Monday, April 29, 2013

Celtics Live to Fight Another Day

Pierce brings the Boston crowd to its feet with a three-pointer
Just when I had given up the Boston Celtics and resigned myself to the fact that they were almost certainly going to get swept in a playoff series for the first time since Kevin Garnett donned the Celtic green, they sucked me back in. They reminded me that they are a gritty, resilient basketball team with mountains of pride and just enough talent. Not deep enough to win a seven game series without Rajon Rondo, mind you, but enough to compete and battle and hang in there, even if they usually falter at the end.

Playing in front of a home crowd for possibly the last time this season, the Celtics exhibited the kind of heart you'd expect from them in that kind of situation. Playing with energy, purpose, and desperation, they staved off elimination by willing themselves to a 97-90 overtime win over the New York Knicks on Sunday afternoon.

The Knicks were without J.R. Smith, who served his one-game suspension for elbowing Jason Terry's face in Game 3, and clearly missed his presence on offense. With New York stumbling through a 35-point first half, the Celtics roared out to a 19-point lead. Boston was in control, the game seemingly in hand.

But the Celtics have been prone to blowing huge leads all year, a bad habit that almost cost them the game. Boston gave New York easy points, letting the Knicks gather momentum and ultimately battle them to a draw at the end of regulation.

Typical Celtics. They never, ever make it easy on themselves.

So with Boston's season hanging in the balance and no Rondo to save them, Terry took matters into his own hands. JET came on strong at the end, scoring Boston's last nine points to lead them past NY in OT. It was a put-the-team-on-my-back performance usually reserved for superstars of the highest order, the LeBron Jameses, Kobe Bryants and Carmelo Anthonys of the world.

Speaking of Anthony, he finally suffered his first off-night of the series. After torching Boston for 96 points in the first three games, 'Melo shot a pitiful 10-of-35 from the floor in Game 4, the kind of inefficiency that negates the value of his 36 points. He needed and got lots of help from Raymond Felton, who dropped 27 points and sparked New York's second half surge, but nobody else stepped up.With better bench play, the Knicks would already be in the second round.

But they aren't, and there's more basketball to be played. I was ready to forget about the Celtics and move on, but now there's another game. There's still hope. I'll tune in when the series resumes on Wednesday night, expecting to see the same effort I saw today. That's really all I can ask for.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Justin Upton: Man on a Mission

Justin Upton is insanely, impossibly, ridiculously hot right now. He's so hot, in fact, that you can almost see the flames radiating from his bat every time he swings. His plate appearances have materialized into must-see TV.

After homering in both games of yesterday's doubleheader in Colorado, he now has 11 big flies on the young season. Nobody else has more than seven. He also has the highest slugging percentage (.813) and most total bases (61) of anyone in baseball. But since all but one of his dingers came with nobody on base, his power surge has produced just 16 RBI. For that he can blame Atlanta's table-setters--Andrelton Simmons and his big brother B.J. Upton--who have a combined OBP somewhere in the .250 range. Because of them, most times when the younger Upton digs in, the table is empty.

But a dearth of RBI opportunities hasn't stopped Upton from enjoying one of the best starts in baseball history. The Braves have gone along for the ride, jumping out to a 15-5 record and building a quick five game lead over the NL East, making their 25 year-old left fielder an early MVP favorite as well as a shoo-in to make his third All-Star team.

Out west, Upton's former employers have to be kicking themselves for trading him away when he was still under team control through 2015. Everyone could see the former first overall draft pick had this kind of superstar talent in him; he just needed time to mature. Now, he's growing up right before our eyes and is poised to become a major force for years to come. Three weeks into the season, it seems inevitable that future generations of baseball fans will look back on this trade the same way we disparage Boston's sale of Babe Ruth or the Reds' trading Frank Robinson.

More importantly, Upton's home run barrage merely reinforces what we knew three months ago; the Diamondbacks were dumb to trade Justin Upton.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

NL Central Preview

1st Place--Cincinnati Reds
2012 Record: 97-65
2012 Pythagorean: 91-71
2013 Projected: 93-69
The lineup is much more fearsome with on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo setting the table for Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Votto is going to hit like he did in the first half last year and win the MVP award. Bruce's home run totals have increased every year and he's one of the few sluggers with a legitimate shot at 40 homers. Brandon Phillips is as steady as the come at second base. Todd Frazier can hit, too, and represents a big improvement over Scott Rolen even if he can't play Gold Glove caliber defense like his predecessor did. Zack Cozart is a talented out-machine much like Drew Stubbs, but it is his age 27 season so maybe he takes a big step forward. The starting rotation that started 161 games last year returns intact. Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto are bona fide aces. You know what you're getting from Bronson Arroyo--200 innings of above average ball. Homer Bailey finally emerged as a legit midrotation starter last year and should be just as good, if not better, in 2013. Mike Leake is serviceable. Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton head what should be a solid bullpen.

2nd Place--St. Louis Cardinals
2012 Record: 88-74
2012 Pythagorean: 93-69
2013 Projected: 86-76
Make no mistake about it; this team is built to hit. St. Louis is stacked offensively and has a wealth of starting pitching, but injuries have already struck down several key players (Rafael Furcal, David Freese, Chris Carpenter) and figure to get Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran sooner or later. Yadier Molina is also poised for regression following his career year. The rotation is just as deep as the lineup, with Adam Wainwright looking to pitch like the Cy Young candidate he was before Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2011 season. Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn are surprisingly underrated. Shelby Miller could win Rookie of the Year. Jake Westbrook is the weakest link, and he's a perfectly fine 4 or 5 for most teams. The bullpen isn't great, especially with Jason Motte out for quite some time, but there are enough arms to keep the 'pen decent enough.

3rd Place--Milwaukee Brewers
2012 Record: 83-79
2012 Pythagorean: 85-77
2013 Projected: 81-81
The lineup is shockingly average around Ryan Braun. There are no real holes, but nobody else is really that good either except for Aramis Ramirez, who's going to be 35 this summer. Corey Hart is hurt. Rickie Weeks always disappoints. Carlos Gomez blends power and speed like B.J. Upton. Jonathan Lucroy might turn out to be a top-ten catcher in his age 27 season. The rotation gets a nice boost from Kyle Lohse, who'll have to pitch like a number two behind Yovani Gallardo (who's not a true ace). Marco Estrada is a strikeout machine and is going to have a nice year, but the bottom of the rotation is scary. The bullpen is even worse. The Brewers could hang around for awhile, but they're not going to contend.

4th Place--Pittsburgh Pirates
2012 Record: 79-83
2012 Pythagorean: 78-84
2013 Projected:77-85
I see another losing season in Pittsburgh's future. The offense features plenty of pop but little speed outside of Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen. 'Cutch is a legit MVP candidate, but his sluggish second half leads me to believe he'll slip a bit in 2013. Pedro Alvarez finally harnessed his big-time power last year, but he's a feast-or-famine hitter who whiffs way too much and is prone to lengthy slumps. Late-bloomer Garrett Jones also hits for power but is just average when it comes to getting on base. I keep waiting for Neil Walker to get better, so perhaps this is the year he bats .300 with 15 bombs. The starting rotation lacks depth and an ace to lead it. A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are both good but hardly qualify as number ones. James McDonald is so-so, stellar first half aside. Jonathan Sanchez won't be the answer. The bullpen is unimpressive, but don't be surprised if Jason Grilli is an All-Star closer and/or leads the league in saves.

5th Place--Chicago Cubs
2012 Record: 61-101
2012 Pythagorean: 65-97
2013 Projected: 67-95
Reasons to watch: Anthony Rizzo's power, Starlin Castro's errors, Carlos Marmol's meltdowns, Jeff Samardzija's starts.
Yup. That pretty much sums it up.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why the Red Sox are for real

The Red Sox are rolling and their hot start isn't a mirage (Fox)
A lot has been written about the Red Sox's hot start lately, especially after they rode a seven-game win streak to the top of the American League East. The surging Sox have caught many baseball fans and pundits alike by surprise, leading them to wonder whether the Olde Towne Team, now 13-6 after tonight's win over the Oakland A's, is for real. I was bullish about the Sox during Spring Training, and after three weeks of phenomenal baseball I feel confident they're legit. While I'm not ready to hand them the division just yet, it's clear they're here to stay and are going to contend in 2013.

Here are five signs their fortunes have turned for the better:

1. The starting pitching is great
Boston sports the second best ERA in the American League largely because the rotation is thriving. After abominable seasons last year, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are pitching like it's 2010 again. Lester has rediscovered the form that once made him an annual preseason Cy Young favorite, but Buchholz has been even better. Ryan Dempster has surpassed expectations by piling up 33 strikeouts in 24 innings. Fellow strikeout machine Felix Doubront still hasn't reached his ceiling yet. Even John Lackey looked good before promptly returning to the Disabled List. Whatever John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves are doing differently, it's working.

2. Players are healthy (knock on wood)
The Red Sox were crippled by injuries last year, but fortunately none of them have lingered into this season. Granted, it's still early, and health is impossible to predict, but so far the returns are encouraging. Mike Napoli has shown no ill effects from the degenerative hip condition that scared Boston into restructuring his contract over the winter. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are fully healthy, unlike last year when they were banged up for large chunks of the season. Will Middlebrooks appears recovered from the broken hand that cut his rookie season short last August. David Ortiz has come back strong. Now if they can just get Stephen Drew going...

3. The lineup is more patient
Last year the Sox strayed so far from their disciplined ways that they walked less than every team in baseball except for the Kansas City Royals, who at least had the excuse of being the MLB's youngest team. Ben Cherington rectified that during the offseason by bringing in several hitters known for grinding out at-bats and making opponents work, namely Napoli, Gomes, and J.D. Drew's younger brother. These additions have gotten Boston back on track; among AL teams, only Billy Beane's Oakland A's have drawn more walks.

The scary thing is, the lineup should get even better. Napoli's knocked in a lot of runs, but his OBP is a full 50 points below his career average. Middlebrooks has been miserable aside from his three-homer outburst in Toronto but has nowhere to go but up. Pedroia, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes have yet to find their power strokes. Yes, Daniel Nava is going to cool off, but it's hardly going to matter once the offense starts firing on all cylinders.

4. The bullpen is just as good as anticipated
Hailed by many as the team's greatest strength coming into the season, Boston's relief corps has lived up to its billing. The bullpen boasts a 3.48 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 10.6 K/9 rate. Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, Clayton Mortenson, and newcomer Koji Uehara have all been lights out. Joel Hanrahan's April 10th meltdown disguises the fact that he pitched very well in his first four appearances of the year. The 'pen will be even better once he returns from his DL stint, which could be as soon as Sunday.

5. The defense is good
One of the least-discussed reasons for Boston's early success is their outstanding defense, which leads the majors in fielding percentage and fewest errors committed. Napoli is no Adrian Gonzalez at first, but Pedroia plays Gold Glove defense at the keystone position. Drew and Middlebrooks are solid defenders as well, but the D is anchored by its speedy outfielders--Ellsbury in center and Victorino in right. What they lack in arm strength they make up for in range and their ability to cover lots of ground in Fenway's deceptively spacious outfield. If and when Jackie Bradley Jr. returns to the Show, the Red Sox will feature speed at all three outfield positions.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

2012-2013 All NBA

PG Chris Paul (26.4 PER)
The ever-efficient Paul continued his reign as the NBA's top point guard by averaging 16.9 points, 9.7 asssists and an NBA-best 2.4 steals per game despite playing a career-low 33.4 minutes per game. Nobody's better at finding their teammates than Paul, who posted the NBA's highest assist percentage and ranked second in total assists and assists per game behind only Greivis Vasquez. Though Paul's three-point percentage dropped below 33 percent--his worst mark since his rookie year--CP3 made up for it by boosting his field goal percentage for the second straight year and sinking a career-best 88.5 percent of this free throws. Improvements in both areas yielded a .594 True Shooting percentage, the second highest of his career. Put it all together and it's easy to see why Paul ranked third in PER behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

SG Kobe Bryant (23 PER)
Really close call between the Black Mamba and James Harden, who had an outstanding season in his own right. Their numbers are nearly identical, I'll give the edge to Bryant for rising above the shitstorm that enveloped the Lakers this year and leading them into the postseason. Given the level of talent surrounding him (Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol) it's almost unfathomable that he averaged 27.3 points per game and tied a career high with six assists per game at the ripe old age of 34. Bryant embraced his role as the alpha dog and took matters into his own hands, notching his eighth season with at least 2,000 points and while posting the highest Effective Field Goal percentage of his distinguished career. His defense continues to suffer, but Bryant is still such a force with the ball in his hands that he more than makes up for it. Although his season ended a down note when he tore his Achilles tendon just before the playoffs, I fully expect  the resilient Bryant to return with a vengeance and resume his assault on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record. He's showed no signs of slowing down and given us no reason whatsoever to bet against him.

SF LeBron James (31.6 PER)
Another banner year for James has all but assured him of his fourth MVP award. King James continued to improve in his tenth season, playing the best individual basketball anyone's seen since Michael Jordan was in his prime. By honing his post game, James combined his typically stellar all-around numbers--26.8 points, 7.3 assists and a career-high 8.0 rebounds per game--with phenomenal percentages. He drilled a staggering 56.5 percent of his field goals. Even more impressively, James developed into a legitimate three-point threat by shooing above 40 percent from downtown. The only knock on James is that he's still just an average free throw shooter, but if he ever gets his FT% on the right side of 80 he'll be complete as a basketball player.

PF Tim Duncan (24.4 PER)
The soon-to-be-37-year-old enjoyed a renaissance season of sorts, proving that he still has plenty left in the tank. In addition to his usual elite interior defense (highest DRating and third-most blocks per game), Duncan averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 boards and 2.7 dimes per game while shooting north of 50 percent from the floor, helping pick up the slack for a diminished Manu Ginobili. What's more, the Big Fundamental posted the highest free throw percentage--81.7 percent--of his illustrious 16-year career.

C Brook Lopez (24.7 PER)
I thought long and hard about Marc Gasol here, but in the end their PER differential was too great to overlook. Lopez posted the fifth-best PER in the NBA behind James, Durant, Paul, and Carmelo Anthony. Despite logging just 30.4 minutes per game, the league's most polished center still averaged 19.4 points per game on 52.1 percent shooting. He also stepped up his game on the defensive end where he swatted a career-best 2.1 shots per game. His rebounding remains unimpressive for a seven-footer, but to be fair he was more active on the boards this year and reversed a two-year trend of plummeting rebound totals.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

NBA Playoff First Round Predictions

With another basketball season behind us, it's time to turn our attention toward the NBA playoffs, which start today.

Eastern Conference
Heat (1) vs Bucks (8)
Bucks have that great backcourt scoring tandem with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, but they're no match for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh--Heat in 4

Knicks (2) vs Celtics (7)
Even without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are still a dangerous team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, and Jeff Green. The Knicks either crush them, or Boston grits its way through a hard-fought series and wins with its experience and veteran leadership. As a Celtics fan, I have to believe in the latter--Celtics in 7

Pacers (3) vs Hawks (6)
For all their talent (Al Horford, Josh Smith, and now Jeff Teague), the Hawks never make it out of the first round--Pacers in 5

Nets (4) vs Bulls (5)
With Derrick Rose still out and Joakim Noah banged up, the Bulls don't have enough guns to stack up with the uber-talented Nets--Nets in 5

Western Conference
Thunder (1) vs Rockets (8)
Houston doesn't stand a chance against the mighty Thunder but probably steals a win when James Harden goes off--Thunder in 5

Spurs (2) vs Lakers (7)
With Kobe Bryant the Lakers had a puncher's chance, but without him they really don't (unless Dwight Howard dominates the paint and shuts down Tim Duncan)--Spurs in 5

Nuggets (3) vs Warriors (6)
This series could go either way, but I say the Warriors prevail when Stephen Curry shoots the lights out--Warriors in 7

Clippers (4) vs Grizzlies (5)
Two great teams squaring off in what should be a great series. Could go either way, but I see Chris Paul and Blake Griffin moving on--Clippers in 6

My NBA Award Ballot

1. LeBron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Carmelo Anthony
4. James Harden
5. Kobe Bryant

Rookie of the Year
1. Damian Lillard
2. Anthony Davis
3. Bradley Beal

Sixth Man
1. J.R. Smith
2. Jamal Crawford
3. Jarrett Jack

Defensive Player of the Year
1. Marc Gasol
2. Joakim Noah
3. Tim Duncan

Most Improved Player
1. Paul George
2. Greivis Vasquez
3. Larry Sanders

Coach of the Year
1. George Karl
2. Mike Woodson
3. Erik Spoelstra

10 Baseball Movies That Need to be Made

The '67 Sox shocked the world by winning the American League pennant
Now that Jackie Robinson's story has finally been brought to the big screen, here are some more baseball stories that would make great movies:

  1. Joe DiMaggio: The 56-game hitting streak seems like a good place to start
  2. Ted Williams: There's so much cinematic gold here (batting .400, Korean War combat missions, homering in his final at-bat) it's not even funny
  3. Summer of '49: Great source material with David Halberstam's book. The same could also be said about "The Teammates" and "October 1964"
  4. The 1967 Red Sox: Everything about the "Impossible Dream" team screams Hollywood
  5. The Miracle Mets: Ditto
  6. Roberto Clemente: Follow his quest to 3,000 hits and tragic death
  7. 1975 World Series: The greatest Fall Classic of all time deserves a movie
  8. 1978 Red Sox-Yankees rivalry: Could work as a miniseries, maybe follow-up "The Bronx is Burning"
  9. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa: Would love to see a movie made about the 1998 home run race. It can be the sort-of sequel to "61*" the same way "This is 40" was a sort-of sequel to "Knocked Up"
  10. Daniel Nava: The baseball equivalent of "Rudy"
Other ideas: 1951 Dodgers-Giants, Josh Hamilton's fall and rise, Mark Fidrych's rookie season, Sandy Koufax's dominance/retirement, Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's record, Bill Buckner and 1986 World Series, Ichiro Suzuki coming to America and leading Seattle to 116 wins, Tony Conigliaro

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Jackie Robinson By the Numbers

In honor of the new Jackie Robinson biopic 42 (it's about time), here's a look at some of Robinson's statistical achievements from his ten big league seasons:
  • Won baseball's first ever Rookie of the Year award in 1947 after scoring 125 runs, batting .297, topping the National League with 29 steals and leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to the NL pennant
  • Became the first African American to win an MVP award in 1949, when he set career highs in numerous categories, won the batting crown with his .342 average, paced the major leagues in steals (37) and was worth an ML-best 9.6 bWAR
  • Robinson made six straight All-Star teams from 1949-'54, which also happened to be the six years he batted north of .300 and posted an OPS above .900 (coincidence? I think not!)
  • Led the league in bWAR three times from 1949, '51 and '52, but like Chase Utley he did not receive the level of attention he deserved from MVP voters (outside of '49, that is)
  • One of the more impressive feats of his career is that he slugged above .500 five times despite never hitting 20 homers in a season. By comparison, Adam Dunn popped 41 dingers last year and slugged just .468
  • It's too bad the circumstance (team, era, conventions of the time) hindered Robinson's prowess as a basestealer; it would have been fun to see him run wild during the '60s, '70s or '80s alongside speedsters like Lou Brock, Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson 
  • Robinson developed a reputation as a big game player, but you'd never know it just by looking at his World Series numbers: .234/.335/.343 in six Fall Classics, all against the New York Yankees. However, his outstanding performance in clutch situations--.341/.446/.545 in late and close opportunities--indicates that his reputation was hardly undeserved
  • Like most great hitters of the day, Robinson rarely struck out. He never fanned more than 40 times in any season and drew more than 2.5 walks for every whiff. Only five percent of his plate appearances ended in a strikeout 
  • One of the most underrated aspects of his game was his plate discipline. Robinson finished his career with a .409 OBP and walked in 12.8 percent of his plate appearances. He had just one year--1948--with a walk rate below 10 percent
  • He was also a stellar defender who probably would have won his fair share of Gold Gloves based on his strong fielding percentages and range factors
  • Though Robinson was targeted by his fair share of pitchers, he did not get beaned as often as one might expect. Only once--in 1952--was he plunked more than nine times, though he did lead the league in that department in 1948 with seven HBP
  • Offensively he was a lot like Derek Jeter, a high average hitter with good pop who scored a lot of runs while playing premium defensive positions. Furthermore, they were recognized as team leaders and winners. Check out their 162 game averages:
          Robinson:  111 runs  32 2B  16 HR  86 RBI  23 SB  .311/.409/.474
          Derek Jeter: 117 runs  33 2B  16 HR  79 RBI  22 SB  .313/.382/.448
  • Even though he only played ten years and was unable to compile impressive career numbers, he was elected into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 77.5 percent of the vote, going in side-by-side with Bob Feller
  • The versatile Robinson played every non-pitcher position except for catcher and center-fielder, where Brooklyn featured two future Hall of Famers in Roy Campanella and Duke Snider
The unfortunate thing about Robinson is that so much of his legacy is tied up in the fact that he was the guy to break the color barrier. People forget just how good of a player he really was, especially at his peak when he was nearly a ten-win player. With an uninterrupted career, he probably would have approached 3,000 hits and challenged Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Gehringer, and Joe Morgan for the honor of best second baseman in baseball history. But unlike Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, and the generations of Negro League stars that preceded him, at least we'll never have to wonder how he would have fared against major league talent.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sox Sellout Streak Ends, Collapse in Ninth

The Boston Red Sox's sellout streak officially came to an end last night in just the second home game of the season. For the first time since May 14th, 2003, Fenway Park failed to sell out. The streak lasted 794 games, a record for North American sports teams. It also coincided with the organization's most successful era since the Olde Towne Team captured four World Series titles in a span of seven years from 1912 (when the park opened) to 1918.

For almost a full decade, Fenway Park sold out every home game, rain or shine, as fans came from far and wide to root for (or against) the Red Sox. They saw their team win two World Series and make six postseason appearances. They witnessed two no-hitters from young pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. They experienced Nomar Garciaparra going into the hole, David Ortiz's dramatic home runs and Jacoby Ellsbury stealing home against Andy Pettitte. They were there to see Pedro Martinez's mastery, Curt Schilling's grit, and Tim Wakefield's floating knuckler.

But in the past calendar year, they've endured a lot of losing, too, including a devastating defeat last night at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles.

Baltimore drew first blood by scoring a run on Nick Markakis's RBI groundout (plating Nate McLouth) in the top of the first. It didn't take long for Boston to answer, though. Jarrod Saltalamacchia evened the score with an RBI double to drive in Daniel Nava in the bottom of the second. The Sox scored twice in the third to take a 3-1 lead, but the Orioles quickly responded with two runs of their own in the top of the fourth. Both starters--Jake Arrieta and Ryan Dempster--departed after five, turning the game over to the bullpens.

Boston regained the lead in the bottom of the sixth on back-to-back homers from Nava and Jarrod Salty. The score remained 5-3 until the top of the ninth, when Baltimore rallied for five runs off Joel Hanrahan, who came within one strike of closing the door before allowing the Orioles to prop it back open. While Hanrahan was screwed over by home plate umpire Cory Blaser, he exacerbated the situation by spiking a wild pitch and making mistakes to Chris Davis and Manny Machado, both of whom took Hanrahan deep.

The Red Sox look to bounce back against Baltimore and take the rubber game of the series with (gulp) Alfredo Aceves on the bump.

NL West Preview

1st Place--Los Angeles Dodgers
2012 Record: 86-76
2012 Pythagorean: 86-76
2013 Projected: 93-69
Matt Kemp has an MVP-type season to lead an explosive Dodgers' lineup that gets nice bounceback years from Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. Clayton Kershaw continues drawing comparisons to Sandy Koufax, and Zack Greinke has his best season since winning the Cy Young in 2009. Josh Beckett can't be any worse than he was last year. The roster lacks depth, which means LA is particularly vulnerable to injuries, but I like their chances of winning the division.

2nd Place--San Francisco Giants
2012 Record: 94-68
2012 Pythagorean: 88-74
2013 Projected: 91-71
Buster Posey and Angel Pagan regress, but Pablo Sandoval stays healthy. Full seasons from Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro help. Brandon Belt breaks out. Ryan Vogelsong's numbers take a hit, but Tim Lincecum's improve. The reigning World Series champs will be tough to beat, and it wouldn't surprise me if they beat out Los Angeles for the division crown again.

3rd Place--Arizona Diamondbacks
2012 Record: 81-81
2012 Pythagorean: 86-76
2013 Projected 85-77
It's already evident they made a massive mistake trading Justin Upton, but at least Martin Prado is a valuable player. Ian Kennedy improves on his disappointing 2012 to provide James Shields-esque production, and Paul Goldschmidt takes a big step forward. Aaron Hill proves last season's resurgence was for real. There's 90 win potential here if everything clicks.

4th Place--San Diego Padres
2012 Record: 76-86
2012 Pythagorean: 75-87
2013 Projected: 74-88
Chase Headley isn't going to be anything close to the MVP-caliber player he was in 2012. Cameron Maybin improves.

5th Place--Colorado Rockies
2012 Record: 64-98
2012 Pythagorean: 69-93
2013 Projected: 71-91
There's no pitching here, but the lineup sure can mash. Expect a big rebound year from Troy Tulowitzki and more good things from Dexter Fowler (the NL's Austin Jackson) and Carlos Gonzalez. Too bad Todd Helton's past his prime...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

9 Takeaways From Red Sox Strong Start

  1. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are back to 2010 form
  2. Jackie Bradley Jr. isn't a superstar just yet, but he's a capable big league ballplayer
  3. Jose Iglesias isn't totally helpless with a bat in his hands
  4. The bullpen is great, especially with Andrew Bailey setting up Joel Hanrahan  
  5. Will Middlebrooks is legit
  6. Shane Victorino is still an All-Star caliber outfielder
  7. Mike Napoli's hip condition does not seem to be hampering his power, but when is he going to work a walk?
  8. Jacoby Ellsbury is doing what he knows how to do best: steal bases
  9. John Farrell--the anti-Bobby Valentine in every way--was the perfect man for the job

Monday, April 8, 2013

9 Lessons From Baseball's First Week

Baseball has been back for little more than a week, so what have we learned so far? It's still early, so not much, but here are a few key takeaways from the first week of ballgames:
  1. Chris Davis's breakout was for real
  2. Roy Halladay might actually be done...
  3. ...But Chase Utley isn't
  4. The Red Sox are better than we thought
  5. The Yankees are just as bad (and maybe worse) than we feared
  6. Bryce Harper, not Mike Trout, is poised to become the best player in baseball
  7. Texas does not like Josh Hamilton
  8. A healthy Mike Morse is a force to be reckoned with
  9. Justin Upton is a legit MVP candidate, his disappointing 2012 notwithstanding

Boston Beats Baltimore in Home Opener

Nava puts the Sox ahead with a three-run bomb
Fresh off consecutive series wins over the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, the first-place Boston Red Sox made their way back to Fenway Park for their home opener against the Baltimore Orioles. The last time the Fenway Faithful saw them, the sorry Red Sox resembled a Triple-A ballclub as they stumbled towards their worst season since 1965.

That was only six months ago, but so much has changed since then that it might as well have been six years ago. Boston's roster is much improved, and given their hot start it's hard not to feel optimistic about their chances in an up-for-grabs division. Even the weather reflected Red Sox Nation's upbeat mood: with warm sunshine drenching their century-old ballpark and a slight breeze blowing in from left field, it was a perfect day for baseball.

The capacity crowd at the Fens was treated to an old-fashioned pitcher's duel between Wei-Yin Chen and Clay Buchholz, watching helplessly as the hurlers traded zeroes for the first six and a half innings. Boston's sluggers were held in check, unable to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather or the short porch in left. Baltimore's batters were equally baffled, fanning eight times against Buchholz and mustering just three hits--all singles.

In this pitcher's version of a staring contest, it was Chen who blinked first when he seemed to run out of gas in the bottom of the seventh   With his pitch count pushing triple digits, the tiring starter got himself into a jam when Dustin Pedroia singled and Mike Napoli doubled with nobody out.

With two men in scoring position and Will Middlebrooks in the batter's box, just 24 hours removed from a three-homer game north of the border, the Fenway Faithful sprang to life. Things were finally getting interesting, for Middlebrooks appeared to be a good bet to provide some fireworks. But today was not his day; the young slugger struck out for the second time against Chen. He shuffled back to the dugout, head down, his face darkened by the long shadows creeping across the infield.

That brought up Daniel Nava, who with a walk and a single was the only Red Sox player that had given Chen even the slightest bit of trouble. Whatever sorcery Chen had used to confound the rest of Boston's lineup, it wasn't fooling Nava. Sure enough, he got the better of Chen once more, becoming the unlikely hero by swatting a three-run shot over the Monster. When it came down, Boston had itself a 3-0 lead, Chen was done and Fenway Park was rocking like it was 2004.

Given that Buchholz had already logged 113 pitches on the afternoon, John Farrell turned the game over to his bullpen. He used Andrew Bailey as a bridge to the ninth inning, then brought in Joel Hanrahan to close out the win.

Hanrahan had an adventurous last inning not unlike the stressful situations his predecessor, Jonathan Papelbon, created so often during his tenure in Boston.  It started when the red-hot Adam Jones jacked a solo shot--his first homer of the year--to lead off the ninth and get Baltimore on the board. Hanrahan recovered, retiring Chris Davis with a groundout and striking out Matt Wieters.

Then, just when Sox seemed to be in the clear, J.J. Hardy hammered a double to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Ryan Flaherty. The crowd was growing restless. Even though most Red Sox loyalists have endured countless chokes and meltdowns in their lifetimes, each new wound stings just as much as the one that preceded it. Nevermind Flaherty's thoroughly mediocre batting record--Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone taught Sox fans to never underestimate their opponents, no matter how non-threatening they appear.

Thankfully, the seldom-used second baseman was just as harmless as his numbers suggested. He ended the game by popping out to Middlebrooks in foul territory. The fans breathed a collective sigh of relief, "Dirty Water" echoed through the grandstands, and the Olde Towne Team lined up for congratulatory high-fives.

Baseball is back, and so are the Red Sox.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rangers Reward Andrus

Shortly after former MVPs Buster Posey and Justin Verlander joined baseball's ever-growing $100 million club, Elvis Andrus' received a brand-spanking-new eight-year, $120 million contract expension that puts him in the same rarefied air as the aforementioned duo along with Evan Longoria, Josh Hamilton, and David Wright.  Here are five reasons why Andrus does not deserve that kind of cash.
  1. With just 14 career home runs, a .354 slugging percentage and .079 ISO, Andrus has no power to speak of. In 2010 he failed to go deep and compiled only 18 extra base hits in 674 plate appearances. Not surprisingly, he has yet to earn an intentional walk in over 2,600 career trips to the dish
  2. He's regressed as a basestealer. As a rookie he stole 33 bases in 39 attempts (84.6 percent), but last year swiped just 21 bases in 31 attempts (67.7 percent--barely above the break-even point). Considering that speed and defense--his two greatest skills--deteriorate with age, Andrus is likely to suffer a dramatic drop-off in value once he reaches his early 30s
  3. He strikes out a good amount for somebody with zero pop, whiffing 96 times in 2010 and again in 2012. That's way too many whiffs for a Juan Pierre-type and explains why he's failed to bat above .286 despite his blazing speed
  4. He's basically Erick Aybar. Aybar is signed to a five-year, $40 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels
  5. Andrus is a two-time All-Star, but his trophy case is pretty empty. He's never received an MVP vote, won a Gold Glove, or led the league in any significant batting category
Andrus is a nice complementary piece on a winning team, but the Rangers were crazy to outbid themselves and hand him a Jose Reyes/Carl Crawford sum of money. At 24, Andrus is still young enough that he has room to keep developing, but I just can't see him emerging as a Reyes or Derek Jeter type who commands $15 million a year. Maybe Texas thinks otherwise, that his strong Spring Training (.404/.456/.596) indicates a breakout is on the horizon?

I believe the real reason Texas locked him up is because the Rangers are a team in transition. With Ian Kinsler declining, Nelson Cruz embroiled in PED controversy, Adrian Beltre getting old, and Hamilton, Michael Young, and Mike Napoli all gone, the Rangers crave the kind of young talent and optimism that Andrus provides. They see him as a bridge to the future, a source of consistency and stability for a roster that is about to undergo major turnover in the next few years. They're hoping Andrus embraces his role not just as a team leader, but as a winner. 

Still, that shouldn't boost Andrus's price tag north of nine figures. I get that Texas has money to burn, but the whole point of extending young players before they reach free agency is to secure their services at a discount, to pay less than what you expect they'll demand when they hit the open market in return for the security that a long-term contract provides. Andrus was slated to become a free agent at the age of 27, in the heart of a player's prime earning years, but even then I'm not so sure he could have fetched as much money.

But we'll never know.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sox Win First Series of Season

The Red Sox are no longer undefeated, but they are still in first place.

Boston followed up a rousing Opening Day victory with another convincing win in Game 2 on Wednesday. Shane Victorino knocked Hiroki Kuroda out of the game in the second inning by lining one off Kuroda's right (throwing) hand. The Sox proceeded to feast on his replacement, Cody Eppley, for four runs in the top of the third, giving Clay Buchholz a 6-0 cushion.

Like Jon Lester, Buchholz carried over his Spring Training success into the regular season, allowing just one run across seven stellar innings. Andrew Miller and Alfredo Aceves struggled in the eighth, allowing New York to mount a comeback when Vernon Wells homered with Juan Francisco and Kevin Youkilis on base. With the score now 7-4, Joel Hanrahan closed the door in the ninth to earn his first save with his new team.

Unfortunately the Red Sox were unable to finish off the sweep last night, losing 4-2 on a night when 40 year-old Andy Pettitte and 43 year-old Mariano Rivera stifled their offense. Ryan Dempster pitched reasonably well in his Sox debut--good enough to keep his team in the game but not good enough to compete with Pettitte's vintage performance. Sox pitching allowed solo homers to Brett Gardner and Francisco Cervelli--two players who probably won't combine to hit ten all year.

If you think that's fluky, get this: Boston's leading hitter is Jose Iglesias, of all people. The all-glove/no-bat shortstop went 7-for-12 batting out of Boston's nine-hole. If he can prove to be at semi-capable (a poor man's Mike Aviles?) with the lumber, that will go a long way towards stretching out John Farrell's lineup, not to mention giving Jacoby Ellsbury more RBI opportunities. At the very least, he must hold his own this weekend until Stephen Drew returns from his concussion, which could be as soon as Monday.

Starting tonight, the Red Sox have three games in Toronto before coming back to Boston for their home opener against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday.