Sunday, April 27, 2008

Go (To Indianapolis) Blue!

On today's Baseball Show on ESPN Radio, proud Michigan alum Steve Phillips waxed rhapsodic over fellow Wolverine Nate McLouth of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He went so far as to tell us - twice, practically verbatim - an anecdote about how Cubs manager Lou Piniella was impressed that McLouth could hit not only the low fastball, but the high fastball as well. (No word from Sweet Lou as to whether McLouth could hit breaking stuff, but one thing at a time here, fellas.)

Phillips then went on to talk about how McLouth had really turned things around, recovering from a period when he got sent down to the minors and refused to report to AAA. It's a great story, except that it was Chris Duffy who refused to report, not McLouth.

Oops.

That being said, things do seem to be looking up around Pittsburgh these days. The willingness to eat Matt Morris' bloated contract - and once can only assume that since-departed GM Dave Littlefield acquired Morris and his paycheck as a titanic screw-you to his inevitable successor - demonstrates that the team is not going to suck up losses simply because they want the most expensive guys on the field. Sure, John VanBenschoten might suck like a tornado, but there's the chance that he might not, which is worth finding out. You already know what you're going to get from Matt Morris, and none of it would have been good.

So kudos to the new team in Pittsburgh for showing that they're actually interested in winning for a change, and kudos for starting to develop some actual players. Most of the current roster is tweeners, guys who should get flipped as soon as they acquire some trade value, but credit the new regime with holding onto them until they acquire some value, and not panicking and signing the Kenny Loftons of the world in order to win 74 games instead of 72. For the first time in a long time, it looks like there's a plan in Pittsburgh, and in the NL Central, that might make them winners sooner than you'd think.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Last Thought on the NFL Draft (and the leadup to thereof)

This week's Sporting News contained something like four mock drafts. Three of them had the Dolphins - who had been publicly negotiating with Michigan tackle Chris Long for weeks, and who signed him earlier in the week - picking Virginia defensive end Chris Long. This included the mock draft done by the correspondents who cover the teams for TSN, who theoretically ought to know better.

Out of those four drafts, two had the Eagles picking the same guy at 19, presumably on the "well, one of these guys might get it right" theory. The Patriots, who are well known for trading down, are apparently taking some combination of Ryan Clady, Sedrick Ellis, Dan Connor or Mike Jenkins at 7. At 5, the Chiefs will go with Matt Ryan. Or Chris Williams. Or Vernon Gholston. Or....

And then, there's the Mel Kiper Jr. "magician's force". Kiper is on mock draft #19 or so over at ESPN.com, which means that somewhere along the line he probably got a few picks right, which he will crow about, and a whole lot of picks wrong, which he will never mention. Every player comment he makes has a big positive at the beginning for future quotability, and a caveat at the end so if the guy turns out to be a bust, he can quote that bit and still seem prescient. It's a no-lose situation for Kiper - he never gets called on anything and can provide endless "evidence" backing up his work in hindsight.

Bear in mind also that not a single one of these mock drafts - not the four in TSN, not the dozens up at ESPN and SI and God knows where else - allows for trades, which, of course, Happen In The Real World Where This Is Supposed To Be Taking Place. Knowing that these start, therefore, from a position of guaranteed inaccuracy, shouldn't they therefore start to lose a teensy part of their appeal? At a certain point, it all becomes wankery, the sports equivalent of the AFI's 100 Best Movie Montages list.

And the guys who thought the Eagles would take Gosder Cherilus at 19? Idiots.

Let Me Get This Straight

When baseball players refuse to talk to Sen. George Mitchell about steroid use and refuse to name names of players they think might be juicing, they're selfish and wrongheaded, on the side of the cheaters and the villains.

When basketball player Josh Howard mentions that he knows lots of NBA players occasionally indulge in ye old wacky tobaccky, he's castigated by Fred Coleman for throwing other players under the proverbial bus. (Note: That bus is running late; Pedro Martinez is still scraping Grady Little out of the tire treads.)

So, to repeat, if you play a major sport and you know that your peers are indulging in an illegal substance, you will get slammed for either coming forward or not coming forward. Bear that in mind, would you?

Mo', Mo', Mo'

When I was a kid and I actually followed the Philadelphia 76ers, Mo Cheeks was my favorite player. Sure, Dr. J had the incredible moves (and hair), Darryl Dawkins brought the Chocolate Thunder, and 6'9" pasty beanpole Bobby Jones attempted to wrest the nickname "Secretary of Defense" unsuccessfully away from Garry Maddox. (The sneaker place I used to go to had a poster of Jones, in a suit, posed sitting on a desk in what was supposed to be a government office and holding a basketball like it was about to explode. The caption was "Secretary of Defense", which tells you everything you need to know about Jones' offensive game.) He was a pass-first point guard who had a great moustache and loved chocolate chip cookies. He was a fourth-round pick on a team loaded with stars, a little guy (relatively speaking) in a forest of redwoods around Moses Malone.
I lost interest in the NBA a few years after Mo retired. The Sixers made the disastrous Roy Hinson trade and lost about 90% of my fandom; the endless circus around "will they trade Allen Iverson?" took the rest. Meanwhile, Mr. Cheeks eventually surfaced as the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, a talented bunch of knuckleheads who seemed completely opposite Cheeks' own playing style. He didn't do particularly well coaching them, not that they seemed terribly coachable, and so when he was hired to coach the Sixers in the dying spasms of the Billy King era, my only thought was "Oh, no." Mo didn't look like a terribly good coach at that point, and I was loath to see another one of my childhood favorites (see Bowa, Larry) impale himself on a poorly managed franchise and impossible fan expectations. After all, Julius Erving wasn't coming through that door. Lionel Hollins wasn't coming through that door. Even Caldwell Jones wasn't coming through that door, just Andre Iguodala and a bunch of "almosts", guys like Kyle "Not the New Bobby Jones" Korver and Sam "The Haitian Sensation" Dalembert who were just good enough to show flashes, and not good enough to do anything consistently.

So I thought Cheeks was doomed, though I didn't pay much attention. I figured the roster of tweener talents and Billy King's oddball GMing style would deliver a fatal blow. The occasional SportsCenter highlights I saw were generally slanted toward whoever the Sixers were playing; there was a lot of posterization in those.

And all of a sudden, they're up 2-1 on the Pistons in the playoffs. The franchise that was hopeless, under a coach beloved in the city but best known for helping a scared little girl sing the national anthem, was in the playoffs. Was taking it to the favored Pistons. Was winning.

It is highly likely that the Sixers lose the next three in a row. Highly likely their season ends there, that tonight's win was their high water mark. It doesn't matter. Thank you, Mo Cheeks, for proving me wrong.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Dear Hank Steinbrenner...

...please keep messing with your GM. Poking Brian Cashman over the use of Joba Chamberlain, the fact that Johann Santana is a Met, and suchlike merely increases the probability that one of these days, the Yankees' GM is going to quit.

And if Cashman quits, one of the most appealing jobs available will be GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. Pat Gillick is stepping down after the 2008 season, concluding a run that can only be described as "better than Ed Wade's", leaving behind a team with a thin farm system but a killer infield and one of the largest media markets in the US all to itself. The elements for extended success are there, as is the opportunity.

As is the absence...of Hank.

Doubting Thomas

Frank Thomas is not the sort of guy you want to bench, because he's generally a pain in the ass when his ass is on the pine. Unless they benched him, the Blue Jays would have been on the hook for his option next year. So, they took the excuse of his slow start to dump him, and any yammering about "playing the kids" is transparent hooey. Rod Barajas is neither a kid nor a hitter (designated or otherwise), and running him out there as the Big Hurt's successor in the DH role is a lot like shunting in Lawrence Gowan after Dennis DeYoung on keyboards for Styx. Who's Lawrence Gowan, you say? Exactly.
Afterwards, it took about fifteen seconds for the A's to pick Thomas up. This is a no-risk move for Oakland. Toronto is playing most of his salary, so if Thomas really has lost it, Oakland's only on the hook for a little over $300K. If he really has lost it, the A's can cut Thomas without taking much of a hit. If he hasn't, and he bounces back, they suddenly have either a great trading chit, or a solid DH to help fuel an unlikely run at contention.
Of course, there's one last potential twist here. With the Yankees looking old and mortal, the Tigers and Indians scuffling, and the AL playoff picture wide open, this was the year the Blue Jays could seriously think about sneaking in. Their pitching - Burnett in a contract year, Halladay steady as always, and good young arms backing them up - is playoff-caliber. Their offense, on the other hand...not so much. And if at the deadline, the Jays are short one bat and Thomas is mashing in Oakland, that may be what finally puts a stake through the heart of the J.P. Ricciardi regime.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Yet Another Reason to Hate NFL Pre-Draft Coverage

From TSN's draft preview of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

1st paragraph: "They have an abundance of quarterbacks, so there's a good chance they'll dangle one as trade bait."

2nd paragraph: "The Bucs don't need another quarterback but may take one anyway."

Draft pick list: "Round 2: QB Joe Flacco, Delaware"

Also, within the bulk of the writeup, TSN suggests that the Bucs will be looking at:
Oklahoma WR Malcolm Kelly
Michigan State WR Devin Thomas
South Florida CB Mike Jenkins
Oregon RB Jonathan Stewart
Central Florida RB Kevin Smith

None of those guys show up in the mock draft listings below.

In other words, "They won't take a QB. Or they might. Or they will. And they'll probably draft some guys who played college football."

*sigh*

Mel Kiper Jr. what hast thou wrought?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Quick Hits

Isaiah Thomas fired as coach of Knicks - Surprising at least three members of the Thomas family, and absolutely no one else. Now, if Donnie Walsh really wants to make this perfect, he re-hires Larry Brown, who agrees to work for league minimum (work with me on this, it's a fantasy sequence here) and takes the Knicks to the playoffs.

Philly back in the swing of things - A game against the Mets is decided when the ump misses the call on a tag on Jose Reyes at the plate. A game against the Cavaliers is decided when the refs nail the Sixers with a phantom call with 0.2 seconds left. And the first game of the Flyers-Caps series is decided on a goal that's scored after on the Flyers goes down with a condition best described as "every man reading this just clenched in sympathy". It's good to see the universe is in midseason form.

NFL announces next year's schedule - ESPN tries very hard to convince people that this is important and newsworthy, devoting endless hours of radio time to the implications thereof. Not mentioned is that it is, after all, a schedule. You know, that thing you lose twice during the first two days of the conference and have an Outlook calendar to remind you of? Word is that next year ESPN is going to broadcast two days of the repainting of the NFL league offices, and that Mel Kiper Jr's going to offer up a week's worth of analysis of the color choices.

NFL draft next week - And the buzz is strangely low, compared to the last few years. Either the relentless campaign by various sportswriting types to tear down this year's draft class, or Kiper's Kool-Aid isn't quite working anymore.

Matt Ryan, QB, Boston College - He's a franchise quarterback. He's going to go #3. No, wait, he's going to go #8. No, wait, he might slide. No, the Ravens will trade up to get him. No, wait...look. Ryan's a good quarterback, and as a BC alum, I think it's great that there's finally discussion of a BC player as a draft prospect who isn't a 346-pound pulling guard from Needham, Mass. But he was good, not great, in an emphatically weak ACC last year, he threw clunkers in the Eagles' two biggest games (5 INTs in two losses to inferior squads Florida State and Maryland) and as much as I enjoyed watching the guy in the burgundy and gold, I'm not entirely certain he's going to dominate at the next level. Here's hoping I'm proved wrong.

Royals in First Place! - Look at Brian Bannister and squint real hard and you may see Mark Gubicza. Wait, is that a good thing?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Behalf of Maury Brown...

...and the families of children afflicted with autism everywhere, I humbly offer you this.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Interview, Part Deux

Five for Writing with Will Carroll is up over at Snowbird Gothic. Check it out!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Quick Hits

Former Vikings DE Carl Eller goes nuts on cops after a police stop for DUI - Apparently Eller laid out a couple of cops after being tased, to which I can say I only hope Officers Staubach and Jaworski are all right.

Tulsa newspaper breaks the story Monday that Oklahoma State is preparing an offer for Kansas coach Bill Self, who happens to have a game to coach that night - more proof that T. Boone Pickens can buy everything except class, and maybe timing. At least wait until the day after the championship game to go stalking one of the coaches involved. Otherwise, people might get the crazy idea that college athletics were about money.

Rays put OF Cliff Floyd on DL - Is there anyone out there surprised by this? Anyone?

Olympic torch extinguished in France, diverted in San Francisco as protestors decry Chinese foreign policy - Residents of Darfur and Tibet are, by all accounts, unimpressed. Also, kind of busy.

Penn State football player kicked off team for threatening fellow student with a knife - At which point JoePa took the offending player out and replaced him with someone who'd threaten fellow students with something old-fashioned and proven, like a flint axe or an atlatl.

NHL playoffs begin - And the four teams that didn't make the cut are the only ones who can figure out what channel they're being broadcast on.

Red Sox get championship rings in moving ceremony at Fenway Park - Five minutes later Bill James was using statistical analysis to compare them to the Yankee rings of the late 90s, Theo Epstein had traded his to Florida for a couple of 2003 rings and a 1997 setting to be named later, and Sully from Saugus had called in to WEEI to say that the rings freakin' sucked.

San Francisco Giants look to be historically bad - Four words: Bengie Molina, cleanup hitter. Four more words: Missing Barry, ain't ya?

NFL draft approaches - On the bright side, it will keep Mel Kiper Jr. from talking about baseball for a little while.

UCLA denies reports that two basketball players are going pro - Left unchallenged is the assertion that Kevin Love looks like a really tall version of Justin Timberlake. Or maybe Kevin Federline.

UNC deals with fallout of Final Four loss - Chapel Hill is in shock and denial. Meanwhile, other ACC coaches propose new rule whereby league refs are actually allowed to call fouls on Duke and Carolina players, the better to prepare them for the occasional non-league road game. Very occasional.

Royals crush Yankees - File this one under "it's April".

Monday, April 07, 2008

Final Foredom

I'm glad this was the Greatest Final Four EVAR, with all four #1 seeds advancing. That certainly made for competitive semifinal games, didn't it?

ESPN's fill-in guy for Doug Gottlieb spent a lot of time talking about how these were the matchups we were rooting for, that there were no stories in Xavier or Davidson or Western Kentucky possibly making it to the Final Four. How no casual fans would tune in to see anyone but the big names, the big teams, the big seeds.

Of course, finding the compelling story is what a sports journalist is supposed to do. Davidson? Stephen Curry, a brutal early season schedule and an undefeated conference schedule - nope, no story there. Xavier adamantly refusing to be called "mid-major" (and incidentally, don't look now but a C-USA team is the favorite in the championship game. Maybe not having a BCS football team doesn't affect your basketball after all.) Western Kentucky moving on when the Wildcats didn't? All of these were great stories, or could have been. But when the people who are responsible for finding and promoting those hooks instead sandbag them, well, it's no wonder that ratings are down. It's not because of the upsets, fellas. It's because you keep on telling the viewers that unless it's the biggest names, it's not worth watching.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Unpopular Moves That Teams Should Make - Part II

Chicago Cubs
Stop messing around with Matt Murton
Right now, Murton is possibly the Cubs' best trade asset. Their top prospects, such as Veal and Patterson, are suspect, their pitching really isn't deep enough to trade from, and their glut of interchangeable middle infielders would be appealing only to the Pirates, who like to stockpile that sort of thing. Murton's a serviceable outfielder who'd hit sixth for a lot of clubs, and fourth for the Giants. Instead of letting him rot on the bench, let him play and build up some value. Then Jim Hendry can banish him into the outer darkness for whatever reason he sees fit, and actually get some return back in the process. It's foolish - right now the Cubs are devaluing an asset, hurting their ability to improve, and costing Murton the best years of his career for no reason that anyone can fathom.

Cincinnati Reds
Deal Homer Bailey
Will Carroll called it last year. Uber-phenom Bailey might not be all that, even if most prospect mavens are still high on him. At a time when young, cheap pitching is the most valuable commodity on the trade market, Bailey would fetch a princely sum in return. Meanwhile, the Reds could still trot out a front three of Harang, Arroyo and Cueto, which ain't half bad. Right now, Bailey's a huge chip, one that seems likely to diminish in value in time, and perhaps suddenly. Hanging onto him too long might be a crucial mistake for a franchise that has plenty of needs.

Houston Astros
Blow it up and start over
There's nothing in the farm system. The rotation is Roy Oswalt and the cast of America's Got Talent. Two of the three best position players are old, slow, and tending towards what the scientists call a "gherkin-like" body shape. They may be able to squeeze one more run at contention out of this bunch, but that's about it, and in a division where the Cubs, Brewers and Reds are improving markedly, the Pirates have sharp new management, and the Cardinals have already started their rebuilding, one last Montana-as-a-Chief-style charge for glory may cause years of damage on the back end.
So blow it up. Trade Berkman for prospects. Trade Lee for prospects. Flip Tejada if you can. Refill a farm system completely devoid of arms in order to take advantage of Pence and Towles' prime years. And for God's sake, stop flipping every half-usable arm you've got in order to do a Giants-like "one more year" lunge.
You see how it's turning out for them, yes?

Milwaukee Brewers
Stop building a team around Ben Sheets
He's not going to be healthy. He's just not. Every year, the Brewers pin their hopes on what a healthy Ben Sheets can do, which is exactly like Nepal dreaming of what a yeti could do for their Olympic weightlifting team.
Instead, construct the roster - and the rotation - to maximize Sheets' occasional contributions. Leverage the depth in the rotation to coddle Sheets to make sure he makes as many starts as possible, and don't get caught flat-footed every year when he strains his medial collateral frammistat in the sixth start of the season.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Get value for vets
The one thing that Dave Little field did well as GM was stockpiling flippable veterans that could, in theory, be traded for useful prospects at the trade deadline. Of course, then he forgot to trade them.
Right now, the Pirates are loaded with slightly-above-average players - Wilson, LaRoche, Sanchez and more. Most of them had off years last year, diminishing their trade value. Most of them really don't have that much of a prime left, and are signed to affordable contracts. That makes them trade bait as soon as they go on a hot streak. If the team's willing to live with a few months of the Nyjer Morgans and Brian Bixlers of the world, they could move a lot of useful pieces. Think the Yankees couldn't use Adam LaRoche? Think they'll revisit that right around the time Jason Giambi's annual mystery illness pops up? I do.


St. Louis Cardinals
End the Tony LaRussa era
He drives off big players. He questions players when they are obviously injured. He got nailed for a DUI while managing a team that now has a drunk driving death on his resume. He oversaw the steroid-laden Bash Brothers era in Oakland, and his denials of any knowledge of wrongdoing sound a little weaker each time around.
So now's the time for Tony to step down gracefully. Let someone else do the messy rebuilding this franchise needs to do, let someone else suffer through the seasons until the Colby Rasmuses of the world are ready to win some games in St. Louis again. Take the heat off the franchise, save the remainder of the legacy, and let Cardinals fans move on.
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