Friday, April 30, 2010

NBA Playoffs have been great so far

At least in the Western Conference they have. Three of the four series in the East ended in five games or less and if it wasn't for Dwayne Wade's awesome 46-point performance in a Game 4 win, there would have been two sweeps (Magic-Bobcats being the other). Unless something drastic happens in Miami, expect Wade to leave for greener pastures and a supporting cast that can get him out of the first round.

Everybody knew the West would be closely contested and so far it has been. The Lakers and Thunder have traded home wins and made for a very interesting 1-8 series while the Spurs stole homecourt from the Mavericks in Game 2, which was the beginning of the end in that series.

San Antonio is finally healthy and getting contributions outside of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. George Hill was awesome in their four wins and his breakout season has been a big part of the Spurs' success.

Phoenix needed six games to dispose of Portland, but that doesn't take anything away from Brandon Roy's heroics. He was back on the court just a week after knee surgery and while he wasn't his usual self, his presence was definitely a huge lift for the Blazers. Roy is a warrior and his appearance in this series just makes me like and respect him that much more as a player and a person.

The Jazz will look to close out the Nuggets tonight at home, which they will need to do to avoid going into the thin air of Denver for a decisive Game 7. The lack of George Karl on the bench has seemed to affect the Nuggets, who gave up homecourt against a Jazz team playing without two of their best players, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko. But they still have Deron Williams.

Williams seems to always elevate his game in the playoffs, averaging 10 more points per game in the NBA's second season. Part of this is because his team is shorthanded, but more of it is his leadership ability to do whatever his team needs him to do to win.

With Okur and Kirilenko in the lineup he can be more unselfish, but without them he has turned it on without a problem when his team has needed it the most. Anyone who denies him a spot in the top 10 players in the NBA is a fool.

The Bucks need a Game 6 win at home to down the underachieving Hawks, who struggle miserably on the road and just lost their home playoff win streak. I didn't even think the Bucks could win a game in this series without Andrew Bogut in the middle, but Brandon Jennings has proven that he fears nobody with his performance this series.

If Milwaukee wins this series, Jennings deserves even heavier consideration for Rookie of the Year and it looks like he will be a 25-point, 7-assist, 5-rebound player very soon. But Jordan Hill was definitely the right choice for the Knicks over Jennings in this year's draft.

Either way, the Magic should easily dispose of whoever wins this series setting up a Conference Finals matchup with MVP LeBron James and the Cavs, who should handle Boston in six games.

The Lakers and Thunder play tonight as well, and that's the only series I expect to reach a Game 7. If the Lakers can survive the series I think they will beat the Jazz as well, setting up a matchup with the Spurs, who I think have the guns to take out the Suns.

The East probably won't be too interesting until Cavs-Magic, but all the great teams in the West have made the conference intriguing from the start. The playoff intensity I've seen so far has been great, and it should continue into the next round.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pick it up Javy!

It's hard to find many things wrong with a 12-6 team, but Javier Vazquez's issues are starting to become worrisome for Yankees fans.

In my last Yankees post I preached patience with Vazquez, who seemed like he needed to get his arm stretched like many starting pitchers early in the season. But after his last start against the Angels, I noticed another trend.

Vazquez is fine the first time through an opponent's order. In his four starts, no team has scored on him through their first nine batters. But it seems like hitters need just that initial at-bat to figure out Vazquez, who has struggled the second and third time through the order, if he even makes it that far.

Against Tampa Bay, it was a five-run fourth inning. In his first start against the Angels, it was leadoff man Erick Aybar and second hitter Bobby Abreu driving in runs in their second at-bats.

Vazquez made it to the 17th batter against a pedestrian Athletics lineup before allowing a home run to Travis Buck (Travis Buck?) and followed that up with another gopher ball the next inning to Kurt Suzuki. And in his most recent start with the Angels, Bobby Abreu's third-inning home run led to a four-run fourth for the struggling Yankees pitcher.

A few starts ago, Vazquez admitted that there are no holes in American League lineups like in the National League. After his most recent start, it's his fastball location that needs work.

After walking a career-low 44 batters in almost 220 innings last season, Vazquez has already issued 11 free passes in 20 innings this season. With the Yanks off to a good start there is little pressure on Vazquez, who was brought to New York to be the team's fourth starter, throw 200-plus innings and win 15 games.

Those goals are still within reach if he can turn things around but if he can't, you will hear plenty of rumblings to send him into long relief and give his innings to current eighth-inning man Joba Chamberlain. Either way, I don't see Vazquez's struggles as a big issue for the Yankees.

Phil Hughes has looked great so far and has not been afraid to challenge hitters with his excellent stuff. He could easily replace Vazquez and step into the fourth starter's role if needed, and maybe Javy should look at what Hughes has been able to do so far.

Either way, the Yankees playoff rotation is unlikely to include Vazquez unless he catches fire late in the season. If he struggles all year, all the Yanks lost was a fan favorite in Melky Cabrera, who also happens to be just a slightly above-average outfielder. Low-risk, high-reward. Too bad all we've seen so far is the risk.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

And the first pick of the 2010 NFL Draft is...

Sorry for building up the suspense because Sam Bradford is pretty much locked in to the Rams with the top pick. It's also hard to fathom Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy getting by the Lions and Bucs.

This is when the draft gets at least a little interesting. The Redskins need offensive line help and it's between Russell Okung and Trent Williams at the 4th pick. The Chiefs have a plethora of needs all over the field, so why not take the best player on the board? Most think that's Tennessee safety Eric Berry. Seattle will take whichever offensive lineman Washington doesn't.

Now is where the real question marks begin: With the Browns at 7. Jimmy Clausen is a real possibility, but I think Cleveland is shooting for Colt McCoy early in round two. The experts like Derrick Morgan at this spot and I will agree, since they don't have the offensive line needs of other teams picking in the top 10.

For me to pretend I know what Oakland might do at 8 is blasphemy; the options include Jimmy Clausen, Anthony Davis, or a trade (maybe with Pittsburgh?). The Bills have the same draft board (comparing the Bills to the Raiders, a bad sign for Buffalo fans) but could also look at another Tennessee prospect, defensive tackle Dan Williams.

Enough about the top of the draft though; let's talk about New York teams and the big names everyone is wondering about. The Giants would love Rolando McClain to slip to them at 15, but I think Denver ruins that scenario by taking him 11th. Sean Witherspoon is a solid consolation prize for a team that needs desperate help at linebacker.

Everyone wants to know where Dez Bryant will land, and it really could be anywhere from Jacksonville at 10 to Cincinnati at 21. Either way he is the Randy Moss of this draft (Moss went 18th in 1998) and seems poised to make teams that passed him up regret it.

As for the Jets pick, I'm hearing rumblings that they are trying to trade out of the first round and recoup some of the picks they lost through trades. They traded essentially their whole draft last season for Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene and already moved two picks this year, so I think this would be a good move.

If the Jets stay at 29, I would love to see Taylor Mays fall into their lap. He surprised many with a 4.43 time in the 40-yard dash and an unofficial 4.24 reading, which would put him in Chris Johnson territory. I don't believe he has that kind of speed, but with his size (6-3, 230) and solid speed he would be a great pick in Kerry Rhodes' stead.

Another player I would like to fall is Boise State's Kyle Wilson, but he is highly coveted by numerous teams picking in the early 20s. The Jets could also take Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty or Alabama corner Kareem Jackson (if he falls). The signing of Jason Taylor shows me that the Jets will likely look to improve their secondary, since this team is clearly in win-now mode.

Now for the question on everybody's mind - where will Tim Tebow land? And my honest answer is, your guess is as good (or better) than mine. I've heard that Minnesota would consider him at 30, which I think is ridiculous for another win-now team with a quarterback of the present (Brett Favre) and, presumably, the future (Tarvaris Jackson).

I think Jacksonville would be a definite possibility early in round two, if they had a second-round pick. I really don't know where Tebow may fall, but surely it will be one of the more interesting storylines of the draft's first day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pelfrey one of few early Mets bright spots

I was at the Met game yesterday (yes, a change from the three Yankee games I went to last week) and I must say, Mike Pelfrey looked awesome. I know the Cubs lineup is far from intimidating, but Pelfrey threw his second straight shutout after a 7-inning gem in Colorado last Thursday. The Rockies don't have a world-beating lineup either, but there aren't many teams in the National League that do.

Pelfrey struggled through the first two innings last night, putting men on base and throwing almost 40 pitches. But he got out of early trouble and was able to get through five more innings in just about 60 pitches. This season looks to finally be the breakout for the 26-year-old former first-round pick.

A solid season from Pelfrey couldn't come at a better time for the Mets, whose desperate search for a number-two starter behind Johan Santana may very well be over. The real question is now whether Jonathon Niese, Oliver Perez or John Maine can step up and take over the third spot in the rotation. If that happens and Pelfrey continues his strong start, this team won't be quite as bad as everybody thinks.

The problem for the Mets is a lot of "ifs" need to come together for them to have success. Outside of the starting rotation question marks, nobody knows for sure if Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran can stay healthy for an entire season, and Beltran won't even be on the field until May at the earliest.

If Jason Bay can bust out of his early-season slump and if Jeff Francoeur can continue his hot start and reach the potential scouts saw in him four years ago, the Mets could have a potent lineup with Reyes in the leadoff spot followed by Luis Castillo, David Wright, Beltran, Bay, Francoeur and recent call-up Ike Davis. When healthy and performing up to expectations, the Mets could actually field one of the better lineups in the National League.

Combine that with Santana and Pelfrey, who could each win 15 games this season, and the Mets could actually play their way into contention in the NL East. They are nowhere near as good as the Phillies but I think most Mets fans would take an 80-win season out of this bunch.

It may be a longshot, but I've seen lots of ifs come together before. At the least, maybe they will be bearable to watch when the Yankees are idle or on a West Coast trip.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The NBA Playoffs are here!

Everybody loves March Madness. The excitement created by the one-and-done format is nearly impossible to match and most basketball fans like the college game more than the NBA game.

The common complaints I hear are that players don't play defense in the NBA, the refs don't call travels, superstars get all the calls and the college game is more representative of basketball in its purist sense. But once you can look past all that, which is tough for some, you realize what there is to appreciate about the NBA.

The talent level is out of this world. There are over 300 Division I college basketball teams and just 30 in the NBA. The draft is just two rounds long, meaning each year only 60 players enter the league, discluding rookie free agents. That's one player for every five college teams! Take the best player off one of every five teams and he is the only NBA-caliber player there. Not to mention that he might not even make it in the league.

There's a reason competitive college games are played in the 50s and NBA scoring reaches 100 consistently: It's virtually impossible to play defense on these guys. How many players and teams were able to defend John Wall or Evan Turner this season? Very few if any, because they have NBA talent. Players who can be defended don't make it in the league and if they do, it's because they do the little things like rebound, defend and hustle.

Now, back to my excitement over the start of the playoffs. The majority of NBA Playoff games are closely contested and include, to whatever extent it's possible, tough defense. That's why as much as I love watching Steve Nash and the Suns this season, that up-tempo game won't succeed in the playoffs if they can't defend in the half-court set.

People love March Madness because of the upsets and the buzzer beaters and, while the NBA features less upsets in a seven-game series format, there are plenty of games that come down to the final minutes and even the final possession. So what's there to complain about?

I love watching playoff basketball and that will never change. The talent level of players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwayne Wade to name a few is simply amazing. The things these players do to will their teams to victory really is something to watch. It's just a shame that more people don't appreciate the NBA game for what it is.

It may not be the most fundamental game of basketball and the focus is more weighted towards one-on-one isolation over ball movement and finding the open man, but I've seen plenty of NBA players make the extra pass when they're open to somebody who is even more open; it's not all individualistic.

When you're name is Kobe or LeBron and you can get any shot you want and make it a high-percentage look, why wouldn't you? While James knows he can get his shot whenever he wants, he also understands the importance of keeping his teammates active in the game; those assist numbers are near 9 per game for a reason.

I will be enjoying as much of the NBA Playoffs as I can, despite the fact the Knicks have gone from yearly participant to cellar-dwelling joke. And anyone who truly loves the game of basketball should too. If nothing else, you'll be able to appreciate the level of talent on display.

And for the record, my pick is Lakers over Cavs in 7 and LeBron books it for the Big Apple after the season. A man can dream, can't he?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Yanks start season with three straight series wins

After a series-clinching 6-2 victory against the Angels last night (which I was there to witness, as well as Tuesday's win), the Yankees have now won each of their first three series of the season and they've done it against good competition (Red Sox, Rays, Angels). Despite these wins, they still trail the division-leading Blue Jays (?!?) by a half-game.

Toronto was my pick to finish last in the division after losing Roy Halladay but the healthy return of Shawn Marcum and the return of Ricky Romero to 2009 first-half form, not to mention the resurgence of Vernon Wells has been enough to jumpstart the Jays to a 7-3 start to the season. Do I think it lasts? In a word, no. But we've seen enough in two weeks to assume they will once again finish ahead of the woeful Orioles, who sit in the cellar at an MLB-worst 1-9.

Back to the Yankees though and namely Phil Hughes. In his first start as a full-time member of the rotation, Hughes threw 5 innings of three-hit ball, allowing 2 earned runs to pick up the win. He was pulled after allowing the first two batters to reach in the sixth inning and threw 108 pitches, thanks in part to 5 walks and 6 strikeouts and an inability to avoid working deep into counts.

Outside of the control issues Hughes looked good and you could describe his performance as effectively wild. Angels hitters had no idea whether he was going to throw a strike, making it difficult to find a hitting rhythm when he did. But he will need to harness his great stuff if he wants to work 6-7 innings a night, which would be a boon to the Yankees particularly while Javier Vazquez builds up his arm strength.

Vazquez has allowed 12 runs in 11 innings pitched so far this season, but just 2 in the first three innings of either outing. After the third inning, he has allowed 10 runs. I already hear Yankees fans pissing and moaning about the trade, which so far has brought back memories of the second half in 2004 when Vazquez was terrible in a Yankee uniform.

First off, anybody who expected the 2.87 ERA Vazquez of last season was foolish. That was the only season of his career where he posted an ERA below 3.24 and he has just three under 3.50, all in the National League. In terms of what the Yankees gave up to get him (Melky Cabrera), they didn't pay for a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher anyway. If C.C. Sabathia can't do it in the AL, neither can Vazquez.

Al Leiter says the ERA difference between leagues is three-quarters of a run, but I think it's closer to a full run or even 1.25 in the AL East if you consider the lineups cards written out by managers in the division. Vazquez's ERA should settle around 4.00 or 4.25 this season, but once he gets his arm stretched out he should be able to work deep into games and give the potent Yankee lineup a chance to win every night. I still expect 15 wins and an ERA and anybody who's going to complain about his production as the Yankees' fourth starter is beyond clueless.

Back to something positive and that's the performance of Robinson Cano through nine games this season. Cano had 2 home runs on Jackie Robinson Day last night, which means even more to a player named after the Dodger great. And what better way to honor your namesake than by putting on a show on the day honoring him. Great players can take it to the next level under circumstances like this (like Brett Favre on Monday Night Football after his father died) and Cano is well on his way to being a truly great player.

Cano finally looks like he may be realizing his full potential. If you thought his numbers were good last season (.320-103-25-85), you may be floored by what he does this season. I think Cano puts up Chase Utley-type numbers with a higher average.

He finally seems intent on driving the ball out of the park when he's ahead in counts rather than just spraying the gaps and I think a .325+ average, 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI are well within reach for the Yankees second baseman. Hitting behind Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez should provide him with ample RBI opportunities once Teixeira starts hitting again, which is a matter of when not if.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Marshall to Dolphins adds to AFC East intrigue, but changes little

Before trading a 2010 and 2011 second-round draft pick for Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall, the Dolphins were firmly entrenched as the third best team in the AFC East. After the trade, they still are. This trade sure makes the division more interesting, but I can't say it bumps the Dolphins ahead of the Patriots or the Jets. The Bills, well, they don't even deserve a mention from here on out. They'll be lucky to win half as many games as any other team in the division.

Heading into next week's NFL draft, the AFC East is shaping up to be a heated three-team race. The Jets have made big splashes this offseason, trading for Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes while banishing Kerry Rhodes to the desert in Arizona and signing LaDainian Tomlinson to replace the released Thomas Jones.

Assuming they don't move from their current late-first round draft slot, they seem to be looking at a player like Penn State defensive end Jared Odrick or TCU end Jerry Hughes to bolster a non-existant early-down pass rush. They could also look to add depth in the secondary, but the late-first round prospects at corner and safety (unless a player like Boise State's Kyle Wilson or USC's Taylor Mays has a Brady Quinn-like fall) aren't quite as salivating there as they are on the defensive line.

New England hasn't done much but they still have the division's lone proven star quarterback in Tom Brady and that has to count for something in the quarterback-driven NFL. The Pats are not without question marks though, considering the uncertain health of Wes Welker and the increasing age of Randy Moss.

If this team can't throw the football better than the rest of the division, they will fall back to the pack rather quickly with little running game and a defense that needs a serious injection of youth, as seen in the playoffs against Baltimore. With four picks in the first two rounds of the draft (compared to New York and Miami's lack of picks), they very well could fill a lot of their holes.

If New England falls off or the Jets don't live up to the hype, Miami will be waiting to pounce. The trade for Marshall (and subsequent four-year, $47M deal they signed him to) gives Chad Henne the legitimate receiving threat he didn't have last season. I liked what I saw from Henne last season and I expect him to take a big step forward this year, even more so than Mark Sanchez in New York.

If Ronnie Brown comes back healthy this team will continue to pound the run with Brown and Ricky Williams and their defense is better than New England's. I think the Jets and Dolphins are MUCH better teams than the Patriots when you take the 21 positions that aren't quarterback into account. But that one position does make a world of difference, and that's why the Pats will always be contenders with Brady at the helm.

It's way too early to make divisional predictions but there is a slim chance all three of these squads could put together 10-win seasons and make the playoffs. After all, Miami won the AFC East in 2008, New England last season and the Jets made the AFC Championship game.

Some may think it's way too early to get excited about football with baseball just getting underway and the NHL and NBA starting their playoffs (I'll say my piece on how great the NBA playoffs are tomorrow). But football is interesting year-round, something you can't say for any of the three sports I just mentioned. I can't wait for the draft next week, especially because I get to go for the second year in a row!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Jets continue strong offseason with steal of former Super Bowl MVP

What is 79 receptions, 1,248 yards and 5 touchdowns worth in today's NFL? Apparently just a fifth-round pick, which is what the New York Jets traded to acquire Santonio Holmes from the Pittsburgh Steelers after the wide receiver's first 1,000-yard season.

Now there is more to the story. Like Holmes' likely suspension for the first four games of the 2010 season for substance abuse and a history of legal troubles. But in trading just a third-day draft pick for a receiver who helped Pittsburgh win Super Bowl XLIII, this represents a low-risk, high-reward acquisition for the Jets.

This move comes off the heels of the team's trade for former Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie for a third-round pick earlier this offseason. The Jets may be depleting the middle of their draft, but they are stacking their team with talented players in the process.

These moves even prompted the outspoken Chad Ochocinco to beg the NFL to stop the Jets with this tweet to Roger Goodell: "Mr. Goodell the NY Jets are unfairly loading their team up with great players like the Yankees do, we need to stop this now!"

Naysayers have bashed the Cromartie move, saying he had one good season and has fallen off since. But the Jets won't need to rely on Cromartie to cover the other team's top target thanks to All-Pro Darrelle Revis and Cromartie will easily be more talented than at least half of the receivers he has to cover.

Once Holmes joins the Jets after four games (similar to the Braylon Edwards situation last season), he will provide an instant boon to a receiving corps that was considered a draft-day need for the Jets. Now the team can concentrate on improving what is already an outstanding defense by drafting a defensive end to pressure the quarterback without blitzing or a cornerback or safety to add talent and depth to their secondary, which already houses two Pro Bowl cornerbacks and a solid strong safety in Jim Leonhard who fits Rex Ryan's system perfectly.

Second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez will now have a solid group of receiving options including Edwards, Holmes, Jerricho Cotchery, Dustin Keller and LaDainian Tomlinson and Leon Washington (if he remains a Jet) out of the backfield. It's not out of the realm of possibility to expect a leap in production from the former USC star and maybe, just maybe, a positive TD:INT ratio after 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions last season (including the playoffs).

With their moves this and last season (don't forget the package of draft picks traded to move up and acquire both Sanchez and Shonn Greene, who should start at running back), the Jets have proven how much they devalue mid-round draft picks and how much other NFL teams overvalue them.

Are the Chargers going to find a Pro Bowl-caliber player with a late third-round pick draft pick. Will the Steelers draft a future Super Bowl MVP in the late fifth round? It's possible, but highly unlikely. For every Terrell Davis and Tom Brady, there are plenty of late-round picks who never make it (or never even get the chance). If I'm the Jets, I'm happy to give up those odds for Pro Bowlers.

The NFL Draft hasn't even taken place yet and I'm already extremely excited for football season. And I'm a Yankees fan who expects big things from them this season as well. That can only bode well for the Jets chances at advancing further than the AFC Championship game this season. If they don't, they can at least say they tried, unlike most of the rest of the league's front offices.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Granderson shines in opening series win over Red Sox

In stark contrast to last season when the Yankees lost their first 8 games to Boston, New York took two of three at Fenway and if not for a bullpen collapse in the opener, would've swept the Sox.

Curtis Granderson has made a big splash already, homering in his first at-bat as a Yankee and hitting another last night to put the Yankees ahead for good in the 10th inning. On the other hand, the Yankees' second key offseason acquisition, Nick Johnson, is hitless in nine at-bats but has drawn five walks.

Speaking of walks, the Yanks hit just .255 in the three-game series but registered an on-base percentage of .365 thanks to 16 walks, equal to their number of strikeouts. Yankees batters see so many pitches that Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey threw just 15.2 innings in the series.

The resulting long games (almost 11 hours combined!) also led umpire Joe West to complain about both teams needing to pick up the pace. On multiple occassions batters were not granted timeouts in an effort to speed the games along. If West doesn't like the pace of Yankees-Red Sox, than he shouldn't be the umpire for their games. It's as simple as that.

Besides game one, the Yankees bullpen was excellent in the series allowing just three runs (all in the opener). Considering the shaky starts from C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, this is a very good sign for the Yankees. Their bullpen is viewed as their biggest question mark heading into every season and a strong performance by the relievers, combined with expected success from a deep rotation, will make New York a force to be reckoned with.

The Yankees will need more production out of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who went a combined 2-for-27 against Boston. Neither is particular worrisome, as Teixeira starts slow every season although I thought that might change this season with Rodriguez protecting him from the start. A-Rod's numbers will look much different after a multi-hit game or two and it's way to early (David Ortiz would agree) to dwell on low batting averages.

The Yanks will head to Tampa for another divisional series on the road and will get to face young guns David Price and Wade Davis. I'd be surprised to see either of those pitchers make it into the sixth inning, as the Yankees will surely try to run up their pitch counts early and force Joe Maddon to go to a weak bullpen sooner than he would like.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

And my hatred for Duke grows stronger...

First off, congratulations to the Duke Blue Devils. They beat every team that was put in front of them and for that, they are deserving of the national title. Let's be honest, though. If this wasn't the year of parity with a lack of dominant teams at the top, Duke would've never won this title.

Yes, Duke is highly ranked every year and usually a high seed come March Madness. But usually that high seed turns to heartbreak for Duke fans when they severely underperform to expectations, at least since their previous title in 2001. The facts back me up on this:

-Duke had been a #2 seed the last 2 seasons, losing in the Sweet 16 in 2009 and the second round in 2008.
-They were a #6 seed in 2007 and lost in the first round.
-They were a #1 seed each year from 2004-2006, making just one Final Four (2004) and never advancing to the title game.
-In 2002 and 2003 they made the Sweet Sixteen as a #1 and #3, respectively.

Only twice in the previous eight seasons had Duke lived up to their tournament seeding and never once did they outperform it. Again, they did what they had to do this season (win every game) and deserved the title but all in all, they are perennial underachievers who receive too much respect from the media and tournament committee year in and year out.

Speaking of too much respect from the committee, Duke was given BY FAR the easiest road to the Final Four of any top seed. The fact that the #5 seed made the Final Four in both Kansas and Syracuse's region shows the depth on that side and Kentucky had to deal with a team that had a legitimate case to be a top seed in West Virginia, not to mention a severely underseeded Cornell squad.

Duke, on the other hand, got to play the play-in winner followed by Cal and a short-handed Purdue team. Baylor was a decent challenger, West Virginia wasn't and Butler gave the Blue Devils a serious run for the title. But Duke was handed three easy victories to the Elite 8 and fellow top seeds Kansas, Syracuse and even Kentucky were not.

I have never wanted a shot to go in more than Gordon Hayward's half-court heave at the buzzer last night which would've given Butler a one-point win, but Hayward was just a little too strong despite being right on line. This Butler team will be back next year to make another deep tournament run (and hopefully win me more money when I finally decide to bet on them!)

Duke fans can revoice all they want because hey, they're the champions. It will never come with an asterisk, but it might as well. Duke was treated as the tournament's top seed despite not earning that distinction throughout the season and, while they proved to be the last team standing, it didn't come without help from the committee and a watered-down field. Excuse me while I go hug the toilet in disgust.

Monday, April 5, 2010

NL Preview

Baseball is officially back and I couldn't be happier. This will be my last preview and I will run down the NL division champions and my choice for the Wild Card, as well as playoff predictions for both leagues.

NL East Champion: Philadelphia Phillies

The best get better...sort of. The Phillies lost Cliff Lee who dominated the postseason but added Roy Halladay to replace him, which seems like a good trade on paper. Placido Polanco replaces Pedro Feliz at third and J.A. Happ will join the rotation full-time, but other than that there isn't much different about this Phillies squad. They're good enough that it doesn't matter and a bounceback year from Jimmy Rollins will be huge for the Phils.

NL Central Champion: St. Louis Cardinals

Behind stud starting pitchers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals will again be strong at the top of their pitching staff. And with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday raking in the middle of the lineup not to mention Ryan Ludwick and Colby Rasmus (who just homered), their lineup is pretty good too. If Carpenter stays healthy, this is a near lock.

NL West Champion: Colorado Rockies

Love this team this season. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa seem primed for breakout seasons at the top of the rotation and Jeff Francis returns from injury to give Colorado some pitching depth. Troy Tulowitzki and Brad Hawpe provide the power in the middle of the lineup and Carlos Gonzalez and Ian Stewart will look to build on their 2009 seasons. If they do, the Rockies have what it takes to win the division and compete for the NL pennant.

NL Wild Card: Los Angeles Dodgers

The success of the Dodgers will hinge on the top of their starting rotation, namely Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Kershaw has Cy Young potential and realizing it this season will go a long way to shoring up what many feel is the Dodgers' biggest weakness: their starting rotation. One of the league's best bullpen should help the starters when they don't last deep into games and a lineup featuring Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Manny Ramirez can produce runs. The Rockies and Dodgers could be interchangeable at these spots.


Divisional Round:
Phillies over Dodgers, Rockies over Cardinals
Rays over Twins, Yankees over Mariners

Championship Series:
Phillies over Rockies, Yankees over Rays

World Series:
Yankees over Phillies

Yes, I chose a repeat of last year's World Series with the same champion. Call me boring, but I think the Yankees and Phillies are hands down the best teams in baseball this season. But with all the luck involved in the long baseball season, this outcome could easily change. Here's a darkhorse scenario:

Rockies over Rays

Friday, April 2, 2010

AL Central and West preview

Since the season is coming up on us ever so quickly, my plan to break down every division is highly unlikely to come to fruition. So this will be part 2 of a three-part series, with the third post being a National League preview. For now though, the AL Central and AL West.

AL Central Winner: Minnesota Twins

I always pimp Ozzie Guillen and the White Sox and I always fall flat on my face. Time to change speeds and take the Twins, who really do have a solid team heading into the 2010 season. The middle of their order includes Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, all of whom have 25-homer potential (although I think Mauer slides back a little bit this year). The additions of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy should bolster Minnesota's middle infield and with Mauer and center fielder Denard Span, the Twins will be very strong up the middle.

Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey will be the team's top two starters and while neither is overpowering, they get outs and can eat up 200-plus innings. Francisco Liriano is the x-factor in the Minnesota rotation. A breakout season from him will give the Twins three legitimate starting pitchers.

The bullpen took a big hit with the season-ending injury to Joe Nathan and while a closer-by-committee seems to be in the works for now, expect either Jon Rauch or Matt Guerrier to sew up that job by the end of April. Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares add depth for the middle innings and the return of Pat Neshek from Tommy John surgery just adds to what is usually is strength for the Twins. Expecting 90 wins would be a stretch, but 85 should take this division.

The Rest

The White Sox are strong in the starting pitching department with Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and recently acquired Jake Peavy. Gordon Beckham is a star in the making but Chicago will need big season from Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios and Alexei Ramirez to contend for the division crown. It's hard to count on all three of those guys...

The Tigers have question marks surrounding their starting pitching behind Justin Verlander. Can Max Scherzer work deep into games? Will Rick Porcello take a step forward or a step backward? Does Dontrelle Willis deserve a major league contract anymore?

I expect a big season from Miguel Cabrera and by big, I mean .330 with 40 home runs and 110 RBI. Beyond him and Johnny Damon, the Tigers will be relying on a few rookies to make instant impacts in the big leagues, particularly Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore. Detroit and Chicago will be fighting it out for second in the Central, though.

The Indians are much too young to put together much more than a 70-75 win season and their pitching leaves much to be desired when Jake Westbrook is your Opening Day starter. Look out for the return to relevance of Fausto Carmona and if youngsters Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley grow up quickly, they could put together a formidable lineup alongside Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo.

The Royals are, well, the Royals. Zack Greinke and Billy Butler are fun players and Mike Aviles is hitting over .500 this spring, but this team will still end up in the cellar.

AL West Winner: Seattle Mariners

Love this team this season and Seattle is a definite World Series sleeper. Okay now that's a stretch, but this team has great defense, great pitching and a park that suits the way this team is built. Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee are one of the league's better one-two punches at the top of any rotation and while their lineup lacks star power, solid under-the-radar players like Franklin Gutierrez and Jose Lopez will join with known quantities like Ichiro and Chone Figgins. The Mariners will run often to cover the lack of power in that lineup, which could also be due to the dimensions of Safeco Field. My only real question is what happens to a team that has Milton Bradley as their cleanup hitter...

The Rest

The Angels are usually the class of the West, but the departures of Figgins and John Lackey leave this team with a few holes to fill. I've learned to never underestimate a Mike Scoscia-managed team, but they need to find an ace out of Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana or Scott Kazmir. Joe Saunders and Joel Piniero round out what should be a deep rotation, but without Lackey they will need to find a horse to rely on.

Their lineup is comparable to Texas' in this division thanks to an outfield that includes Torii Hunter, Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu, not to mention 2009 breakout star Kendry Morales at first base and World Series hero Hideki Matsui at DH. Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar are solid up the middle and Mike Napoli will provide stability behind the plate. Don't sleep on the Angels this year, because everybody else is.

The Rangers' lineup is awesome, with potential 30-home run guys like Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis and speed like Elvis Andrus and Julio Borbon. Ian Kinsler will provide both once he comes off the DL and Michael Young has always been a solid player. Now if they could just fix a pitching staff that starts with Scott Feldman and Rich Harden...

As far as the A's go, I love Brett Anderson this season. I'm in way too many fantasy leagues and he's on way too many of my teams. But beyond him I'm not sure how much I trust Ben Sheets, Trevor Cahill and Justin Duchscherer. And a lineup headlined by names like Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis, Jack Cust and Kevin Kouzmanoff isn't much to write about either.