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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Shake or Bake?

Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice was suspended for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season by Commissioner Roger Goodell for violation of the league's Personal Conduct Policy. Earlier this year, Rice was seen on video at an Atlantic City hotel dragging his fiancée (to whom he is now married) by her hair from an elevator after knocking her unconscious. In contrast, Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns was recently suspended for a year for a repeat offense for the league's substance abuse policy after recently testing positive of marijuana. The NFL's has its crimes and punishments out of whack.

Unless they were planning an extreme sports honeymoon, I don't think Ray Rice wife thought she was signing up for the WWE treatment caught on the video above. 1

I understand that application of the Personal Conduct Policy is ultimately at the discretion of the Commissioner while the Substance Abuse Policy is written out as part of the players' collective bargaining agreement with the league. But to ding Rice for two games for cracking his lady upside the head and knocking her out like Bones Jones and to throw the book at Gordon for doing something that is legal in two states and a slap-on-the-wrist or less elsewhere seems out of alignment to me.

I'll keep this rant short, because I think it warrants little explanation. Gordon did something that's completely legal in two states, partially legal in about a dozen, decriminalized in about half, and less serious than a DUI or driving on a suspended license, in most states, if you get caught. Ray Rice could have easily done time on his first offense for knocking her out, potentially a felony. The NFL is out of whack with the rest of the country on that one. The message sent by this set of incidents is the wrong one.
Josh Gordon wears his intention to bake on his sleeve (and his back), unlike Mr. Rice, who wore Mrs. Rice's grill on the back of his hand. 2

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Keep It Locked in the Dungy

Former Super Bowl Champion and Pro Football Hall of Fame Finalist Head Coach Tony Dungy, one of the most respected figures in NFL history, waded ever so slightly into the pool of controversy on Monday. 

Dungy commented that he would not have drafted former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player to be drafted. Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the 7th round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Dungy cited the distractions that would come with having the first openly gay player on the team as the reason. He went on to say, however, that Sam deserves a chance to play in the NFL. It was at this point that I had to stop and scratch my head.

Dungy can fiund at least one person who would agree with him. I'll bet Tyler Murphy (center, getting body slammed) wished that Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel didn't give Sam (right, #52, throwing Murphy to the ground) a chance. 2

Tony Dungy is one of my favorite Head Coaches in the history of sports. His pristine reputation is well earned. He is almost universally respected by players, peers, and media alike. But I think the good coach stepped into a little doo-doo with these remarks.

One of my biggest criticisms of most public figures, especially the “good guys”, is that they rarely say things to ruffle any feathers. Usually, people who are universally liked do not get to be that way by rubbing others the wrong way. They tend to think before they speak, make well-reasoned statements and choices in life, and demonstrate respect for their fellow men, even when they don’t necessarily agree.

That is a very safe approach to personal and public relationships. Safe doesn’t tell me much about a person’s deep inner core. When Dungy opined on the selection of Michael Sam, we tiptoed out of the safety zone. Good for him.

I don’t necessarily agree; football is a game of inches. Michael Sam was an accomplished enough pass rush at Missouri to win the 2014 SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year. I think that an edge, even a slight one, provided by a player in one of the four most important positions on the field (DE, CB, OT, QB) can make a difference between winning and losing. In my opinion, that trumps a social controversy which, for several years, has become exponentially less controversial with each passing day.

Still, the public sentiment is far from the level of consensus on an openly gay player in a masculine, often macho environment like a sports locker room, fire hall, police department, or military barracks. There will be additional attention from the media placed on Sam because of his known sexual orientation. It may make people uncomfortable to know that his orientation could affect his career prospects, but Coach Dungy offered just such an opinion.

Why would Coach Dungy hedge his bets by saying that Sam still deserves a chance to play? How can he say that when he just said he would not have drafted Sam?!?!? Is he saying that he wouldn’t have Sam on his team, but he would support another coach’s decision to bring Sam into camp? I doubt that he is saying he isn’t a good enough manager of his players to handle having Sam on the roster. What is he saying?


Tony Dungy made it quite clear that he would not have drafted Michael Sam. A man who has spent his career leading by example and even wrote a book called, “Quite Strength” is not setting a very consistent or strong example by turning around and saying Sam deserves a chance to play. Dungy would not offer that chance because of his orientation.

I think Dungy should demonstrate some of that quiet strength and stand behind his controversial and not necessarily popular beliefs. Own them; stand behind them; defend them. If not, then just “stay safe” and say nothing.

Quite strength...verbal weakness.
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Monday, July 21, 2014

Rory McIlroy Is The Next Superstar

Twenty-five year old golfer Rory McIlroy led the 2014 British Open from wire-to-wire, finishing 17 under par for the tournament by shooting a 71 on Sunday. McIlroy has won his third Major tournament in golf’s Grand Slam in four years. A Masters green jacket will complete the collection.

The Northern Ireland gold prodigy burst on to the scene three years ago with a victory in the U.S. Open. A PGA Championship victory in 2012 resulted in comparisons to golf’s biggest and most recognizable superstar, Tiger Woods, currently ranked #9 in the world. Rory is unquestionable one of golf’s “Big Three” along with Woods and Phil Mickelson.

While McIlroy (or anyone else) will likely never, ever experience a tear like Woods did from the late 1990s through the late 2000s, his dominating win on Sunday confirmed that he is the next young superstar in a golfing world that has been starving for one since Woods personal and professional lives began to decline in 2009. The irony is that while Tiger is past his peak, he is far from done. On the back end of his prime, perhaps approaching his twilight as a top ranked player, Woods is emerging into a rival-mentor of McIlroy.

After getting off to a promising start, Woods showed that he is far from "back". Ahead of schedule, perhaps...not "back". 2
Woods recorded more wins in 2013 than any other golfer on the PGA Tour and was ranked #1 before undergoing back surgery and being absent from the Tour until earlier last month. After shooting an impressive 69 on Thursday in the Open Championship, Woods had faded to the back of the pack by Friday. The road to recovery from major surgery is long. But as long a Woods continues to recover, the emergence of McIlroy offers the potential for many compelling golf narratives in the coming years.

One conclusion is clear to me. McIlroy is at the top of golf’s summit in rare company. The game is much more interesting when he, Woods, Mickelson, or one of a few recognizable people are winning. In the golfing world, for the time being, Rory is the story.

There is more to come with Rory, left, and Tiger, right. 3
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Friday, July 18, 2014

2014 Major League Baseball - American League - All Star Break

The second half of the season kicks off today. Yesterday we discussed the National League. Today, we'll talk about the A.L.. We previewed the American League at the start of the season and there have been a few surprises.!

American League

A.L. East

Tampa Bay Rays - It is a shame that one of the best run organizations in baseball with one of the best managers in baseball in Joe Maddon has one of the lousiest fan bases in baseball in terms of attendance. Nonetheless, expect the Rays to be in the pennant race discussion throughout the entire 2014 season. This team is loaded from top to bottom - pitching and hitting - but especially the pitching.

One area of concern is the youth movement in the starting rotation. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi round out the bottom of the Rays' rotation. Between them, they had 32 career starts heading into the start of the season.

Describing the first half of the season as a "bitter disappointment" would be an accurate description of the Rays' season so far. That said, never, ever count out a team managed by Joe Maddon. The next two weeks will determine the fate of the 2014 Rays' season and the future of ace pitcher and former Cy Young winner David Price (9-7, 3.23 ERA, 164 Ks).

The Rays have won 13 of 18 and, excluding a catastrophic stretch in June in which they lost 14 of 15, they have been as good as their A.L. East rivals. The decision of whether or not to trade David Price needs to be made by the July 31 trade deadline. A waiver deal after the deadline may have too much uncertainty for the Rays and other teams involved. 

The Rays' starting pitching, sans Price, is mediocre and their closer-by-committee plan has yielded the underwhelming results one may expect. This team will have ZERO chance down the stretch without Price. So whether or not this team has a pulse at the end of the month will answer a lot of short an long term questions about this franchise and its key players.

Baltimore Orioles - The acquisition of Nelson Cruz from the Rangers at DH is going to deliver a burst of power to the O's lineup. Their pitching remains a big question mark. Their bullpen has been a potential source of heartburn for several years now. However, with Ubaldo Jimenez in the #2 spot in the rotation, manager Buck Showalter should seek an endorsement deal from Tums or Rolaids.

Which Jimenez can the Orioles expect? He has been consistently inconsistent throughout his career. His performance in his spot in the rotation could be make-or-break for Baltimore this season.

If I sing manager Buck Showalter's praises a thousand times, I cannot do it enough. This team has held its contention in the East together with Popsicle sticks, super glue, sluggers, and a tight bullpen. Their starting pitchers aren't "good enough" by any on-paper standard yet they are currently in first place. This team reminds me of the 2012 Orioles team, which Showalter steered to the playoffs, far above expectations.

Boston Red Sox - The defending World Series champions made a big pickup in luring veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski away from the Chicago White Sox. Still, this team is not getting any younger, particularly in the starting rotation. Can this pitching staff grind through another long season and have the Sox in position to repeat come October? I don't think it is likely, but I would never shortchange manager John Farrell after the job he did last season.

When you're the defending World Series champs, even in a baseball-crazed town like Boston, you get a bit of a break when you're sniffing the cellar at the All Star break. Their starters are solid but their middle-relief will never get a Rolaids endorsement opportunity and the bottom half of their batting order may as well be swinging rubber garden hoses instead of wooden bats. 

Manager John Farrell says his team isn't throwing in the towel yet. Let me get that for you, Johnny boy! 

New York Yankees - The Yankees have a lot of their eggs in the Japanese import basket, as in 25-year-old rookie pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Their pitching rotation is otherwise old with a lot of question marks. Picking up outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran will provide some life to the batting order, but at what cost? This team is not getting any younger while spending a fortune on veteran players past their primes.

Making matters worse, this team will be without Alex Rodriguez for the entire season. Like him or not, he's a far cry ahead of the bunch of people playing 3rd base for the Yankees this year that most fans have never heard of.

The Yankees were exceeding expectations, in the chase in the division race up to this point. Ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (12-4, 2.51 ERA, 135 Ks) is sure to be gone until September (elbow), assuming he does not need Tommy John surgery. With average to above-average but not game-changing hitters, a starting rotation that I would describe as anywhere from "mediocre" to "crap" (excluding interim ace Hiroki Kuroda), and an overworked bullpen, I don't see how the Yankees keep pace in this highly competitive division race. 

Toronto Blue Jays - The only pitching that this team will be doing will be its repeated hissy fits from getting smoked night in and night out. There may not be a worse collection of free agency busts, has beens, and unknowns in the majors than there are on the Jays pitching staff.

It isn't hard for me to admit I was wrong when I was completely wrong. And I whiffed on this team in the first half of the season. For a spell, the Blue Jays were the hottest team in baseball. The pitching staff has completely outperformed my expectations so far this year. In addition, they have a legitimate MVP candidate in Edwin Encarnacion (.277, 26 HR, 70 RBI).

Still, the Jays appear to be cooling off and while I don't expect a second half collapse, this team is a team whose core strength is hitting, not pitching. They have already given up the first place standing in the division that they had enjoyed for most of this season. Considering the age and track record of the pitching staff, I think the Jays are going to have trouble getting back into first place and staying there.

The decisions (or non-decisions) about one man, David Price, could determine the balance of power in the MLB pennant races. 1
A.L. Central

Detroit Tigers - Notwithstanding the trade of Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers, we can just hand the A.L. Central over to them now...again. There is an obvious loss of power from his (effective) replacement, third baseman Nick Castellanos (Miguel Cabrera moved from 3B to 1B). Still, the Tigers have the best player in the game in Miggy Cabrera.

They also have the best one through five starting rotation, in my opinion. At age 39, Joe Nathan is still among the elite closers in the game. Their young bullpen has as much upside, short and long term, as any in the game. And the Tigers' everyday position players match up well against any of the other 29 teams in the majors.

It is World Series or bust in Motown.

The Tigers are going to win this division, but the bullpen had better start demonstrating its upside or Motown will be in for another October disappointment. While the Tigers are collectively tearing the cover off of the ball, the starters can not work the innings needed for this team to win a World Series without more consistency and tightening in the pen.

Kansas City Royals - This team has steadily improved in each of the last three years. Apparently it plans on filling in the gaps with an, "out with the old, in with the new," philosophy. Five of the Royals eight everyday starters have four or fewer years of service in the majors, most age 25 or under. Not a single member of their entire bullpen has more than five years of service. However, their rotation is loaded with experience, anchored by "big Game" James Shields.

I don't expect this team to be playing in October, but is is not beyond the realm of possibility.

This team is only 2.5 games back in the A.L. Wild Card chase. They held the lead in the division, albeit for about 24 hours. The Royals have a real chance to break their 29 year playoff drought. Starting pitching, clutch hitting and plate discipline has gotten this team to this point. 

It needs to continue for K.C. to play into the month of October. This team does not have the power in its lineup to compensate for any extended gaps in the pitchers' performance. It has no room to take its proverbial foot off the gas.

Cleveland Indians - Great hitting is important but pitching is the difference between winning and losing in baseball. The Indians have a lot of guys who can hit. Their rotation is unbecoming of a playoff team. How they reached the postseason last year with their motley crew on the mound is beyond me, but don't expect that lighting to strike twice.

Ace pitcher Justin Masterson is going to have to win, win, win, no matter what when he gets the ball for this team to have any chance of keeping chase with the rest of the American League. Also, how Nyger Morgan performs in his return (did not play in 2013) after centerfielder Michael Bourn returns from the DL could be a difference maker in how far the needle moves for the Tribe in 2014.

The bats in the lineup will keep the Tribe discussion-worthy into August and perhaps September, but the pitching staff is just not good enough to get this team into the playoffs.

Chicago White Sox - Raise your hand if you aren't a White Sox fan and can name three or more of their eight everyday, position starters! I didn't think so.... No, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko don't count; they're designated hitters.

Can you name anyone in their middle relief staff? No? Their starters are respectable enough to keep them out of the cellar this year. That's enough to keep the Southsiders ad the kings of Chicago baseball. It is sort of like being the big fish in an empty tank.

Bright spots: Pencil in first baseman Jose Abreu (.292, 29 HR, 73 RBI) for American League Rookie of the Year. Shortstop Alexi Ramirez (.282, 8 HR, 41 RBI, 45 R) is demonstrating that he is a legitimate star. The starting pitchers have not only been "respectable", but "good". The bullpen is a black hole, sucking the life out of any shot the Sox have for contending in 2014. A major overhaul of the relievers will put the White Sox in the American League playoff year.

Minnesota Twins - Phil Hughes was their big offseason pickup? Seriously?!? They can't be trying to pull a "Major League". They just got a new stadium! Were any of their everyday starters even born the last time this team won a World Series in 1991?

That they probably aren't going to lose 100 games is a moral victory for this team and its fans.

After spending his fair share of time on the hot seat in Kansas City, Ned Yost is another legitimate Manager of the Year candidate. 2
A.L. West

Texas Rangers - I expect a dogfight between these guys and the Oakland A's in the West this year. Picking up Prince Fielder was huge. Their starting rotation is loaded, with Alexi Ogando, good enough to be an ace on some rotations, being relegated from the rotation to the pen. The rest of the middle relief staff could be a weak spot for this team during the season. However, they are in capable hands in the 9th inning with Joakim Soria as their closer, assuming he is healthy and can revert back to form from his years with the Kansas City Royals. Big "if"...big potential if it works out. 

Father Time is undefeated and untied but the Injury Bug is in the Final Four every year. Their Disabled List looks like an All Star lineup (Prince Fielder, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, and Derek Holland, for starters). The only good news for Manager Ron Washington is that he has a pretty valid excuse for being deep in the cellar this year. Except for ace starting pitcher Yu Darvish (8-5, 2.97 ERA, 142 Ks), he's working with a triple-A rotation and a ragtag bullpen. 

Oakland Athletics - The pitching is awesome. The power hitting is really good. Their problem, as it has been for several years, is hitting for average. This is going to be a problem for them in close games and in the postseason, should they advance that far. Still, expect the A's to be in the race all the way through September.

The acquisition of ace Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78 ERA, 116 Ks) and starter Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01 ERA, 107 Ks) via a recent trade with the Chicago Cubs has put this team in the driver's seat in the A.L. West. They're bashing the ball all over the park. The fact that Athletics General Manager and President of Penny Pinching Billy Beane traded three promising prospects (who cost very little) for two established veterans with seven figure salaries tells me that he thinks this team can win it all this year. I'm inclined to agree. The West is the A's division to lose.

Los Angeles Angels - Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. A decent batting lineup with underachieving starts, a good starting rotation, and a devil-may-care bullpen will not bring an American League pennant to L.A..

First baseman Albert Pujols, especially in light of his sluggish start to this season, is officially a red flag and on "free agency bust watch" if he cannot turn it around this year. Josh Hamilton began showing flashes, late last year, of what made him a coveted free agent after the 2012 season. So far, it has carried over into the first few games of this season.

Expect continued greatness from young, superstar outfielder Mike Trout. However, the Angels' plan of Pujols, Hamilton, and the same shaky bullpen should not get them much farther than last year - out of the playoffs. The x-factors are Pujols and Hamilton. Can Pujols shake off the injury bug and find himself again? Not a solid proposition at age 34, coming off of back-to-back declining seasons. Hamilton...there could be promising something there.

Albert Pujols (.279, 20 HR, 64 RBI) and Josh Hamilton (.295, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 46 GP) are back in the game and so are the Angels. The bullpen was this team's Achilles heel last year. They're turned it around in 2014 and are holding their weight and then some. This is an excellent team poised to challenge the two-time defending division champion A's. Late season transactions will determine whether the Angels are going to enter postseason play as a division champion or a Wild Card team. 

Seattle Mariners - "King" Felix Hernandez will continue to rule the mound. The Mariners' pitchers have not been the source their problems during the past several seasons. They can't hit. Bringing in second baseman Robinson Cano for a king's ransom was a step in the right direction. However, he is going to need an MVP-caliber season for the M's to deliver the run support that their pitchers will need to stay in any kind of postseason race. I do like the acquisition of Corey Hart at DH, if he is fully healthy, but it won't be enough.

The Mariners were red hot for a spell, but they will not be a serious pennant contender until they get some pop in their batting order. Acquiring shortstop Robinson Cano (.334, 7 HR, 57 RBI) was a big step in the right direction. Talk of reaching the playoffs is not far fetched but even if they can reach the postseason (which would be significant progress for this team) I would expect a swift exit. 

Their pitchers are awesome. Their hitters are just not good enough to win this division or the pennant. Period.

Houston Astros - Their youth push could pay dividends at the plate in 2014 but their pitchers are sub-par. The belly laugh? They brought back a member of their 2005 National League championship roster. Was it Andy Pettitte? No? Was it Roger Clemens? No. They brought back a member of their middle relief, "Bridge to (Brad) Lidge" - who was at the peak of a mediocre career back then - to be the closer!

Chad Qualls is terrible.

Not only do they have a real chance to lose fewer than 100 games for the first time since 2010, but they have a chance to not finish last. It sounds like sarcasm, bot the long-suffering fans of this franchise, myself included, know that it is a significant step forward for this team. The power in their batting order is developing rapidly. 

All Star Shortstop Jose Altuve (.335, 2 HR, 27 RBI, 41 SB, 49 R) is budding into a potential superstar. The young arms in the starting rotation are developing ahead of schedule. And while the bullpen is still, collectively, a knee-slapping joke, closer Chad Qualls (1-1, 1.95 ERA, 10 saves/12 attempts) has not been terrible!  

The trade for Jeff Samardzija may be what pushes Oakland over the top in the A.L. West. 3
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Thursday, July 17, 2014

2014 Major League Baseball - National League - All Star Break

At the beginning of the season, we discussed expectations of the 15 National League teams. The All Star Game has passed. It's time to evaluate and, in a few cases, reevaluate where the boys of summer are!

Beginning of the year comments are in black. Post All Star Game comments are in blue. Teams are listed in the order in which I expected them to finish in April.

National League

N.L. East

Washington Nationals – The Nationals, anchored by Stephen Strasburg, are loaded in their starting rotation. This year, provided they stay healthy, the Nats should have enough pop in their batting order to give their arms the (relatively minimal) run support needed to win against most opponents. Last year was a bitter disappointment resulting from one bad break after another. Expect D.C. to put the train back on the track in 2014.

So far, so good in D.C. The pitchers are pitching as expected - mowing down everything in sight like a John Deere - and the batting lineup shows signs of life. In spite of left fielder Bryce Harper's (.244, 2 HR, 11 RBI) early season injury, which cause him to miss most of the first half, the emergence of third baseman Anthony Rendon (.287, 13 HR, 53 RBI)  in the lineup has further bolstered the Nats' bats.

Atlanta Braves – What a surprise! The Braves are expected to contend again. Arguably one of the National League’s two best run franchises in the past 20 years, the Braves are not rebuilding after coming up short in the playoffs last year. They’re reloading. And they are loaded with power in their batting order.

Losing longtime ace starter Tim Husdon to the San Francisco Giants is going to remove some reliable stability from the rotation. Still, Atlanta has a lot of youth with a lot of upside in waiting, starting with new ace Julio Teheran. The Braves also went young in the bullpen. How that plays out remains to be seen. What is fairly certain is that if they can get to the 9th inning with a lead, closer Craig Kimbrel should nail it down 9 times out of 10.

It's the same old story with the Braves: their pitchers are money; their position players are mediocre at the plate. What the Braves' hitter do have in their favors are experience and clutch hitting ability. But, make no mistake, this team is going to go as far as their rotation, arguably the National League's best (certainly top 5), can carry them. A one-game playoff following Game 162 of the regular season between them and the Nationals to decide the N.L. East champion would not surprise me.   

Miami Marlins – To paraphrase Charles Barkley, they won’t be “turrble”. This team has a ton of young talent that I expect to demonstrate an exponential degree of development since last season. Jose Fernandez is on his way to establishing himself as one of the bright, young, future superstars on the mound. Giancarlo Stanton brings something the Fish haven’t had since trading Hanley Ramierz: a young star-potential player with some pop in his bat. Finally, picking up Jared Saltalamacchia from Boston behind the dish was a good move; the 2 position won’t be a black hole in the batting order.

I swung and missed with several early season predictions, but not in the N.L. East. The Marlins are no exception. Giancarlo Stanton (.295, 21 HR, 63 RBI) is as good as advertised. Their pitching rotation was average and with the loss of 2013 National League rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez (4-2, 2.44 ERA, 70 Ks, 51.2 IP) for the season from Tommy John surgery the rotation is mediocre at best. That won't get it done in the pitching-heavy East division.

Philadelphia Phillies –With this roster, you may as well hand the N.L. East division title over to them now…five years ago. They are long in the tooth from top to bottom.

Father Time: undefeated and untied.

New York Mets – This team’s opponents would already need to have their maple bats replaced with plastic whiffle ball bats just to keep the playing field level. Notwithstanding the crippling loss of ace Matt Harvey for the season (Tommy John surgery), the Mets have a respectable starting rotation. Their bullpen, however, appears to be an afterthought, with the big turd in the punch bowl being overweight, washed up Jose Valverde as the closer.

They have done very little to offset the anemic hitting that plagued them last season. They did acquire former All-Star centerfielder Curtis Granderson. But at age 33, coming off of an ineffective, injury-riddled season, I’m of the opinion that “♪ The Grandy Man can’t ”!

Terry Collins and his staff deserve a lot of credit for piecing together a quality starting rotation that one may have thought to be unknowns or over-the-hill pitchers. Still, they have no power in their bats in a park that isn't hitter friendly to begin with. Their hopes and dreams are on hold until 2015 when Matt Harvey returns to the rotation and they an possibly introduce some more power to the lineup via offseason transactions.

Bryce Harper, left, and Justin Upton, right, and their teams will be slugging it out through the final week of the regular season. 3

N.L. Central

Pittsburgh Pirates – Losing A.J. Burnett to the Phillies cost the Bucs some experience, but also with his departure left some unreliability in big moments for which Burnett was becoming infamous in recent years. The rotation is reasonably solid. If Endison Volquez, now age 30, can turn it around – being the strikeout machine he was with the Cincinnati Reds while limiting the number of critical runs given up – the Pirates could put some distance between themselves and the rest of the Central division by the All-Star break. In spite of having reigning MVP centerfielder Andrew McCuthchen, this team is going to live and die with its arms.

After a slow start to the season, the Pirates have inserted themselves into the four way dogfight that is the N.L. Central race. Buoyed by a resurgent bullpen and a lineup full of sluggers, their key star is still reigning N.L. MVP Andrew McCutchen (.324, 17 HR, 61 RBI). Their starting rotation still leaves a lot to be desired if this team is to embark on a serious run for the pennant.

St. Louis Cardinals – This team is loaded in the field. Their seasoned and (mostly) accomplished rotation is intact and healthy this season. Cardinals fans should keep an eye on the bullpen, however. They are very young with little experience relative to other bullpens. Still, last postseason showed us that “age ain’t nothing but a number” with the breakout performances of starting pitcher Michael Wacha and relief pitcher Carlos Martinez, both age 22.

This team is built for marathons, not sprints. This is why there was no sense of panic when the Milwaukee Brewers left the starting gates like a flash of lightning. A balanced team with some of the best firemen in baseball coming out of the bullpen, the Cardinals have coolly and gradually caught up to the Brew Crew in the Central race. Closer Trevor Rosenthal (28 saves/32 attempts) effectively makes a nine inning game into an eight inning game when the Cardinals are winning.This team is best set up to come out on top in this tightly contested race.

Cincinnati Reds – This is a Big Red Pitching Machine. The big equalizer for the Reds is closer Aroldis Chapman, who will miss a few weeks after being hit in the head recently by a line drive. The sooner he returns, the sooner Cincy can race at full speed. Their lineup will be very dependent upon middle-of-the-order sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to provide adequate run support, though.

The Reds came back from the dead to pull into the thick of the division race. Cy Young hopeful Johnny Cueto (10-6, 2.13 ERA, 141 Ks) leads a pitching rotation that, top-to-bottom, is more likely than not to be favored each night. The Reds power in the middle of their batting order has provided more than enough run support for their starters to rack up W's. 

Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers went from, just a few years ago, having the best position players in the National League but underwhelming pitching, to having a good pitching rotation (perhaps “very good”) but a cast of unknowns playing every day. Former MVP outfielder Ryan Braun’s return from a PED suspension will give the Brew Crew an offensive lift over last season.

I completely whiffed on the Brewers. After getting off to a gangbusters start, their division peers have caught up to them. Still, the Brewers remain at the top of the division. All Star catcher Johnathan Lucroy's (.315, 9 HR, 44 RBI)breakthrough has been a pleasant surprise for Brewers fans. The question is: can their starting pitchers continue to dominate and keep pressure off of the bullpen through the September stretch?

Chicago Cubs – A collection of unknowns and has-beens in the field plus some never-will-be’s on the mound equals another finish in the cellar for the Cubs. I'm not sure where General Manger Theo Epstein is taking the Cubs.

Their mascot outfit is terrible.

Don't forget to throw in a towel! Whenever you're living up to low expectations and are hopelessly out of the race by the All Star break, don't forget to throw in the towel!

The defending Central Division champions Matt Adams and the Cardinals are built for the home stretch. That remains to be seen for the other three suitors for the division crown. 2
N.L. West

Los Angeles Dodgers – Let’s see. This team was in last place at the end of last June. They get some key players back healthy, such as shortstop Hanley Ramirez, call up a rock star in right fielder Yasiel Puig, and their pitchers all begin hitting their strides at once. Voila! L.A. runs away with the division.

I wonder what will happen this year with those key pieces in place on Opening Day. They have one obvious weakness, at the catcher position. They brought in veteran Drew Butera to call the signals behind the plate. I don’t know much about his defensive scouting report but he must be really good: he has hit below the Mendoza line for his career.

Otherwise, this team has no soft spots on its roster. This is a pennant or bust year for the Dodgers and they are set up to reach their goal. 

This is a two team race and the dominance of the Dodgers' starting pitching is going to make it very difficult down the stretch for the Giants to catch, and pass, L.A.. All Star right fielder Yasiel Puig (.309, 12 HR, 52 RBI) is not experiencing a sophomore slump and reigning N.L. Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA, 126 Ks) is on his way to winning the award for the third time in four years. This is the Dodgers' best chance to return to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

Arizona Diamondbacks – All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is the real deal. The Snakes also added some significant power to the order in trading for Mark Trumbo from the Angles. Otherwise, the rotation is average. The bullpen is average. Their closer is average, perhaps a notch below average. Expect the result for the D-Backs to be average.

The Snakes rolled the dice on a questionable pitching rotation and have come up snake eyes.

San Francisco Giants – Picking up starting pitcher Tim Hudson was a step forward for a team that struggled with previously accomplished but underachieving pitchers last year. Still, the Giants did little else to turn their play around on the mound. This is a team whose pitchers struggled in a pitcher’s park to defend their 2012 World Series title.

They need run support to compete. Picking up left fielder Michael Morse was a plus for the power in the batting order. Still, the roster remained otherwise largely unchanged in terms of hitting talent. They aren’t built to drive in runs in bunches.

The guys have demonstrated that they can hit for power when they need to, in spite of not playing is a power-friendly park. As long as their starting pitchers continue to be the monsters on the mound that they have been all season, the Giants will continue to be in the playoff picture. I simply do not think this team is going to have enough firepower to pass the Dodgers by the end of the season. The Wild Card is not off the table, though and then their pitchers are going to be tough nuts to crack in a postseason situation.  

Colorado Rockies – Their hitters are all studs, but that advantage is hedged off somewhat by playing in the thin air at Coors Field, where every hitter can get a little better. They brought in a lot of new pitchers and they are all lousy as a group. That disadvantage is heightened by playing in the thin air at Coors Field, where every pitcher has the scales tipped against them when facing power hitters. Their pitcher is 41-year-old LaTroy Hawkins, who is in the twilight of a long, competent, but unremarkable career.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer in the Mile High City.

This team had a pulse in May and June. They're flat-lining. Major League teams with great pitchers but light hitters can remain in contention. The opposite does not hold true. Not finishing last will be a victory for this squad.

San Diego Padres – Their pitchers are okay but their lineup looks like they may as well come to the plate with rubber hoses. If this were the NFL, I would say that this team could be on the clock.

"With the first pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, the San Diego Padres select, _____." It could still happen! 

Clayton Kershaw, right, is going to run out of space on his trophy shelf soon. 1

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014


New Orleans Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham reached a 4 year/$40 million ($21 million guaranteed) agreement with the team Tuesday morning. The announcement came just hours before the 3:00 p.m. C.D.T. deadline for Franchise tagged players to either reach a long term agreement with their team, agree to the franchise tender salary for their positions, or elect not to play in the upcoming NFL season. Graham's franchise tender was $7 million, all of which would have counted against the Saints' 2014 salary cap had Graham played under those terms.

This worked out well for the Saints in the short run. They have their big playmaker at a reasonable salary that will not blow up their 2014 salary cap. Jimmy Graham (86 rec., 1,215 yds., 16 TDs in 2013) is taking a calculated risk on himself, a well calculated risk.

This four-year contract is going to either expire at a point of his career - 8 years in - when teams will either overbid for his services or the Saints, perhaps a year prior to expiration, will be put into a position in which they have to overpay because they need to restructure his contract. Either way, Graham comes out on top. This second career windfall would be predicated on Graham remaining healthy and productive, at a level near the top of NFL tight ends.

Thanks to the No Fun League, Saints fans won't be treated to all of Graham's talents next year.
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Monday, July 14, 2014

Return of the Hat

After a much needed intermission from publishing daily material, the Daily Hat Trick is back in the game, baby! Sometimes, in order to produce a blog you would want to read, a step needs to be taken back in order to take steps forward. After taking some time to recharge my batteries and reexamining my approach to the Daily Hat Trick, it’s time to get back on the horse.
Today, we’re going to fill in some gaps. I’ll be offering my point of view on some goings on in the sports world since the Hat Trick was last posted in late May. It is remarkable how much has taken place in a short period of time.
The Heat are denied a three-peat and the San Antonio Spurs are avenged after coming so close, but so far away in the 2013 NBA Finals. Only one of the four games won by the Spurs in this series was close. It was clear by the middle of Game 4, a one-sides Spurs win at Miami, that a three peat was not only “not in the cards”, but not even within reach of the Heat.
The Heat looked like a tired, aging team running out of end-of-the-year gas in its fourth consecutive NBA Finals. The Spurs looked like a team determined and with a plan to finish unfinished business after being seconds away from winning a title last season only to have Ray Allen rip it away in the final seconds of the 4th quarter of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
Fifth time is a charm. 1
The NBA offseason is often filled with theater and surprised during free agency signings. This year was even more suspense filled. The “Big Three” of the Heatles – LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade – all opted out of the final year of their contracts. This ramped up speculation of where they would be playing basketball in the 2014-2015 season. The first domino that would have to drop before anyone made any major moves was the King sized domino – LeBron James.
James stunned the sporting world for the second time in four seasons. After stabbing the city of Cleveland and Cavaliers fans in the heart on ESPN in July of 2010 with his announcement that he was “taking his talents to South Beach”, James released an essay to Sports Illustrated announcing his return to the Cavaliers next season. The method by which James made his announcement, in a well thought out piece of writing as opposed to a one hour TV special or press conference, played out with the public much better than 2010’s “The Decision” on ESPN, which raised money of a charitable cause but was a public relations disaster.
The power balance shifted immediately in the Eastern Conference, with the Cavs shooting to the top of the oddsmakers’ list of teams favored to win the 2015 NBA Finals. Carmelo Anthony soon announced he would stay in New York, Chris Bosh announced he would stay in Miami, and Pau Gasol went to the Chicago Bulls, and Luol Deng signed with the Miami Heat. Smaller dominoes have been falling ever since Friday’s announcement.
The United States advanced to the “knockout round” of 16 for the second time in the modern era of the Cup. The U.S. survived the “group of death”, including 2006 and 2010 nemesis Ghana, eventual World Cup champion Germany, and Uruguay. Television ratings for the Cup, in spite of the U.S. playing games in the afternoon in the middle of the week, soared. In this this blogger’s opinion, America is in the midst of a soccer revolution in our sporting landscape.
Also remarkable during the 2014 World Cup was the complete dismantling of front-runner Brazil by Germany, 7-1, in the semi-final match. I cannot recall a more shocking and unexplainable debacle in any major sporting even in my lifetime. People with little to no interest in the Cup may cite some of our one-sided Super Bowls; it isn’t even close. World Cup games yielding more than three total goals between both teams in the knockout stage of the World Cup are uncommon. Germany surged to a 5-0 lead by the middle of the first half.
The Germans would not have a letdown. They faced an equally formidable Argentina team in yesterday’s World Cup Final. It would take Extra Time to decide the contest, but Germany was able to pierce the Argentinian armor in the 113th minute. The Germans controlled possession of the ball and dominated the game defensively; the Argentina squad could not muster a single shot on goal.

At the start of the season, the Hat Trick released its MLB preview. There will be much more discussion about the season and where it is going in the coming days. Two things stand out: all of the divisions are in competitive races and a flurry of new stars are being born or are growing in MLB.
Unlike Elvis, The Hat Trick is back in the building. Buckle your seatbelt and get ready. It’s going to be a wild ride!

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