyson Chandler-Chandler was the X-factor last year, giving Dallas the interior presence the desperately needed to protect the paint, grab rebounds and match up with the league's big men such as Andrew Bynum.  He was a legitimate defensive stalwart who could intimidate opposing players, and his effect on the team reminded me of Kevin Garnett's impact on the '07'-08 Boston Celtics.  Therefore, losing him to the Knicks via free agency could be a devastating blow.  New addition Lamar Odom is a solid power forward coming off a career year, and Brendan Haywood is a capable NBA center, but neither one brings the passion, energy, nor fire of Chandler. 

Vince Carter-The new Maverick has a history of loafing, sulking, jacking up shots and cutting corners on defense.  He's not a great clubhouse guy and could have a negative effect on the team's work ethic and morale.  Vinsanity will be 35 in a month and is clearly past his prime after back to back down years (and not even a pit stop in Phoenix with Steve Nash could revive his game).  At this point in his career he's just not capable of staying on the court for more than 20-25 minutes each game, and I don't see how he can be much of an asset for this team.  He could be shipped out at the trade deadline (if anyone will take him), but if he stays I just hope he doesn't take too much PT away away from the JET, who is a much more effective shooter.  On a similar note, I don't like the addition of Delonte West, either.  He's a solid replacement for J.J. Barea, but he's also certifiably insane.  Don't be surprised if he gets arrested or suspended at some point in the upcoming season.

Lack of athleticism-This is an inescapable byproduct of the team's advanced age.  The Association is full of high-flyers, speedy guards and mobile big men...and the Mavs don't really have any of those.  Everyone on this team is slowing down, and I don't know if they'll be able to keep up with the young guns of the league. 

Come spring, Dallas figures to make the playoffs, where anything can happen.  But the Mavs have endured their fair share of early exits recently, and I believe this trend will continue.  2011 was the exception, not the rule, for the Mavericks, and they won't be hoisting another Finals trophy next summer.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pats Dump Denver

It was a big day in the NFL. The hopeless Colts, who haven't enjoyed the sweet taste of victory since four time MVP Peyton Manning went under the knife, finally managed to win a game when they topped the playoff-aspiring Titans (who couldn't afford to lose this one) 27-13.  On the other end of the spectrum, Aaron Rodgers and his reigning Super Bowl Champs watched their 16-0 dreams disappear in Kansas City. 

And in Denver, Tom Brady and his boys battered the Broncos, 41-23, out west to clinch a playoff berth with the AFC East title.  The win marked New England's sixth in a row and snapped the Broncos' six-game ride.

8-6 Denver, notorious for starting slow and finishing strong, came out guns blazing in this one but quickly fell apart.  Their running game punched holes through the Patriots' poor defense, and the fighting Tebows stormed to a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter.  The Pats were missing tackles left and right, but the D pulled themselves together and after that it was all New England. The Pats responded with 20 points of their own before halftime and never looked back.  They wouldn't allow any second half heroics from Tim Tebow. who broke Denver's dry spell with his second rushing TD early in the fourth and trimmed New England's lead to eleven, but a BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown iced the game and dashed any hopes for a fifth straight Tebow miracle.

Tebow was the hot topic heading into the game and played reasonably well, but his normally stout defense sabotaged him, as did a sloppy performance from Denver's special teams.  Meanwhile, Brady (23/34, 320 yards and two touchdowns) proved once again why he is one of the game's elite.  Even as Belichick leaned on his rushers more than usual today, Brady still managed to put up his typical stellar numbers.  His preferred targets, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, were quiet but he compensated by connecting with Aaron Hernandez (huge game) and Chad Ochocinco (first score in over a year) for a pair of scores. 

New England boosted its record to 11-3.  They return home for the final two tilts of the regular season against the Dolphins on Christmas Eve day and the Bills on the first day of 2012.  Both opponents are sub .500 and the Pats should beat them, regardless of their postseason status.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Brewers Buy New Left Side of Infield

In 2011. Milawaukee managed to come within two wins of a World Series berth despite playing a massive black hole  in the left side of their infield.  Yuniesky Betancourt manned short, and somehow managed to get penciled in for 152 games while owning an underwhelming .271 on base percentage and .381 slugging percentage, numbers completely unacceptable for a player who isn't Ozzie Smith in the field (and Betancourt is an average defensive shortstop at best).  Luckily for him, he redeemed himself in October by hitting .310 with fove extra base hits and 13 runs+RBI over 11 games to give the Brewers some return on his $4.3 million paycheck before skipping town as a free agent.  And while his teammate at the hot corner, Casey McGehee, only made one tenth of that, he struggled even more.  Afer enjoying a nice breakout in 2010 with 23 home runs, 104 RBI and 38 doubles, McGehee fell apart in 2011.  His walk and strikeout rates held steady, but he regressed in every other category and actually cost the Brew Crew a win with his meager .223/.280/.346 rates in 155 games.  Not surprisingly, he rode the pine during the postseason while midseason import Jerry Hairston Jr. took over, denying the incumbent third sacker the chance to make up for his brutal season.

Things haven't gotten much better for the Brewers since they were eliminated from the NLCS: slugging first baseman Prince Fielder hit the open market and franchise player/NL MVP Ryan Braun failed a drug test, meaning he could face a 50 game suspension in 2012.  So Milwaukee needed some help, and yesterday they made two moves to bolster the left side of their infield.  They signed one-time All Star Alex Gonzalez to play short on a one year deal with an option for 2013.  Even though the journeyman will turn 35 in a few months and his on base skills are just as bad as Betancourt's, he's much more reliable in the field and is a safe bet to replicate his predecessor's 15 long balls.

So while the sure-handed Venezuelan marks a slight upgrade over Betancourt, he pales in comparison to Milwaukee's newest addition, Aramis Ramirez.  A-Ram has bashed all of his 315 career big flies during his 14 year career in the NL Central with the Pirates, Cubs, and now the Brewers, for whom he provides a legitimate middle of the order bat.  His durability is always a concern (he's appeared in more than 150 games just twice during the past ten seasons), he's a defensive liability and at 33 the two-time All Star is no spring chicken, but when healthy he's a top five third baseman who can threaten 30-100-.300 in his sleep.  Ramirez undoubtedly benefitted from playing half his games at Wrigley Field, but his career numbers in Milwaukee project to a 50 double, 30 homer, 120 RBI season, which the Brewers will take everyday and twice on Sundays.  He can't replace Fielder, but unless you have Evan Longoria or Adrian Beltre you can't get much more out of your third baseman.

Ramirez expects the reigning NL Central champs to contend again next year, but he'll have to be at the top of his game in order for that to happen.  Milwaukee can't afford another disappointing year from its third baseman.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pats Rip Redskins

One week after scraping out a narrow win against the winless Colts, the Patriots made it intersting again today against the Redskins, who have won one more game than the Pats have lost this season,  in the nation's capital. 

Both teams put on offensive displays throughout the first three quarters before running out of gas in the fourth.  After three it was 34-27, New England and it stayed that way when neither side managed to score after that.  Before today, New England had never beaten the Redskins on the road.

The aerial attack was more of the same from Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker.  Brady wasn't as efficient as he usually is (15 incompletions and an end zone interception to Washington cornerback Josh Wilson halfway through the fourth), but at the end of the day you can't really argue with his three TDs.  He hit Gronkowski for a pair of six-pointers (Gronk's 14th and 15th, breaking the single season mark for touchdown receptions by a tight end) and a career high 160 yards on six catches before firing the pivotal go-ahead touchdown to Welker late in the third.  Tom Terrific also kept Aaron Hernandez involved, and the trio of receivers accounted for all but 27 of Brady's 357 passing yards.  But it was Vince Wilfork, of all people, who kicked off the scoring with an end zone fumble recovery.

New England's defense allowed Rex Grossman and rookie Roy Helu (126 rushing yards) to inflict some serious damage, and so the blueprint for this game seemed patterned after all the others; defense struggles, but Brady, Gronk, and Welker lead the team to victory.  10 wins prove this formula has been working, but I don't see how it could possibly take them to a Super Bowl victory.

The Patriots have now won five in a row, and they travel to Colorado to play Tim Tebow and the Broncos in Denver for their last road game of the season.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bye Bye Baby

With the NBA season barely more than two weeks away, the Boston Celtics have traded "Big Baby" Glen Davis to the Orlando Magic in a sign and trade deal for Brandon Bass. Straight up.

This swap of backup power forwards is a minor personnel move, but I like it nonetheless. Despite ranking as the most inefficient converter of long two-pointers in the Association last season, Davis possessed an irrational confidence that inspired him to lauch more than ten shots per game, the majority of which came from the perimeter, off the bench.  Perhaps he was trying to be more like Kevin Garnett, who's range extends to about a foot in front of the three point line, but the bottom line is that, like a Nate Robinson or Brandon Jennings, he was simply taking too many bad shots.  The soon to be 26 year old enjoyed a substantial increase in playing time last year (30 minutes per game after averaging roughly 18 through his first three seasons) so that, combined with a long leash from Coach Doc Rivers (whom he also sparred with), probably convinced him that he wasn't doing anything wrong.  Now I'm not against taking open shots, and Davis proved he was capable of hitting the 18-20 foot jumper consistently, but it shouldn't be his go-to move, not when he weighs nearly 300 pounds and should be backing down guys like Bass.

Speaking of Bass, who posted nearly identical numbers to Davis in 2010-2011, I believe he will fit well in Boston.  He's a slightly better shot blocker and a much more efficient shooter from both the field (career 50 percent, Davis 45) and the charity stripe (83 percent to Baby's 71).  He gives the Green some desperately needed strength and athleticism, and at $4 million  year he's a good bargain (remember that the C's paid Brian Scalabrine more to hand out high-fives and shoot garbage time threes).  Bass is 50 pounds lighter than Davis and is much leaner and fitter, too, so he should be a stronger bet to stay healthy and hold up over the course of the season.  Getting away from Orlando's suffocating offense that depends on Dwight Howard and a ton of three-pointers should also help Bass get more touches and flourish, especially since Rajon Rondo and the rest of the Celts distribute the ball so well.  Rivers should use him as his sixth or seventh man, and he'll get opportunities to start when KG invariably needs days off or goes down with an injury. 

And Davis? I'm sure he'll fit right in with the other chuckers in Orlando.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Angels Add Pujols, Wilson

The Los Angeles Angels endured a rough winter last year.  They missed out on Carl Crawford, even though California was his preferred destination, after Boston outbid them.  They traded for Vernon Wells, even though his contract has been deemed one of the worst in baseball (right up there with Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Howard, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth, and Alex Rodriguez), and paid him 26 million bucks for -0.3 bWAR and a .248 on base percentage.  In return for Wells they gave away Mike Napoli, their slugging catcher that manager Mike Scoscia kept on the bench far too often because of his defensive woes. Napoli got his revenge, though, because in a cruel twist of fate he was flipped to Texas where he helped lead the Rangers to another division title with his 30 home runs, 1.046 OPS and 5.5 WAR.  Meanwhile, Scioscia's boy Jeff Mathis hit all of .174 for the Halos and, like Wells, was worth -0.3 bWAR.

But in one fell swoop today, the Angels erased all of that pain and suffering in the blink of an eye. Albert Pujols wanted Alex Rodriguez money, and they gave it to him with a gargantuan 10 year, $254 million contract that ranks as the second biggest contract in the sport behind A-Rod's current one.  Phat Albert's wallet just got a lot fatter, and the deal includes a full no-trade clause as well, meaning he will probably play out the rest of his days in LA.  The Angels also locked up lefty C.J. Wilson for five years and $77 million, basically the same contract that John Lackey and A.J. Burnett received from the Red Sox and Yankees.   I consider the Wilson deal an eye for an eye regarding the Napoli debacle; that score has been settled.

It goes without saying that this is a huge day for the Halos, who might have just vaulted over the two-time defending AL Champs as the team to beat in the AL West.  Pujols adds an elite, middle of the order bat to what was a below average offense in 2011 and gives the club an offensive threat they haven't had since Vladimir Guerrero's heyday.  Adding Wilson to a rotation that already includes Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, and Ervin Santana gives them a Big Four that could be the AL equivalent of last year's Philadelphia quartet.  On paper, the Angels now have the best starting pitching in the Junior Circuit and possibly the majors.  Wilson also has the Mark Buehrle-to-the-Marlins-effect of providing a much needed lefty arm to an otherwise righthanded dominant staff.

But how will the duo fare in LA? Luckily for Pujols, the DH should help extend his career and keep him healthy as he enters his mid-to-late thirties over the next few seasons, but I would expect his statistics to take a slight dip.  He's not getting any younger, and playing half his games in Angel Stadium of Anaheim and many more in Oakland and Seattle won't help either.  He's also leaving behind a potent Redbird lineup, trading in valuable lineup protection from Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman for Wells and Torii Hunter.  His intentional walks declined the past two years, but they could see a spike in 2012.  And we don't know how he'll respond to the new surroundings, new league, and the pressure that comes with signing such an enormous contract.  The Machine should be better than he was last year, but I think his days of winning batting titles and threatening 50 home runs are probably behind him. I project a .310 average, 40 bombs and 115 RBI for the star slugger.

And then there's Wilson, who's pitched in the stifling heat of Texas for the entirety of his seven year career.  In his two full years as a starter there, he topped 200 innings each time and went 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA.  The 2011 All Star also finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting.  His numbers could look even better in 2012 after trading in half his starts in a hitter's haven for a more pitching friendly venue.  The Angels also have a great defense.  For the record, his career ERA in LA is 2.79, and I wouldn't be surprised if he posted a similar figure in 2012.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Marlins Buy Buehrle

Since when are the Miami Marlins the New York Yankees?

After a decade of penny-pinching, years of waving good-bye to franchise players like Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera, and Dan Uggla, the Miami just added a trio of free agents for the price of the entire Yankee payroll.  The Marlins, the same Marlins who paid their entire team as much as the Steinbrenners paid Alex Rodriguez last year, are no longer little fish in a big pond.   The former kings of one year rentals like Carlos Delgado and Ivan Rodriguez are suddenly gobbling up free agents left and right, transforming themselves into aggressive buyers willing to open up their checkbooks at the drop of a hat.  They remind me of a poker player that's been quiet all night, saving his chips and biding his time until he pounces and goes all in.

Funny how a shiny new ballpark can change everything.

The first to arrive was Heath Bell, who's quietly been one of the most dependable closer in the game over the past three years for the Padres.  Even though he's already 34, closers with consistent track records of success tend to age well (see Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman).  He came at half the price of Jonathan Papelbon after posting ERAs roughly half of what incumbent fireman Leo Nunez, who always seemed miscast as a closer in the first place and might be better suited to eighth inning duties, put up from '09-'11.  Make no mistake, adding Bell significantly improves Miami's bullpen for the next three seasons.

Then they went out and locked up reigning NL batting champ Jose Reyes for six years (without spending Carl Crawford/Jayson Werth money), even though they already had an elite shortstop in Hanley Ramirez.  The switch-hitting speedster gives the offense a dynamic catalyst at the top of the order and allows HanRam to hit out of the 3 or 4 hole, where he can take advantage of his power and run produing skills.  Unfortunately, Ramirez has been acting like a five year old who doesn't want to share by resisting a move to third base, meaning the Marlins might have to trade him and forfeit what could potentially be the best left side of the infield in all of baseball.  Worst of all, they'd be trading him while his value is at an all time low and probably wouldn't receive equal value in return.

And now, just two days after adding Reyes the Marlins bolstered their starting rotation by signing southpaw Mark Buehrle for four years and $58 million.  In Buehrle they get one of the most consistent hurlers in the game, a four time All-Star who's topped 10 wins, 30 starts and 200 innings in each of the past eleven years.  As a nice bonus, he also fields his position well as evidenced by three straight Gold Gloves and one heck of a webgem on last year's Opening Day, but more importantly he adds a lefty arm to a staff dominated by righthanders Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, and Javier Vazquez if he chooses to return.

So after committing nearly $200 million to these three free agents over the past few weeks the Marlins are officially out of the running for Albert Pujols, but then again I never thought they were serious about employing his services for the remainder of the decade anyways.  The rumor was more of a publicity stunt designed to sustain the high from inking Reyes, but with the way Miami has been making it rain this offseason it seemed possible that they might be crazy enough to pull it off. For now, they seem likely to make a serious postseason run in 2012 and have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Santo's Spot Safe in Cooperstown

Yesterday, longtime borderline Cooperstown candidate Ron Santo was elected to baseball's hall of fame by the Veteran's Committee for the Golden Era.  Nearly four decades after the longtime Cubbie third baseman limped into retirement after suffering through a wasted season with the White Sox, during which time his numbers didn't change one iota, he finally got the nod.  Sadly, Santo passed away almost a year ago to the day and won't be in attendance when he's enshrined in late July.

Santo came up with the Cubs as a tender twenty year-old in 1960, the same year Ted Williams hit his final home run and John F. Kennedy, only one year older than Teddy Ballgame, was elected president of the United States.  And while his big league debut seems unimpressive today, at the time it was good enough to earn him a fourth place finish in the Rookie of the Year balloting (Trivia question-which slugger took home the hardware that year? None other than Frank "Hondo" Howard of the Los Angeles Dodgers).  But the Cubs didn't have any other players rostered at the hot corner, so they gave him the full-time gig the following year, and he didn't disappoint.  Taking a cue from teammate Ernie Banks, Santo averaged 160 games per year for the remainder of the decade and annually threatened 30-100-.300 numbers during the pitching dominated Sixties.  In my opinion his more lethal bat made him a more complete player than Baltimore's Brook Robinson, and he was unquestionably the best third sacker in the Senior Circuit between Eddie Mathews, who began declining just as Santo was getting started, and Mike Schmidt, whose career didn't take off until Santo's final season.  Fun fact; he also popularized wearing batting helmets with ear flaps.  Smart man.

After 1970, Santo declined and was no longer the same player, although he remained solid enough to make the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons even as his production tailed off.  Unfortunately he ended his career on a sour note in 1974 with the White Sox, going out with a paltry .221/.293/.299 line as a washed up utility player for a .500 ballclub.  When he debuted on the ballot for the first time in 1980, he didn't even earn the necessary five percent of votes to remain on the ballot.  It took him five years to get back on, and while his support increased slowly but surely he only managed to top out at 43 percent in 1998, well short of the 75 percent needed in his final year of eligibility.

Suffice it to say, the voters had clearly underrated many of Santo's skills such as defense (he won five Gold Gloves and led the league in dWAR in 1967), plate discipline (topped the NL in OBP twice, walks four times) and durability (led the league twice and played all 164 in 1965).  The recent sabermetric boom credits him for all of these as well as WAR, a statistic that ranked him among the top ten position players every year from 1963 to 1969 as well as the best in the NL in '67 with a Matt Kemp-like 10.2 bWAR.  Most importantly, he was also an exceptional human being and great teammate who earned the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1973, his last season with the Cubs.  All in all, the nine time All-Star who never played for any time outside of the Windy city was just a great all-around player who consistently performed at a high level for thirteen seasons, the majority of his career.

But honestly, I don't agree with everyone who says that this was long overdue, because when you look at the numbers he was really a borderline case and seems to have benefitted from Jim Rice's recent induction. Don't get me wrong, I supported his candidacy and believed this day should have come years ago, but I can see why his career was a challenging case for voters.  Despite reaching 30 long balls, 100 RBI and a .300 average four times each, his numbers never jumped off the page (kind of like a Tony Perez or Eddie Murray, he never had that one monster, break out season like Carl Yastrzemski's '67, Rice's '78 or Adrian Beltre's 2004). Many argue he suffered from playing in a offense-depressed era, but he also had the luxury of playing half his games in Wrigley Field (his OPS was nearly 160 points higher at home!) and neutralizing his statistics barely changes them; his rate states get a five point boost and he winds up with a handful of additional homers, doubles, RBI, and runs.  For the most part, his career statistics (which are good but not overwhelming in any area) provide an accurate indication of his ability.

Another strike against him was that he didn't dominate his era, not against stiff competition like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey. Santo never finishEd Higher than fourth in the MVP balloting and earned just 1.23 shares (185th all time), although in fairness he was battling the aforementioned studs as well as a plethora of outstanding hurlers, and voters likely penalized him because Chicago never made a serious run at the pennant outside of its infamous September collapse to the Miracle Mets in 1969. 

And while we're at it, why not induct guys like Dick Allen, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Dwight Evans (I know, a lof of D's right there) Norm Cash, Gil Hodges, Albert Belle, and Fred McGriff, the list goes on players who posted similar or better numbers throughout their careers.  Take "Crime Dog," for instance; how the heck does a guy with the same amount of home runs as Lou Gehrig and a dozen seasons with at least 92 ribbies  not get in? Why not Barry Larkin or Jeff Bagwell?

That's what bugs me about the Hall of Fame; they appear to take pride in being so selective by keeping qualfied players out when there are plenty of unqualified players (i.e. Bill Mazeroski, Ray Schalk) already there.  It's so hypocritical In my mind and reflects the inconsistency of the voters. If you're going to dilute the Hall with men of questionable merit, then it's just not fair to close the doors to those with superior numbers.  It would be like a teacher giving gold stars to all her A students and a couple C students but completely ignoring her B, B+, A- students.  I don't care if they roided like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield and others, just let them in.  Surely they were all better than Bill Mazeroski.  So either raise the bar and stop letting borderline guys in to what is becoming the Hall of Very Good, or start letting everybody in.  One way or the other, just as long as it's consistent.

But that's neither here nor there.  This is a great day for Santo's family, but the real shame is that it came a year too late.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Marlins Add Jose Reyes

Christmas is coming early down in Florida this year.

It took a month of negotations, but Jose Reyes will be a Miami Marlin in 2012 after reportedly inking a six year, $106 million contract with the club that just signed closer Heath Bell.  The former New York Met joins Chris Bosh and LeBron James as recent superstar athletes who took their talents down to South Beach.

Although the reigning NL batting champ fell short of the Carl Crawford (and, while we're at it, Jayson Werth) money he was hoping for, his annual salary will now be equivalent to what he made in 2010 and 2011, combined. Based on the four time All-Star's skill set and age alone he's worth more, but hamstring injuries have plagued him over the last three seasons and wiped out his reputation as a leadoff man who could be counted on to suit up 160 times a year. 

In Florida he teams up with fellow 28 year-old shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who will move to the hot corner as Alex Rodriguez did out of respect for Derek Jeter back in 2004.  The switcharoo makes sense because Ramirez has always been a poor fielder (-2.8 career dWAR) prone to making careless errors.  Reyes, on the other hand, is no Ozzie Smith but is quicker and more agile (1.6 career dWAR).  Ramirez (who's played nowhere else during his professional career) definitely has the arm strength and reflexes for third, and the Marlins hope the move will help cover up his defensive deficiencies and take less of a toll on his body. 

HanRam, a former NL Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up, has regressed significantly over the past two seasons.  He was absolutely brutal last year (just ask anyone who picked him first or second overall in fantasy drafts across the nation) and lugged a Mendoza line batting average into late June, but the hiring of old man Jack McKeon as the interim manager for the floundering Fish (who promptly benched the struggling star) seemed to rejuvenate him, as he batted a more typical .304/.385/.500 the rest of the way until a shoulder injury in early August ended his season prematurely.  Miami needs him to return strong after offseason surgery and return to his 2007-2009 levels, when he annually threatened 30/30 and was arguably the best player in baseball along with Albert Pujols ( who the Marlins are also pursuing).  If he can do that and Reyes stays healthy, the the Marlins will have the best left side of an infield for years to come.

But will that translate into their first postseason appearance since Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Ivan Rodriguez led them to a World Series title in 2003? They stumbled to a 72-90 record last year after Ramirez and ace Josh Johnson went down, so getting full seasons from them and Reyes should push them over .500.  They have a decent nucleus of solid players in their prime years with guys like Gaby Sanchez, Emilio Bonifacio (will he be boni-fide or boni-facio in 2012 after enjoying a solid breakout last year?) Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco along with young guns Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton, who could belt 40 homers next year.  The Phillies have the NL East in the bag next year, so the Marlins will have to duke it out for the Wild Card.  I don't think they're equipped to win it right now unless everything falls together perfectly next year, but they should be able to contend in their new home ballpark.

And after their disaster of a seson last year, that should be enough.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pats Clip Colts

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Patriots were coasting.  They'd thoroughly routed their winless rivals and, armed with a commanding 31-3 lead, just had to cruise through garbage time to earn their ninth win of the season.  All they had to do was play out the string, literally.

But then a funny thing happened.  The Colts, without Payton Manning yet again and sleepwalking their way to another defeat, suddenly came back to life quicker than a zombie in "The Walking Dead." Stand-in QB Dan Orlovsky rallied his troops with a pair of TD passes to Pierre Garcon (who enjoyed a monster day by hauling in nine passes for 150 yards) while Indy's D put the screws on New England's devastating offense and kept them off the scoreboard in the fourth. By the end of the game they'd dominated the final fifteen minutes and had somehow managed to cut New England's lead to a single touchdown.  And with every Patriot fan in Gillette sweating bullets, Deion Branch thankfully recovered the onside kick and Tom Brady took a knee to hold on for the win.

New England's defensive struggles and fourth quarter meltdown aside, this afternoon's game was just business as usual for the Pats.  Brady did his thing, leading the air attack with a very efficient 29/38 for 289 yards and a couple touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski (who made it a hat trick with a rushing TD) while keeping Wes Welker happy with eleven receptions and 110 yards.  New England didn't get much on the ground from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who managed to score despite finishing the day with just fourteen rushing yards on six carries.  Even New England's much-maligned defense performed well for the most part, holding to Colts to just a second quarter Adam Vinatieri field goal before collapsing like a house of cards at the end.

The Pats take on the Redskins (4-8) in the nation's capital next Sunday as they continue to benefit from a soft schedule down the stretch.  New England will be gunning for its tenth victory of the season, and should get it there.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Just Retire, Jason

Jason Varitek has been a member of the Boston Red Sox for every one of his 15 big league seasons.  The team captain has been with the squad through thick and thin, has enjoyed the highs of embracing Keith Foulke and Jonathan Papelbon after the final out of two World Series championship runs and suffered the lows of the devastating Aaron Boone game and last season's epic collapse.  The three time All-Star belted nearly 200 homers while catching Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, and Curt Schilling, batting behind Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.  The Gold Glove winner and Silver Slugger recipient has caught four no-hitters and lived a long, full baseball life.

And now it's time to say goodbye.

Because it's been quite a while since 'Tek was a capable everyday catcher.  Just once in the past six seasons has the switch-hitting backstop batted north of .238, and during that time he's been worth less than one bWAR per year with an OPS+ that's averaged out to 87.  Granted, we're talking about his age 34 through 39 seasons here, but to be honest he's fortunate Boston could afford to give him 40 million bucks and almost 2,000 at-bats, or about four full seasons, to such a subpar offensive performer.  And while his hitting has clearly declined, his defense was never great in the first place (career -0.6 dWAR and basestealers ran on him at will), so it's not like he brings much to the table with his mitt, either.  Of course, he does have the old-school intangibles of leadership, experience, and grit that don't show up in the daily box scores, and he's earned the reputation of a hard-nosed ballplayer and a warrior (we all saw him stuff his glove into Alex Rodriguez's yapper on national TV back in 2004, remember?). Pitchers always loved him and never questioned his game-calling skills, and he handled the staff so well that he was like a second pitching coach.  Even in the twilight of Varitek's career, Josh Beckett refused to pitch to his replacements Victor Martinez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

But Varitek, like his Yankee counterpart Jorge Posada, has indeed been replaced, and at this point in his career #33 is strictly a backup catcher.  Boston has shown little interest in bringing him back since Salty (13 years younger) has proved he can withstand the rigors of catching a full season, but the soon to be 40 year-old has reportedly drawn interest from the Mets and Orioles and if anyone can convince them to give the creaky catcher a shot, it's his agent Scott Boras.  If I were Varitek, I would hang up my spikes and call it a career, go out as a Red Sox lifer and the franchise's best catcher since Carlton Fisk.  It's been painful to watch his decline over the past few seasons, and no one wants to see him overstay his welcome and toil away for those noncontenders.  If he has any sense of pride or dignity he'll understand that it's time to call it quits.  He's made his money, more than $67 million in salaries, and has nothing left to prove.

Interestingly enough, if he winds up in Maryland behind Matt Wieters on the depth chart for a year his career will have the same ending as Dwight Evans, who enjoyed a 19 season tenure in a Boston uniform before going out with the 67-win Orioles in his age 40 season.

Varitek, please don't make the same mistake.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Red Sox Shopping List

The holiday season is upon us, and the Red Sox have some work to do this winter. Let's take a look at several areas that they need to address.

-Another starting pitcher
John Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season, Daisuke Matsuzaka (entering his walk year) hasn't been healthy since the tail end of the George W. Bush era, Clay Buchholz missed half of 2011 and Josh Beckett has been up and down during his six seasons.  Staff ace Jon Lester is the only risk-free starting pitcher, if there is such a thing, and as we saw down the stretch Boston's rotation lacked depth.  I could see them making a push for C.J. Wilson, but he'll demand a hefty price tag and the front office might be wary after making costly mistakes with Carl Crawford and Lackey during the last two offseasons.  Mark Buehrle, another southpaw who's made a living pitching in a hitter's haven at Comiskey Park, returned to form in 2011 and would be a nice middle of the rotation starter without breaking the bank. He's also a lock for 200 innings (eleven straight seasons now) the way Ichiro Suzuki was once a lock for 200 hits.

-More middle relievers
Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks went bust last year, while Matt Albers and Bard faded fast down the stretch.  Alfredo Aceves was a nice surprise out of the bullpen, but this team desperately needs to patch up its 'pen.  If Tim Wakefield returns, it should be as a full time reliever who can make the occassional spot start in a pinch, because he just hasn't been effective the last two seasons (82 ERA+) and the Sox can't afford to give him 150 innings or so.

-A closer
Intimidating fireman Jonathan Papelbon has taken his talents to the City of Brotherly Love, and Joe Nathan (Rangers, who are converting Neftali Feliz to a starter) and Heath Bell (the newly minted Miami Marlins) are off the market.  Boston is fortunate in that it has a suitable replacement, Papelbon's former setup man Daniel Bard, waiting in the wings, but if they're looking to pay for an experienced closer there are still plenty of free agent options available such as Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco (yeah, it's a common name in this winter's free agent pool) and others.  They should just save the money and promote Bard, though.

-A new manager
Bobby Valentine. Check.

-Right Field
J.D. Drew is a free agent, and he has about the same chance of coming back as Nomar Garciaparra does coming out of retirement to play shortstop (and the scary part is that a washed up Nomah would probably be a better alternative to an aging Marco Scutaro and a brittle Jed Lowrie at this point).  Is soon to be 25 year-old Josh Reddick capable of playing every day, or should the Sox get a Michael Cuddyer type to plug this hole? While Reddick is solid, he's very streaky and has terrible plate discipline (50 strikeouts against 19 walks last season).  Cuddyer is 33, but the righty has respectable power figures and his 20 home run pop in Target Field could get a healthy boost in Fenway. The front office probably wants to give Reddick a shot before calling in reinforcements, and their lineup is so stacked that they can put up with his slumps and just wait until the trade deadline if he turns out to be more useless than Mike Cameron.

-A new GM
Ben Charrington. Check

-David Ortiz
Bring him back! Enjoyed his best triple slash stats since 2007 and proved he can still mash. He just turned 36 and is reportedly seeking a three year deal, but he's done so much for this city that he deserves something similar to the Derek Jeter treatment (in other words, overpay him for the twilight of his career).  Besides, in case you haven't noticed, there's a real paucity of productive full-time DH's in the American League, and even if he regresses to his 2008/2009 level that's still better than what most teams are getting from the position (see Vladimir Guerrero, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Travis Hafner, Adam Dunn , Jorge Posada, et. al).  If they choose to let Papi go, a short term deal for sluggers Carlos Pena or Josh Willingham, even an Andruw Jones would do the trick.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Miguel Cabrera: AL's Answer to Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols is an elite offensive performer, a hitting robot who's track record of consistent excellence  has earned him his nickname as "The Machine." This winter he's due for a massive paycheck, and as long as he's not substantially older than he claims to be he should be worth every penny for the team (probably the Cardinals) that lands him.

And while he's arguably one of the best hitters of all time, I would argue that Miguel Cabrera, who's been an absolute monster since his first full season in 2004, has been his equal at the dish over the past three seasons, over which his .332/.421/.598 line is actually better than Prince Albert's .313/.409/.583.  Pujols has a significant edge in home runs, but in every other department Cabrera is just as good if not better.  And even though Cabrera has been plagued by off-the-field issues they don't interfere with his coming to the park everyday; he's averaged 158 games played since 2004 with a low of 150 over that span, a number still higher than Pujols' game played totals in 2006, 2008, and 2011.

Some interesting parallels for their careers:

-They are dominant righthanded sluggers in the same mold as Manny Ramirez (high batting average, excellent plate discipline, plenty of power, and they pile up RBI and runs)

-Pujols plays in the NL Central and Cabrera plays in the AL Central, both in parks that are better for pitchers than hitters

-They both enjoyed good rookie seasons; Pujols won the NL Rookie of the Year, was selected to the All-Star team, finished fourth in the MVP race and won a Silver Slugger while Cabrera, despite playing only 87 games (full season numbers project to 39 doubles, 22 homers and 115 ribbies), finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year race and earned some MVP consideration for helping push the Marlins into the postseason, where Josh Beckett stifled the Yankees and locked up Florida's second World Series title in seven seasons.  Apparently Chicago Cubs fans are still bitter about this

-At one point or another, both have played in left field and at the hot corner before finally settling down as slugging first basemen.  They have won a Silver Slugger at each position.

-Five times Cabrera has finished in the top five of the MVP vote without walking away with the trophy. Pujols has suffered this pain in six different offseasons,, although four of them followed superlative years from Barry Bonds.

-They both hit well in October, are World Series champs, ground into a lot of double plays (at least a dozen per season for each of them), don't get hit by many pitches (aren't pitchers challenging them inside?) and earn their fair share of intentional walks

-Beginning in 2004 both have eclipsed 30 big flies and 300 total bases every year

-In 2009 they earned almost identical salaries of approximately $14,400,000

-They have led their leagues in doubles, RBI and batting average once (this shocks me)

The major difference is that Pujols, a three-time NL Most Valuable Player, is much more of a complete player than Cabrera, who is still in search of his first MVP award.  Although Phat Albert doesn't possess blazing speed, he knows when to pick his spots and has become an effective and efficient basestealer.  Beginning with his first MVP campaign in 2005 he's averaged ten steals per year (nabbing fourteen or more three times) with a 76 percent success rate.  Cabrera, on the other hand, has never reached double digits in the steals department (he fell one short in 2006) and has only 29 career thefts, or one-third of Pujols' total. 

On defense, Pujols is a also plus defender.  He's worked hard to improve his D and it's paid off; baseball-reference says he's been worth 11.3 dWAR in the field, meaning he provides an extra win with his glove every year, and he's been recognized with a pair of Gold Gloves.  He's certainly on par with other slick fielding first basemen such as Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez.  Cabrera is not nearly as athletic or agile around the bag, and his -5.4 career dWAR (he's been below zero every year of his career) indicates that he's more of a liabilty with the mitt.  He'll probably never win a Gold Glove, and if Victor Martinez wasn't the full-time DH in Detroit, Cabrera would be the perfect man for the job.

So even though Cabrera has been significantly less valuable than Pujols--his 39.7 bWAR since 2004 pale in comparison to Pujols' gaudy total of 65.1--in 2010 and 2011 Miggy earned nearly 50 percent more in wages than his NL counterpart.  I guarantee you won't be able to say the same thing in 2012.

So does Miguel Cabrera=Albert Pujols? Of course not, but offensively it's pretty darn close.

And that's quite an accomplishment.