Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Canucks vs. Bruins

Two long-suffering franchises are on the brink of history. The Bruins, who have not won since 1972, are looking to bring a championship home to Boston. The Canucks are trying to win their first Stanley Cup ever. Both teams have endured failure in the form of unspeakable collapses and unmet expectations. People wondered if Boston would be able to come back from that heartbreaking series loss to Philadelphia last year, or if Vancouver would be able to overcome it's history of losing in a hockey- mad town. It is almost hard to believe that one of these teams will win it all.

Boston did not enter the season with huge expectations, and only came into the playoffs as a 3 seed. But, due to the amazing goaltending of Tim Thomas and an offense that keeps finding ways to score, the Bruins are champs of the Eastern Conference. Unlike the Bruins, Vancouver posted the best record in the NHL and came into the playoffs with mammoth expectations. They almost gave into the pressure in a 7-game dogfight with annual tormentor Chicago, but in the end, they were finally able to beat the Blackhawks. This seemed to propel them throughout the playoffs, as they beat the Predators and Sharks without big problems. The Canucks have the same fluid style of play as in years past: they score lots of points. But this year, they seem to have an edge which differentiates them from past teams.

The Bruins are a solid team. Riding the hot hand of Tim Thomas and some unlikely heroes, they have come far. But, as long as the Canucks play up to their potential as they have throughout the playoffs, they will be the ones hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Prediction: Canucks in 6

Who are the "Faces" of each Franchise?

Every franchise has a "face", a player who takes responsibility for the team's struggles and pushes credit towards his teammates, a player who represents the management's goals, a role model for fans, but most importantly, a leader of his team.  More often than not, there is a clear cut choice for the "face of the franchise", but some teams are in search of this player that can help transfrom his ballclub into a contender.  Here are who I consider to be the "faces" of each MLB team.  Feel free to comment and let me know if you disagree with any selections!

AL East:

Yankees - Derek Jeter  (could it be anybody else?)

Red Sox - David Ortiz - been there through the thick and thin amidst steroid allegations, but fans love him

Blue Jays- Jose Bautista - has emerged as a superstar

Orioles - Brian Roberts

Rays - Evan Longoria

AL Central:

Tigers - Justin Verlander

White Sox - Mark Buehrle

Royals - Billy Butler

Indians - Grady Sizemore

Twins - Joe Mauer

AL West:

Rangers - Josh Hamilton

Athletics -  GM Billy Beane - there is no player that jumps out for the A's, but Billy Beane's Moneyball strategy will always be the most important factor of the Athletics

Mariners - Ichiro Suzuki

Angels - Jered Weaver

NL East:

Phillies - Jimmy Rollins - may not be the best player, but has been there way to long not to be "face"

Mets - David Wright / Jose Reyes - Wright is more vocal, but Reyes is the better player right now

Braves - Chipper Jones - not even a question

Nationals - Ryan Zimmerman

Marlins - Hanley Ramirez - though Josh Johnson is a close second

NL Central

Cubs - Carlos Zambrano - Starlin Castro could be the next one, but for now Big Z is still the man

Cardinals - Albert Pujols

Pirates - Andrew McCutchen - not exactly a household name, but he's a highly talented player

Astros - Hunter Pence - not an easy selection with Michael Bourn and Carlos Lee also options

Brewers - Ryan Braun

Reds - Joey Votto

NL West

Padres - Heath Bell - looking through the roster, even Bell is a stretch to be called a "face" of a franchise

Rockies - Troy Tulowitzki - CarGo may be the best player, but Tulo is every GM's dream

Giants - Tim Lincecum - recently injured Buster Posey is right there with him

Dodgers - Matt Kemp - though Kershaw, Ethier, Broxton and Billingsley are all young stars, Matt Kemp demonstrates the complete package of a "face"

Diamondbacks - Stephen Drew - Chris Young and Justin Upton are logical choices, but Drew has been on the team longer and been more successful

Friday, May 27, 2011

IMG Academies: Getting To Know Corey Stokes

On Buster Posey and Blowing Up Catchers

Two days ago, after an improbable 4 run rally in the 9th inning, Scott Cousins absolutely leveled Buster Posey on a play at the plate. After the momentary yelling in excitement about what just happened, the scene became one filled with fear and silence from the onlookers at AT&T Park. Of the 40,000 plus who stayed until the bitter end, they witnessed a severely injured Posey clawing at the dirt in sheer agony. He was helped off the field by two trainers, and never even placed his left leg on the ground as he hopped into the dugout and into the abyss of the clubhouse.

The Giants are going to miss Buster Posey's production, and will probably win a few less games without him, but the season is not lost. San Francisco and the people who watched a young baby face catcher do what Mays, Marichal, McCovey, and Cepeda could not, are probably more devastated. He was their leader on a team filled with so called castaways and misfits. It's a terrible tragedy that could have career altering consequences to one of the best young players in the game.

And inevitably, when something so terrible happens to one of the stars of the game, the world takes notice. ESPN and MLB Network and countless other television and online news networks have made this their top story. First, let's talk about the play itself. As the rules stand RIGHT NOW, the play was legal, it was clean, and it was within his right as a baserunner to try and pry the ball lose. Sure Posey wasn't exactly blocking the plate, but it's within the baserunners rights to do anything he can to not be out. The real question is whether this type of baseball is necessary.

I'm all for playing hard. I wouldn't watch the game if the players didn't play hard. We get on players for not hustling, for not legging out that double, for not diving for a ball. But the fact of the matter is that every level of baseball except for the Major Leagues does not allow blowing up the catcher on a play at the plate. They manage to find a way to play hard and not compromise the game.

People have often cited the "Well this is how the game has always been played!" mantra in defending the barreling of the catcher. In my opinion, this is the worst argument that anybody could make. Tradition is great, as long as it makes sense. Following tradition blindly is where we get into trouble. Shirley Jackson's The Lottery is an extreme example of this. So why are tons of people all for the blind following of tradition just for the sake of tradition? It doesn't make any sense. Blowing up the catcher is good for baseball? Posey's career doesn't appear to be threatened, but how is keeping exciting players out of the game good for baseball?

Also, most people are arguing that "The Giants are making a big deal about this because it's their star player! If it was Joe Schmo nobody would care!" Well, yeah. But isn't that how most change is brought about? People recognize that an issue needs to be addressed when it happens to someone worth recognizing. It sucks that less high profile athletes had this happen to them and nobody said anything. But if this incident to Posey is what needed to happen to make sure that no catcher is forced to retire, then it will have been worth it from a big picture standpoint.

In terms of actual concrete rule changes, if I may make a suggestion. The catcher must provide the runner with a lane to slide. That's it. The runner is forced to take that lane and make the most of it. If the catcher blocks the plate, it's interference and the run scores. There simply is no need for bowling over a catcher. If I wanted to watch players tackling each other, I would watch football.

Get well soon Buster.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mid-Day Reading

So much of my day is involved in reading articles on sports, that I'd like to share a few of them with you. 

- Johnny Ludden of Yahoo! Sports explains how Coach Scott Brooks sent a message to Russell Westbrook in last night's Game 2 victory

- Joe Posnanski of SI.com takes a look at The Yankees in 2013

- ESPN's Tim Kurkijan explains how Kyle McClellan has filled in nicely for Adam Wainwright

- Mark Townsend of of Big League Stew shows how a few words from Jim Tracy helped Jason Giambi blast three homers last night

- Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune examines how much Notre Dame paid Charlie Weis to get out of the contract

NBA Champion Might Be Decided by Unusual Suspects

After watching the first 2 games of the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, it is evident that all 4 teams will be in for a struggle. The teams that advance to the NBA Finals are going to have to prove that they're in it for the long haul, that they possess the mental toughness and fortitude to see close games through to the end. Fans expect the big names to step up to the plate in the waning minutes of the 4th quarter. James, Nowitzki, Rose, Durant, etc. are the ones we anticipate making the big shot or exploding late in the game to guide their team to victory. While all the superstars have provided fantastic performances on most nights, basketball is a comprehensive game. Even Michael Jordan couldn't win a championship all by himself-- these series are going to come down to the bench players and whether or not they can orchestrate game winning play.

The last few days have proven this to be true. Chicago seemed to be in a position to take game 2 from the Heat and head to Miami with a comfortable series lead-- until Udonis Haslem provided an offensive and defensive spark off the bench which supplemented big nights from Wade and James. Derrick Rose had a poor shooting night and the lack of assistance was a glaring hole for the Bulls. They played fantastic defense (only gave up 85) but that couldn't overcome the lack of offensive production. In game 1, the Heat's Big Three played as expected but without bench support they couldn't overcome big nights from Rose and Deng.

The Thunder just evened the series against the Mavericks last night and they were driven by 21-year-old guard James Harden off the bench. Westbrook didn't play the entire 4th quarter...but it didn't matter because the slack was picked up by Harden as well as Eric Maynor. In the first Western game (aside from Dirk's ridiculous shooting performance) we saw Jason Terry and JJ Barea each score over 20 points. Those guards stepped up when the main line wasn't producing too much offense and provided Carlisle the chance to be flexible with his units.

The reality is that the superstars can't do it all by themselves. Even if they play in excess of 40 minutes a game, the rest of the starters are going to sit at some point. Durant, Nowtizki, Rose, James and Wade can't be expected to propel their teams forward by themselves...they need aid and that is why the NBA Finals might be decided by players with names that don't necessarily seem right for the spotlight. As a Celtic fan, I will readily admit that we were outplayed by the Miami Heat. But the key is that our 2nd line was outplayed by the Heat, the starters competed well. Bench players like Korver, Haslem, Harden and Terry are vital to these teams to buoy the offensive runs that are sure to come from the opponents. It is critical that bench players play excellent offense and defense (or that they fulfill whatever role they need to) because the superstars are going to go out each night and get their buckets. The question is: who else is going to get theirs. That answer will probably give us a good idea of who will win the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Future Top 5 MLB Rankings

Each front office must manage a farm system, while also attempting to put a solid baseball team on the field every night.  That along with satisfying fans and making money makes the front office the mastermind behind winning.  No team, not even the Yankees and Red Sox, could win with 25 free agents.  Every team must grow their own players in order to succeed.  The Yankees are known for their huge free agent signings, but players like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera were mainstays in the Yankees 1990’s dynasty.  All of these players were drafted and brought up through the Yankees minor league system.  In order for this to happen, the front office must draft extremely well, but also supplement these players with a veteran presence.  The Yankees dynasty included a bunch of older players that were able to still contribute and provide guidance to the rising stars of the league.  This all started with a great front office, and below I have comprised a list of my own top five future rankings.  This is basically a testament to how well the front office has put each team into position for the next ten years.  These five teams won’t necessarily be competing for a title this year, but they will be successful around 2015-2020. 
1.       Tampa Bay Rays
Let’s start with the Tampa Bay Rays.  According to the MLB’s top 50 prospect list, the Rays own 4 elite prospects.  Their best one is Jeremy Hellickson, who is already contributing on the Major League level.  He is 5-2 with a 3.18 ERA in his first 8 starts this season.  He is already a cog in the rotation, joining James Shields, David Price, and Wade Davis.  These four starters are a combined 18-10 with an incredible 3.10 ERA.  The best part about the four of them though is that they are all under 30 years old.  Price, Davis, and Hellickson are all 25 and younger.  They will be part of this rotation for a long time.  They have another starting pitcher, Chris Archer, in the minors who is believed to be ready to fill the 5th spot in the rotation in the next couple of years.  This coupled with the youth and timely hitting of Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, Sam Fuld, Matt Joyce, and Evan Longoria, this team will be competing for championships for the next ten years. 
Prospect to watch: Desmond Jennings OF – similar to Carl Crawford
2.       Kansas City Royals
The Royals have an amazing farm system right now.  They had 6 players in the MLB’s top 50, but that doesn’t even give them justice.  In the next three years, the Royals will bring up a ton of players to the big leagues and they will all be under 25 and ready to contribute.  Eric Hosmer played so well in the minor leagues that the front office HAD to bring him up.  He was batting over .350 and displaying crazy power.  He already has 3 homeruns in the majors in just 42 at bats.  On the current roster, the Royals clearly lack starting pitching, but help is on the way in the form of Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Jake Odorizzi, Everett Teaford, Noel Arguelles, Tim Collins, Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer, Blaine Hardy and Will Smith.  All of these pitchers are projected to be ready for the majors within the next 3-4 years.  This team’s minor league talent has Kansas City buzzing already.
3.       Cleveland Indians
The 26-14 Indians are easily baseball’s biggest surprise so far this season.  After trading away TWO Cy Young winners in the past four years, Cleveland has something to cheer about.  Travis Hafner is finally hitting again, though with his aging body, he is far from a guarantee.  The play of Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana has been outstanding and those three will outline the future of this ballclub.  Shin-Soo Choo, who has struggled this year, still has a ton of talent and is fairly young.  The oft-injured Grady Sizemore is the most talented player on the roster, if he ever finds a way on to the field.  With all of these names in the lineup every day, this team will continue to score runs now and in the future.  In the minors, Lonnie Chisenhall has shown a lot of pop in his bat and could be the next Indians third baseman.  The reason the Indians made this list has mostly to do with their major league roster and with a young ace in Justin Masterson, the Indians are legitimate. 
4.       Atlanta Braves
The Braves seem to just never go away.  Every single season they put together a solid ballclub with a mixture of up and coming stars and wily veterans still itching to play every day.  The Braves seem to be the class of the MLB, showcased through their success and consistency.  On the field right now, Jason Heyward has lived up to his hype and fellow prospects Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran are playing in the MLB also.  Mike Minor also made his MLB debut recently, though he struggled with his command.  The Braves are on this list because of their overall young talent in the MLB.  Tommy Hanson is primed to be an ace, already with a 2.35 ERA in 53 innings this season.  That along with the 5-0 Jair Jurrjens and a back of the bullpen in Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, the Braves have one of the best pitching staffs in the league.  If they begin to hit better, they will be compete with the talent of Philadelphia’s 4 ace staff.
5.       Colorado Rockies
The Rockies had 3 players in the Top 50 Prospects list: Wilin Rosario, Christian Friedrich, and Tyler Matzek.  These three players are expected to contribute in the big leagues within the next 2 seasons.  The Rockies also have some of the best young stars in the game today in Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez.  Jimenez has dropped back from reality after a wonderful year last season, but he has incredible power and movement in his pitches.  Tulo and CarGo are carrying this team along with Todd Helton, and have a chance at doing something special this season.  Pitching seems to be this team’s weakness, but with Matzek and Friedrich on the brink of the MLB, this team will be damn good.

Honorable Mentions: Washington Nationals, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The New York Mess III

The Mets are three games under .500 and it seems as if Mets fans are surprised.  Going into the season with extremely low expectations, the Mets are doing what everybody thought they would: struggle against the elite (2-5 vs. COL, 2-4 vs. PHI) and pick up wins against the bottom feeders (3-0 vs. ARI, 3-3 vs. HOU).  This team is not very good, but it isn’t very bad either.  The Mets have a patched up rotation, who has pitched poorly in the first 40 games of the season.  Mike Pelfrey has not lived up to his title as “Opening day starter”, but that too. was expected.  Big Pelf is simply not an ace and is a decent #2 pitcher or a good #3 starter.  Dickey has not been able to continue last year’s success and although Niese has pitched well recently, he too has struggled to put together a complete start.  The two additions, Chris Young and Chris Capuano have filled in capably, but with Young out for the season due to shoulder surgery, Dillon Gee has been thrown back into the rotation and has fared decently.  This rotation, although decent, will not do anything “special”. 
The bullpen has seen its fair share of injuries, with Parnell and Beato the most recent DL victims.  Frankie has pitched very well, even though he loves walking the tight rope every night.  Jason Isringhausen, Taylor Buccholz, and Tim Byrdak have done a solid job so far in the young season, as this bullpen seems to be the bright part of the Mets season so far.  Even though the Mets can't seem to win a one-run game, the bullpen has done a good job of keeping the game close. 
The lineup, when healthy, has a ton of talent, but they can’t seem to stay healthy.  Angel Pagan hasn’t played in a few weeks and Ike Davis and David Wright are both hurt and won’t play for another week and a half.  Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran continue to be productive and provide this offense with spark, but Jason Bay has negated their succes with is sub .220 batting average.  Second base, considered the biggest whole in the Mets lineup, has come to form since Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy started platooning.  Behind the plate, Josh Thole has been unable to hit on a nightly basis, while Ronny Paulino has shown glimpses of success.  For every positive story for the Mets, there is an equal or worse counterpart.  This team has way too many holes to contend this season and will continue to stay near .500.
With that being said, Mets fans are not a typical fan base.  Mets fans don’t turn off the television when the team is 20 games out of first place, but they will stop coming to games.  Citi Field will only be full if the Mets contend and management is aware of this behavior.  Attendance in Flushing has gone down drastically since 2008 (the last time the Mets were competitive).  The Mets are one of few teams that watch their profit dwindle with every single defeat.  Mets fans care a lot about this team, but in the end they want one thing: to win. 

Even though Mets fans, including myself, are ambitious about THIS season, we are still disappointed with a team that is filling out their expectations.  We are right where we thought we’d be, but I don't foresee many Met fans settling for a .500 ball club even with a team that is doomed to fail. 

The New York Mess II

The problems for the New York Mets and New York Yankees stem so much farther than just underachievement.  The two teams combine for a payroll well over $300 million and represent the highest (Yankees) and seventh highest (Mets) payrolls in the MLB.  The Mets are losing money due to their owner's investment scandals and the Yankees just can't seem to live up to their expectations.  The Yankees have lost six in a row and the Mets seem to hover right under that .500 mark.  The Mets are plagued with injuries once again, while the Yankees' stars are past their prime.  The starting infield makes $80 million, not even counting the catcher.  The worst part of this all is that the Yankees don't have much wiggle room.  Money is tied up long term and they cannot make drastic changes to the roster without trading away superstars with massive contracts.  This team already is locked into $153 million next year to just 12 players.  With Jorge Posada's terrible play and controversy surrounding whether he wants out of New York, he will likely not be a Yankee next year.  His contract is up after the season and many believe he will retire.  The Yankees would be delighted for that to happen, since his huge contract will be off the books and the fact they wouldn't have to deal with releasing one of their beloved players. 

With all that being said, the Yankees have enough money to comfortably fill out the roster.  The problem lies in their current players' inability to put together a championship team.  Talent-wise, the Yankees are probably the second best team in the AL East, but the whole package together puts the Rays above them.  I do not believe the Yankees can win the title with their current roster, in fact I don't think they could make the playoffs.  I will go as far as to say that the Blue Jays and Orioles will stay competitive with the Yankees for the rest of the season.  The Blue Jays and Orioles have bright futures with young stars and potent offenses.  The Orioles have an ace in the making with Sean Britton, while the Blue Jays boast the hottest player in baseball (Jose Bautista).  As of right now, the Yankees core players are aging and showing it through their terrible play.  It is easy for me to find fault in the Yankees, since I despise this team, but it is hard to ignore the numbers.  Alex Rodriguez is hitting .242 with an OPS of .781.  In his career. A-Rod is a .302 hitter with a .956 OPS. Albeit this is a small sample size, but A-Rod just looks so much older than he did just last season.  Maybe its unfair to have such high expectations for one player, but with a salary of $32,000,000, it's natural. 

I believe that in order for the Yankees to be a championship contender, they will have to turn the page.  That page might take a few years to turn though, considering how much money is tied up.  They should try and build the team around their core of Robinson Cano, C.C. Sabathia, and Derek Jeter.  It would be an awful situation for the Yankees to cut/trade or do anything but play Jeter, as he is the most important player in the franchises past 30 years.  Cano is a flat out beast and he, along with Chase Utley, are by far the best second basemen in the league.  Alex Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, and Rafael Soriano are virtually untradeable due to their ridiculous contracts.  Soriano is a great relief pitcher, but as an 8th inning setup man, is being paid way too much; however, he is the likely successor to Mariano Rivera, so the Yankees would be wise to keep him.  It is likely that the Yankees will try and win with this group of players for the next two to three years, even though each year they will get exponentially older.  The Yankees could be facing an end of an era, but I doubt they'll admit that. 

The New York Mess

Of the four major sports, which is the best team in New York? No it isn't the $200 million Yankees or the 2008 Super Bowl Champions Giants, it is probably the New York Jets.  For a city that really takes pride in calling itself the "Greatest City in the World", curently the sports teams are mediocre at best.  With the insane media coverage found in New York, these teams are put under the spotlight and in a struggling time, fans are fighting for something to be happy about.  Whether it is the current Jeter/Posada/Yankee front office fiasco, the Mets Madoff scandal, the Melo/Stoudemire ineffectiveness, or the Rangers losing in five games to the Capitals, New York has a ton of drama. 

The only team that is holding its own is the New York Jets, as they have reached the AFC Championship game in consecutive seasons and continue to boast one of the best defenses in the NFL.  Led by overconfident Rex Ryan, this team has some life to it.  Rex Ryan's crazy and bold predictions fire this team up and the players respond more often than not.  This is the only team in New York that is living up to its hype.  While the Jets seem to be figuring things out, the Giants have regressed in the past couple of seasons.  The Giants seem to always play off of momentum, as they used a ridiculous run to win the Superbowl in 2008.  They seem to play very poorly to start the season and then finish strong, while pushing for a playoff spot.  Last season they missed out on the playoffs after Green Bay won in week 17, but the Giants need to be more consistent in order to compete for a title again. 

In hockey, the Rangers seem to be fighting for a bottom seed in the playoffs year after year, struggling to make it out of the first round. The Devils had an off year, despite almost pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history after an awful 11-29 start.  The aging Brodeur is the key for the Devils, as they look to bounce back next season.  Both teams are middle of the pack hockey teams and it seems as if the dominant Devils of the past could be behind us. 

In basketball, the Knicks pulled off the biggest trade of the season, landing Carmelo Anthony.  In doing so, they traded away four key role players necessary to win.  The Knicks should have realized that they could not contend for a title this year and waited until Melo's free agency (this summer) to sign him, but they did not want to take a risk on losing out on Melo altogether.  This team is at least three or four role players away from contending and in order for their Melo/Stoudemire pickups to work out, this offseason they must transform the rest of the roster.  On the other hand, the New Jersey Nets lost out big time on every free agent last summer, but they did pick up an elite point guard in Deron Williams at the trade deadline.  This move does put the Nets in good position to make a run at Dwight Howard.  The Nets will likely put out an offer to the Magic next season which will be centered around Brook Lopez, in hopes to put together a team that could contend with the powers of the East.  The Nets will also be moving to Brooklyn in two years, making it more appealing to big time free agents.  Despite all of the superstar pick ups, the Knicks and Nets are simply not great teams.  The current Nets roster would struggle to finish in the top 10 in the East and the Knicks are at best a #5 team in the East right now.

I will attack the Mets and Yankees later in the day.  Since they have so many problems, they'll need their own post. 

In the mean time, what New York team will win the next championship?  (Rangers, Devils, Jets, Giants, Nets, Knicks, Yankees, or Mets)

Monday, May 16, 2011

An Open Letter to Jorge Posada

Dear Jorge Posada,

Let me begin this letter in saying that I am not the Yankees' biggest fan. In fact, in my opinion, the Yankees represent everything that is wrong with modern baseball, but that is another issue for another time. It has recently come to my attention that you aren't happy with the Bronx Bombers either. I guess we have more in common then we both thought!

In all my years of greatly disliking the Yankees, I never once looked at you with disgust. Never once did I watch a World Series game and say, "Man, that Posada guy is a tool. His presence on a baseball diamond really irks me." Nope, I was too busy disliking all of the other characters on the Yankees like that Mariano Rivera guy. Oh, he's a fantastic pitcher, one of the best closers in the history of baseball no doubt. His comment after the World Series in 2009, "I forgot what it felt like to win the World Series!", having just won the Fall Classic 9 years earlier, was undoubtedly met with disgust in the hearts of Cubs, Indians, and Giants fans. Derek Jeter and all of his overrated handsomness, A-Rod and that whole steroids bust that was conveniently swept under the rug, and Roger Clemens with his broken bat throwing and steroid bust that is conven...oh wait, nevermind about that.

Like I was saying, I never hated you. That doesn't mean I liked you, mind you. I just looked at you with indifference. Anytime somebody asked me what I thought of you, I would respond "Meh". I realize you are...er, were...a great catcher. You were part of a great core that led your squad to 4 straight World Series titles. You've had a great career that will undoubtedly go into history as one of the best Yankee's of all time. Congratulations.

But what's this I've been hearing all over the East SPorts Network? You were put 9th in the order, and refused to play. You cited this aggregious act as "disrespectful". You're absolutely right. A player hitting .165 absolutely deserves to a) be in the lineup in the first place and b) at least 5th in the order. Some might say that keeping you in the lineup so high for so long while hitting so poorly was actually showing you respect because of your great history with the Yankees. Not you. Putting you in the lineup in the last spot is a blatant disrespect to who you are. I mean, that's where pitchers hit in the National League! What an outrage.

If I may give you a bit of advice though, Jorge. Play the damn game. You are one of the gifted few to not only make it to the Show, but to have a long, prosperous career. You play for one of the most storied franchises in all of baseball in one of the greatest cities in the world. If your coach puts you in the 9th spot, you smile and take your hacks. There are thousands of players in the world who would love to be "disrespected" like you were a few days ago. This game is a privelage, not a right. Your whining is very unbecoming of a great player on the decline.

Ryan Irwin

AL Update

The ever so long MLB season continues, and as we approach June, some teams are standing out as potential contenders to win their respective division. With no surprises in the AL East, the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox are still in a strong position to make a move at the top. Over in the AL central a little more separation between top and bottom has occurred, while the fist fight out west still seems open to anyone. Lets break it down and take a look.

AL East

Always the most competitive division in baseball, which looks to stand true this season as well with the Rays, Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and the O's all within 4.5 games of first place. Only the last place O's are below the .500 mark with a record of 19-20. Their extremely young pitching staff has done surprisingly well so start this season. After a 6-0 start, the numbers are starting to drop, but they are leveling off nicely moving into the heart of the season. Arrieta and Tillman are rising young stars and this Baltimore team that has been struggling for so long may soon be a contender once again.

The Red Sox are coming off a huge three game sweep of the Yankees in New York, and look to continue their hot streak with a 6 game home stand starting with the O's tonight. After a miserable 2-10 start, the Red Sox have finally reached the .500 mark for the first time this season. Their rivals in the Bronx will take on the first place Rays for a three game series that could add some separation. With the Rays pitching well, and new CF Johnny Damon overachieving, this should be a very entertaining series. Expect the Yankees to bounce back from getting swept, and win the series.

AL Central

After just a month and a half of baseball, this division has the largest record differential. The Cleveland Indians are boasting the best record in baseball, while the lowly Twins are sporting the worst. The Indians have been on an absolute tear this season, getting contributions throughout their line-up and pitching staff. Asdrubel Cabrera has been having a great season, possibly the best of his career. He has already surpassed his HR total from last year and looks to continue his hot streak. He leads the team with 25 RBI and is batting .288. Him along with the resurgent Travis Hafner, batting .344 in 106 AB are doing a great job lifting this team to the higher echelon of the MLB teams. Their pitching has been very strong as well. New member and former Red Sox, Justin Masterson has 5 wins this season, and has an ERA of 2.73 in 8 starts if the young pitcher can keep it up, he could be one of the best pitchers in the league this year.

Detroit is also a contender for the division title. They have won 9 of their last 10, and SP Justin Verlander is on fire! After pitching his no-n0, he became the first pitcher since Nolan Ryan to follow up the performance with another 8 inning 1 run gem. Miguel Cabrera is carrying this team offensively, and with a solid pitching staff hurling behind this potent line-up, I would not be surprised to see a 163rd game of the season.

AL West

Always the most intriguing league in the American League, because there is never a clear front runner for the division title, at least, not in the early going. Currently the Angles and the Rangers are battling for top dog in the West, which was expected; however, the A's and Mariners are still looking to stay competitive. Oakland's SP Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill are off to a phenomenal start. Cahill has 6 wins this season and has an ERA of 1.82, the lowest among SP (minimum 7 starts). Cahill has given up 1 run or fewer in 6 of his 9 starts, and has only one game where he gave up more then 2. Brian Fuentes reclaimed his role as the closer, and has 9 saves so far. Offensively their bats have been lighting up the field (as far as contact). Daric Barton, David Dejesus, Josh Willingham, Curtis Jackson, Kurt Suzuki, and Chris Pennington are all batting above .300 making this line-up extremely hard to get out. Re-emerging ex Yankee, Hideki Matsui is also stringing together a solid year thus far hitting .293 with 15 RBI. If this team can get a consistent power hitting, RBI producer, they could easily over take the Angels and Ranger and claim the AL West title.

Look for the NL Update tomorrow!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Heat vs. Bulls: Which style is better?

We are about to witness one amazing Eastern Conference Final, the likes of which have not been seen in years. The Miami Heat, conceived in last year's free agent period and the summer of LeBron, are a team with immense individual talents that cannot seem to get away from the media spotlight. They struggled at times on the way to the number two seed, but have come alive in the playoffs, easily dispatching the Sixers and the Celtics. They are not a deep team, and they play best when their three stars do the vast majority of the scoring. The Bulls, in many respects, are the anti-Heat. They are arguably the deepest team in the NBA, they like to fly under the media's radar, and most importantly, they play true team basketball. It will be fascinating to see whether the Big 3 of Miami can overcome the all-for-one approach of Chicago with a trip to the finals in the balance.

The Heat are best when their "Big 3" of Bosh, James, and Wade are squarely in the flow of the game. They all need to get touches and shots, and each need to be a centerpiece of the offense. They like to get into isolation mode with James and Wade. When teams try to double on them, Miami's stable of three point shooters need to knock down shots, which has not been a problem for James Jones. When the big three are on and the shooters are knocking down open shots, Miami is nearly impossible to stop. The Heat also play pretty tough and underrated defense.

The Bulls are built on defense, and being the top defense in the NBA this year is a big reason why the Bulls are where they are today. Derrick Rose, Chicago's superstar, has been simply sensational in his MVP season, and has not disappointed in the playoffs. The Bulls have an awesome bench that provides scoring in Korver, Gibson, and Watson, along with defense from Asik and Brewer. Noah provides endless energy, Deng is a consistent scorer and defender, and Bogans is an extremely pesky defender. The big wild card for the Bulls is Carlos Boozer. If Boozer puts up a double double and the defensive intensity is there, the Bulls will be extremely tough.

Game six of the Bulls-Hawks series provided the blueprint for Chicago's success: Suffocating defense, a double-double from Boozer, and Rose playing up to his ability. Miami's Big 3 will no doubt be hard to contain. But, unlike the Heat, the Bulls team approach makes them greater than the sum of their parts. a true team, a ferocious defense, and a superstar and his resurgent sidekick will be too much for the Heat, as the Bulls win in 7.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tackling the East Coast Bias

Sitting in one of my various Psychology classes, the subject turned to the psychology of love. Without getting into the dirty details (there are some interesting perspectives on the topic), one of the main points is that people fall in love with people that they come into contact with. Sounds simple enough. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl because he sees and interacts with her all the time, and boy marries girl that he sees everyday. It's such a simple idea that I laughed at my textbook. I seriously laughed. It's absurdly obvious. A boy in California is not going to fall in love with a girl from Mongolia. Simple stuff.

Yet I find myself wondering if this "idea" (its less of an idea and more like common sense) has bigger implications then we realize. This being The Point After and everything, I'm sure you can see where I'm taking this. Sports allegiances have a ton to do with where you were born. Geography is everything. Born in Los Angeles? You have a couple of options to choose from in terms of which team you follow, but if you're born in a smaller city, like Kansas City, you follow the Royals. That's it. Sure there are other ways in determining your allegiance, such as family in another city, you like the team colors, or perhaps the worst reason that I hear all too often, "They just won a lot of championships when I was younger and they were the best team so I decided to follow them". I'm not here to play judge and jury on fandom, but find a better reason, please.

I digress. Anyways, you like, love, and die for a team because they play every night on TV. Walking down the street you see their banners, their memorabilia, maybe even one of their players having lunch if you're lucky. Your parents teach you to love the home team and despise those other teams. Those other teams are filled with bad men, they club baby seals, and they will cheat their way to victory. You love these teams because you are simply around them. All the time. And you don't like other teams because you simply don't hear about them all too often.

So what's the deal ESPN? If this question seems out of place, let me explain. Baseball is a game of narratives. The games, viewed individually, can sometimes be a dull affair. I absolutely love baseball but I will concede this fact. I sometimes fall asleep for innings at a time. My mind wanders. It happens. But over the course of a season, the stories form, and every team is an open book. Of course I'm partial to one team, and the opposite of that for some teams (I'm looking at you Dodgers). But that doesn't mean I don't mind a good story. My problem is that millions of people who don't have the time to scour box scores and blogs and other forms of research and watch Sportscenter to keep up with the sporting world are being kept from "reading" these stories.

Perhaps you know what I'm alluding to. It's referred to on the West Coast as "East Coast Bias". Certain teams are covered much more extensively then all the others. And by certain teams, I'm talking about the Big 4. The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and the Mets (although less so now). For now I have the biggest beef with the first two. The Yankees-Red Sox rivaly. Everyone knows about it. It's a great rivalry. Some might say the best, although for right now I give that title to Dodgers-Giants. That's an issue for another day. The point is that during any given night of Baseball tonight or Sportscenter, the first twenty minutes of the program are an inning by inning deconstruction of each game. If they are playing each other? It's a game by game prediction, followed by needs of each team, what Jeter has for lunch each day, etc. etc. The ESPN Sunday Night Baseball features either the Yankees or Red Sox about 80% of the time (not an exact figure, but pretty close, I dare you to look it up). During nationally televised games, the majority of the country is forced to watch Yankees or Red Sox games while there are perhaps better pitching matchups elsewhere that they would rather watch.

It has to stop. "But what about ratings! Everyone loves the Yankees and Red Sox!" you all cry out. People only care about the Yankees and Red Sox because ESPN has dictated that these are the teams you should care about. Sure, they are the largest markets, but I assure you that sports fans love good sport more then they care about the Yankees and Red Sox. If ESPN spent more time covering all of the unique stories across the country, there would be better ratings for a say, Giants-Rangers World Series (Ask any Giants or Rangers fan about their team. I'm sure you'll get sucked into the story of either club)

Please ESPN, I implore you to go out and educate others about the teams that are perhaps a little less followed. You will find a hitter in Toronto who is hitting the ball well and walking at a Bondsian rate (I dont give out this praise cheaply). You will find a Giants team that is filled with strange characters. I'm sure you'll even find something of note in Pittsburgh. It won't make people fall in love with these teams mind you, but maybe you'll spark an interest in the great narrative of Americas Past Time. Spark an interest, and I'm sure you're precious ratings will be there. If you build it, they most definitely will come.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Villanova Basketball: Look to ’09 as a Blueprint for Success

Jay Wrights successful tenure on the Main Line has elevated the status of the basketball program and the expectations of the Nova Nation. The Wildcats took a hiatus from the NCAA tournament after the ’99 season, but burst back onto the scene in 2005 and have never looked back. A Final Four run in 2009 marked the program’s high point in recent years. However, the Villanova faithful have been left disappointed by a second round exit in 2010 and a first round exit in 2011. More unsettling than the losses themselves was deterioration of overall team chemistry. Simply put, it seemed as though the team lost track of itself. Many felt that the ‘Cats were not playing up to their potential, that they weren’t exactly sure who they were on the court.

The 2009 squad was characterized by fantastic team basketball. That team featured a balanced lineup. Dante Cunningham, Shane Clark, Dwayne Anderson and Antonio Pena provided size and presence inside; Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes formed a formidable backcourt of guards. Yet these players didn’t have to carry the team by themselves. They won because of cohesiveness and their ability to play as one. The important thing was that that team was balanced and they weren’t reliant on one player or one facet of the game.

By the middle of last season it became apparent that the 2011 ‘Cats lacked balance. They were overly reliant on Fisher, Stokes and Maalik Wayns. A legitimate post presence on the offensive end was rare and the team struggled to compete if the three guards weren’t hitting their shots. Wright was put in a difficult position: the inability of the bench players to provide offensive production forced him to keep Fisher and Wayns together on the floor most of the time, which wouldn’t be an issue…but they’re both small and share a similar style of play. Opposing defenses would clog the lane and force Villanova to make jump shots. Offensively, the Cats clearly struggled when the three main guards couldn’t hit shots because there was no legitimate post game to help open up the floor.

Last year’s setbacks shouldn’t dampen Villanova’s spirits. Established seniors Fisher, Stokes and Pena are gone, but no one can deny that the remaining roster has the talent to compete—it depends on whether or not they pull it all together. Wayns has become another product of “Guard U” and seems ready to step up and become the leader of this team. Like UConn’s Kemba Walker did this year, Wayns is poised to have a breakout junior campaign as the lead guard for Wright’s offense. Center Mouphtaou Yarou has made great strides in each of his years and could possibly establish himself as one of the nation’s top post players. Scottie Reynold’s heroics made him the face of the team, but most forget that it was Cunningham who led the team in scoring and rebounds. His post play on both ends of the court alleviated the pressure on Reynolds. Hopefully, Wayns and Yarou can form a similar one-two combo this coming year.

Beyond those two, Villanova is looking for certain players to step up to the plate. Dom Cheek and Isaiah Armwood have only scratched the surface of their talent and Coach Wright will surely anticipate improved production from both. With time in the weight room, and a little more confidence, both could become exceptional players. The rising juniors came in as the most-hyped recruiting class in the history of Villanova—it’s time for them to show why. If the coaching staff and the players prepared diligently in the offseason, this team could surprise some people in 2012. James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and Maurice Sutton can all provide quality bench minutes if they find their niche and develop their skills. With proper focus and preparation, this group of players can hopefully hit the ground running in the fall—and play up to the standards that the Nova Nation has come to expect from them.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

NBA Playoffs Update

I am literally shocked at what has happened so far in the NBA playoffs.  Taking a look back at my predictions before the playoffs started, I saw Memphis playing San Antonio tough and even winning the series.  Now the Grizzlies are looking like a legitimate contender, after taking a 2-1 series lead on the Thunder. My champion is on the verge of elimination and at this point it seems inevitable with the Dallas Mavericks playing outstanding basketball.  In the East, the Bulls limped into the second round and struggled in their first game against the Hawks.  Since then, the Bulls have put together two quality wins and seem back to their dominant form, with Derrick Rose dropping 44 points in the face of the Atlanta Hawks.  Finally, the Heat looked amazing in Miami, but the Celtics prevailed when they came back to Boston.  This series seems destined to go to seven games with each team feeding off the energy of their home crowds. 

Here is a look at a few players that are need to either maintain or improve their performance in order for their teams to advance to the Conference Finals. 

- Pau Gasol : The Laker big man is playing terrible and his team is in desperation mode after losing the first three games to the Mavs.  Gasol has averaged 19 points a game this season, but just 13 points in the playoffs along with an awful 42% from the floor.  His stats don't even show how poorly he has played, as he has given up easy jumpers to Dirk Nowitzki and has had mental miscues all series long.  In order for LA to move this series back to Los Angeles, Gasol needs to play tough, smart, and get back to what he does best.  

- Zach Randolph: The heart and soul of the Memphis Grizzlies, ZeBo is playing out of his mind. This afternoon he had 21 points and 21 rebounds in the Grizzlies' comeback victory.  Randolph has found his home in Memphis and he must be effective in order for Memphis to win.  All season long, Randolph has averaged 25 points a game in Grizzlies' wins, while only scoring 17 in losses.  If Memphis is to continue their improbable run in the playoffs, Randolph must play well.  The Grizzlies have the ability to finish this series off at home, with Game 4 and 6 being played in Memphis.  Those are must-wins for the Grizzlies, as Oklahoma City is a tough place to pick up a win.

- Russell Westbrook: The Thunder are Kevin Durant's team, but Westbrook is an unbelievable 1A option. Westbrook has averaged just over 25 points per game, but he has made just 25 of his 65 field goal attempts. The Thunder are best when Westbrook drives to the hoop and plays with a slashing Kevin Durant.  Westbrook has had trouble finishing around the rim, so he has started shooting perimeter jumpshots, which is not his game.  Despite his 12 assists today, Westbrook has not taken care of the ball.  He has 18 turnovers in the three games against the Grizzlies, which is way too high for a point guard.  Westbrook needs to slow down the game and put the ball on the floor, which will leave Kevin Durant in more one-on-one opportunities.  

- Kevin Garnett: He followed up his 22 points and 14 rebounds in the first two games (total), with 28 points and 18 rebounds tonight in Game 3.  Garnett kept the ball alive on many occasions and did what he did best: play at the rim.  KG scored 28 points on 20 shots, while staying out of foul trouble.  Doc Rivers can't ask for a better game from the wily veteran.  Garnett's intensity fires this team up like no other and if he can keep the fire lit under the Celtics, Boston can win this series.  Game 4 is an absolute MUST-WIN for Boston, because Miami still has potentially two home games left in the series.  

- Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson: The Atlanta Hawks are just a weird team.  They are a combination of highly talented players, but they lack that gel player necessary to contend for a championship; however, they do have the ability to score with the best of them.  When Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson are hot, this team can score at will.  Crawford, the notorious ball hog, takes crazy shots and they always seem to go in.  Joe Johnson is a more traditional shooting guard and is both a great shooter and defender.  If the two of them can score this team has a chance to win.  If they don't? They're done.  Simple as that.  There is no other person on the team that is capable of carrying an offense, because Al Horford is being mobbed in the paint by Noah and Gibson.  

- Joakim Noah: There is not a crazier person on the planet.  He screams in excitement on the simplest of rebounds, but he is the fire that the Bulls need to win.  Noah is one of the best defenders and rebounders in the game and also has a knack for getting his hand on the ball on the offensive boards.  Along with Taj Gibson, the two Bulls' big men are dominating the paint.  With Boozer struggling, the rest of the team has picked up his scoring and rebounding. As long as Boozer is limited due to injury, Noah will have to continue to pick up those double-doubles.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Road to the MVP

The Chicago Bulls are the story of the year after losing out on big-time free agents LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Joe Johnson; however, Gar Forman and Jon Paxson put together one of the most complete teams in the NBA.  They brought in Carlos Boozer, Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Kurt Thomas, and C.J. Watson after an overhaul of their roster.  Four returning pieces filled out the rest of the puzzle: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Taj Gibson.  These ten players, along with Omer Asik, won 62 games this season to earn the top seed in the East and the best record in the NBA.  Despite all of those acquisitions, the biggest one of them all is probably the Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau.  His relentless work and defensive knowledge allowed this team to achieve greatness.  He pushed this team as far as he could and never settled for anything but the best.  He is the main cog to this team's success, often overlooked by the talent on the roster.  

On the other hand, one player "rose" to the occasion, clearly showing why he deserved to be called the Most Valuable Player of the NBA.  Derrick Rose's significance has nothing to do with the 25 points and 7.7 assists that he averaged during the season.  His leadership and humility make him one of the most likable players in the league.  He takes nothing for granted and attributes all of his success to his teammates and coaches.  Some may even argue that Derrick Rose is not even the most valuable asset to the Bulls, as their defense is the reason why they are who they are.  Even though that is probably true, many people overlook the fact that Derrick Rose carries his team like no other player in the NBA.  In the fourth quarter, the ball is in his hands and he has no choice but to make a play.  If he doesn't, then they lose.  That is why he is the MVP.  Stars are made both in the playoffs and late in games, and Derrick Rose has done nothing but win.  As Rose himself said, "winning gets you everything in this league, so I just want to be labeled as a winner."  Derrick Rose won a state title in high school, went to the Championship game in college, and has led the Chicago Bulls to the best record in the NBA in just his third season.  Derrick Rose deserved this award, but I believe that his personality helped him jump over LeBron in the race for the MVP.

Not to say that LeBron James didn't deserve this award, because in all honesty he is probably the best player in the league, but his reputation has taken a major hit.  That is why I think he had absolutely no shot at this award.  So many basketball fans simply cheer against LeBron James, because of the way he left Cleveland.  It is not fair to him, but he knew what was going to happen when he showcased his decision process.  His numbers this season were simply incredible: 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists.  His talent is scary good, but what it all comes to is the fact that he will be labeled a coward until he wins a championship in Miami.  Even if he wins a title, he will still be hated by most of basketball just because of his past decisions. It's sad since he has never had trouble legally, criminally, or financially, but he is just hated because people don't respect him.  James will have trouble fixing his reputation, but let's hope his publicist doesn't let him do another "The Decision" fiasco.