Saturday, December 18, 2010

Five NFL Predictions Revisited

Before the start of the NFL season I made these five predictions:

1. Oakland would challenge the Chargers in the AFC West.
2. Sam Bradford would be compared to Tom Brady.
3. Houston would finally make the playoffs.

4. Tim Tebow would start a game.
5. Green Bay would beat Baltimore in the Super Bowl.

Starting with a complete miss, the Houston Texans were once again a disappointment.  The offense was even better with a renewed running effort behind Arian Foster.  Andre Johnson missed time this year, and really hasn't been healthy while playing with a high ankle sprain.  He has still managed to be productive, and gave us the highlight of the year when he pounded Cortland Finnegan with a haymaker to the back of the head.  Unfortunately for Houston, there was a sharp decline in the secondary allowing teams to throw all over them.  They lost a few heartbreakers at the end of the game including an answered hail mary in Jacksonville, but it was evident early in the season they would once again fall short of their playoff hopes.

Another miss was my Super Bowl prediction with Green Bay all but eliminated from the playoffs.  I cannot remember another team having as many high profile injuries as the Packers suffered this season.  It started in the first quarter of the season when they lost running back Ryan Grant for the year instantly making them one dimensional on offense.  It seemed like every week they lost another piece of their team.  You can never predict injuries and the Packers were just unlucky.  I still have a chance to get half of the equation right as the Ravens are still battling for a playoff spot, and look like they can beat anyone on any given Sunday.

I was partly accurate when I thought the Chargers would be challenged for the AFC West crown which has basically been handed to them four years straight.  Oakland was certainly more competitive this season, and managed to sweep the series with the Chargers, but San Diego's biggest competition comes from the surprising Kansas City Chiefs who still hold a half game lead over the Chargers down the stretch.

I haven't heard anyone comparing Sam Bradford to Tom Brady, but that might have something to do with the fact Brady is once again playing like the best player in the NFL.  The Patriots look unstoppable at this point in the season, and there is no debate who the odds on favorite for the Super Bowl is.  For his part, Bradford has received tons of praise and will most likely take home Rookie of the Year honors when the season in over.  He took a hopeless St. Louis team with a decimated receiving corps and led them to six wins so far this season which is good enough for first place in the atrocious NFC West.  Rams fans have been ecstatic with his play this season, and there is reason to be optimistic towards the future.  I give myself partial credit.

And for one prediction I was dead on accurate with: Tim Tebow is set to start his first game this week for the Denver Broncos.  Even with Kyle Orton putting up nice numbers this season, the disappointing record has led the Broncos to give their fans an early Christmas present with Tebow.  Orton has bruised ribs, but the Broncos claim Tebow's talent has helped him get this opportunity, not an injury to Orton. Tebow has made some goal line appearances this season and scored a few touchdowns, but Sunday will be a big step in his progression.  If I may build on this prediction and make another, unless Orton really needs to rest, Tebow will start but not finish the game.  As much fun as the first half will be, eventually the coaches will want to try to get an elusive win and stick Orton back in the game.  Hopefully Tebow can hold back the tears when he is jerked from his first start.

Cliff Phillee

Two seasons ago the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee mid-year to be the staff ace entering the playoffs.  Lee was brilliant helping the Phillies get to the World Series.  He posted a 4-0 record, including 2-0 in the World Series.  The fit seemed perfect.  There was a gushing love affair that ensued between Lee and the Phillies that made most think the match would be successful for a long time. 

After the season ended, Lee was surprisingly dealt to Seattle in a three team trade that brought Roy Halladay to Philadelphia.  Halladay was, and is, widely considered the best starter in baseball.  The trade was a success for the most part.  Halladay won 21 games and the Cy Young award.  He tossed the second no-hitter in playoff history in his first post-season game, but the Phillies came up short against the Giants in the NLCS.  

Lee went back to the playoffs with the Rangers and was dominant again.  He led Texas to their first World Series appearance in team history before hitters caught up to him.  As the playoffs unfolded I wondered how good the Phillies would be if they had both Lee and Halladay?  We'll find out this season as the Phils came from nowhere to nab the free agent last week. 

According to most media experts, it was a forgone conclusion that Lee would sign with the Yankees as a free agent.  No one would be able to match Yankee money, and baseball players always take the paycheck.  The MLB Players Union frowns heavily on free agents giving discounts even if the player doesn't want to sign with the highest bidder. 

There was an outside chance that he would stay in Texas after their World Series run.  New owner Nolan Ryan vowed to be competitive in the bidding for Lee, and he stayed true to his word.  At no point was any other team mentioned as a possible suitor, but in the end Philadelphia swooped in and signed the southpaw. 

Lee left $15 million in New York to sign with the Phillies, but he will still make $120 million over five years.  That should be enough to pay the rent.  Still, what he did is basically unprecedented in baseball.  There are only a few other examples of players leaving that kind of money behind.  Let's face it, $15 million is still a lot of money, even if you're already rich.

Halladay and Lee unquestionably comprise the best 1-2 punch in baseball, but that's not what has the rest of the league nervous.  The Phillies have two other aces in Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels taking the ball behind them. Both would be opening day starters on 80 percent of Major League teams.  The real beauty of these four pitching together is the tremendous balance.  Two are left handed and two are right handed so there won't be any advantage to teams heavy on one side of the plate. 

Many people want to compare them to the 1993 Atlanta Braves who ran out Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery.  There are uncanny similarities between the groups.  Even the pitching styles of the four look similar.  Halladay and Maddux, Lee and Glavine, Oswalt and Smoltz, Hamels and Avery.

Maddux is a multi-year Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer who threw with tremendous movement and unbelievable control.  He was not overpowering, but always seemed one step ahead of the hitter.  Halladay throws with similar movement and control and actually throws harder than Maddux did.  He will have a bust next to Maddux in Cooperstown eventually.  Both are right handed.

Glavine was a very smooth left hander who never gave in to hitters.  He had an effortless delivery and controlled the outside of the plate.  Lee has the ability to work inside more than Glavine, but he also doesn't get the two to three inches off the plate Glavine enjoyed.  Working inside is a necessity now that the strike zone is called more accurately.  Both have tremendous strikeout to walk ratios and both are left handed.

John Smoltz was overpowering with one of the most wicked right handed sliders ever.  He could run his fastball over 97 mph and was dominant as a starter and closer.  Oswalt is also overpowering utilizing more of an overhand curve instead of a slider.  He doesn't quite have the velocity Smoltz had, but he changes speeds a little more effectively.  Both are right handed.

Steve Avery began to fall apart after the 1993 season.  He was fabulous the first year of Maddux's arrival, but an injury slowed him down and he was never the same.  He only spent two more seasons with the Braves before moving on.  Hamels is capable of dominating, but he will also struggle at times.  Hamels and Avery were both the youngest of their groups, and both enjoyed tremendous success at an early age.  Hamels has shown some signs of decline but has gotten a reputation as a second half pitcher.  Both are left handed.

As a group, the Phillies pitchers are more accomplished in the playoffs than the Braves were in 1993.  Halladay has the most modest post-season resume that includes a no-hitter, and is the best pitcher of the four.  Lee was 7-0 before taking his first loss in the World Series last season, Oswalt is 5-1 with a 3.39 ERA, and Hamels is a World Series MVP.  Think about that.  A former World Series MVP is now the fourth best starter for Philadelphia. 

The trio of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz pitched together for several seasons winning a World Series and making several trips to the post-season.  They did enjoy a pitcher friendly ball park which cannot be said for the Phillies.  At the same time, steroids began making an impact on baseball effectively wiping out any ballpark advantage.

Chances are unlikely that the Phillies can or will keep all four pitchers together, but this season should be very entertaining for Philadelphia.  Even with all that pitching, the Phillies still have the potential to beat you with their bats.  They lost Jason Werth to free agency which is a big blow, but they still have Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino to cushion the blow.  They didn't have their best season collectively as hitters last year, but the potential is endless in that lineup. 

Baseball's money issues and disparity of talent between the haves and have nots continues with the Phillies and Red Sox.  You can go ahead and pencil in Philadelphia and Boston for the World Series next season.  It is embarrassing how unbalanced teams have become. 

Aside for the NL East hitters and managers, the one person who crapped his pants when he heard about Lee's signing had to be head case closer, Brad Lidge.  He will shoulder the responsibility to close out the games his ace staff starts.  He has been both brilliant and awful seemingly every other year even before coming to Philadelphia. He better be sharp this season because fans and ownership won't put up with blown saves when they have tied up so much money on starting pitching.  The Philadelphia bullpen is about the only thing that can derail a team that talented.

Lee's move is vaguely reminiscent of Lebron James without the press conference.  He turned down more money to play with other supremely talented pitchers.  Lee can take the mound with virtually no pressure.  He will not be the ace of the staff, and he won't have to shoulder the responsibility on his own.  If he struggles, there are three other unbelievable pitchers there to pick him up.  He still makes nine figures, and returns to a city and teammates he became very fond of his first time around.

The role of fifth starter is likely to be a combination of several players, none of which will be current fifth starter Joe Blanton.  Blanton has become the forgotten man after the Lee signing, and the team will need to dump the $17 million he is owed over the next two years to cushion the blow of their other enormous signings.  I'm sure Blanton is fine to walk away from that situation, but I can't think of a more cushy job in the Bigs.  There is no expectation for wins out of the fifth spot, just a need to eat innings and get the ball back in Halladay's hands the next day.

With steroids all but eradicated from baseball, and offensive numbers plummeting, putting together a rotation like the Phillies is unfair.  We might as well hit fast forward on the coming season.  The suspense is over before the season starts.  Congratulations to the NL Champs of 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Letter to Adrian Gonzalez

Dear Adrian,

Your departure crowns the harsh reality of being a Padres fan.  In you, San Diego loses its most consistent run producer of my lifetime, on a team with no other slugger.  I hoped you would be another Tony Gwynn, sacrificing career success to play in San Diego, but that is an impossibility in today's baseball market.

There is no way a player of your caliber can throw away $100 million and a chance to play for a legendary franchise on baseball's biggest stage.  When the Padres traded Jake Peavy I wondered if ownership was preparing to shell out some money to keep you at home, but I didn't hold out much hope.  I have endured way too many years of "rebuilding" efforts.

I guess I knew this day would come.  On the bright side, we got to watch you a year longer than most experts thought.  You never wavered in your commitment to the Padres and never complained about your miniscule salary.  All you did was anchor a lineup that gave you no help, and still produced in the toughest park in the Major Leagues.

They tell me keeping you doesn't make financial sense.  I guess that means the Padres will never attempt to be competitive and will continue to be run as an investment rather than a sports franchise.  New ownership, same as the old ownership.  The Padres will continue to operate as a Major League farm system.  They trade marquee players they can't afford for top prospects.  Once the prospects establish themselves, they will be shipped away for new prospects, creating an endless cycle.

As usual the Padres have some promising young talent who have yet to blossom, but you can be sure that once Will Venable has a breakout season he will be out the door too. Then Latos.  It will be a surprise if they keep Heath Bell. 

To me, it would make perfect financial sense to sign you.  A steroid-free, left hander who hits for power and average in the prime of his career is a good investment.  Especially one who is also a silky smooth gold glover.  You are from San Diego, but you are also Mexican and lived in Mexico making you the most marketable player available.  You are humble, hard working, and you have no behavioral flaws or ego, and you are a great teammate.

So the attendance has been bad, even with you on the team...If the ownership wants to fill the seats, they have to keep the fan favorites.  Then get more fan favorites.  Stockpile rather than distribute.  But, that's not the Padres way.  They don't have the money.  They are content on being small market.  What ownership seems to forget is that there is always money in a champion.  If you win, they will come.

Sorry if I rambled a bit.  I basically just wanted to say that we were fortunate to watch you play, and I'm sure we'll see you hoisting a trophy wearing red and white.  Don't let the media get you down.  At least they care.  I bet it will be a thrill to have a packed Fenway Park cheering wildly when you hit the field for the first time.

Before I conclude here, could you answer me one question?  What happened with Jon Garland?  Why would he take a one year contract with the Dodgers?  Was he not happy as a Padre?  His salary isn't impressive either. He decided he liked pitching in Petco just not for the Padres, huh?  Pretty weak.  At least the games will get quicker without his 30 minute innings.

Anyway, thanks for the time. I'm not sure if Theo Epstein has his eye on any other former Padres, but there are about six more out there.  I think David Eckstein is available.  He'd be great for morale and a good bench player, plus he knows that league pretty well.

Okay, have fun denting up the green monster.  With your opposite field stroke you might hit .330 to go with the 35 homers and 140 RBI you'll produce.  We'll miss you.


 Blake Bryan


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