MLB 2015 NL Central Preview

No shortage of noise here this off-season either. The Cubs appear to be serious about making a run, after signing Jon Lester, trading for Miguel Montero, and bringing in Joe Maddon, without even the slightest hint of skullduggery, to manage. Nope, Rick Renteria didn’t get boned one bit there.  The road to the NL Central crown still runs through St. Louis, though, because it always freaking does. That pitching is just better top to bottom than the rest of the division. The Pirates have found a way to make things interesting in recent years, but the departure of Russell Martin north of the border is going to hurt. It’s hard to tell if the Reds are looking to be a factor or slowly edging into a rebuilding era. If they’re trying to add young pieces, I’d have started by flipping productive veterans Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto rather than staff ace Mat Latos, but what do I know. And you have the team from the land of beer and sausage races.

Quick, how does a team with two of the best all-around players in the game (Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy) and a former PED-enhanced MVP who is still productive without all the junk project to finish last? Well, turns out, you have to pitch the ball too. I’d love this Brewers team, Ryan Braun notwithstanding, if they just had the pitching to keep them in games. 

Projected Winner: The Cardinals. Because this is America. And three things are constant. Death, taxes, and the Cards winning the NL Central. Why? Pitching wins ballgames and they have it in spades. You could nitpick a little bit and say they have some holes in the lineup, and Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina aren’t getting any younger. But as they say, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than your buddy. And they’re faster. 

Is there a Wild Card, perhaps?: This is where the real intrigue lies. Slide any of the teams other than the Cards into one of the other National League divisions and you can make an argument that they’re a legitimate Wild Card contender. However, as it stands, they’re all going to beat up on one another 19 times each over the course of the season. The other divisions have walk-over teams, where the big boys can realistically hope to go 15-4 or even 16-3. No such luxury here though. So if all plays out the way I think it will, you’ll be looking at a division winner with a win total in the high 80s and the rest of the gang between 78 and 85. And that may not be good enough to surpass the second place team from the NL West or East that has some weak opposition to beat up on. Is the NL’s deepest division really going to be its least represented in the postseason? I don’t know, but I consulted with a fortune cookie and the little paper inside said I was destined for traveling to exotic locations…so there’s that.


MLB 2015 National League West Preview

Well, this division certainly made a lot of noise in the offseason, didn’t it? San Diego acquired seemingly every available slugging outfielder not named Cespedes. The Dodgers retooled the front office and subsequently, a large chunk of the roster. The overachieving Giants and their best-in-the-game manager Bruce Bochy are coming off yet another surprising World Series championship.

But let’s start with the bottom. The Diamondbacks and Rockies were terrible last year, and that doesn’t figure to change. For the 20 something year in a row the Rockies still don’t have any pitching, and even if Jon Gray and Eddie Butler break out, it’s not enough. The D Backs are now led by Chip Hale, and have added Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas, and while some of their young guys (see: Enciarte, Ender; Peralta, David; Owings, Chris) look like future studs, they’re still a couple of years away. Neither of these teams will factor.

With only a hint of sarcasm, the poor Giants. They lose the Panda to free agency, Hunter Pence to a broken arm for a while, Angel Pagan’s back is reportedly a concern, and their rotation is counting heavily on Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy, combined age over 70. Bochy can work magic, but look for a big step back this year. The Padres were serious about improving their putrid offense. Enter Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Derek Norris, and to a lesser degree, Will Middlebrooks. Their starting pitching remains a strength, if on potential alone. They might very well miss Huston Street, however, at the back end of ballgames. Very quietly, he has been baseball’s most effective closer for the last three years.

Projected Winner: The Dodgers. They just have a spectacularly good starting rotation, even if the criminally underrated Hyun Jin Ryu’s barking shoulder keeps him out the first month. There are very few lineup questions, if any, (the Pads still don’t know if Yonder Alonso, Tommy Medica, Carlos Quentin, or a Partridge in a Pear Tree will be starting at first base, or whether its Middlebrooks or Yangervis Solarte at third) and the departures of Brian Wilson and Chris Perez give Don Mattingly fewer catastrophic options to insist on using in high leverage situations out of the pen – even if closer Kenley Jansen misses the first 4-6 weeks after foot surgery. The Padres will keep it interesting, but probably finish four or five games back at the end of the season.

Is there a Wild Card, perhaps?: It’s not outside the realm of imagination, that’s for sure. The Padres have a good shot. Here’s why: The NL Central has the Cardinals, Pirates, and an improved Cubbies team that figure to contend. The Reds are still potent enough to play some spoiler, and the Brewers, while probably ticketed for a last place finish, shouldn’t be walkovers. That division could beat up on itself and struggle record-wise. Meanwhile, teams like the Padres and, perhaps, the Marlins in the NL East can fatten up against legitimate bottom dwellers in their divisions and lock down one of the two wild cards. Will they? The magic eight ball says check back with us in July for a clearer picture.


Snake-bitten Sam

Quick, apart from the position they play(ed), what do Tim Tebow, Jimmy Claussen, Colt McCoy, Mike Kafka, John Skelton, and Rusty Smith have in common with Sam Bradford?

If you said that they were the next 6 quarterbacks drafted following Bradford in the 2010 NFL draft, you would be correct. More on this later.

Any time a quarterback is taken with the first overall pick in the draft, the standard of Face of the Franchise is, either fairly or unfairly, bestowed upon that man. Sam Bradford was no different. From the moment his name was the first one read in 2010, he was going to change the fortunes of one of the most moribund franchises in all of professional sports. Apart from a three year period at the turn of the millennium, the Rams…well, they were awful.

Plagued by brutally inept leadership that consistently assembled rosters permeated by sub-professional level “talent,” failure was unavoidable. Bradford was the turning point, however. His on-field excellence was matched only by his spotless character. And with his Abercrombie model looks, the whole face of the franchise thing could literally be taken…well, literally.

If there were concerns about Bradford, they were about a shoulder injury that ended his junior and final season at Oklahoma, and kept him from participating at the combine. To date since then, it has never been an issue.

Being the first overall pick in any sport’s draft is both a blessing and a curse. Ultimately, you end up being a smashing success or a dismal failure, a “bust” if you will. There isn’t any middle ground. When I make this argument to people, for some reason they always point to Eli Manning as the example of why I’m wrong – the “other” Manning is the perfect example of the middle ground for a first overall pick. I argue back that two Super Bowl rings means smashing success unequivocally. Eli is hardly the most skilled quarterback of the last 20 years – his predecessor as top pick was the more talented and two Super Bowls lighter Carson Palmer, for example – but his status as big game leader is beyond reproach.  

The Rams brought in respected veteran AJ Feeley to both challenge Bradford for the starting gig as a rookie, but more to help the young quarterback become accustomed to life as an NFL player. Bradford played well enough to earn the starting job and it appeared a star was born.  Key word, “appeared.”

Those of us who have been Rams fans for the last few decades (guilty!) have a complex. An old work buddy of mine who was a huge Rams fan from the pre-Kurt Warner days used to truly (I think) believe that God had it in for the Rams. For the purposes of this article, and also for the purpose that it was actually his name and I’m too lazy to come up with a pseudonym for him, we’ll call him Chris. Chris once speculated to me that someone would have to sell their soul to reverse the cosmic law that forever and for always, the Rams would suck. Then, something strange happened. The heaven-ordered moratorium on competent personnel decisions was briefly lifted. They traded for the awesome multi-purpose back Marshall Faulk, signed Trent Green, a quality free agent quarterback from Washington, drafted promising receiver Torrey Holt, and things were looking up. Then, a single cheap shot by Rodney Harrison in preseason game number three changed everything. Shortly thereafter, the news became public: Trent Green’s season was over due to a knee injury.

“We’re f*****.”

That was the email I got from Chris, except that the little stars weren’t little stars. They were, in fact, letters of the alphabet. I don’t think I need to explain which ones.

The rest of that season of course was historic. Who knew that Kurt Warner would come in and play Hall of Fame level football?

Bradford won the offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, and a franchise devoid of any hope for the better part of a decade had some. The Rams even had a chance to back into the playoffs with a final week win in Seattle. Now, these Seahawks weren’t anywhere near the juggernaut that today’s squad is, but still a beast of an opponent at home.

The Seahawks ended up beating the Rams that day, 16-6, but three pivotal plays shaped the game. Two beautifully thrown bombs by Bradford, one down the middle and another down the left sideline, to rookie Danario Alexander, and a late key third down strike to tight end Daniel Fells. The normally sure-handed Alexander let both passes go right through his hands, and Fells allowed the ball to carom from right between the numbers on the front of his jersey harmlessly to the ground. Both plays to Alexander could have gone for 50 or more yards, and the play to Fells would have kept a critical late drive alive. And to be clear, all three of these passes were throws that an NFL receiver should catch 90% or more of the time. 

As frustrating as the loss was, there was a curious lack of foreboding among Rams fans. We had a young stud quarterback, we nearly made the playoffs, and things could only get better. Chris and I had long since lost touch, but I imagined that even he remained cautiously optimistic. Little did any of us know that the Seahawks game was only the beginning of, with a nod to Lemony Snickett, a lengthy series of unfortunate events for Bradford.

We’re not even talking about the injuries yet. Regular season, 2011, Game 1 against the Eagles. On the Rams’ first series, Steven Jackson thundered through the entire Philly defense for a long touchdown run. It was also his last contribution to the game as he pulled quad muscle on the run. Jackson frequently pulled muscles in the early part of seasons, leading one to believe he bit his thumb at the time-honored practice of stretching, but that’s neither here nor there. On the subsequent possession, Bradford threw a long strike to a wide open Lance Kendricks who could have waltzed into the end zone with all the urgency of molasses in January, had he only remembered the minor detail of actually catching the perfectly thrown ball.

Week 2 against the Giants, the teams were close until the game turned on a third down play deep in Giants territory where Bradford threw a lateral pass to a wide open Cadillac Williams. Williams dropped the well-thrown ball, and then inexplicably didn’t make any attempt to recover it, allowing the Giants to return it for a touchdown. Game, set, match.

The play of Bradford and his surrounding cast only deteriorated from there, culminating in a catastrophic high ankle sprain in week 7 against the Cowboys. This injury not only ruined the rest of 2011 for Bradford, it never quite healed right and cost him valuable mobility for all of 2012 – essentially making him a sitting duck for opposing defenses which penetrated the Rams’ putrid offensive line with minimal effort and remarkable ease. It’s worth noting, however, that Bradford managed to lead the Rams to seven wins in spite of terrible pass protection, and the fact that he now was working under his third offensive coordinator in three years, the appallingly incompetent Brian Schottenheimer.

2013 looked to be the first season since his rookie campaign that offered a glimpse of what a healthy Bradford may be capable of, though any real chances of a prosperous year were scuttled by a comically cataclysmic attempt at installing something resembling a spread passing attack, which ultimately spread only despair. After a particularly horrifying display at home against the 49rs, where a shell-shocked and panicky Bradford was desperately and aimlessly heaving passes in the face of a relentless San Francisco pass rush,  coach Jeff Fisher came to his senses and went to an uninventive but not calamitous power run approach behind bruising rookie Zac Stacy. Bradford’s play and that of the team improved, but giving the other teams in the stacked NFC West a four week head start is too much to overcome. Oh, and there was that whole ACL tear thing against Carolina in week 8 too.

The Bradford story for 2014 is a short one. It ended in the preseason with another ACL tear.

What is my point, you may be thinking? Well, with the trade earlier this week of Bradford to the Eagles for fellow quarterback Nick Foles, an era came to an end. It’s weird to call something that lasted just five short years an era, but it was. Bradford’s time with the Rams was a saga of unfulfilled potential and abysmal luck. It also leaves unanswered questions. Now that Bradford has been freed from any curse there might be over the Rams, as well as the lofty expectations that come along with being an obscenely overpaid quarterback before you ever even take a single NFL snap (he’s still obscenely overpaid if accomplishment is used as a barometer for what salary should be, but it’s in a new city), will he finally become the superstar that people thought he would? Or, is it just him? Remember those six guys I mentioned at the beginning? Maybe Bradford only seemed to be as good as he was in college because of who his contemporaries were. I’m among the dwindling crowd that still thinks Tim Tebow deserves to be employed as a quarterback, though probably not a starter, somewhere in the NFL. He has a playoff win to his credit (he threw for three hundred yards that game!!!!) ((though much of it came on the final play…)) (((shut up, voice in my head!!!))) and his career win-loss numbers are far from terrible. But apart from him, nobody in that crowd has accomplished anything of note in the NFL.

What do I think? Well, I think the good Lord has too many other important things to do to waste His time ensuring the continuing futility of an NFL franchise, though I haven’t entirely discounted the possibility that more sinister forces may be at work. That’s the kind of answer you’ll get from a self-aware conspiracy theorist and unapologetic pessimist. But I think Bradford is good. I think his struggles are far more a result of unfortunate circumstances and buzzard luck than they are of not being any good. Is he Andrew Luck good, to reference another number one overall pick at quarterback? No, very few people are Andrew Luck good. Is he Cam Newton good, also a first overall pick? Yeah. They’re not the same player but they’re close in terms of goodness. And you’ll see that in 2015. won't if he gets hurt again.

Now, about Nick Foles. How good will he be? I don’t know, to be honest. The Rams offense should improve exponentially by the departure of Schottenheimer alone, but it will all be academic anyway if the Rams indeed are cursed, and Foles suffers some kind of horrible injury in preseason.

I sure hope curses aren’t real.


Time for the Beast to Talk

The ongoing business of Marshawn Lynch and his continued middle finger at the NFL regarding talking to the media has been a source of amusement, bemusement, social media fodder, and scorn as the season has gone along. 

Now that the Seahawks are back in the Superbowl, in spectacular fashion no less, it will be interesting to see how Lynch responds to the ongoing and increasing media demands. 

There shouldn't really be any suspense though. Odds are, he'll do what he's been doing; either giving terse and irrelevant answers or shirking his responsibilities altogether, fines be damned.

Surprisingly, Lynch has been getting quite a bit of admiration, sympathy, and other positive sentiment for his actions (inactions?) with the media. 

One close friend of mine went so far as to tell me that the league needs to recognize his severe social anxiety and grant him an exception to his media responsibilities.

That kind of sent me over the edge. There are people in my life who are close to me that have what would qualify as acute social anxiety, and that's not Lynch. If anything, what he has is a mild form, but more likely, he just hates the media. 

Well, you know what dude, suck it up. Those of us who work everyday jobs couldn't dream of behaving the way he does. Lynch is one of the best players in the NFL, irrespective of position, but an employee of a company nonetheless. One of his responsibilities is to talk to the media. If any of us in the real world would stick up our bird fingers to our bosses the way he has done, we'd be summarily fired.

If the NFL has any backbone at all, it's time for them to stand up and say to Lynch, if you don't honor your responsibilities to the media like all other players have to, you are not eligible to play in the Superbowl. Done and done. 

And if Lynch really does have social anxiety to the point where speaking with the media causes him to experience severe mental anguish, he certainly has the means to get an independent and accredited therapist to testify as such to the NFL. And then, and only then, should he be given any kind of reprieve. 

We're talking about a guy who is building a Hall of Fame resume. It certainly would be a shame if this bull, uh, excrement, was a factor in that voting a decade from now. 



College Football Playoff Preview

Let's face it, we all wanted to get rid of the BCS, but is the current version of the College Football Playoff really that much better? Every Tuesday, 12 supposedly un-biased members of a playoff committee flew to Dallas to meet and discuss the playoff rankings which were announced on a weekly special on ESPN. If "weekly special on ESPN" doesn't make you question the honesty of a committee, I am not sure what will, but then they went out and blatantly showed that is was all for money and ratings at the end of it all. TCU was ranked as the number three team in the playoff standings with one week to go, meanwhile Baylor was left out despite having beaten TCU head-to-head. Then, in the final week, TCU goes out and absolutely destroys Iowa State 55-3 leaving anyone with any sense about them to reasonably conclude they had secured a spot in the Playoff. Not only was that not true, but they fell all the way to sixth, behind the Baylor team that many had been arguing should have been ahead of TCU all along.

So, every ranking before the final rankings were clearly just a made for TV special so ESPN could make a few extra bucks and boost their ratings. If the rankings are so blatantly manipulated for ratings and discussion, why didn't they manipulate the final rankings for premium viewership? Alabama got the number one seed, allowing them to stay in the South and play in the Sugar Bowl, and Oregon gets to stay on the West Coast and play in the Rose Bowl. That left Florida State and Ohio State as the next two team in the playoff, and the seeding is obvious right? Send Florida State to the Sugar Bowl to play Alabama and Ohio State to the Rose Bowl to create a traditional Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup. No, apparently a couple months of lip service BS specials on TV was enough devious manipulation for the committee and the easiest one would be too obvious for them. So Ohio State heads to the Sugar Bowl and undefeated, yet third ranked, Florida State heads West to the Rose Bowl.

Enough about the garbage that was the committee, let's take a look at the games. The Playoff could feature the top three overall picks in the coming NFL draft, and a third string quarterback who said on Twitter "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS". Yes Cardale Jones, you got a free ride to a premier university to be a third string quarterback and not go to class, I am sure you will be wildly successful in life after college.

So the third string QB who hates college despite playing college football will face the number one team in the nation, the Alabama Crimson Tide. This is a matchup that is as interesting for the coaching matchup as it is the players on the field. There might not be two better college football coaches in the game today than Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, so it will certainly be fun to watch. Also fun to watch is receiver Amari Cooper, who is likely to be the first receiver taken in the coming NFL draft. In the end, Alabama should be able to win this game rather easily with their defense against a quarterback who has just one start under his belt.

In the Rose Bowl, the last two Heisman Trophy winners take the field in Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Winston's off-field issues will likely cause him to drop some in the NFL draft, but these two could end up being the top two pick come April 30th. Florida State has not lost a game in two years, but they also haven't faced a team like the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks obviously have a high powered offense, but their defense gets underrated and I see them just pulling out a very close game.

That would set up a National Championship matchup of Alabama and Oregon in Jerry's World in Dallas. Oregon has not faired well against premier SEC teams in recent years, but this team has the best chance to get it done. While I would be rooting for an Oregon victory, and could see it happening, if I had to place good money on the game, I would have to go with Alabama purely because of Nick Saban. The Tide is playing as well as any team in the nation down the stretch and they have the best big game coach in the country, but it won't be a blowout, instead a very competitive game.