2017 English Premier League Preview- Part 1

It’s hard to believe that the 2017 Premier League season will be soon be upon us.  While this summer didn’t have any major international tournaments, it sure featured its share of excitement, with an incredible Championship play-off to determine the third team promoted to the Prem and many big-name players coming and going.  The teams that will feature here, though, won’t be battling it out for the best of the best, but rather for comfort in the top flight, or possibly even survival from demotion. Here is Part 1 of my projection for the upcoming season, starting at the bottom of the table:

 

  1.  Brighton Hove & Albion

It’s abundantly clear that Seagulls manager Chris Hughton knows that his team needs a deeper, more talented squad to have a fighting chance in the Prem, as evidenced by his signing a group of 8 players headlined by underrated Australian goalkeeper Matthew Ryan.  The issue is that their squad is set up in a way similar to how Middlesbrough was last year—more on the defensive side—yet their attack, spearheaded by the talismanic Anthony Knockaert, might not even be able to match the demoted side’s paltry efforts.  As such, I only envision Brighton lasting one season in the top division before dropping back down.

  1. Huddersfield Town

The Terriers have made what I believe to be the best signing of any promoted squad so far, re-signing Aaron Mooy from Manchester City after a successful loan spell this past year.  David Wagner also seems to be approaching the upcoming campaign by looking to take a more attack-minded approach and will hope that the small-town team might be able to catch enough established clubs by surprise to remain in the top flight another year.  While they may do that early on, I don’t think it’ll take long for other clubs to catch on to the team’s style, and their fairy tale ascension will be put on hold after they are demoted back down to the Championship.

  1. Burnley

Burnley has not ceased to surprise over the course of the last three years—first in securing promotion, then putting up a great fight in a Premier League season in which they were drastically overmatched, then immediately regaining a top flight spot and hanging onto it last season.  Manager Sean Dyche rightfully gets a lot of credit for keeping the Clarets up, but having a defense marshalled by Michael Keane was a significant help.  Now that Keane is an Everton player, does the club have enough at the back to make up for the center back’s departure, or enough ammunition in attack to compensate for the defense’s probable drop-off?  Unfortunately, I don’t think so—replacing Keane is virtually impossible for a club of Burnley’s size, and as good as Sam Vokes was last season, losing his striking partner, Andre Gray, will hurt his productivity.  Dyche’s crew will put up a great fight, but they’ll drop back down to the Championship after this season.

  1. Swansea City

That Swansea managed to stay up while churned through three managers in a tumultuous season is a real testament to the resilience of the players of the Welsh club, and it is that work ethic that I believe allows the team.  That being said, this transfer season has been sadly lacking for the Swans—they lost the heart of their engine room in Jack Cork, their attack is still a mess beyond Fernando Llorente, and they’ve only brought in one player, Roque Mesa, that figures to feature frequently in the starting XI.  There is still time to improve the squad, but if they don’t, the team will almost surely find themselves in another dogfight for survival this year.

  1. West Bromwich Albion

During the middle of last season, there was many a pundit that thought there was a possibility that the Baggies could spend the whole year challenging for a spot in Europe.  Of course, that wasn’t meant to be, as Tony Pulis’s team only managed two paltry points in their final 9 matches.  On top of that, the team lost club captain Darren Fletcher on a free to Stoke, stripping the team of a crucial veteran presence in the center of the park.  Solomon Rondon’s strong play up top should keep West Brom from dropping down a level, but their mess in the middle will prevent them from coming anywhere close to the heights they hit last year.

  1. Stoke City

After 3 straight seasons of finishing 9th, Mark Hughes’s squad suffered from a dearth of goals in dropping to 13th last season.  Bringing in Darren Fletcher on a free and Kurt Zouma on loan are both exceptional move that will help shore up the center of the park for the Potters, but to this point no major attacking talent has been brought in, which is not a good thing considering that the aging Peter Crouch was their leading scorer last year.  On top of that, star winger Morgan Arnautovic left for West Ham, citing that the Hammers are a “bigger club” despite finishing below Stoke last year.  Last year that may not have been true, but the lack of new signings to bolster the front line will make that a reality, and I predict that Stoke will continue its fall to lower in the table.

  1. Watford

Watford’s management has been in a state of constant upheaval recently, as they are now on their third manager in as many seasons, and all of them have very different styles.  Fortunately, the man at the helm now, Marco Silva, may be the best of the trio, and he’s made some solid signings this transfer window that have targeted every area of the team.  He’s brought in two central players, Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah, with great potential, and signed Tom Cleverley to a permanent deal.  He signed Andre Gray as a complement to club captain Troy Deeney while adding Richarlison as the team’s striker of the future.  Silva also snagged right wing back Kiko Femenia on a free to shore up the back line.  There’s still no true difference maker in attack, so the Hornets will still be lower than they might hope to be, but such a solid window for a team that struggled last year should set the club on a good path for the future.

  1. Crystal Palace

The Eagles had a season last year that very nearly resembled the one that Swansea had—they went through two managers with a squad whose drastic underperformance led the team into a relegation battle for a good chunk of the year.  However, with a new year approaching, new manager Frank de Boer inherits a squad that has not only been hardened by the unexpected experiences of last season, but one that seems tailor-made for his style of play, with strength at the back and front, speed on the flanks, and creativity in the center.  The players might still be plagued with some inconsistency, and it will almost certainly take a while for de Boer and his style to adjust to the Premier League, but I feel that Palace will see some slight improvements from their performance last season.

  1. Southampton

New manager Mauricio Pellegrino has retained almost all of the players that led the club to an 8th place finish last year, and the savvy signing of Gabon international Mario Lemina to bolster the midfield certainly can’t hurt.  However, the only reason that the team even finished that high was because of its defensive record—they only scored 41 goals last season, tied for 14th in the league with 17th place Watford—and club captain Virgil van Dijk’s push for a move out of Saint Mary’s makes it a virtual certainty that they’ll see a drop-off on that end this year.  That, combined with the lack of new transfers brought in to bolster the lackluster attack, I expect the Saints to slip a little bit this year.

  1. Leicester City

The chaos has been rampant at Leicester since lifting the Premier League trophy after the 2015-16 season—last year started with the sale of lynchpin N’Golo Kante and an extreme lack of fitness from captain Wes Morgan and ended with the firing of Claudio Ranieri after claims he had lost the locker room.  Now, his former assistant Craig Shakespeare has to make due with a roster that seems heavy on strikers, light on midfielders that fit his system, and whose best player, winger Riyad Mahrez, wants out.  There’s a lot of good individual players on the Foxes, and Shakespeare showed at the end of last year that he can find some balance, but I think the tumultuousness will be too much to keep them from getting into the top half of the table.

  1. Newcastle United

Newcastle has seemed to exist in a constant state of confusion over the past few years, but the steady hand of veteran manager Rafael Benitez guided the Magpies back into the Prem immediately after being demoted, and the Spainard and his squad will be looking to make a splash this season.  They’ve got the pieces to do it, too—they have a strong backline headlined by captain Jamaal Lascalles, a creative midfield centered around the creative duo of Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie, while the forward trio of Dwight Gayle, Ayoze Perez, and Aleksandar Mitrovic have a great combination of speed and strength.  Benitez doesn’t have any players on the level of 2012-era Papiss Cisse or Fabricio Coloccini, so the team shouldn’t push for a spot in the Europa League, but they should definitely have enough to survive this season comfortably.

  1. Bournemouth

Eddie Howe’s team surprised a lot of pundits last year by not only surviving, but thriving well enough to make it into the top half of the table.  Their squad from last year remains mostly intact, with only Jack Wilshere’s return to his parent club counting as the only loss of a consistently fielded first-teamer.  The few additions that Howe made were bright ones, too, grabbing veteran Jermain Defoe to improve his striking options and grabbing Nathan Ake (who is returning to the club after spending part of his season with the Cherries on loan) and Asmir Begovic from Chelsea to improve the defense.  The clubs that I see finishing above them had more money to spend, so they were able to improve their squads enough to keep Bournemouth from finishing above their place from last season, but two straight 9th place finishes from the small south shore club is no easy feat and will prove that they’ll be making some real noise in the race for a European place.

 

You can check out Part 2 of this preview on my soccer website, gunnerupdates.com, starting tomorrow at 5.

4 Suggestions for the Blackhawks’ Off-Season

To say that being swept in the first round of this year’s NHL play-offs was a major disappointment to the Chicago Blackhawks would be a drastic understatement.  Yesterday’s season-ending press conferences made that abundantly clear.  The team certainly isn’t going to rest on their laurels, though—this off-season is sure to be an entertaining one, with the expansion draft to take into account, and the Entry Draft taking place in Chicago, and after such a poor conclusion to the year, the ‘Hawks are sure to be very involved.  What exactly they do, though, is up for some debate.  Here, I give the four things that I think the team should do as they prepare for the 2017-18 season:

 

Don’t panic

Yes, the team got blasted in the play-offs against a division rival, and are just a year removed from losing to another team within the Central.  Because of the yearly salary cap crunch, they figure to be priced out of the markets for Scott Darling and Richard Panik, lose Johnny Oduya and Brian Campbell to either retirement or free agency, and see Trevor van Riemsdyk picked up by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.  But there is a lot of talent on a team that won the regular season title in the Western Conference—guys like Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, and Tanner Kero stepped into important roles this past season, and guys like Vinnie Hinostroza, Gustav Forsling, and Tyler Motte are poised to take that next step.  The pipeline goes deeper, too, with top prospects Ville Pokka and Alex DeBrincat only a short ways away from being potential role players on the big squad.  With all of that in mind, there’s no need to panic, and that’s not even accounting for a core that has won three Stanley Cups in the past eight seasons.

 

Give serious consideration to trading a key core player or two

If I had my way, though, that core wouldn’t be together much longer.  It was abundantly clear that this team was not good enough to be competitive against a team as good as the Predators.  If Stan Bowman’s comments in his press conference yesterday are anything to go by, changes are probably going to happen.  The thing is, though, that with the current salary projections for next season, unless the cap ceiling goes up more than it is expected to, there’s actually nothing that the team really can do.  This article by the Blackhawks blog Second City Hockey makes it very clear that, even after the presumed losses of van Riemsdyk, Panik, Campbell, Oduya, and Darling, that the team is basically right on the line in terms of cap dollars.  Other teams will be quick to recognize this, and the man that would be an ideal salary to dump, Marcus Kruger, would probably require a prospect or a draft pick to take on his contract, which, considering how much the team will have to rely on their youth in the coming years, would not be ideal.  Therefore, I think that the team should put some thought into trading a guy that has a higher salary, but would also net a greater return, allowing for increased depth and talent throughout the roster.  I also feel that everybody should be in play except for Toews and Keith—and yes, that includes fan-favorites Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi Panarin.  Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford would get the most consideration, but after two straight play-off failures, it’s clear the league has caught up to the Blackhawks, and if they need to deal a big name to regain their swagger, then so be it.

 

Target players that are good with the puck

When the team makes some moves, they’re going to need to target some guys that are really good with the puck.  And I’m not talking guys like Patrick Kane, who can dangle with the best in history, but guys like the departed duo of Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen, who were among the top 40 forwards for individual Corsi percentage this season.  For those unfamiliar with the statistic, Corsi measures how many shots—on net, off net, or blocked—that take place for and against a team when a certain player is on the ice.  Like any advanced statistic, Corsi is flawed—a USA Today article published back in November suggested that some players are willing to take shots at poor times just to boost their percentage—but it is generally a good indicator of how well a player can keep possession of the puck.  The Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawk teams finished in the top-10 in overall Corsi percentage, but slipped to the middle of the pack this year, especially on the top line, where Jonathan Toews’ primary line mates, Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik, were below 50% Corsi.  There were many reasons why Nashville’s top line dominated Chicago, but I’m sure that the fact that all of their first line forwards have better possession numbers than any of the Blackhawk forwards has something to with it.  If the team is constrained to looking at fairly economical options for new players, they should look towards acquiring guys like Mark Stone of Ottawa and Kyle Clifford of Los Angeles via trade, and players like Brett Connelly of Washington and Sam Gagner of Columbus in free agency, if they aren’t priced out of Chicago’s range.

 

Find better balance on the blue line

In my last post, I noted that Joel Quenneville had a lot of trouble coming up with consistent defensive pairings as the regular season drew to a close, and that played a contributing factor in some of the baffling plays made by Blackhawks defensemen in their first round loss.  The acquisition of Johnny Oduya made the problems incredibly stark, but the issues in the back of the team were there before he re-joined the team from Dallas—Seabrook and Campbell are usually relatively reliable veterans, but they struggled to find their game, especially offensively, throughout the year.  Now that the team figures to get (relatively) younger on the back end, they won’t have to worry as much about being outpaced as badly as they were against Nashville, but they do need to place a premium on making sure that the pairings that they end up forming will work together in both zones.  If that doesn’t happen, and the inconsistencies that each individual player displayed in this year’s play-offs continue to plague the team, then they’ll have virtually no chance of regaining their old dominance, especially when the teams that have dominated the post-season so far, the Predators and the Ducks, have such deep blue lines.  The way the current roster is set up, my parings would probably be Keith-Hjalmarsson, Seabrook-Kempny, and Pokka-Forsling, with Rozsival as the 7th man, but after such a disappointing finish to the year, nothing, nothing at all, is guaranteed.

What are your thoughts about what the team should prioritize this off-season?  Comment what you think below, or contact me here.

 

 

 

 

Why The Blackhawks Lost in the First Round… Again

The expectations for the Chicago Blackhawks coming into this season were not terribly high for one of the best teams in recent memory—their loss in the first round of the play-offs to archrival St. Louis, and the annual retooling due to salary cap constraints saw a lot of rookies make the opening roster.  Their division opponents looked pretty good, too, with the Blues, Predators, and Wild all looking like dangerous threats to win the conference.

As the season drew on, though, hopes for a Stanley Cup began to rise in earnest.  Two of the team’s rookies, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman, stepped up big time on the offensive end.  Veterans Marian Hossa and Artem Anisimov both exceeded expectations.  After slows starts, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane found their grooves.  Corey Crawford was his usual steady self.  Bowman even managed to bring back Johnny Oduya in a trade with Dallas.  All of this led to the team overtaking in Minnesota, who led the conference for most of the year, to take the top spot from their division nemesis and go into their play-off series with Nashville flying high.

As quickly as the team rose, though, they fell apart just as fast against Nashville.

There were warning signs going into the post-season; Anisimov was expected to jump right back into his spot as the number 2 center despite not having played in almost a month with a lower body injury.  Crawford looked a little shaky to close the season.  Coach Joel Quenneville hadn’t been able to figure out good defensive pairings after the addition of Oduya.

That being said, nobody expected the team to get outplayed as thoroughly as they did over the past week.  Corey Crawford stood on his head to try to keep his team in it, but he might’ve been the only real positive.  The Predators, who came into the seasons expecting to be the class of the West after adding PK Subban to their already loaded blue line, were inconsistent throughout the year, but put it together quickly in this series, handing Chicago their first play-off sweep since 1993.  The Preds’ top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson were incredible on both sides of the ice.  The team’s defenseman, especially Roman Josi, shut down the Blackhawks’ offense and provided some solid offensive contributions as well.  Pekka Rinne allowed only 2 goals in the entire series.  Nashville certainly played well enough to win this series, but it wouldn’t have been as easy as it was if it weren’t for some problems that the Blackhawks had.  Here are just a few of those issues:

 

Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith played terribly

It would be harsh to say that these two were the worst players on the team in this post-season—those honors would go to a (still clearly hobbled) Anisimov and Ryan Hartman, respectively—but they certainly did not play at a level anywhere near what they are capable of.  The captain isn’t known for being a scorer, but he is typically a good possession center, a creator with the puck and a solid defender without it.  None of the positives manifested themselves in any of the four games, though, as he was thoroughly dominated by Johansen in almost every facet of the game, including face-offs (more on those later), and the only point he put up all series came late in the 3rd period in tonight’s game when Nashville’s victory was all but assured.  Keith, too, had little impact on the offensive end, a theme that he’s had throughout this season, and his poor decisions with the puck in his defensive end led to many preventable chances for the Predators, who managed to convert on at least one of Keith’s misplays into an important goal.

 

Face-offs

Winning face-offs isn’t necessarily a marker of success—the teams that ranked in the bottom three for face-off percentage this regular season, the Edmonton Oilers, the Blackhawks, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, all were phenomenal teams—but the hole that Chicago put themselves in at the dot this series was not helpful.  They won 120 out of 254 face-offs overall, a clip that was very similar to their regular season numbers, but those numbers were inflated in their Game 1 loss in which their entire game outside of face-offs was anemic.  They were especially poor in their defensive zone, as many of Nashville’s goals came off of a win in the face-off circle.

 

Defensive chemistry

Similar to the return of Andrew Ladd last year, the acquisition of Johnny Oduya was supposed to solidify an area of weakness (a lock-down defenseman to play alongside Niklas Hjalmarsson) with an old Blackhawk in an effort to boost the team to another Stanley Cup.  If anything, though, the veteran’s presence only served to destabilize the pairings the team had worked to establish all season.  The Hjalmarsson-Oduya pairing didn’t work out; neither did the Keith-Seabrook pairing.  Both Oduya and Brian Campbell played so poorly in the series that Quenneville had 7 defenseman suit up for the final game, and they ended up allowing 4 goals regardless.  The team’s best blue liner was almost certainly the much-maligned Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was smart with the puck and made a couple of poke checks that saved goals that made have made Blackhawks defeats look even worse, and he could be gone next season with the expansion draft coming up.  Acquiring Oduya was a good idea in theory, but it didn’t end up looking like a good move for Stan Bowman.

 

The team’s role players couldn’t maintain their regular season pace

The reason that the team was able to win the regular season conference title was because of the big plays they got from their lesser known players.  Ryan Hartman was among the best rookies not named Auston Matthews or Patrick Laine.  The same could be said for Nick Schmaltz.  Richard Panik had a career year, and Tanner Kero was a revelation after being called up from Rockford.  Outside of Kero’s performance in the face-off circle, these players, and the other non-elite Blackhawks, were unable to keep up their high levels of performance in the post-season.  Panik and Schmaltz were so easily dominated that they were both demoted from the top line.  Hartman’s biggest contribution may have been getting a ten-minute misconduct penalty in Game 2, and Kero was a zero when his team had the puck.  It’s a lot to ask of these guys to be as good as supporting casts of old, but their play as a group wasn’t anywhere near being up to scratch for the team to be successful.

It’s clear, then, that the team has a lot to work on for next season.  So where should Bowman, Quenneville and company look to improve?  Check back here on Sunday to see my thoughts on how the team can recover from this brutal series loss.

Have your own thoughts on why the Blackhawks lost this series, or on how they can work to get better next year?  Comment on this post below, or contact me here.

 

2017 MLB Season Preview

Earlier today, the 2017 MLB season began down in Florida, when the Tampa Bay Rays toppled the New York Yankees in a 7–3 ballgame.  For many, though, the memories of last year’s amazing events still remain fresh—the incredible individual feats of pitching and power.  The dramatic wild-card finish.  The enthralling, and almost entirely unexpected, runs of the Cubs and Indians, the two teams that, at the time, had the longest championship droughts in the Big 4 American Sports leagues.  The drama-filled Game 7, capped off with raucous celebrations of long-suffering Cubs fans that saw their team’s legendary World Series curse broken.  Can this season come close to repeating the extraordinary events we were lucky enough to witness last year?  Is it possible for the Lovable Losers to repeat, or will another team get their hands on the Commissioner’s Trophy next season?  As the champs get ready to defend their title, here are my thoughts on what the upcoming season will look like:

 

National League

 

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (#3)

San Francisco Giants (#2 WC)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Colorado Rockies

San Diego Padres

Coming off a year that was supposed to belong to the even-year dominating Giants, it’s abundantly clear that the Dodgers are the class of the West.  Sure, they might be a serious Clayton Kershaw injury away from falling off a cliff, but the team managed well when the lanky lefty was hurt last year, and now that their whole staff is healthy, LA has a shot at competing for a championship.  The Giants recognized that they had a bullpen issue last year, and while their biggest signing, closer Mark Melancon, will help in that area, it’s still a little shaky.  That being said, their rotation is fantastic, and they have a very strong and versatile infield, and those things will allow them to eke out a wild-card spot.  The next two teams are fairly interchangeable; both clubs have bona-fide superstars that are surrounded by incredibly inconsistent teammates.  I think Arizona has a bit more talent on paper, so I put them above the Rockies, but if Bud Black is able to work miracles with Colorado’s pitching staff, they might be a real dark horse in the race for the post-season.  At the bottom we have Black’s most recent employer, the Padres, who are… not going to be very good.  Outside of Wil Myers, AJ Preller’s team is doing a lot of experimentation—they’re keeping three Rule 5 draft picks on the roster, for example—and the club has both eyes set on the future.  It’ll be between them and the Twins as to who the worst team in the game will be.

 

NL Central

Chicago Cubs (#1)

St. Louis Cardinals

Pittsburgh Pirates

Milwaukee Brewers

Cincinnati Reds

The poaching between the top two teams in this division is going the opposite way this year—the Cardinals took the Cubs’ center fielder, Dexter Fowler, from Chicago—but the defending champs are still stacked throughout their line-up.  They also, along with the Giants and Mets, have one of the best rotations in the NL, and I expect those hurlers to carry them to the top seed in the league (read a more detailed preview of the Cubs’ season here).  The Cards won’t have enough to push the Lovable Losers for the division, since their own rotation isn’t all that consistent, but the talent in the batting order is there, especially with the addition of Fowler, to boost them into the post-season.  Unfortunately, San Francisco’s deeper pitching staff will be enough to see them keep the Cards out of October for the second straight season.  The Pirates have a good top two in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but their youth will prevent them from having enough to carry the struggling Andrew McCutchen and his teammates to glory.  The Brew Crew and the Big Red Machine will battle to be among the worst teams in baseball.  I’ve got a little more faith in the Brewers—Ryan Braun and Eric Thames make a threatening duo, and the team is absolutely unstoppable on the base paths, while all the Reds seem to have going for them is veteran slugger Joey Votto—but like I said, neither club will inspire their respective fan bases.  I expect them to “compete” for a top-5 pick come season’s end.

 

NL East

Washington Nationals (#2)

New York Mets (#1 WC)

Miami Marlins

Atlanta Braves

Philadelphia Phillies

The Nats were the best team in the NL last season not named the Cubs, and that came with a relative off-year for face-of-the-franchise Bryce Harper.  However, they faltered in the play-offs, again, and now, with Harper’s future in Washington, the team will be in full win-now mode.  With new acquisition Adam Eaton coming in and allowing Trea Turner to play full-time at shortstop, Washington has a loaded line-up that could push the Cubs at the top of the Senior Circuit.  The Mets, meanwhile, don’t have anywhere near as certain of a batting order, especially in regards to their infield, but with a (mostly) healthy rotation filled with dominating righties, they’ll be able to make the post-season as the top wild card.  Below them, the Marlins are making steps in the right direction to move away from their standard blow-out sale if their team falters in the prior season, but unfortunately, the tragic loss of ace Jose Fernandez leaves their rotation short of enough ability to get them over the hump this year.  Rounding out the division, the Braves and the Phils are in full re-building mode.  Atlanta much further along than their northern rivals, already having an established ace (Julio Tehran), a star slugger (Freddie Freeman), and a future stud up the middle (Dansby Swanson).  They, like the Rockies, have the potential to break out this year, if some pieces fall into place, but it’s more likely that they and the Phillies will be towards the bottom of the league this year.

 

American League

 

AL West

Houston Astros (#3)

Texas Rangers (#1 WC)

Seattle Mariners

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Oakland Athletics

The Astros might have been the winners of the off-season, bolstering their line-up by adding veterans Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.  Their rotation is still maddeningly inconsistent, ace Dallas Keuchel included, but the revamped offense will be enough to give the team their second division title in three years.  The Rangers went on a tear to end last season, ending up at the top of the Junior Circuit by a game over the Indians.  However, their luck ran out in the post-season, and the issues with their pitching staff were laid bare—besides Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, there isn’t much consistency there—but Jeff Banister’s team still has enough talent to keep back the American League East teams to snag the top wild card slot.  Below them, the Mariners will have a decent offense this year, headlined by the dangerous trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager, but their pitching staff, including ace Felix Hernandez, is too inconsistent to warrant consideration for a play-off spot.  The Angels, meanwhile, have Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and… not much else.  Until they can get a consistent pitching staff in place, the team will go nowhere, and risk losing Trout in the prime of his career.  The A’s are going full rebuild, as they don’t really seem to have anything going for them outside of the fact that they won’t have to worry about sharing their stadium with  football team in a couple of years.

 

AL Central

Cleveland Indians (#1)

Kansas City Royals

Detroit Tigers

Chicago White Sox

Minnesota Twins

What I felt could have been perhaps the most competitive division in baseball last year basically being the Indians and everyone else.  Now that Cleveland has improved even more, getting Michael Brantley back from injury and replacing the aging Mike Napoli with former Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion, the distance between them and the rest of the pack will be even greater.  They should top the division, and the league, with relative ease.  KC will be in a fairly similar predicament to the Marlins—they’ve got some decent talent in their line-up, and they’ve made all the right moves to try and retool their roster after last year’s disappointing campaign, but after the tragic death of Yordano Ventura, the rotation will simply be good, not great, and that won’t be enough to make up for the dent the offense will take thanks to Kendrys Morales’s departure.  The Royals will fight, but eventually fall short.  The Tigers seem to have too many question marks on their roster, mostly due to lack of consistency and the aging of their core, to really make a push for the post-season with their current roster, but if they can add another hitter and mid-rotation arm, they could have a slim shot.  The Sox and the Twins, meanwhile, are both in the middle of (relative) full rebuilds, and they’ll both end up as one of the worst five teams in the game.  I think the Pale Hose (read my more in-depth preview of their season here) probably have a little more talent on their roster than Minnesota as is, so if they don’t make any moves, I think that they’ll finish above the Twins, but if they trade two of their veteran core (Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, and Melky Cabrera), they could finish last.

 

AL East

Boston Red Sox (#2)

Toronto Blue Jays (#2 WC)

Baltimore Orioles

Tampa Bay Rays

New York Yankees

This is what I believe to be the best division in baseball.  If things were to fall right, every team has a shot of making the post-season.  The cream of the crop will be the Red Sox, who decided that the best way to get better after the retirement of David Ortiz was to bolster their pitching staff, which they did with the acquisition of star lefty Chris Sale from the White Sox.  His presence in Boston gives the team the deepest rotation in the AL, and while they won’t have the offense to propel themselves past the Indians in Big Papi’s absence, they’ll still be a force to be reckoned with.  Behind them will be The Blue Jays, who will maintain most of their incredible offense, with new acquisition Kendrys Morales being only a slight downgrade from slugger Edwin Encarnacion.  That being said, the Jays don’t have the pitching staff to match up with Boston, so they’ll have to duke it out with the Orioles—whose own offense, led by Adam Jones, is also incredibly potent, and who also have a rotation with a lot of major question marks—for the second wild card spot.  I think Toronto is slightly better on offense, though, so I’ll give them the play-off spot.  The Rays have the opposite problem of their divisional counterparts—they’ve got the pitching to make the post-season, but not the bats.  In a league where power numbers are rising, I feel Tampa just doesn’t have enough juice in their line-up to make it out of their tough division.  The Yankees have an unfortunate mix of both problems—they have some good hitters and some good hurlers, but not enough of either to prevent them from being the bottom dweller in this division.

 

Awards

 

National League

NL MVP: Kris Bryant, Cubs

It’s hard for players to repeat as MVP award winners, but it’s also hard to be as good as Bryant when people know that you’re one of the best hitters in baseball and there’s still nothing that they can do about it.  The third baseman should win this one pretty easily.

 

NL Cy Young: Noah Syndergaard, Mets

Thor was the last of the Mets’ three great starters to reach the majors, but he has quickly matured into the best of them.  He only threw 183 innings last season, so he should be fairly fresh coming into the season, and should be able to dominate hitters that have yet to figure out how to catch up to his incredible fastball.

 

NL Rookie of the Year: Dansby Swanson, Braves

The former number one overall draft pick flashed his extraordinary talent in his 38-game cameo last season, and this year he’s got a stronger line-up around him, which will allow him to see more pitches.  The wear of a full season in the bigs will certainly hinder him a bit, but that’s the case for all rookies; the Vandy product should win this with ease.

 

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Kyle Schwarber, Cubs

I was torn between picking Schwarber and the Pirates star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who is certainly a better all-around player than the Cubs slugger.  The two deciding factors in my decision to pick Schwarber were that it seems as if the big man will spend some significant time in the lead-off spot this season, which will give him a significant number of great AB’s, and that I have the Cubs making the play-offs and the Pirates missing out.

 

NL Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker, Nationals

Dusty hasn’t been the greatest fit for this Nationals team, as his more old-school ways don’t mesh with the louder, more aggressive game put forward by guys like Bryce Harper.  That being said, if the veteran manager can get his team to push the Cubs in the NL, which I think he will, than he’ll deserve this award.

 

NL Best Offseason Acquisition: Dexter Fowler, Cardinals

Fowler’s importance to last year’s Cubs team simply cannot be understated—I don’t think that they would have won without his consistency at the top of the order and in the field.  That the Cardinals were able to get him, at a far more reasonable price than they would have paid had Jayson Heyward decided to stick around, as a big win for John Mozeliak.

 

NL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Ian Desmond, Rockies

Desmond has always been a decent hitter, and will do well enough while batting in Colorado; that much is clear.  It’s also clear that his year in Texas last year was probably an outlier, and that he’s going to be a fairly major liability in the field.  That Colorado dumped so much money at him is a major surprise to me.

 

American League

AL MVP: Francisco Lindor, Indians

If the Indians are to top the American League, their do-it-all shortstop will have to be at the center of everything.  It makes sense to reward the best player on the best team, doesn’t it?

 

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Red Sox

Yeah, I picked Sale to win this last year.  That didn’t work out so great.  But the lanky left is getting a fresh start in Boston this year (that’s you crying, not me), and he’ll be anxious to prove his worth on a contender.  Opposing hitters won’t get to take a day off, either, as none of the BoSox starters are slouches.  Sale is the best of them all, though, and I think he’ll haul in the hardware.

 

AL Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox

Benintendi looked great after being called up in September last year, and he looked great this spring, too.  The athletic outfielder is incredibly well-rounded and figures to play an important role on what will certainly be one of the top teams in baseball, which should be enough to earn him this award if the stats he’ll put up and the incredible plays he’ll make aren’t enough.

 

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Moustakas, Royals

Moustakas was the focal point of a Royals team that made it to the World Series two straight years, and the team’s offense struggled mightily last year, due in large part to his absence for much of the season.  His return won’t be enough to get KC back into the play-offs, but it will be enough to get him this award.

 

AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Indians

I used the same logic for this one that I did for having Francona’s player, Lindor, win the MVP award—it only makes sense to reward the guy that’s in charge of the best team in his respective league, right?  I sure think so.

 

AL Best Offseason Acquisition: Jason Hammel, Royals

Hammel was often overshadowed by his big-name teammates in Chicago—and rightfully so, the righty isn’t a star— but he was a valuable innings-eater for a very good team.  His durability will make him a very important commodity for a Royals team looking to fill the hole left by the death of Yordano Ventura, and at $6 million a season, Hammel is a very good fit for that role.

 

AL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Jason Castro, Twins

I’m of the frame of mind that a bad team signing a good player to an expensive deal is not a very bright idea.  That’s exactly what the Twins did here with Castro—he’s a great pitch framer and OK at the plate, but with an AAV of over $8 million a season, this signing just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

 

Playoffs

 

National League

Wildcard

Giants over Mets

Wild card games frequently come down to which team has a better ace, so this one, which will be a game that sees my NL Cy Young award winner square off against one of the best play-off pitchers in recent memory.  Because both pitchers are so good, though, I feel this one will be determined by who is able to crack the opposing pitcher, and since I feel the Giants have a better line-up, I think they’ll be the ones to do it.  San Fran moves on.

 

Division Series

Cubs over Giants

A re-match of last year’s divisional series, one which the Cubs were able to win by taking advantage of San Fran’s weak bullpen.  Adding Melancon will certainly help, but the rest of the ‘pen still remains a question mark, and that’s simply not going to do when you’re playing a team that’s as good as Chicago.  The Cubs will win again.

 

Nationals over Dodgers

Another match-up from last year’s post-season, this cross-country series will certainly be an intriguing one.  LA was able to pull off a victory largely due to the heroics of Clayton Kershaw, who but his team on his back to make it to the NLCS.  This year, though, the Nats will have a stronger line-up, and the Dodgers’ rotation behind Kershaw is uncertain as it’s been in the last few seasons.  Expect Bryce Harper and Trea Turner to lift their team into the second LCS appearance in team history.

 

Championship Series

Cubs over Dodgers

Hey, look—a series that isn’t a rematch!  Both teams have incredibly potent offenses and great starters at the front of their rotations.  It’ll come down, then, to whether or not each team’s bullpen can close out big games.  The Cubs have what amounts to the same set-up as last year, with Wade Davis in place of Aroldis Chapman.  The Nats, meanwhile, might end up going with a closer-by-committee approach, and don’t really have a deeply talented ‘pen as a whole.  That will make the difference in this one, and the Cubbies will advance to their second straight World Series.

 

AL

Wildcard

Astros over Blue Jays

As I said before, the team that has typically won these wild-card games is the one that has the better starting pitcher.  As good as Marco Estrada is, I think that the advantage has to go to Dallas Keuchel, and for that reason, the ‘Stros will pull this one out and advance to the divisional series.

 

Division Series

Red Sox over Astros

I’m kind of bummed out that the way I see the season playing out has these two teams meeting in this round instead of the LCS, because I think that their strengths match the other’s weaknesses better than most play-off pairings.  That being said, though, I think that Boston’s offense is strong enough to trouble the back of Houston’s rotation, and the opposite is not true.  The Red Sox will win in a hard-fought series that should go to 5 games.

 

Indians over Rangers

I could basically use the same logic for this one that I did for the Red Sox-Astros series, except I think the weakness is more stark for Texas than it was for Houston (figure that one out).  The Rangers aren’t going to be able to start Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels in every game in this series, and Cleveland’s line-up is so good from top to bottom that I don’t even think it would matter if they did, anyway.  The defending AL champs should move on with relative ease.

 

Championship Series

Red Sox over Indians

I’ve made it pretty clear that I think that both Cleveland and Boston have pretty good offensive ability, and that Boston’s pitchers are pretty darn good.  What about Cleveland’s?  Their bullpen is second to none, but they’re going to need something from their starters to get it there, and outside of Corey Kluber, the players the BoSox will be starting have had relative success against the Indians’ starters.  That gives Boston’s staff a relative advantage over their opponents, and it’ll be the members of that staff that lift their team to victory in this series.

 

World Series

Red Sox over Cubs

This match-up between the two teams with the oldest stadiums in baseball, and the most history of any teams not named the Yankees, will surely be a treat.  I think that these two squads have the deepest rosters, 1-25, in the game, and have the best talent in the game.  The difference in this one will be, as it has been for every other series that Boston will have been involved in, their pitching staff.  Chicago struggled mightily when they faced Cleveland’s ace, Corey Kluber, in last year’s Series—when he wasn’t tired, at least, having had to start three games in the series.  In Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, and David Price, though, the Red Sox have three guys that could be considered aces, all of whom bring a different arsenal to the table.  Their dominance will prevent the Cubbies from repeating and bring the Series back to Boston.

2017 White Sox Season Preview

Last year’s White Sox had all of the talent to contend for a play-off place.  As the season drew on, though, inconsistent performances and clubhouse turmoil cost manager Robin Ventura his job and saw Rick Hahn undertake a major re-evaluation of the team’s future.  Now, this year’s team not will not only have a new manager in Rick Renteria, but a new ace and a new lead-off hitter, as Hahn flipped Chris Sale and Adam Eaton to the Red Sox and Nationals, respectively, for prospects.  With all the new talent coming up the youth pipeline, there’s a lot to be excited about for the future of the team.  However, the future might look a little bit different.  Here’s my preview of the upcoming 2017 season for the White Sox:

 

Outfield:

LF- Melky Cabrera

CF- Charlie Tilson

RF- Avisail Garcia

On a team that could soon be full of youngsters, the current corner outfielders for the Sox are among the most veteran members of the team.  Cabrera is the oldest player on the team, and Garcia is one of their longest-tenured players.  In addition to being among the team’s older players, they have consistently been amongst the most frustrating—Cabrera has consistently hit for a decent average in Chicago, but his power numbers and play in the field have always left something to be desired, and injuries, combined with an inconsistent work ethic, have doomed Garcia to a fate of being a bit-part player instead of the guy with the potential to jack 30 bombs a season.  With both of them only one year away from free agency, I’m sure that they’ll perform well, but it’ll certainly be too little, too late from many fans’ perspectives.

The revolving door at the team’s center field position will continue this year, with the Wilmette native Tilson, who was acquired for Zach Duke in a trade with the Cardinals this past July, figuring to be the main man.  Tilson was once rated as one of the top ten prospects in the deep St. Louis system, and has consistently demonstrated great skills on the field and on the bases.  However, he struggled at the plate after reaching the higher levels of the minors and has had a couple of injury issues since joining the tram.  He’ll need to improve his skills at the plate to have a chance of cementing down a spot that’s been filled with uncertainty since Aaron Rowand manned the positon back in 2005.

 

Infield:

3B- Todd Frazier

SS- Tim Anderson

2B- Tyler Saladino

1B- Jose Abreu

C- Omar Navarez

DH- Cody Asche

The players that started last year at the corners—Frazier and Abreu—remain in place from last year’s team, but everything other position has a drastically different person in place.  The former Cincinnati Red had a decent first year in Chicago, becoming a fan favorite while hitting lots of home runs and striking out a bunch; he figures to perform roughly the same this year.  Abreu, meanwhile, has seemingly slowed down a little bit since his phenomenal rookie year.  Major league pitchers have begun targeting his weaknesses, and as the focal point of an offense that doesn’t have a lot of pop, he figures to see less good pitches than he has in previous years.  He’ll have to make some adjustments to stay among the upper echelon of power-hitting first basemen in the league.

Up the middle, the Pale Hose have two youngsters that may not be very good with the bat, but are excellent athletes and should both be key contributors on any future teams.  The more highly touted of the pair, Anderson, has long been slated to be a solid pro.  He showed his skills on the base paths and started to utilize his speed and power towards the end of last season, showing why he was considered the team’s top prospect last year, and figures to continue his solid play into this year.  Saladino, meanwhile, has come out of seemingly nowhere to be a fairly productive role player for the Sox.  He’ll eventually have his place taken by Yoan Moncada, but is an adequate placeholder, and a good future reserve, for the team.

The other two projected starters here, Navarez and Asche, don’t jump off the page at you; that’s probably because there’s not a whole lot about their games that really stand out.  Navarez will get playing time by virtue of his good pitch-framing skills, but hasn’t demonstrated much ability to hit major league pitching, while a guy who has 33 career home runs is slated to start at a position that is largely known for gaudy power numbers.

 

Bench:

C- Kevan Smith

2B- Yolmer Sanchez

OF- Jacob May

I recognize that Smith is probably a guarantee to start the season in Charlotte, especially because of his weaknesses at the plate.  He’s a good defender, though, and his familiarity with the pitching staff holdovers, as well as with manager Rick Renteria, should, in my opinion, earn him a roster spot for Opening Day.

Sanchez, formerly known as Carlos, is another guy that isn’t all that great at the bat, but whose defense should earn him a spot on the team.  He won’t see much playing time, since the guys in front of him figure to play a part of the team’s future, but will be a valuable reserve, and left-handed bat, to have around.

I didn’t expect May, a former third round draft pick in 2013 that hasn’t exactly excelled in the minors, to play a role on this year’s team.  But in a year in which there are lots of available roster spots and where we should expect the unexpected, the versatile outfielder has had a great spring and has essentially played himself onto the roster.  He could see a lot of time, too, especially with Tilson’s foot issues and Garcia’s frustrating inconsistencies.

 

Rotation:

Jose Quintana- LHP

Carlos Rodon- LHP

James Shields- RHP

Miguel Gonzalez- RHP

Derek Holland- LHP

Now that former ace Chris Sale is in Boston, it’s Jose Quintana’s show now.  There’s still a pretty decent chance that the lefty gets shipped somewhere this year, whether it be before the season starts or towards the trade deadline, but assuming he’s on the team to start the year, he’ll finally get a chance at being “the man” in a big-league rotation.  Behind him, Rodon is probably the only guy that showed any real type of consistency last year; he’s got some control issues to work out, but still has one of the most underrated fastballs in the game and is a good compliment to Q at the top.

The other three guys in the rotation are… shaky, to say the least.  James Shields was acquired mid-season last year in hopes that he would recover the form that made him elite in Tampa Bay and Kansas City; he ended up being worse after the trade than before it, and that’s saying something.  Miguel Gonzalez was picked up after being released by the Orioles last year and was incredibly inconsistent.  Derek Holland is coming off of major shoulder surgery.  All of these guys have the potential to be as good as #2 pitchers, but the issues that they’ve had—control problems, injury issues, and lots and lots of homers allowed—won’t go away fast; I expect them to have a pretty tough year.

 

Bullpen:

Zach Burdi- RHP

Zach Putnam- RHP

Michael Ynoa- RHP

Cory Luebke- LHP

Dan Jennings- LHP

Nate Jones- RHP

Jake Petricka- RHP

David Robertson- RHP (closer)

The Sox bullpen is going to see a lot of action this year, especially if Quintana is traded away.  That much is incredibly clear.  Outside of Nate Jones, Dan Jennings, and David Robertson, though, there aren’t many guys to be overly confident about.  There’s a couple of guys punching above their weight (Putnam and Ynoa), a couple guys trying to rebuild their careers after some injury issues (Luebke and Petricka), and a youngster (Burdi).  They have some good potential, but if you’re looking for a big area of concern on this team, both in the present and the future, this is it.

I’m also a little bit concerned that Burdi, who was drafted last year after throwing some impressive innings as a starter/closer hybrid at Louisville but profiles more as a closer in the pros, is a good fit for this roster at the moment—Jones and Robertson have the back end of the ‘pen locked down—but if Robertson, who was heavily involved in trade rumors this off-season, gets moved, it’ll have been a good choice to choose the local kid for the major league roster as opposed to some of the more highly-touted starters that the team recently acquired (more on them later).  For now, I don’t think he’s a great fit, and hope that if he does make the roster that it isn’t a detriment to his career.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

3B- Matt Davidson

IF- Yoan Moncada

OF- Peter Bourjos

That Davidson is currently in consideration for a roster spot this season is a testament to the hard work that he’s put in over the last 3 years in Charlotte.  He batted .268 last season, which wasn’t brilliant, but he flashed some of the power and fielding ability that inspired the Sox to trade for him in exchange for Addison Reed.  If Cody Asche or Carlos Sanchez struggle at all, expect to see Davidson get an extensive shot in the big leagues this season.

Moncada is well-known to be the team’s top prospect, but since he has the most big-league experience of all the team’s up-and-comers, I’m putting him here so we can talk about all of the incredible youngsters coming up in the team’s system.  Moncada is a freak athlete that is already exceptional in the field, and once he figures out some holes in his swing, he has the potential to grow into a player very similar to what Astros star Carlos Correa is now.  He’ll see the bigs at some time this year, and he’ll make an immediate impact.

Bourjos, who came up with the Angels, is not a fantastic hitter, but he’s shown enough competence at the plate, and enough excellence in the field, to stick around in the majors for a while.  His bat will (theoretically) keep him behind a couple other players, but with Tilson’s injury history and Jacob May’s rawness, Bourjos could see some time—he might even start the season with the Sox if Tilson starts the season on the DL.

 

Top Prospects:

Reynaldo Lopez- RHP

Michael Kopech- RHP

Lucas Giolito- RHP

C- Zack Collins

Carson Fulmer- RHP

Lopez certainly looks the most polished out of any of the prospects that the Sox acquired after trading away Sale and Eaton.  In fact, were Lopez not sent down to AAA the other day, I’d have thought he’d stayed with the big club, in a role similar to the one that Sale had when he was initially called up.  He’ll get some time to polish his stuff for a little while, and I bet that he’ll be called up within a couple months; he doesn’t have the ceiling as some of his fellow youngsters, but he’s sure to be a consistent fixture before we know it.

Kopech is one of the freakiest pitchers at any level—his fastball has touched 103 in-game, and he has the potential to eclipse 105 one day if he keeps up his unorthodox workout routines.  He struggled with his control and attitude when in Boston’s system, so he’ll start in either A or AA, but if he lessens his focus on speed and puts a little more effort into locating his pitches, he’s got the chance of being a bigger, stronger version of Justin Verlander.

Giolito was the biggest name that the Sox got in the deal for Adam Eaton.  Out of anyone, the former high school draft pick has the best stuff—mid 90’s heat, a big breaking curve, and a sneaky good changeup—but has gotten hammered in his limited big league action, as his effectiveness fluctuates like a roller coaster.  Personally, I see him turning into more of a Jon Adkins than a Stephen Strasburg, but if he can fulfill his potential, he’ll be a frontline starter for many years to come.

Collins is one of two homegrown prospects that profiles as one of the 100 best in baseball.  His college career actually very closely mirrors Kyle Schwarber’s- both were bigger, solid-hitting catchers that many viewed to be reaches as draft picks, but ended up raking in rookie ball.  The former Miami man hit a bit of a wall in Single A, so he might take a bit longer than Schwarber to develop, but he certainly has the potential to reach the Cubs star’s level.

Fulmer has been overshadowed by Collins and the profiles of the bigger-named prospects the team has acquired in trades, but we can’t ignore the former Vanderbilt star’s ability.  He struggled in his limited time in the majors last year, and he certainly needs some adjustments in the minor leagues, but there’s a reason Rick Hahn made him a first round draft pick.  I don’t expect him to see any time in Chicago this year, but if he does, it’ll be because he’s flashing the ability that makes him a potential future ace.

 

Possible Surprises:

C- Geovany Soto

UT- Leury Garcia

SP- Chris Volstad

Catcher is probably the weakest position of the current major league roster, and Soto has a fantastic opportunity to eke another year or two in the big leagues.  His bat has really fallen off a cliff these past couple seasons, but he’s always been pretty solid against lefties, and his veteran experience could be valuable to a team that’s sure to be filled with young faces.

Leury Garcia doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a utility player—he’s a little on the small side but he is capable of playing in both the infield and the outfield, and showed that he is a very capable backup while filling in for Adam Eaton when he was injured back in 2013.  His best spot now is probably in the infield, though, and I think he’ll see the big club if either Sanchez, Saladino, or even Asche (Frazier moves to DH) struggle to get going.

On the pitching side of things, Volstad is another veteran that has a chance to make a difference for the Sox this season.  The 6’8” starter last pitched for an MLB team back in 2015, but in a league that greatly values hurlers that have one exceptional pitch, Volstad’s sinker has always been a good out pitch.  It has the potential to boost him into spot starter role if the team’s young guns struggle, or if they’re searching for an innings-eater at the back of the rotation.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

SS    Anderson

2B   Saladino

1B   Abreu

3B   Frazier

LF    Cabrera

DH   Asche

RF    Garcia

C     Navarez

CF   Tilson

I recognize that I’ve been fairly negative in my outlook for many aspects of this year’s team for the Sox, and rightly so—they’ve got some pretty glaring weaknesses, and they don’t really have much of a chance to contend for the play-offs, much less make them.  Assuming that Frazier and Abreu stick around for the season, they’ll have a somewhat competent offense, and if Quintana stays, then they might even have a chance of being better than the Twins this year.  The way this rebuild is going, though, I can’t see Rick Hahn keeping Q around for the whole year.  The Sox offense will end up around league average, but after the team’s ace is traded, their pitching staff will merely be adequate, and in a league where the talent level is rapidly growing, that won’t be good enough.  They won’t be too terrible, though; that adequate offense will allow them to top the Twins and stay out of the cellar in the AL Central.  That doesn’t mean that they won’t end up as one of the worst five teams in baseball, because they certainly will be; but they’ve got some pieces of a future core that will surely lift the Sox back into the national spotlight real soon.

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

2017 Cubs Season Preview

The 2016 Chicago Cubs will forever be remembered as the team that finally broke the longest championship drought in professional sports history, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to topple the Cleveland Indians.  During last year’s run to victory, stars were born and legends were made; the big guns performed when it mattered, and role players stepped up to bring the team their first title in 108 years.  Now, the “Lovable Losers” have to prepare to defend their title.  Their core is still in place, but some little changes around the edges could ultimately make or break how successful they are in accomplishing their goal.  Will they be able to reign supreme for a second straight season, or will another club manage to topple them from their throne?  Here’s my outlook for what the Cubs will look like in this coming year:

 

Outfield:

LF- Kyle Schwarber

CF- Jason Heyward

RF- Ben Zobrist

In this roster configuration, I’m attempting to maximize the line-up potential that Joe Maddon has at his disposal.  It’ll be interesting to see what the manager ultimately does with Zobrist, the hero of Game 7 of the World Series; he started at second base for most of last season, but if we’re trying to maximize offense here, it’ll be tough to keep a guy with as much firepower as Javy Baez out of the line-up (more on that later).  So Zobrist will have to find his way to right, a position that will force the team’s most expensive player, Heyward, over to center, at what could be a defensive detriment to the team.  The former Cardinal’s contract looks more and more like an albatross every time he steps into a batter’s box—he still seems to be struggling mightily with his swing, and moving him to center is not only a misuse of his talents, but prevents one of the team’s best remaining prospects, Albert Almora, from getting reasonable playing time.  There’s a high chance, though, that Maddon looks at how Baez’s production fell off in the World Series and sticks Zobrist back in the infield, allowing Heyward to play his regular spot; there’s really no certainty in that regard.  The only thing that is certain is that Heyward, despite his huge contract, really needs to pick it up if he wants to assure himself of regular playing time on this incredibly deep and talented roster.

The only outfield spot that’s really locked down is one that, six months ago, nobody could have ever anticipated.  Kyle Schwarber’s remarkable comeback from his knee injury early last season, his presence in the World Series, and the impact that he made in his limited time made it clear that he deserves a spot in this line-up.  With a full off-season to continue his rehab, and to prepare for what could be his first full season as a full-time starter in both the majors and the outfield, the former Indiana man should continue his development into a power-hitting superstar.

  

Infield:

3B- Kris Bryant

SS- Addison Russell

2B- Javier Baez

1B- Anthony Rizzo

C- Willson Contreras

Arguably the two biggest position players in the entire National League will man the corners for the Cubs this year.  Bryant, who won the NL MVP award last year, didn’t have incredibly mind-blowing statistics, but the third baseman’s combination of solid contact, strong power, and nifty fielding make him one of the most valuable players in the game.  Rizzo, meanwhile, had himself a career year at the dish last season, batting .292 and knocking in 109 runs, and while his performance in the post-season wasn’t exactly up to scratch, it was his leadership abilities that really took center stage, as his enthusiasm helped buoy his team, especially when they seemed down-and-out following the Cleveland Indians’ win in Game 4 of the Series.  Both men will be essential if the Cubs are to have any chance of repeating.

The two youngsters up the middle are models of consistency and inconsistency, steadiness and streakiness.  The consistent one, Russell, might never be a star at the bat—he batted .238 last season, and he struck out (135) more times than he got a hit (125)—but he still managed to come up big when it mattered, as he knocked in 95 runs from a spot low in the batting order, and his defense saved many a base hit for the team’s pitching staff.  He’ll never be elite, but you know what you’ll get from him.  His double play partner, Baez, has the potential to be one of the greatest hitters at his position in baseball history.  He’s a freaky athlete with quick hands and top-level power, as evidenced by his many moonshots, but his aggressiveness has made him even more prone to strikeouts than Russell, and he’s fairly error-prone, having not fully mastered playing second base yet.  He should put up enough power numbers to hold down most of the playing time at second, but if Albert Almora or prospect Ian Happ find their strokes, and the back end of the rotation proves to be a problem for the team, expect Baez’s name to be floated in some trade rumors.

The man behind the plate, Contreras, was a mid-season call-up that caught fire as the regular season came to a close and essentially won the starting role based on that performance.  I worry about his transition to being a true full-time guy, especially with David Ross no longer present to give day-to-day guidance, so I don’t think he’ll see as much time as many expect, but in a couple years I reckon he’ll be one of the most complete catchers in baseball.

 

Bench:

C- Miguel Montero

2B- Tommy La Stella

OF- Jon Jay

OF- Matt Szczur

Montero won’t be happy playing in a reserve role for another season—he made that abundantly clear—but with David Ross retired and the man in front of him, Contreras, preparing to play in his first full he’s guaranteed to get more playing time than last season.  Playing for what could be his last good contract, I actually expect Montero to get the most playing time behind the dish this year.

There’s actually a pretty high chance that La Stella doesn’t end up on the roster—as I mentioned earlier, it’s likely that Jason Heyward will start the season in right, which would force Ben Zobrist to second base, Javier Baez to the bench, and…  La Stella to the minors.  In this scenario, though, the versatile infielder is kept around to provide a veteran presence off the bench.

Jay was signed to help fill the void left when Dexter Fowler departed for St. Louis, and he’ll do just that—help fill the void.  A lefty, he actually hit better against lefthanders last year, so he’s capable of taking at-bats in any situation.  For that reason, he figures to have an important role somewhere down the line.

There’s a chance that Szczur could end up not being on the big club this spring, but there’s a couple reasons that I see him beating out Almora for a roster spot—the former multi-sport star at Villanova is out of options, and since Almora hasn’t quite demonstrated that he’s capable of hitting major league pitching yet, I think that the gritty veteran makes the team.  If he struggles, though, or if Almora rakes in the minors, expect the team to gauge what interest there would be in him on the trade market.

 

 

Rotation:

Jon Lester- LHP

Jake Arrieta- RHP

Kyle Hendricks- RHP

John Lackey- RHP

Brett Anderson- LHP

You know that your team has a strong rotation if a guy that figures to be the long-term third starter, Hendricks, led the league in ERA last season (Hendricks will open the season as the 5th starter, due to the team’s desire to thrown John Lackey against his old team, St. Louis).  Jon Lester recovered his mojo in his second year in Chicago, finishing with a career-low 2.44 ERA, and earning the right to be the ace of this deep staff.  Arrieta, the bearded warrior, struggled in the second half of last season, but on a contract year, I expect the big righty to try to pick it up a notch in search of a big new deal.  Then there’s Hendricks, a man whose pinpoint control brought him to new heights last season.  I’m sure that he’s due to fall off a little bit, but if it’s only a little, the 27-year-old has a chance to be the future ace in Chicago in the vein of what the legendary Greg Maddux once was.

The back end of the rotation will be filled out by a couple of veterans looking to show that they’re still worthy of being members of a championship team.  Lackey is known to be a great leader (not to mention incredibly fiery) for this squad, and his 3.36 ERA last year proves he’s still got it, but I’m a tad worried about how long he can continue to be effective, especially as his innings decrease.  The best older pitchers rely on their ability to control their pitches and eat innings, and his 188.1 innings last year were his least since his horrendous 2011 season in Boston.  Behind him will be Anderson, who is coming off an injury-filled season with the Dodgers but has the stuff to be a solid mid-rotation option.  At this point, though, I can’t see him making it through the whole season unscathed; he’ll pitch well when he’s available, but if he tops 20 starts I’ll be incredibly surprised.

 

Bullpen:

Carl Edwards Jr.- RHP

Justin Grimm- RHP

Mike Montgomery- LHP

Brian Duensing- LHP

Pedro Strop- RHP

Hector Rondon- RHP

Koji Uehara- RHP

Wade Davis- RHP (closer)

When it became clear that the Cubs weren’t front-runners to bring back Aroldis Chapman, and that it was unlikely they could sign the other two big-name free agent closers, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, the team’s front office worked fast.  They flipped Jorge Soler, who has star potential but has struggled for consistency in his two full years with the big club, to Kansas City in exchange for Davis, who was the best closer on the trade market.  He may not have the power pitch that Chapman had, but the former Royal might actually be more consistent, and his presence will keep the 9th inning in good hands for this year’s team.

Jed Hoyer also made a couple of shrewd free agent pick-ups to fill some needs.  With former closer Hector Rondon figuring to move back to his hybrid set-up/middle relief role, a true set-up man was needed, so Hoyer signed former Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara, who, at 42, is still capable of being incredibly effective.  Travis Wood’s departure also left a hole for a left-handed reliever in the ‘pen, so Hoyer inked veteran Brian Duensing, who has great splits against lefties, to a deal.  He won’t see as much action as Wood, but he could yet prove to be a useful piece.

The hold-overs from last year’s roster will complete what could be one of the most underrated bullpens in all of baseball.  There’s a couple fire-ballers (Edwards Jr. and Grimm), a couple of guys with great control (Montgomery and Strop), and Rondon, whose arsenal doesn’t have anything that particularly stands out but is very effective in high-leverage situations.  The best of the bunch is probably the man who finished off last year’s championship victory, Montgomery, who could see some time as a starter if Brett Anderson struggles.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

3B- Jeimer Candelario

CF- Albert Almora

LHP- Zac Rosscup

Candelario didn’t get much playing time after being added to the 40-man roster this past July, and while it’s evident that he still needs to work on figuring out major league pitching, he’s fared well in the minors, as he hit .333 in Iowa before being called up.  His versatility—he can play any infield spot except first—and speed could also make him a valuable reserve at some point during the year.

Almora is certainly talented enough to start the season in Chicago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, but I still think that he needs to have better control of the strike zone before I think he really deserves to get real playing time for the duration of the season.  He’ll get called up at the first sign of injury or struggles for any of the outfielders, and he’ll surely be an important part of the team down the stretch, but I just feel he should start the year in Iowa.

Rosscup hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015, owing to the poor spring he had last year that caused him to start the year in Iowa and the shoulder surgery he had last May that forced him to miss the season.  As a lefty specialist that has pitched in parts of three seasons in the Show, though, Rosscup could find a role at the back end of the team’s ‘pen, especially if Brian Duensing struggles.

 

Top Prospects:

Dylan Cease- RHP

2B- Ian Happ

OF- Eloy Jimenez

Most of the Cubs’ big prospects have cracked the big leagues, but that doesn’t mean that the cupboard is bare; far from it.  We’ll start with Cease, a flame-throwing righty that can hit triple digits with every pitch.  As with all high-speed pitchers, though, he’s had some issues with locating his pitches, and the organization is still working out if he would be better suited as a starter or reliever.  Either way, as long as he can figure out how to reign in his heater, he’ll be a big arm to have when he finally makes it to the Show.

Happ has been absolutely on fire in spring training, batting a robust .407 as of this writing, but has yet to play a single professional game above AA.  That being said, his progress at the plate is really turning heads, and his ability to play multiple positions—he played mostly outfield in college, but spent most of his time last season at second—makes him a very valuable asset.  If he continues to see the ball well, he could well work his way into playing time with the big club, especially if Matt Szczur ends up leaving the organization, before many could have anticipated he would.

Of course, his path to outfield playing time might be slowed a little bit by Jimenez, the team’s top prospect.  Jimenez seems to be what many people hoped Jorge Soler would be—a big, solid athlete with impressive defensive instincts and upper-deck power.  Jimenez is still a little bit too aggressive at the plate, and breaking pitches seem to give him a decent amount of trouble, but the talent is there, and if he can continue to improve—his average in the minors went from .227 in his first season to .329 last year—the 20-year-old outfielder is sure to have a great career in Cubbie blue.

 

Possible Surprises:

IF- Jemile Weeks

OF- Jacob Hannemann

Weeks, the younger brother of former Brewer, and Cub tormenter, Rickie Weeks, is a do-it-all type player that can play virtually every position on the field and has some speed to burn.  There’s still a lot of good prospects that should see the bigs before Weeks ever would, but everyone knows how much Joe Maddon values guys that are able to fill gaps all over the field, and Weeks fits that bill.

Hannemann doesn’t rate among the team’s top 15 prospects—perhaps because the 25-year-old former third round pick has really struggled with minor league pitching, still not proving that he can handle moving to a level above AA.  That being said, there’s a reason that the Hawaiian was such a highly regarded draft pick.  He’s a good athlete and has shown that, despite his general struggles at the plate, he’s not all that bad at putting the bat on the ball.  If he’s able to figure out his swing, he could end up being a Shane Victorino-lite, a late-bloomer from the Island State that’s quick and makes good contact.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

CF    Heyward

LF    Schwarber

3B   Bryant

1B   Rizzo

2B   Baez

RF   Zobrist

SS    Russell

C     Contreras

P     Lester

The Cubs have what is arguably the most talented team in all of baseball, and coming off their first title in a very, very long time, they’ll be anxious to prove that they can go above and beyond last year’s miracle.  Ultimately, though, I don’t think they’ll win it all this year.  I’m worried about the drop-off that Kyle Hendricks will almost certainly face, as well struggles Jake Arrieta had last year, and what could happen to the team if both aren’t always on their groove.  I worry about the back of the rotation and their ability to maintain consistency.  I worry about the outfield, and the uncertainty about who is going to get playing time, and if those players are going to be deserving of that time.  Besides, with the parity that baseball has, it’s near impossible to repeat.  This team is excellent, and they’ll certainly challenge for the World Series, but I think that the small weaknesses that the roster does have will compound on themselves just enough to prevent the Cubbies from repeating as champions.

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

The Week that Was: 2017 NFL Free Agency

This past Thursday marked one week since the start of this year’s free agency period in the NFL.  While the debate over whether building through the draft or free agency is the better move, teams across the country dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on players that they hope will make their teams better in the coming seasons.  Whether the signings pan out or not, of course, remains to be seen; here, I attempt to bring some semblance of organization to a week filled with transactions and unexpected drama while analyzing some of the most impactful moves so far this off-season.

 

CB AJ Bouye to Jaguars- 5 years, $67.5 million, $26 million guaranteed

CB Stephon Gilmore to Patriots- 5 years, $65million, $40 million guaranteed

The two biggest contracts that have been shelled out this week both went to cornerbacks, showing how valuable teams feel that potential number one cornerbacks can be.  Both Bouye and Gilmore come with some decent-sized question marks—Bouye has really only been a sure-fire starter for a year, and Gilmore has never quite lived up to his considerable physical gifts—but in the end, I think that the Jaguars and Patriots both got good value here.  The Jags have no real direction on the offensive side of the ball, so building a strong defense is the best way to get in the play-off hunt, and sticking Bouye across from Jalen Ramsey gives the team a terrific cornerback pair.  As for Gilmore, having him around to team up with Malcolm Butler at corner gives the Pats a deeper secondary—Gilmore, at 6’0″, would allow the smaller Butler to shift into the slot whenever it is required, and the new signing’s speed makes him a slot candidate, as well. Gilmore’s presence also gives Bill Belichick a nice “back-up plan” if the former Super Bowl hero leaves New England due to his current contract stalemate.

 

DL Calais Campbell to Jaguars- 4 years, $60 million, $30 million guaranteed

RG Kevin Zeitler to Browns- 5 years, $60 million, $31.5 million guaranteed

Both of these guys are really exceptional players that are opting to go from contenders (Cardinals, Bengals) to rebuilders (Jaguars, Browns).  Of course, the money certainly helps a little bit—considering the lack of depth along both lines in this year’s draft class, linemen were going at a premium, and these guys are probably the best of the best.  Even though he is almost 31 and is being paid more in base salary than the majority of players in this post, I think that Campbell is one of the better signings in this free agency.  He is extraordinarily versatile, able to shift back and forth between playing end and tackle, and doesn’t rely on any one particular move to beat his blocker, so I think he’ll be able to make an impact along the Jags’ defensive line for the duration of his contract.  As for Zeitler, how good of a signing this is for the Browns determine how well they build up their offense around their newly re-built offensive line, which also has stalwart Joe Thomas and new center JC Tretter.  They’re following an approach similar to Oakland’s—making a great offensive line and allowing the skill players around them to develop—but if Cleveland can’t get the right players to develop, they’ll be sinking a lot of money into a vicious, but ultimately useless, blocker.

 

LT Riley Reiff to Vikings- 5 years, $58.75 million, $26.3 million guaranteed

LT Matt Kalil to Panthers- 5 years, $55 million, $25 million guaranteed

LT Russell Okung to Chargers- 4 years, $53 million, $25 million guaranteed

Like I said earlier, linemen are really at a premium in this draft.  The contracts for these three men really prove that.  Don’t get me wrong—every one of these players is extraordinarily talented, all of them having been first round picks, and would be elite tackles if they were able to play to their potential—but the thing is, they have never really proven that they are capable of doing so.  We’ll start with Reiff, whose deal is probably the best of the aforementioned players, simply because the guaranteed money that Reiff was afforded is somewhat commensurate with how Reiff performed during his career in Detroit.  Because of that, the former Lion is effectively only on a two-year deal with Minnesota, which makes the huge contract a little bit more palatable, but the fact that he’s even getting that much money, considering his inconsistencies at both tackle positions, is a little but baffling.  That being said, his better days have been significantly better than those of the man of who he is basically replacing, Kalil, who is headed to Carolina to team up with his brother, center Matt, among concerns about Michael Oher’s concussion issues.  Kalil has had injury issues of his own, which have, admittedly, played a role in his up-and-down performances for Minnesota, but the fact of the matter is that the former Viking has never really learned to leverage his incredible physical gifts to turn into a competent blocker.  His contract will most likely end up as some type of disaster for the Panthers, which is certainly not a good thing, especially considering how cap struggles have negatively affected the team in recent years.  Okung’s deal falls somewhere in the middle of his two fellow tackles.  On one hand, he has shown that his ceiling is far higher than almost any tackle in the league, having performed at an elite level for the team that drafted him, Seattle.  On the other, though, he signed a disastrous contract with Denver last year that saw him released to the open market this year after what was an incredibly steep drop in performance.  Okung should bounce back, but he’ll never be able to reach the heights that he did with the Seahawks, even though the Chargers are paying him like he’s already there.

 

WR Pierre Garcon to 49ers- 5 years, $47.5 million, $17 million guaranteed

WR Robert Woods to Rams- 5 years, $39 million, $15 million guaranteed

The funny thing about these two deals is that they were both handed out to guys who were de-facto #2 receivers with their old teams– Garçon with Washington and Woods with Buffalo, respectively.  On account of that, both of these contracts strike me as slightly more expensive than they needed to be, but in the long run, I think that San Fran is getting a far better deal here.  I recognize that Garçon is 6 years older than his new NFC West rival, but the former Redskin very much fits the mold of an Anquan Boldin-type receiver, a veteran that is a great route runner with good hands, and Boldin was a key cog in the 49er offense the last time the team was good.  Woods, on the other hand, has struggled with consistency, despite getting a lot of single coverage opposite Sammy Watkins in Buffalo.  Rumor has it that the team wanted Woods because he’s both fast and strong, allowing him to be an exceptional edge blocker for what figures to be an offense predicated on running the ball with Todd Gurley, but a receiver’s main job is catching the ball, and if the Rams were looking for a good blocker, they surely could have found a player that they could have committed less money, and time, to than the former Bill.

 

QB Mike Glennon to Bears- 3 years, $45 million, $18.5 million guaranteed

There have been some very divided opinions about this signing for my hometown Bears.  Those that view this deal as a good one note Glennon’s decent performances as a starter with limited options in Tampa Bay, the former Buccaneer’s arm strength, and the fact that this contract is basically a one year one that is paying Glennon what is essentially league average for a starting quarterback.  Those that critique it wonder why a man that hasn’t started a game in over 2 years is suddenly worth market-value for Chicago, and question who else was bidding up the QB’s price that he deserved to get so much money.  In general, I think this is a decent signing for Chicago—yes, the deal is a bit pricy, but as I said, based on his guarantees, it’s basically a one year deal, and his presence will allow the team to develop whoever they (should) pick up in the draft to come along slowly instead of being thrown right into the fire.

 

Other Big Signings:

S Tony Jefferson to Ravens- 4 years, $36 million, $14 million guaranteed

My Grade: B-

RG Ronald Leary to Broncos- 4 years, $36 million, $24 million guaranteed

My Grade: B+

G Larry Warford to Saints- 4 years, $34 million, $17 million guaranteed

My Grade: C

LT Andrew Whitworth to Rams- 3 years, $33.75 million, $15 million guaranteed

My Grade: A

WR DeSean Jackson to Buccaneers- 3 years, $33.5 million, $20 million guaranteed

My Grade: A

 

Underrated Signings:

CB Captain Munnerlyn to Panthers- 4 years, $21 million, $10.5 million guaranteed

A somewhat-redeeming signing for Carolina.  It’s well-known that the Panthers were a bit of a mess at cornerback last year—their decision to call former star Josh Norman’s bluff backfired, and the lack of consistency in the defensive backfield was a big reason why they struggled on defense last year (and that, in turn, was probably the biggest reason why they missed the play-offs).  Enter Munnerlyn, who is return to the team that drafted him after spending the last 3 seasons in Minnesota.  He isn’t a very tall cornerback—he’s only 5’9”—but he’s used his speed and improved ball skills to cause problems for receivers, and he provides a veteran presence at a position that was devoid of it after Norman’s departure.  He’s a solid pick-up for Dave Gettleman, especially at an AAV of just over $5 million a year.

 

QB Brian Hoyer to 49ers- 2 years, $12 million, $10 million guaranteed

Brian Hoyer has had an up-and-down career—one that started with him being part of the revolving door of back-ups behind Tom Brady New England and has seen him undergo multiple renaissances after stepping in for injured starters (Houston, Chicago).  During times when he’s gotten extended playing time—and has had halfway decent weapons to work with—he has proven himself to be, at the very least, an average quarterback.  In today’s market, as showcased by Mike Glennon’s deal, an average quarterback might get anywhere from $10-15 million a year.  That he is only getting $6 million a year in a QB-friendly system that will surely enhance his what talent he already has makes him a good deal for San Fran.

 

FB Patrick DiMarco to Bills- 4 years, $8.4 million, $4.8 million guaranteed

DiMarco was a largely unnoticeable, but extremely crucial component to one of best offenses in recent memory.  He’s always been known as a fairly solid run blocker, but he improved his blitz recognition to become an adequate pass protector, and he’s also capable of being a weapon out of the backfield, having shown some decent speed and field awareness after catching passes.  That the Bills were able to get him for the price of a decent kicker is pretty impressive, considering how valuable he will be to LeSean McCoy and how little money he got in comparison to the other top fullback on the market (there’ll be more on him later).

 

WR Terrelle Pryor to Redskins- 1 year, $6 million, $6 million guaranteed

I recognize that another receiver that signed a similar deal to this one, Alshon Jeffery, got a contract that was just as good, if not better, than the one that Pryor got.  But the need for a receiver in Washington was much more pressing after the ‘Skins lost their top two targets from last season, seeing both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon get big contracts elsewhere.  Getting Pryor on what is essentially #2 receiver money, on a “prove-it” length deal, was greatly beneficial for the team and the player, especially since the former Ohio State star will (probably) be hauling in passes from a far better quarterback than anyone he had in Cleveland while offering the team an explosive option as a pass-catcher.

 

Overrated Signings:

WR Kenny Stills, Dolphins- 4 years, $31.9 million, $19.95 million guaranteed

Yes, I recognize that this is technically a re-signing, but we’re going to roll with it anyway.  I’m a big Stills fan—I think that New Orleans made a big mistake in trading him to Miami—but inking the receiver to a deal that will see him get paid like a low-end #1 is an even larger error from Miami.  The large touchdown numbers that he put up last season were largely a fluke (that’s probably what propelled him to such a large deal in the first place), and on top of that, he isn’t even the third best receiver on the team.  His presence, both on the field and on the salary cap, will almost certainly hamper DeVante Parker’s future with the team, which isn’t a great thing for the franchise.  A real questionable move here.

 

ILB Malcolm Smith to 49ers- 5 years, $26.5 million, $11.5 million guaranteed

Smith had his moment in the sun with the Seahawks after intercepting Peyton Manning and returning the pick for a touchdown back in Super Bowl .  Even then, though, teams recognized his limitations, and the Raiders gave him a two-year deal worth about $3.5 million a year.  He didn’t impress during his time in Oakland, being poor against the run and not flashing the coverage skills that earned him a role in Seattle.  Now, though?  Smith gets a deal worth over $5 million a year for a position that’s already fairly solidified due to the presence of NaVarro Bowman.  Another iffy decision by the new regime in San Fran.

 

FB Kyle Juszczyk to 49ers- 4 years, $21 million, $10.5 million guaranteed

Look, I get that there probably aren’t that many players that are going to want to sign for a team that’s been a doormat over the past couple seasons, no matter how much money you throw at them.  I get the there’s a reason that the former Raven fullback is considered an elite player at his position.  But let’s be real here—a rebuilding team dropping almost $11 million in guarantees on a fullback?  There had to be some other way that John Lynch could have put this money to better use in restocking the Niners.  I just don’t understand this one at all.

 

TE Dion Sims to Bears- 3 years, $18 million, $10 million guaranteed

Don’t get me wrong here—the Bears need a tight end or two.  Outside of incumbent starter Zach Miller, there isn’t really much depth.  But if you’re going to give a tight end this much money in guarantees, they better be pretty versatile.  Unfortunately, the Michigan State product has not proven himself to be anything of the sort so far.  In fact, he’s barely managed to start a third of his professional games, being held back by the oft-injured, and recently retired, Jordan Cameron.  That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a player that Chicago is paying like a bona-fide starter.

 

Key Re-Signings:

S Eric Berry, Chiefs- 6 years, $78 million, $38.7 million guaranteed

Kansas City made it clear that, when it came to whether Berry or Dontari Poe was more important to the performance of their defense, that the former Tennessee safety was “the man.”  The contract length itself may be a bit long, even for a guy with as much spring in his step as Berry—it’s increasingly rare to see anything beyond one or two years being guaranteed in the NFL anymore, unless you’re an elite quarterback— but making an exception for Berry was a smart move by KC.  It was essential that the Chiefs keep the face of their franchise around as long as they could.  So, in that sense, this a great deal for both sides, and a great story for Berry, who is getting rewarded handsomely after his phenomenal comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

 

ILB Dont’a Hightower, Patriots- 4 years, $43.5 million, $19 million guaranteed

Hightower’s status as the “unsung hero” of New England’s Super Bowl victory—his strip sack of Matt Ryan got the momentum going the Pats’ way—devalues the massive impact he had in Matt Petricia’s defense during the regular season, especially after fellow ‘backer Jaime Collins was shipped to Cleveland.  Without the tackle machine wreaking havoc in both the run and pass defenses, the Patriots wouldn’t have had anywhere near the defense required to make the run that they did to the Super Bowl.  The former Alabama linebacker was probably slightly disappointed in his market—in all honesty, I was surprised that the Chiefs didn’t try to find a way to move Jeremy Maclin and go after Hightower—so for him, this deal isn’t exactly ideal.  But he’s playing on a team where he has the best chance to succeed, and for an organization that values him.  Solid deal all-around.

 

RB Le’Veon Bell, Steelers- 1 year, $12.12 million (franchise tag)

As far as running backs go, this deal is a little bit on the expensive side.  But this isn’t just any running back we’re talking about; this is Bell, who, along with Antonio Brown, forms the most explosive 1-2 punch in all of football.  Tagging Bell allowed them to work out a long-term extension for Brown, who re-upped with the Steelers for another four years.  As the team works its way out of financial hardship, this is sure to be a simple segway to some big bucks for Bell in Pittsburgh.  His deal might be a little but below value for the back for this year, though it should work out for him and the team in the long run, which, if anyone has seen how explosive the Bell-Brown combination can be, is most certainly a great thing for Mike Tomlin and company.

 

DT Brandon Williams, Ravens- 5 years, $54 million, $27.5 million guaranteed

When you think of great Ravens defenses, you probably think of the vicious tackling machine Ray Lewis, or the ball-hawking safety Ed Reed.  However, a big man up front, Haloti Ngata, was pretty important to the best Ravens’ defenses of the past decade or so.  The similarities between those defenses and Baltimore’s defense this year, which finished 7th in yards allowed per game, are fairly obvious, then—most of the attention goes to CJ Mosley and Eric Weddle, and rightfully so.  But Williams played a crucial part in making the Ravens virtually impossible to run on in the second half of the season, and his ability to manage two blockers was crucial to the team’s pass rush.  The extension is a little steep, considering the deal that a player in a very similar mold, Damon Harrison, got in free agency last year, but if he can keep up his run-stuffing ways, GM Ozzie Newsome won’t have to worry about building up the defensive line anytime soon.

 

Other Important Re-Signings/Franchise Tags

OLB Chandler Jones, Cardinals- 5 years, $83 million, $53 million guaranteed

QB Kirk Cousins, Redskins- 1 year, $23.943 million (franchise tag)

WR Terrence Williams, Cowbots- 4 years, $17 million, $9.5 million guaranteed

DT Kawann Short, Panthers- 1 year, $13.648 million (franchise tag)

 

Best Still Available:

Jonathan Hankins, DT

Possible Suitors: Giants, Eagles, Dolphins

Hankins is a pretty versatile player—he’s good against the run, as all defensive tackles need to be in today’s game, and was one of the Giants’ better pass rushers last year.  That being said, he’s not at an elite level, even though he wants to be paid like he is.  That’s why he has yet to return to New York, where he is very much coveted, just at a lower price.  If the two sides can’t come to terms, there’s a threat that the rival Eagles, who lost Bennie Logan to the Chiefs, and Dolphins, who have been linked with Hankins for a while now, might be able to steal him away.  There’s no real frontrunner in his race so long as Hankins maintains his demands, so we’ll just have to wait and see how this one turns out.

 

Adrian Peterson, RB

Possible Suitors: Raiders, Packers, Cowboys

It’s somewhat understandable that the best back of his generation is still on the open market—he turns 32 in 2 days, he’s coming off a major knee injury, and is also coming off a huge contract with Minnesota that may give him and his agent an inflated sense of his value.  Again though: this guy is the best back of his generation, and produced for years behind iffy offensive lines.  Age is a major concern for the Raiders to take into account with Peterson, considering the youth of their core, but would otherwise be a great fit behind their excellent linemen.  The rival Packers would also be an interesting fit for his services, considering their inconsistencies in the running game since Ahman Green’s departure, and the Cowboys have also kicked the tires on using Peterson as a complement to their incredible second year man, Ezekiel Elliott.  In the end, though, expect the former Viking to wind up in Oakland.

 

Darrelle Revis, CB

Possible Suitors: Steelers, Patriots, Cowboys

The veteran corner struggled mightily in New York last season, and at 31, it looks like age might be catching up to the “Revis Island.”  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any teams that might be interested in eking out whatever Revis has left in the tank.  At the top of the list are the Steelers, who always seem to be interested in secondary help.  A reunion with the Patriots, especially considering the uncertainty around Malcolm Butler, and a contract with Dallas, who lost both Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr to free agency, are also possible.  The most likely outcome at this point seems to be retirement for Revis, but until he makes a definitive decision, there will be teams interested in his services.

 

Jay Cutler, QB

Possible Suitors: Jets, Browns

The strong-armed slinger, who was recently released by the Bears after spending 8 up-and-down years in Chicago, is the best veteran quarterback that’s still on the market.  The Jets really look like an idea fit for him, considering that the only two QB’s currently on their roster are still incredibly raw, but the team has yet to strike a balance on a deal that has good enough terms, especially duration wise, to please Cutler.  Meanwhile, the Browns could also be an option, but they would probably have to move on from the recently-acquired Brock Osweiler for that to become reality.

 

Other Transactions:

Browns trade for Brock Osweiler

The trade: Texans trade 2nd round pick in 2018 and Brock Osweiler to Browns for 4th round pick

This deal looked a lot like one that an NBA team would make—trading a somewhat valuable asset along with a player with a huge salary in what can effectively be termed a salary dump.  A lot of people are, for some reason, questioning Cleveland’s logic on this one, saying that the draft pick they got for the former Texan isn’t valuable enough to warrant taking on the QB’s exorbitant salary.  From a strictly present value standpoint, they’re entirely correct—paying Osweiler $16 million a season just to get a pick is very steep—but considering how much cap space the Browns had before this move, it makes total sense to me.  Cleveland gets a 2nd rounder and a quarterback that can compete with Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler for the starter’s job and a player that they can move on from with little repercussions in 2018, while Houston gets a 4th rounder that’s slightly higher than what they had before.  This is a huge W for the Browns, and if the Texans are able to get Tony Romo, it might be for them, too.

 

Patriots trade for Brandin Cooks

The trade: Saints trade 4th round pick and Brandin Cooks to Patriots for 1st and 3rd round picks

It was no secret that the former Oregon State receiver was upset with his role in the New Orleans offense last season, and that New England was an interested party.  That didn’t mean I thought this deal was going to happen—Cooks is still cost-controlled for another season, and even though rookie Mike Thomas seemed to emerge as Drew Brees’s top target, having a player as explosive as Cooks certainly couldn’t hurt; I’m also a lot higher on Danny Amendola, the man that Cooks will (probably) effectively replacing, than most.  That being said, though, this is a pretty good deal for both sides.  The Saints get the first round pick that they were craving, even though it is low, and upgraded the 4th that the gave to New England to a 3rd.  Bill Belichick’s team gets a speed threat that they haven’t had since Deion Branch was in his prime, and allows the Patriots to have the most dynamic, and possibly most dangerous, set in the whole league (Cooks and Julian Edelman at receiver, Rob Gronkowski and the newly-acquired Dwayne Allen at tight end, and either James White or Dion Lewis at running back), certainly giving Tom Brady a shot at another championship without giving up too much for a player that could effectively be a #1 receiver.  This is a deal that really benefits both teams.

2017 NCAA Tournament Preview

It’s that time of year again—March Madness has begun!  This year’s tournament field is as balanced as ever, as there are tons of teams that seem to have the potential to have the potential to make it all the way to cut down the nets in Glendale.  No one team stood out in the regular season, but many teams flashed their mettle and owned their respective schedules, while conference tournaments saw many teams that underwhelmed during the regular season crash the Dance, and they come in hungry to continue their unlikely run towards a national championship.  The unpredictability generated by this year’s match-ups will surely make for a very intriguing, and very dramatic, tournament this year—here’s my detailed outlook on how I think it’ll play out:

 

East Region

First Round

#1 Villanova def. #16 Mount Saint Mary’s

The number one overall seed will not lose in the first round.  Moving on.

 

#8 Wisconsin def. #9 Virginia Tech

In this bloggers humbled opinion, both of these teams are woefully under-seeded, but it is their inconsistencies that put them both in this position.  The Badgers have a really good team, led by Nigel Hayes, which thrives in high-leverage situations, but their shooting problems saw them lose five in a stretch of six games.  The Hokies, meanwhile, have established themselves as an offensive power under the creative mind of Buzz Williams, but their defensive struggles in a very talented ACC caused them to falter in a lot of games that they should have won.  So which team overcomes its liabilities to move on?    Personally, I feel that the trio of star Badgers—Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Bronson Koenig—will provide Greg Gard’s group enough points to overcome the potent Hokies.  Wisco wins.

 

#5 Virginia def. #12 UNC Wilmington

UNC Wilmington gave Duke a huge scare at last year’s tournament, and the Seahawks will get another shot at knocking off an ACC power in this match-up against the Wahoos.  Both teams have strengths that match their opponents—Tony Bennett’s team is known for its stifling defense, whereas Kevin Keatts’s team runs one of the most efficient offenses in Division One—so I expect this one to be a very grinding, taxing game for both sets of players, in the vein of how traditional 5-12 match-ups are.  In the end, though, I think it’ll actually be Virginia’s underappreciated offense, which, though maddeningly slow and inconsistent, has some decent potential, that’ll allow them to sidestep an upset and advance to the next round.

 

#4 Florida def. #13 Eastern Tennessee State

The Gators seem to be one of the more low-key high seeds in the past decade—they aren’t nearly as flashy as their conference brethren, Kentucky, but they’ve overcome some injuries and streaky shooting to establish themselves as the best team in the SEC after the Wildcats while being incredibly efficient on both ends of the court.  Their opponent, the Buccaneers, are very much opportunists.  They thrive on aggressive defense and quick possessions, forcing lots of turnovers and committing many of their own.  Tournament play is more suited to teams that are more balanced and composed, so that in and of itself favors the Gators, and that’s not even counting the talent gap that Mike White’s team has over his opponents.  Florida moves on.

 

#6 Southern Methodist def. #11 Southern California

From a scoring perspective, these teams are both pretty similar—they have great balance throughout their line-up, and when their shots are falling from deep, they’re almost impossible to stop.  That’s where the similarities end, though.  The Mustangs have been incredibly consistent all season long, and in addition to their efficient scoring, they’ve proven to be a great rebounding team that also has a very disciplined defense.  The Trojans played well enough towards the beginning of the season deserve a spot in the final 68, but they are also incredibly streaky— they lost five of their last eight regular season games, with their only victories coming at down-and-out Washington and Washington State— and if they aren’t hitting their shots from outside, they don’t really have any tried and true way to beat their opponents.  After beating Providence, they should suffer a pretty big loss against Tim Jankovich’s sqaud.

 

#3 Baylor def. #14 New Mexico State

The Bears started the season without any votes in pre-seasons polls, which made some sense, considering they lost their two best players to graduation.  Even without them, though, Scott Drew’s crew managed to maintain a top-20 defense in the notoriously high-scoring Big 12, and with the versatile Jonathan Motley leading the offense, they’ve been inconsistent, but they’ve managed to put up enough points to put up a fight against some of the better teams in the country.  The Aggies, meanwhile, have been the model of consistency—they’ve made the tournament in five of the last six years—and have a solid trio of guards, headlined by point guard Ian Baker, that propelled them into the tournament.  NMSU’s shooting ability might give Baylor some trouble, and for that, this one might actually be pretty close, as far as 3-14 games go, but I think that the physicality that the Bears have will be too much to overcome, and that they escape with a W.

 

#7 South Carolina def. #10 Marquette

This is going to be a really good game.  On one side we have the Gamecocks, a team with one of the best defenses in the country, yet has lots of trouble scoring.  They are led by their vociferous coach, Frank Martin, and their star forward, Sindarius Thornwell.  On the other we have the Golden Eagles, which are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation and have an incredible transition game, but their defense can be… pretty atrocious.  Each team’s strength corresponds with the others—so who will win?  In the end, I think Martin’s tournament experience, and the fact that this is basically a home game from the Gamecocks, will allow them to advance.

 

#2 Duke def. #15 Troy

The Trojans are not a bad team, by any means—there’s no place for bad here in the tournament, and besides, with leading scorer Jordon Varnado (16.8 PPG, 53.5 FG%), the Sun Belt team actually has a decent offense—but they finished in the middle of the pack in a middling conference and are coming up against a Blue Devil team that is heating up at the right time, having just won the ACC Tournament in relatively convincing fashion.  This one should be somewhat high scoring, but I don’t expect Mike Krzyzewski’s crew to have much trouble.

 

Second Round

#1 Villanova def. #8 Wisconsin

Both of these teams have core players that excel in the big time and coaches that understand what it takes to get big wins in the NCAA tournament, having both been coaches for teams that made it to a national championship game.  So in virtually every facet of the game on paper, neither team has an advantage, meaning it will all come down to execution, and, if this season’s results mean anything (they do), that means that there’ll be one clear winner.  Josh Hart leads the Wildcats on to the Sweet 16.

 

#5 Virginia def. #4 Florida

Neither of these teams come into the tournament with any sort of momentum—the Gators struggled to put away Mississippi State before losing three of their last five regular season games, and Virginia was 5-5 in its last ten.  The problem with both squad’s was their ability to put the ball in the basket.  The thing is, though, is that Virginia was, with the exception of Virginia Tech, playing some decent defenses in their games, whereas the Gators were not.  And now they have to play the best D in all of basketball.  I can’t see them having much success.  Tony Bennett’s team takes this one.

 

#6 SMU def. #3 Baylor

Both of these teams are really similar in a lot of ways—they’re both from Texas, they’re both incredibly physical, and they both have ferocious defenses.  The difference maker in this one for me will be the match-up between Baylor’s star, Motley, and former Duke transfer, and SMU’s leading scorer, Semi Ojeleye; whichever one can provide his team with more of a spark on the offense will allow his team to pull this one out.  I think the victor of that battle will be Ojeleye, and SMU advances to claim the title of the best college team in Texas.

 

#2 Duke def. #7 South Carolina

South Carolina will definitely have deserved their victory in the previous round, but the reasons that I felt they had an advantage over Marquette are virtually gone in this game—the Blue Devils have a far better defense than the Golden Eagles, and their offense is more balanced, and explosive, than anything the Big East school could offer.  Besides that, having the game in South Carolina doesn’t give the Gamecocks much of a “home court” advantage over a team from North Carolina.  The Dukies advance.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Villanova def. #5 Virginia

This is a game where I think that the Wahoos lack of an offense will really come back to bite them—‘Nova doesn’t have an elite defense, but they are a model of consistency on the offensive side of the ball, and I think that Jay Wright and his coaching staff will have a game plan that helps neutralize some of Virginia’s ferocity.  At least, enough to propel the defending champs into the next round without having to sweat too much.

 

#2 Duke def. #6 SMU

Both of these teams entered the tournament on a high note, having both won their respective conference tournaments, and it’ll be exciting to see the rhythm that each team will surely be in after reaching this point.  The Mustangs defense is very good—good enough to lead them to an upset—but I ultimately think that their offense relies a bit too much on their shooting.  If they’re not 100% on, the Blue Devils will be able to capitalize, through their own star shooters or the interior presence that is Amile Jefferson.  In the end, I just can’t see the Mustangs being consistent enough from behind the arc to win this game.  Duke advances.

 

Elite 8

#2 Duke def. #1 Villanova

A game between two elite teams with great coaches, incredible offensive firepower, and decent defenses, I think this one will come down to who can get a couple of stops when time is of the essence.  Villanova has much better defensive statistics, but they’ve struggled a bit with teams that are willing to be more physical with them, and Duke has proven that they are more than adept at shutting down offenses that revolve around efficient guard play (Notre Dame twice, Virginia, North Carolina).  For that reason, I see the Blue Devils moving on to Arizona.

 

Midwest Region

First Round

#1 Kansas def. #16 University of California, Davis

The Aggies really aren’t all that strong on the offensive end of the court, but they really figured out how to play some solid defense as the season wound down, and that which allowed them to win their conference tournament should allow them to win their First Four game.  That’s really all there is to say here, though.  Bill Self’s Jayhawks are too tall, too strong, and too deep for the the California school.  Kansas moves on.

 

#8 Miami (FL) def. #9 Michigan State

By name only, both of these teams underwhelmed a little bit—Miami had the talent to make a push for the top 4 in the ACC, but they fell to 8th and only won one tournament game before being shellacked by North Carolina, while the young Spartans were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and sometimes had some difficulties executing Tom Izzo’s trademark defense.  I see the Hurricanes, who are led by senior guard Davon Reed, will leverage their experience to force the Sparty into enough mistakes to allow Jim Larranaga and company to move on.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #12 Nevada

The Wolf Pack were by far the class of the Mountain West Conference, putting up lots of points in a very pro-style offensive game-plan put in place by former Sacramento Kings coach.  They have the firepower to pull off what would be a traditional upset, but their opponents, the Cyclones, have an even better one, led by senior point guard Monte Morris.  Steve Prohm’s team is also on a bit of a hot streak, coming into the tourney having won the Big 12 tournament.  For those reasons, I believe that ISU will be able to avoid the upset in this high-scoring affair.

 

#4 Purdue def. #13 Vermont

I was really tempted to pick upset here—outside of Caleb Swanigan, nobody on the Big Ten champion’s roster has really been all that impressive, and the Catamounts have the longest win streak in the country at 21 games.  There’s just one problem for them- Swanigan.  One of two human double-double’s, the big man’s strength and versatility will draw a lot of attention from Vermont’s defense, which will open up a lot of easy shots for his teammates, and even then, they still might not be able to stop the big Boilermaker.  Purdue squeaks through to the next round.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #6 Creighton

It’s unfortunate that the committee had to pair a decent amount of the better, smaller schools together—this game is one of those cases, and Dayton playing Wichita State is another example.  The teams have had different trajectories as the season played out—the Rams were ranked in the pre-season but started incredibly slow before recovering to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, whereas the Bluejays started fast before stuttering after point guard Maurice Watson’s injury.  Ultimately, I think that injury will be too much for Greg McDermott’s team to overcome, and Rhody’s strong guard play will carry them to a first round upset.

 

#3 Oregon def. #14 Iona

Iona are actually a sneaky good 14 seed—they played Florida State tough for a half early in their season, beat MWC champion Nevada, and prevented the infamous Monmouth bench mob from making the tournament for the second year running.  They also score a lot of points, with their offense ranking 30th in the nation.  Their big issue is that they also give up a lot of points; that’s definitely not something that they’re going to be able to overcome against the Ducks, who have at least three guys that can score consistently on the Gaels small line-up, even with senior Chris Boucher.  Expect Dana Altman’s team to have an easy time here.

 

#7 Michigan def. #10 Oklahoma State

These are two of the streakiest teams of the season—both started remarkably poorly, but managed to turn up the heat as the season came to a close, with the Wolverines snagging an automatic bid by winning the Big Ten tournament and OSU winning big games against…  well…  bottom-feeding Big 12 teams.  That’s the difference between them here.  Michigan has managed to stop, and score on, teams that have more talent than them, whereas the Cowboys plateaued the Big 12’s best, losing its last three regular season games.  I expect this one to be high scoring, but also for Michigan to have a fairly easy time of moving on.

 

#2 Louisville def. #15 Jacksonville State

I disagree with the committee’s seeding of Louisville hear, but nobody can deny that the Cardinals are a force to be reckon with.  They have a vicious defense—it’s shown some leaks lately, but is the 6th best in the country, as rated by KenPom.com—and a balanced offense led by guard Donovan Mitchell.  The Gamecocks have a halfway decent offense, but they were inconsistent in the Ohio Valley Conference, and their offense is not good enough to put a scare into a team as strong and lengthy as Rick Pitino’s is.  Louisville locks up a second round place.

 

Second Round

#1 Kansas def. #8 Miami (FL)

Miami had an advantage over a young, turnover-prone Michigan State team in their first game; they’ll have no such advantage in this one.  They’ll have to work extra hard to try and get points against the disciplined Jayhawks defense, and then work even harder to prevent the electric freshman Josh Jackson from putting up 40.  In the end, I just think that Bill Self has too deep of a team for the Hurricanes to overcome them.  Kansas advances.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #4 Purdue

This game will see a clash of teams with contrasting styles—Iowa State has been fast-paced since Fred Hoiberg was head coach, and the Boilermakers concentrate more on a more methodical, inside-out type offense.  Typically, in tournament games like this, the team that is able to take better care of the basketball will pull it out.  Purdue’s turnovers allowed Arkansas-Little Rock to upset them last season, and their issues with keeping possession remain in this year’s squad, and the Cyclones’ fast pace will give them even more trouble than most teams.  ISU moves on.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #3 Oregon

There are two reasons why this is my only real major upset—the first is that I want to see how far down my roommate, who is a die-hard Oregon fan, scrolls down on this post—and the second is that I actually think that the Rams have a shot at pulling this off.  Boucher was an integral part of Oregon’s interior presence, and while his absence doesn’t mean that the Ducks don’t have an advantage in the paint (they still do), it lessens the burden on the Rhody’s interior players and allows their guards, especially senior EC Matthews, to get penetration.  Dillon Brooks will probably have a huge game here, but I think that the Rams, who were very highly ranked as this season began, really found out how to play as a unit as the season drew to a close, and that camaraderie, and the efficient offense that they’ve morphed into, will be enough to see them pull off the win over the Ducks.

 

#7 Michigan def. #2 Louisville

For me, this one is all about momentum.  Louisville had a fantastic regular season, but they struggled towards the end of their regular season, especially against teams that had a good interior game.  Michigan’s frontcourt duo, Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, were a major part of why the Wolverines were able to knock off bigger, more talented teams en route to the Big 10 tournament championship.  Big Blue will still need a bit of luck from their perimeter players to get an upset here, but with the attention focused on Wagner and Wilson, I feel that they can do it.  Michigan advances.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Kansas def. #5 Iowa State

In a match-up that will surely have fans around the country salivating, the Jayhawks will have a chance to avenge their loss to the Cyclones that snapped their record-setting home winning streak.  I think that it will be a chance they take—Bill Self will have his team fired up for this one, and I think that the experience of Mason, combined with the flashiness of Jackson, should provide enough of a spark to get a victory.  If ISU can keep their turnovers low and drain around 40-45% of their shots from deep, they might have a chance, but otherwise, you can bet on the Jayhawks to overcome their conference rivals.

 

#7 Michigan def. #11 Rhode Island

This is the lowest seed pairing I have in the Sweet 16, and it’ll come in a game where the participants will have knocked off two giants of the game.  Both teams will have some distinct similarities coming into this one—they’ll both be tired from what are sure to be marathon victories, and they both have solid guard play.  The difference-maker, then, will be each team’s post presence.  In that area, the Wolverines have a distinct advantage—the pair of Wagner and Wilson both average over 10 points per game, and I think the Rams might have trouble slowing them down.  Michigan wins.

 

Elite 8

#1 Kansas def. #7 Michigan

Michigan will have made it this far on the virtue of their interior presence, and they actually have an advantage in the paint in this one, too.  The problem is that they don’t have enough wing players to contain the Jayhawks—Kansas’s top four scorers are all guards, and if any of them are afforded even a split second for an open look, they’ll tear the Wolverines apart (the four average 41% behind the arc, which is… pretty good).  John Belein has some good guards, but not enough to stop Kansas.  They’ll get into the Final Four without too much stress.

 

South Region

First Round

#1 North Carolina def. #16 Texas Southern

No offense to Texas Southern, but they are probably the least consistent of all of the 16 seeds in this tournament.  They’re squaring off against a North Carolina that was consistent enough to win the regular season title in perhaps the best league in college basketball, the ACC.  This will be no contest—the Tar Heels cruise on.

 

#8 Arkansas def. #9 Seton Hall

Both of these teams have been overshadowed by the big guns in their respective conferences—Kentucky and Villanova—but each bring something special to the table.  The Razorbacks are a force with the ball, averaging a touch over 80 points per game, while the Pirates are great at crashing the boards, finishing at 20th best in the nation in rebounds per game.  Unfortunately for Seton Hall, they tend to get sloppy a bit on both ends of the floor, as demonstrated in the fact that they allow more points per possession than they score, and that’s not something conducive to tournament wins.  The Pigs pip the Pirates to party on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #5 Minnesota

I actually feel bad for Minnesota—Richard Pitino’s team staged a remarkable turnaround from last season to develop into one of the Big Ten’s better teams, but they ended up getting over-seeded, leading to some national criticism, and get matched up with a Blue Raiders team that has demonstrated it knows exactly how to counter the style of play that’s prevalent in the Big Ten.  This year’s MTSU team has been even more consistent than last year’s, and they definitely have the talent, and the know-how, to knock off the Golden Gophers in this one, something that I feel they’ll be able to pull off.

 

#4 Butler def. #13 Winthrop

The Eagles can certainly pull off an upset here—they’re really good at perimeter defense, and their dynamite guard, Keon Johnson, can go off at any moment.  On the other hand, while I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year, but it’s hard to deny the balance that they have in both aspects of the game, and they’ve managed to put things together in big games, as they’ve beaten both Arizona and Villanova.  Chris Holtmann’s team will have a tough time in this one, but I still expect Butler to bounce their opponents.

 

#6 Cincinnati def. #11 Kansas State

The Wildcats will make it through to this match-up by virtue of their balanced offensive approach and the coaching nous of former Illinois head man Bruce Weber.  The issue with Weber’s team, though, is that there isn’t really anybody that can scare the Bearcats on defense, and you can rest assured that Mick Cronin and his team’s fourth-ranked defense will find a way to nip any potential momentum in the bud.  This should be a low-scoring game that Cincy pulls out to move to the next round.

 

#3 UCLA def. #14 Kent State

If this were simply a one-on-one between stars, the Golden Flashes might have a chance in this one, as Jimmy Hall certainly has the all-around talent to match-up against famous frosh Lonzo Ball.  Unfortunately for the MAC representative, the Bruins are a whole hell of a lot deeper than that.  Outside of Ball, they have the coach’s son, Bryce Alford, and a host of frontcourt players that allowed the team to average a national-best 90.4 points per game.  This should be an easy one—UCLA won’t have any problems here.

 

#10 Wichita State def. #7 Dayton

It’s a true tragedy that these two teams are slated to play each other in the first round—they have two of the better stories in basketball.  Gregg Marshall’s Shockers are proving to be a tournament regular now, walloping team after team in the Missouri Valley Conference and thriving as a strong shooting and defensive team, while Archie Miller’s Flyers have are a jack-of-all-trades type team that is good at everything and bad at nothing.  In the end, though, I think that Wichita State’s defense is energetic enough to get stops to pull off an “upset” in this one—they’ll move on.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #15 Northern Kentucky

In a logistical sense, this is probably a dream match-up for the Norse—they get a chance to show off their incredible nickname on a national stage while squaring off against an in-state opponent.  Other than that, though, there really isn’t much to be enthused about if you’re an NKU fan.  John Calipari’s team is loaded with future lottery picks that will be way too much for their smaller neighbors to handle.  The Wildcats win in a landslide.

 

Second Round

#1 North Carolina def. #8 Arkansas

The Razorback offense is really something—they can beat you inside, outside, in a half-court set or in transition—and they’ve really been finding their rhythm as we come into tourney time.  Unfortunately for them, they’re coming up against one of the few teams that gets more offensive possessions per game than they do and scores more points per game, the Tar Heels.  That’s not even factoring in the fact that UNC has put up those numbers in what is arguably the country’s strongest conference, while Arkansas played in the meh SEC.  Roy Williams and company move on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #4 Butler

Like I said earlier, I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year—they’re really good, but there isn’t one particular thing that they’re really good it.  The Blue Raiders, however, play some incredible lockdown defense—they rank 21st in the nation in points allowed per game—and they should be able to limit enough of Butler’s offense to give them a fighting chance.  If they can get some contributions from some players outside of leading scorer JaCorey Williams, I think they’re good enough to pull off this upset, and, in my opinion, they will.

 

#3 UCLA def. #6 Cincinnati

This is a quintessential offense-versus-defense match-up, and in a tournament environment, which typically favors more slow-paced, balanced teams, it would actually make sense to take the Bearcats in this one.  However, Cincy hasn’t faced a team all season that comes anywhere close to matching the amount of firepower that UCLA has on their roster.  Will the Bruins be at their high-flying best?  No, they will not.  But they’ll certainly put up enough points to get this one out of the reach of their opponents and move on to the next round.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #10 Wichita State

The Shockers have long been known as a giant-killer—in recent years, they’ve knocked off highly-ranked Gonzaga, Ohio State, Kansas, and Arizona in the tournament, usually by forcing a high amount of turnovers and relying on their battle-tested backcourt to lead them to victory.  However, with this year’s team not retaining much from those past years, and having lost all their games against so-called “elite” teams, the deck is stacked against them this season.  Kentucky will find a way to take care of the ball enough to avoid an upset and move on to the next round.

 

Sweet 16

#1 North Carolina def. #12 Middle Tennessee State

The Blue Raiders will have gotten here by relying on their excellent defense to prevent two teams that don’t really have any super-dependable scoring options from getting in a good rhythm.  The same thing cannot be said for North Carolina; Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, and Isiah Hicks are bound to go off on any given night, and as good as MTSU are on defense, they haven’t faced a team with as many true scorers as this Tar Heels team.  UNC will move on.

 

#3 UCLA def. #2 Kentucky

This might be the best Sweet 16 game in recent memory—a battle between two of the country’s most endowed programs, both headlined by star freshmen (Ball and Malik Monk).  I was originally tempted to pick the Wildcats in this one—as much as I touted UCLA’s balance in the last round, I think that Coach Cal’s team has enough athleticism to contain most of their scorers—but the ‘Cats have had the most trouble this season with teams that push the pace, and we all know that Steve Alford’s crew will want to do that.  Besides, the Bruins have already proven that they can beat Kentucky, having done so earlier this year, in Lexington.  UCLA will win in a shoot-out.

 

Elite 8

#3 UCLA def. #1 North Carolina

Both teams have exceptional coaches, really great guard play, and some shaky defenses, especially in the paint.  That would seem to favor the Tar Heels, who could plant Jackson in the paint and pound the ball down low all day.  However, in the Tar Heels’ most significant losses—against Georgia Tech, Miami, and Duke—their opponents went non-stop on both ends of the court, forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes that they turned into points, allowing them to overcome the onslaught of offensive options the Chapel Hill school is blessed with.  That’s an approach that I think that the Bruins can pull off well enough to carry them into their first Final Four since 2008.

 

West Region

First Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #16 South Dakota State

The Jackrabbits have been one of the better mid-major tournament teams recently—over the past five years, they’ve given big scares to Baylor (2012), Vanderbilt (2015 NIT), and Maryland (2016).  This year, however, they’re facing a Bulldog team that is simply too big, too strong, and too deep to have much of a chance.  They’ll keep it closer than the other 16 seeds, but not by much; the Zags will advance with ease.

 

#8 Northwestern def. #9 Vanderbilt

A battle of the nerds!  The Wildcats are making their first tournament appearance in history, riding on the backs of juniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.  The Commodores, meanwhile, used their exceptional three-point shooting, and two clutch victories over Florida, to sneak their way into the Dance.  Bryce Drew’s team are, however, somewhat streaky with their shooting—that’s why they have 15 losses, the most ever for an at-large tournament team—and Northwestern’s defense is actually pretty damn good, ranking 34th in the nation.  For that reason, I think that the Wildcats not only make their first tournament this year, but win their first game.  Chris Collins’s club moves on.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #12 Princeton

A battle of the lesser nerds!  Princeton had one of the greater Ivy League seasons in recent memory, going undefeated in conference play before sweeping through the conference tournament.  They’re actually pretty similar to the Irish, too—they possess the ball well, score a lot of points from three-point land, and play decent defense.  They’ve got a really good shot at a win here.  The reason that I feel Notre Dame avoids the upset, though, is Bonzie Colson.  The Tigers haven’t seen anybody like him this season, and I think that he’ll have enough of an impact to force the Irish through to the second round.

 

#4 West Virginia def. #13 Bucknell

The Bison are one of the most accurate shooting teams in the entire country, and they actually have a victory over one of the major tournament teams, Vanderbilt.  They also have a pretty decent defense that is among the best 20% in the country.  Unfortunately, they’re not only playing a defense that is better than theirs, that will be able to limit their scoring opportunities with a full-court press, but an offense that is as proficient as it is balanced, averaging 82 points per game with no one player above 14.  Expect Bob Huggins’s team to push on to the next round.

 

#6 Maryland def. #11 Xavier

Both of these teams have underachieved this year—the Musketeers, despite a great coach in Chris Mack and a solid leading scorer in Trevon Bluiett, had some troubles after sophomore Edward Sumner tore his ACL, whereas the Terrapins had issues getting scoring from anybody outside of Melo Trimble.  Ultimately, I think who wins this game will come down to a battle between those two guards, Bluiett and Trimble, and based on his performances in last year’s tournament, I have more confidence in the Maryland man to elevate his game enough to take his team to the next round.  Maryland wins.

 

#3 Florida State def. #14 Florida Gulf Coast

This one must be a real treat for Florida fans, to get to see two in-state teams duke it out in Orlando.  “Dunk City” is still in force for FGCU, and their athleticism would cause a lot of problems for teams that rely on strong defense and rebounding in the paint.  Unfortunately for them, Leonard Hamilton has built himself a team of incredibly versatile players, led by leading scorer Dwayne Bacon, that is perhaps the most athletic team in the country.  That negates any real advantage that the Eagles have on offense, and they don’t have enough skill on defense to contain Bacon and his teammates.  The Seminoles win with ease.

 

#7 Saint Mary’s def. #10 Virginia Commonwealth

It’s unfortunate that one of these mid-majors has to say goodbye in the first round of the tournament—both of them are underrated, and execute their own unique styles to absolute perfection.  That being said, the Gaels are by far the more balanced team—headlined by center Jock Landale, Randy Bennett’s team would have been a bona-fide power in the West Coast Conference were it not for Gonzaga.  Will Wade’s bunch have a chance if they can find a shooting rhythm and use their trademark press effectively, but I simply think that St. Mary’s is too deep here.  They’ll win this one.

 

#2 Arizona def. #15 North Dakota

The Fighting Hawks were the class of the Big Sky, and senior guard Quinton Hooker, who averages almost 20 points per game, is really talented.  The only problem is that he is really the only player than can match up with the Wildcats—in every other way, Sean Miller’s team are better shooters, better defenders, and generally more athletic than their opponents.  They should be able to breeze through to the next round.

 

Second Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #8 Northwestern

The Wildcats and their fans will surely be ecstatic that they’ll have made it to the second round, but I fear that it’ll be quickly dampened by the Zags.  Northwestern’s strength is on the perimeter, and the Bulldogs have proven themselves to be pretty adept at containing good guards (their wins against Saint Mary’s prove that), and I don’t think that anybody really matches up to Mark Few’s big center, Przemek Karnowski, on Northwestern’s roster.  I expect Gonzaga to ride his shoulders in a game that should be an easy victory for the top seed.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #4 West Virginia

The Mountaineers have given really good teams fits with their “Press Virginia” defense; their biggest wins, at home against Kansas and Baylor, saw them force more than two times the amount of turnovers as their opponents.  The issue with their opportunistic style is that when they come up against teams that take relatively good care of the basketball and are good free throw shooters, they have to rely more on their inconsistent offense.  Unfortunately for Bob Huggins, the Irish team he’ll square off against is exactly that; it’ll be close, but I expect Mike Brey’s team to win here.

 

#3 Florida State def. #6 Maryland

The Seminoles have, in my opinion, been fairly inconsistent in the second half of their season, but if there is any “elite” team that epitomizes that for the whole year, it’s the Terps.  Trimble has struggled to find his shot because of how often he is double-teamed, and in big games, his supporting cast hasn’t been able to pick up the slack.  FSU has enough athleticism to contain the high-scoring Trimble, and I just can’t see the rest of the Terrapins scoring on, or stopping, any of Leonard Hamilton’s players enough to really give them a chance in this one.  Florida State wins, and it won’t be close.

 

#2 Arizona def. #7 Saint Mary’s

This one should be a really exciting game.  In the Gaels’ four losses this season, they’ve shot a combined 38% from the field, which is… not very good.  Arizona’s defense allows teams to average about 41.5% from the field, which is good, but not good enough to avoid a good day from Saint Mary’s shooters to gift them a win.  So how does Arizona avoid an upset?  By driving the lane.  That’s where they were most effective in their biggest wins, and if Landale has any weakness, it’s that he’s not quick enough to stop quick, penetrating guards.  Sean Miller has plenty of those, and I expect the Wildcats to space out their offense and take down the Gaels with speed.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Gonzaga def. #5 Notre Dame

In my heart, I feel that my Irish can pull off a victory in this game; in reality, though, I just can’t see it happening.  Mike Brey’s team will need to have a lights out shooting night to counter the absolute dominance that the Zags are sure to wreak in the paint against ND’s small frontcourt, and considering that Mark Few’s best all-around player, Nigel Williams-Goss, is a point guard, I expect at least one of the Irish shooters to struggle.  Expect Williams-Goss and the duo of Karnowski and Zach Collins to wreak enough havoc in Notre Dame’s ranks for the top seed to advance.

 

#2 Arizona def. #3 Florida State

Florida State has been significantly more talented than each of the last two teams that it’s faced; that’s not the case here.  As the Wildcats demonstrated in their Pac 12 tournament championship victory over Oregon, the Wildcats have four or five players that can both put the ball in the basket or play lock-down defense.  That isn’t to say that the Seminoles can’t do the same—they certainly can—but I think that the inconsistencies that flared up late in FSU’s season, especially on defense, will be their downfall in this one.  Arizona moves on.

 

Elite 8

#2 Arizona def. #1 Gonzaga

Yes, I recognize that the Bulldogs have already beaten Arizona this year, on a neutral floor, nonetheless.  But loss came during one of the worst 5-game stretches of the season for the Wildcats, who also lost to Butler and struggled with Santa Clara during that period.  Now, Sean Miller’s team has seen freshman star Lauri Markkanen mature into Dirk Nowtizki-lite and has also regained star guard Allonzo Trier from suspension.  Both players will give the team an offensive boost that they didn’t have in their first game against Mark Few and company, and in their recent win against UCLA, Arizona proved they can shut down a dynamic guard like Williams-Goss.  Karnowski won’t have enough offense in him to see this team on; Arizona goes home with a win.

 

Final Four

#2 Duke def. #2 Arizona

Trier versus Kennard.  Markkanen versus Jefferson.  Those match-ups are pretty much scratches in this battle of East versus West.  Guess who’s unaccounted for, though?  Yup—Grayson Allen.  The controversial star doesn’t really seem to have anybody that matches up very well with him on the Arizona roster, so he should be able to do his thing without getting in any skirmishes.  I expect him, along with youngster Jayson Tatum, to carry his team on to the championship.

 

#3 UCLA def. #1 Kansas

I could almost copy and paste my reasoning for why I think the Bruins will beat Kentucky here, but I’ll change a couple things around, just for the sake of it—Kansas is a really balanced team with a really good offense and a meh defense, but their worst games came against teams, such as Iowa State and West Virginia, pushed the ball hard on both ends of the court.  The Jayhawks will keep it a little bit closer than the Wildcats did, because I feel Frank Mason may have a couple tricks up his… shorts?  But in the end, I think UCLA will move on to the title game.

 

National Championship

#2 Duke def. #3 UCLA

Up to this point, my rationale for why UCLA has been able to win its games is because it has the athletes, and the scorers, to execute a style of play that gave its opponents the most trouble during the regular season.  Here, though, they come up against a Duke team who has actually been undone more by stronger, more physical teams— their biggest losses, for example, came against Louisville and Florida State, who both have more length than the Blue Devils.  That isn’t to say that they won’t have an issue with the Bruins— the teams that beat Duke also have shot extraordinarily well, and Steve Alford’s team led Division One in field goal percentage this year— but UCLA’s pace won’t be as big of a problem as it was for their past opponents.  They also have a more balanced attack, with Jefferson and Tatum capable of getting inside the paint to score.  That’s a major weakness for the Bruins, and that’s the reason I feel they’ll ultimately fall— this will be an exciting, high-scoring game, and one that will, I believe, end with Duke hoisting the 6th national title in program history.

Have any questions, comments, or debates about any of my picks?  Contact me here, or tweet me at here.

 

Rapid Reaction: March Madness 2017

March Madness has now officially begun, as the Tournament Committee has finally announced the full 68-team bracket for the upcoming 2017 Division One basketball championship.  Here are my initial thoughts on this year’s competition:

Of the four teams named as #1 seeds—number one overall Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, and Gonzaga– I think the Jayhawks have the easiest road to the Final Four.  Led by Frank Jackson, they really picked it up as the season came to a close, their conference tournament loss to TCU notwithstanding, and the top seeds in their region, Louisville and the Chris Boucher-less Oregon, don’t really strike me as very intimidating.  I think that the top seed with the hardest path is probably North Carolina, because the number two seed in their region, Kentucky, is a team that was probably in competition for a top spot, and a lot of the mid-range teams—UCLA, Cincinnati, and Wichita State—have the physicality to knock the Tar Heels off their game.

In terms of at-large teams, the fabled “Last Teams In” went to Providence, USC, Kansas State, Wake Forest, and Xavier.  Of those teams, I feel like the Wildcats were the most deserving and the Musketeers the least.  Cal and Syracuse were perhaps the most notable teams to miss out.  In my home state of Illinois, there were some mixed feelings over bids.  Northwestern finally got the monkey off their back, earning an eight seed in their first tournament appearance ever, while Illinois State missed out, despite a strong resume that saw them win the regular season title in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Now, time for the good stuff: the actual games themselves.  In the East region, I can’t wait to watch the two Texas schools, Baylor and SMU, fight it out to see who gets to square off against Duke.  The winner of that game will, I think, determine the Final Four participant, and I see the Dukies pulling it out.  In the Midwest, I believe Kansas will have a fairly smooth road to the Final Four, but I think that double-digit seeds Oklahoma State and Rhode Island have the ability to make some trouble for the big boys in that region, so watch out for them.  In the South, I think that Middle Tennessee State and Wichita State were criminally under-seeded, and they have a shot to pull off some big upsets, but in the end, I feel that the top three teams will all have a fairly easy time of it here, and that Kentucky will be the one to prevail there.  In the west, I see two ACC teams, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, as potential troublemakers for top seed Gonzaga, but the team that will eventually topple the Bulldogs will be the Wildcats of Arizona, which will give the Final Four 3-number two seeds.  In the championship, I think it’ll be match-up of Kansas and Duke, with Jayson Tatum overcoming Frank Jackson to lead the Blue Devils to their 6th national title.

These are just my initial thoughts about the bracket immediately after it was released.  Check out my full preview of the tournament on Tuesday!

2017 MLS Season Preview

The 2017 MLS season kicks off in two days, when expansion team Minnesota United FC travel to Portland to take on the Timbers.  Last season was a phenomenal one, capped off by a dramatic penalty shoot-out that saw the Seattle Sounders spoil the party for host Toronto FC.  This year looks like it will be an exciting one, as well—the addition of two new teams, Minnesota and Atlanta United FC, along with all of the new, and incredibly talented, faces that found their way to MLS this season will make the competition for the MLS Cup higher than ever.  So how will the season play out?  Here are my thoughts about what will occur in the coming year:

 

Western Conference

  1. Minnesota United FC

One of two expansion teams entering the league this season, the Loons will be spearheaded by the underappreciated duo that helped ease Orlando’s transition from the USL to MLS—midfielder Kevin Molino and manager Adrian Heath.  They also reacquired the two players that made the club a NASL powerhouse, Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra.  The problem is that… well, that’s about it.  This team doesn’t have a lot of money in compared to some of their rivals, and while they have certainly made countless shrewd moves that will pay off in the near future, this team just won’t be that good this year.

  1. Vancouver Whitecaps

Carl Robinson is a fairly solid manager that gets more heat than he deserves, and the addition of Fredy Montero to partner with Kekuta Manneh in attack will give the ‘Caps arguably the best, if not the most versatile, attacking duo outside of Toronto.  The issue is that behind them, outside of goalie and captain David Ousted, there aren’t many players that are consistent enough to really consider Vancouver to be much more than a bottom feeder this season, particularly in midfield, which is especially important in a league that is quickly increasing its talent pool.  They need to fill those massive holes in the middle of the park before they can really get back into contention.

  1. Houston Dynamo

Houston seems to be in kind of a weird place.  The man widely tipped to become their permanent manager this year, last year’s interim, Wade Barrett, was let go and replaced by former Chivas USA man Wilmer Cabrera.  They have a solid back line, anchored by captain DeMarcus Beasley and new acquisition AJ DeLaGarza, but everyone on that defense except for DeLaGarza is on the wrong side of 30.  They have a lot of young Latin talent, headlined by Mexican youth star Erik “Cubo” Torres, but none of them, Torres especially, have proven that they can perform at the MLS level.  For that reason, I expect it to take a couple years before the Dynamo get back into the play-off race.

  1. Real Salt Lake

This past offseason the Royals parted with one of the greatest players in their club’s history in Javier Morales, but with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando still performing at high levels, they still have a solid core in place.  Jeff Cassar and his staff actually managed to bolster the depth and talent of the midfield after Morales’s departure, signing a new DP in Albert Rusnak, securing a midfielder on loan from Liverpool, Brooks Lennon, and bringing back former youth product Luis Silva.  None of those midfielders are real scorers, though, and that’s where I think this team is the most deficient; they lack true scoring threats.  That’s the reason I can’t see them cracking the post-season this year.

  1. Colorado Rapids

The Rapids were one of the best stories of last season, a team that rose from one of the league’s bottom dwellers to one of the most electric teams in the league.  Their defense will remain as solid as ever, even in the absence of Tim Howard—back-up Zac MacMath is good enough to start in a lot of other cities—but the reason they’ll stay below the line this year is because of their attack.  Colorado scored the second-fewest goals in the league last season, and with the departure of Jermaine Jones and no real major additions, it doesn’t seem like their attack will have enough to allow them to keep up with the teams in front of them.  A year after being among the best, they’ll fall just short this year.

  1. San Jose Earthquakes

Dom Kinnear will be under a lot of pressure this season—his ‘Quakes haven’t made the play-offs in 4 seasons—and I think that the roster additions that he and his staff made to give Chris Wondolowski a bit of a helping hand will push them over the line.  The most important part about the newbies, headlined by Florian Jungwirth and Jahmir Hyka, is that they filled holes from back to front in the San Jose squad and that they’re proven in highly competitive professional leagues.  For those reasons, count on the ‘Quakes to top the Rapids and save Kinnear’s job.

  1. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting didn’t make many changes to its well-established group this past off-season—they’ll still be marshalled by Matt Besler at the back, fronted by Dom Dwyer, and operated in the midfield by the trio of Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, and Benny Feilhaber.  That group alone is enough to boost Peter Vermes’s team into the play-offs, but Zusi has started to fade off as a scoring threat from his favored left flank, and so KC may struggle to get the goal-scoring they’ll need to really compete for the top.  Until they get somebody that can truly ease some of the burden off of Dwyer, they’ll be stuck in the middle of the conference.

  1. Portland Timbers

Portland is set up to be one of the league’s highest goal scorers, with speedsters Darlington Nagbe and Fernando Adi leading a very versatile attack; they certainly won’t lack for offense.  However, they might have some problems on defense—stalwart Nat Borchers is retired, captain Liam Ridgewell has struggled with some injuries, and the team never really replaced Jorge Villefana after his departure for Mexico.  If Caleb Porter can sort out this team’s back line, watch out; until then, the Timbers will have to hope that their offense can hold up their defense, and come October, that’ll be a tough ask.

  1. Los Angeles Galaxy

The biggest names from last year’s squad—Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, and manager Bruce Arena—are all starting new phases of their lives, but the Galaxy will be just fine, re-tooling around their remaining star, Giovanni dos Santos.  They re-upped Jelle van Damme to hold down the fort in back and added Romain Alessandrini to support dos Santos in attack.  The Galaxy aren’t as deep, and don’t have as much talent from top to bottom, as their great teams of years past, but Curt Onalfo and crew are still among the top five teams in the league.

  1. FC Dallas

Oscar Pareja’s squad won the Supporters’ Shield last season, and even though Seattle’s off-season additions give them a slight edge to win it this year, Dallas will still be a force to be reckoned with.  Javier Morales was signed away from Real Salt Lake and will deputize for Mauro Diaz until the star returns from injury, providing the team with a great veteran midfielder to keep the attack ticking.  The team also bulked up at the back by adding Hernan Grana and Anibal Chala, which allows young up-and-comer Kellyn Acosta to play his natural position in the center of midfield.  A dangerous attack headlined by newcomer Cristian Coleman completes the team.

  1. Seattle Sounders

The fact that the Sounders managed to gel so fast with mid-season signing Nicolas Lodeiro last year was impressive; that they were able to pull out a championship without their captain, Clint Dempsey, was even better.  Seattle lost a couple of important role players this off-season in Eric Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Zach Scott, but having signed younger, and arguably more talented, depth players in the forms of Harry Shipp, Will Bruin, and Gustav Svensson, Brian Schmetzer should have no problem leading this team back to the top of the conference, especially if Dempsey comes back and plays anything like he is capable of.

 

Eastern Conference

  1. Philadelphia Union

I would love to move the Union up the standings—their manager, Jim Curtin, was a stud as a center back for my hometown Fire.  Andre Blake is a future USMNT starter, Alejandro Bedoya is one of the most underrated players in the current US setup, and Kegan Roseberry has shown potential to be a steady force from right back for years to come.  Outside of those guys, though, there isn’t much that the Union can rely on, whether it’s due to age (Oguchi Onyewu, Chris Pontius), injury (Maurice Edu, Joshua Yaro), or a simple lack of talent—the team doesn’t really have a ton of proven depth, either.  Expect the Union to struggle mightily this season.

  1. New England Revolution

New England has some incredible creativity in its team—their attack could theoretically feature Kei Kamara, Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, and Diago Fagundez, all extraordinarily talented players.  The problem is that all of those players are extraordinarily inconsistent, and if last season is anything to go by, they don’t gel well together at all.  The defense is also a bit of a question mark—the only truly reliable performer that they have is Chris Tierney, and it’s uncertain how the re-tooled backline, which sees former right back Andrew Farrell move in to center back, will function.  In what could be a make-or-break year for former Revs great, solid coach and solid man, Jay Heaps, I, unfortunately, see a break in their future.

  1. Orlando City

I loved Orlando’s hiring of Jason Kreis last season—Adrian Heath is a good manager, but Kreis is a great one with an incredible track record.  Every other move that the team has made since then, though, has been a little curious.  Putting faith in Will Johnson to man the center of midfield, despite the former Toronto FC man struggling a bit last season, and not getting him a back-up will cost them.  Trading Brek Shea for Gilles Barnes was good value, but left a hole in their defense.  All in all, this team has some decent talent, but their roster is a mish mosh of borderline starters and guys that might be better served playing in Heath’s old system.  I just don’t think the Lions will be able to find enough consistency to be good this year.

  1. Chicago Fire

The Fire have been struggling for years, but this season they should be competitive enough to make some noise in the play-off race.  They added striker Nemanja Nikolic to give speedster David Accam some help in attack and acquired midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho to shore up the center of the park.  The Fire attack is still missing a playmaker, and there’s some questions about their defense—they have potential building blocks in Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, but the unit as a whole doesn’t inspire much confidence at the moment—so they won’t end their playoff draught, but manager Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez have this team moving in the right direction.

  1. Montreal Impact

The Impact attack will be incredibly dynamic, led by the creative force of Ignacio Piatti, who will be joined by the undervalued pair of speedster Dominic Oduro and Matteo Moncosu.  The team also has Belgian international Laurent Ciman manning central defense, so they should be fine there, as well.  I’m extremely worried about their midfield, though—captain Patrice Bernier is 37, and there really isn’t anybody that stands out on either side of the ball that I think can step up and make a real difference.  Montreal were part of one of the most incredible pair of games in play-off history against their Canadian rivals in Toronto, but that lack of real presences in midfield will see them miss out on the post-season this year.

  1. Atlanta United FC

There’s a lot of factors working against Atlanta this season—they’re an expansion team.  Their manager is new to MLS.  They don’t have an established goalkeeper.  Many of their new acquisitions haven’t played much recently as they waited for the new club to launch.  However, the attacking talent that Tata Martino and company have accumulated, headlined by striker Kenwyne Jones and attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron, makes it impossible for me to keep the ATL out of the play-offs.  Their defense, marshalled by Greg Garza and Michael Parkhurst, will be decent, as well, but not having a stable partner for Parkhurst, and the lack of a holding presence in front of the D, will keep them from the conference’s upper reaches.

  1. New York Red Bulls

Ali Curtis and Dax McCarty have both left the club, so the ball is squarely in manager Jesse Marsch’s court this season—he’ll have to really deliver to assure that he keeps his job next year.  Having Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan in your team is a good start, and if his performance in Monday’s USA U-20 victory is any indication, Tyler Adams has the potential to fill, and possibly exceed, McCarty’s contribution to the team.  However, the Red Bulls didn’t really add anybody that can ease some of Wright-Phillips’s scoring burden or help steady their inconsistent defense—Aurélien Collin isn’t getting any younger—and for those reasons, I think the Red Bulls will be good, but not good enough to crack the conference’s upper echelon.

  1. Columbus Crew

Columbus was really, really bad last year—they never were able to recover from their early season drama, performing poorly at home and only picking up more points than two other teams.  Now that Kei Kamara is gone for good, though, the Crew can re-establish their efficient style and make a run at the conference’s big guns.  Ola Kamara and Federico Higuain will keep the attack ticking, Ethan Finlay will provide speed on the flanks, Wil Trapp and the underrated Tony Tchani will hold down the middle of the field, and new additions John Mensah and Zach Steffan will solidify a shaky defense.  Expect Gregg Berhalter’s crew to rebound and make the play-offs this year.

  1. DC United

United has built its brand on being solid, but not spectacular, and while this team was constructed in the same vain, it is certainly the most talented team that they’ve had in former star Ben Olsen’s tenure as manager.  Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam went on a tear at the end of last year, and assuming that they can regain at least most of their scoring touch from last season, the rest of the roster is all set—Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell make a fantastic goalkeeper-center back pairing, and the midfield was bolstered by the addition of former USMNT star John Harkes’s son, Ian.  United won’t be flashy, but they’ll get the job done more often than not and crack the top three in the conference.

  1. New York City FC

Patrick Vieira’s squad definitely has some issues—there isn’t a ton of depth, and the defense will probably not win any awards anytime soon—but there’s a lot to like about this team.  They upgraded at goalie by trading for former Fire shot-stopper Sean Johnson while getting younger around maestro Andrea Pirlo in midfield.  They also added former Portland winger Rodney Wallace to an attack that already boasts one of the best strikers (David Villa) and young wide players (Jack Harrison) in the game.  Their D won’t be steady enough to see them topple Toronto at the top of the conference, but you can certainly expect that the Blues to make some noise in their attempt to do so.

  1. Toronto FC

Almost nothing has changed from the team that lost last year’s MLS Cup, a game they arguably deserved to win—squad member Will Johnson is the only loss—and that’s certainly a great thing for Greg Vanney and company.  If anything, this squad is slightly stronger, with new signings Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez pushing the 11 returning starters for playing time.  Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when you have three of the league’s best, and biggest, players in Sebastian Giovinco, Joy Altidore, and captain Michael Bradley.  With little turnover and lots of talent and motivation, Toronto will certainly be the team to beat in the East.

 

Playoffs

Eastern Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

LA Galaxy over San Jose

Portland over Sporting KC

Conference Semifinals

Seattle over Portland

FC Dallas over LA Galaxy

Conference Final

FC Dallas over Seattle

 

Western Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

Atlanta over DC United

Columbus over New York Red Bulls

Conference Semifinals

Toronto over Atlanta

NYCFC over Columbus

Conference Final

Toronto over NYCFC

 

MLS Cup

FC Dallas over Toronto

 

Awards

MVP: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

Coach of the Year: Gerardo Martino, Atlanta United FC

Rookie of the Year: Ian Harkes, DC United

Newcomer of the Year: Hector “Tito” Villalba, Atlanta United FC

Surprise of the Year: Javier Morales, FC Dallas

 

On Journalism: Part III

This is the final part of a three part series on journalism.  To read the first two parts, please click here and here.

None of my previous criticisms are to say that there are not some phenomenal examples of what good, credible journalism looks like.  For those near my hometown of Clarendon Hills, you should check out the Daily Herald, which provides more unbiased news than either of the big-name papers in Chicago while also providing a more local variety of news items.  For more national news, I recommend listening to the National Public Radio (NPR), watching anything on NBC or ABC that has Megyn Kelly or David Muir as the lead anchor, or reading The Los Angeles Times (the article that first drew me to the Times was their analysis of the voting recount in Wisconsin—you can find it here).  On the sports side of things, John Dietz, who works for the Herald, and Mark Lazerus, who work for the Chicago Sun-Times, are two of the best Chicago sportswriters I can remember reading in my 20 years (they both happen to cover hockey, but that’s irrelevant).  On a national level, there’s a smattering of ESPN personalities who I follow unashamedly—Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic, Christina Kahrl, Bill Barnwell, Buster Olney, and Gab Marcotti—whose incredible attentions to detail, and journalistic integrity, are second to none.  These incredible men and women, along with many others, are definitive proof that the world of journalism has incredible potential.

However, the way that the industry is currently going, there might not be nearly as many opportunities for phenomenal journalists to find footing.  The problems mentioned here, and many other, more minor issues, are overshadowing much of the positives that traditional journalism has to offer, and if they continue to do so, these things might become the norm, which, in turn, will continue to undermine the field.  The President’s bashing of the media aside, journalism as we know it is getting closer and closer to needing life support, and for an industry that plays such a vital, if sometimes underappreciated, role in our everyday lives, that is certainly not a good thing.

Maintaining those opportunities for the people that are passionate about following in the footsteps of some of the greatest writers, wordsmiths, and presenters the world has ever done is crucial to journalism’s survival as we know it; that’s why it’s imperative that we support the people that are offering paid content for their work.  And I’m not talking about the behemoths like the New York Times, Gannett Company, or News Corp.—in my research over the past month or so that it’s taken me to write this series, I’ve found that the bigger the organization is, the less likely that they actually need money to sustain operations (duh) and the more likely it is that their work is starting to be more drastically affected by the current political climate (that’s just my opinion, of course, but I’ll just let the Times’s snarkiness in its recent coverage, as well as the poor evidence and rationale, and incredible bias, in Fox News’s, stand on their own)—but rather more local endeavors.  Smaller, more locally based journalists that may not have the power to get their names out as easily as bigger companies can.  I, myself, just bought a yearly subscription to The Athletic, a new company with in-depth coverage about Chicago sports.  The work that I’ve read from them so far has been phenomenal, and in paying to receive their articles, I’m added to a growing readership that allowed them to open up a second branch in Toronto, an impressive feat in an environment that is seeing more and more situations like the one surrounding the Florida Panthers that I mentioned in the first part of this series.  It’s also important for people to come to comprehend, at an early age, what bias is, and how to identify it, so that the crises that erupted over “fake news” during the recent election cycle either never occur again or are shot in the bud before they have a chance to gain a foothold as “mainstream.”

I recognize that journalism, as a field, will continue to evolve, and that many of the issues that I have with the industry today will be non-existent in ten years, only for new ones to take their place.  I understand that the industry will never revert back to what it once was, that print newspapers and hour of radio broadcasts will never feature as prominently as they used to.  But I am entirely confident if we can hang on to what made journalism what it is today—the honesty, and the dedication to solid, in-depth reporting—will allow it to thrive for many more years to come.  And that, I believe, would definitely be a good thing.

Have any thoughts or questions on any of the pieces of this series?  Contact me here.

On Journalism: Part II

If you haven’t already, please read Part I before reading this piece.  It provides an abbreviated history of journalism as we have come to know it and presents the issues discussed in this part.  You can find it here.

Perhaps this is due to falling standards, which can be traced back to the concentrated staffs of many news sources.  One of the places at which this problem is most evident is at the Advocate.  The year that we won the Pacemaker, every person on the staff, from the editor-in-chief on down to the staff writers, such as myself, had an opportunity to write, or work on, the month’s feature stories.  That caused people to be more passionate about their work, and it resulted in more interesting, and in-depth, stories.  The year after, though, more writing responsibility was stripped from the writing staff and placed on the already busy editorial staff, a structure that has remained in place today, for both the online and print editions.  The need for writers, then, was significantly lessened, as a single writer could easily handle at least two or three of the sidebars that we were assigned to.  Therefore, many writers either quit writing for school publications altogether or moved to the school yearbook, a far more collaborative project, or were turned away due to the incredibly exclusive hierarchy of the paper’s leadership.  These departures, or exclusions, led to (relatively) lower quality work and a decrease in unique ideas and perspectives, leading to some grumblings from current students about the Advocate’s limited scope, especially recently, in the light of the Presidential election.  There is another side to this coin, as well—decreased investment in journalism has forced news sources to concentrate their staffs, preventing them from being as effective in their coverage as they could be.  This is more prominent than the Advocate example—since traditional journalism isn’t as financially rewarding as some other mediums, and because of the decreased circulation of many traditional-based journalistic sources as people search for as much free news as possible, many magazines, newspapers, and websites are forced into major budget, and therefore, staff, reductions.  Within the past couple of years, a major sports-and-media website, Grantland, and many prominent newspapers, such as the Tampa Tribune, have been shut down on account of these things.  A more recent, and less dramatic, example of this popped up at the end of November, when the Florida Panthers hockey team shockingly fired their head coach, Gerrard Gallant.  No specific details came out about the shocking decision until the following afternoon, though, because the papers that covered the team didn’t have the money, or motivation, to send their writers to Charlotte to cover the team.  In this modern age, the idea that we couldn’t have crucial details on such a big move virtually immediately came as a huge shock, and the lack of money to have a full-time hockey beat writer caused many to have to wait longer than they wanted to.

All of the that previous criticism of the straying from “traditional” journalism, considering that this post is supposed to be in support of it, is somewhat hypocritical, considering that this blog, and blogs in general, are taking away some of the audience that would typically be buying, and reading, those older sources of journalism (more on that later).  As such, to draw in those audiences, these places have tried to hire more blogger-style writers to maintain their readership.  These other writers either don’t take the time to properly edit their work, ditch prose for more “engaging” content that turns into a hot mess, and drastically stretch facts, misinterpret them, or ignore them altogether, often leading to some unbelievably biased news.  Doing these things has caused the journalism field to drastically decrease in quality.  An example of the first point is my school’s own Babson Free Press, which has both a print copy and an online copy.  The print copy comes out too infrequently to evaluate, but their online site is highly representative of a lack of editorial focus.  None of the featured articles that it covered the last couple months, on the election or other topics—most of which are laced with numerous grammar errors, which is a common theme with many “newer” journalists, or are opinion pieces that have no business being counted as “news” for a school paper with a deep history—can be found without some digging.  The Free Press is not alone in its manipulation of journalistic details—“news sources” on both sides of the aisle have also put a stain on the journalism through their perpetuation of “fake news.”  The usual suspects were involved in the advancement of these false stories—Fox News regularly pushed anything that seemed to bolster Donald Trump’s agenda, while the Huffington Post did the opposite, while ending every one of their articles on Trump with “Editor’s note: Donald Drumpf regularly incites political violence, and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther…”— yet even traditionally unbiased papers like The Washington Post fell victim to “fake news” (their involvement is detailed here).  One of the most prominent of the places pushing fake news is the infamous Breitbart. The site generates hundreds of clickbait articles every week, coming up with fantastical ideas about the failings of liberals based on some faint rumor that may have been emanating from Washington.  Their frequent perpetuation of white supremacist ideals certainly doesn’t help, either.  Another one of those sources is every millennial’s favorite website, Buzzfeed, for which my girlfriend and I hold a very guilty pleasure.  The site fashions themselves as “the leading independent digital media company delivering news and entertainment to hundreds of millions of people,” and to an extent, that is exactly what they are.  But to claim that much of the things that they consider “news” is an embarrassment to the industry—the site has things like this and this filed under their news section.  All of these mistakes, and egregious failings of journalistic integrity, combine to keep the legitimacy, and popularity, of the evolving journalism field level lower than what it could be.

 

Come back on Monday for the conclusion of this series of posts!

 

Rapid Reaction: Super Bowl LI

What started as a bland, boring match-up turned into a game for the history books, as the New England Patriots completed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history with a 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Things started off incredibly slow—there was no scoring in the entire first quarter—but things got going quickly in the second.  New England was driving, but Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount had the ball stripped by Atlanta rookie linebacker Deion Jones, and when Atlanta recovered, the Falcons went on an incredible run.  Falcons stars Devonta Freeman, who scored the team’s first touchdown, and Julio Jones had their way with the Patriots defense, and while the legendary Tom Brady was effective, he wasn’t quite able to crack the young Atlanta D.  That D was able to crack him, though, as on the team’s deepest first half drive outside of the one that culminated in Blount’s fumble, Brady was picked off by cornerback Robert Alford, who returned the ball 82 yards for a touchdown.  While the Pats were able to tack on a field goal before the half, they still found themselves down 18 points, which, even at that time, would have been the biggest lead ever overcome in the history of the Big Game.

The hole got bigger in the third quarter, when Tevin Coleman plunged in to give the Falcons a 28-3 lead.  It seemed as if the Falcons were left for dead.  But Brady, who wound up finishing with a Super Bowl-record 466 yards passing, was having none of it—he led his team down the field to get a score in before the end of the quarter, and then kept up the momentum by getting a field goal on the first drive of the fourth quarter.  The Patriots defense came up big, forcing the league’s MVP, Matt Ryan, to fumble the ball and give it ball to Brady, who responded by quickly tossing a touchdown to Danny Amendola and calling a gutsy play for a two-point conversion.  The Falcons had a chance to put the Patriots away on their next drive, as they were still up 8, and an incredible sideline catch by Jones seemed to do just that.  However, after a sack and a costly holding penalty, Brady and company got the ball back.  They drove swiftly and efficiently down the field, capping their drive with a one yard plunge by running back James White, who had a Big Game-record 14 catches on the day, and a two-pointer by Amendola to tie the game.

The game went to overtime for the first time in Super Bowl history, and when the Patriots won the toss, they elected to receive.  The Falcons wouldn’t see the ball again.  Brady, who was named MVP for the fourth time in his five Super Bowl wins, marched his team down the field, and when White dove past the goal line to secure the victory, all of New England went bananas.  The Patriots were champions again.

On Journalism: Part I

Even though I happen to attend business school, English has been a passion of mine for as long as I can possibly remember.  My family’s photo collection provides some basis for this—I’ve seen tens of photos of myself engrossed in a book when I was younger, before I even started formal schooling.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten an even greater appreciation for English, as both a language and an obsession, to the point that it was close to being a borderline obsession.  I text with proper grammar and criticize those that don’t.  I won English Student of the Quarter in high school and was more excited than I had been to score a big win over a rival in soccer.  I often ask, somewhat jokingly, somewhat not, if I can help my mom grade her English student’s papers (yes, I know I’m weird).  This post about a more refined craft that I love equally as much as the more general subject—journalism.

I was first introduced to the world of journalism in my sophomore year of high school.  I was interested in joining our school’s newsmagazine, the Devils’ Advocate, but had missed the “try-out” process the previous year.  However, I was fortunate enough to have a friend on staff, and she referred me to the faculty advisor of the magazine.  I ended up joining the online staff, where I learned the finer points of the craft, before eventually joining the more prominent print magazine as a staff writer, a position I was lucky enough to hold for two years.  That first year, I was surrounded by some incredibly dedicated, and incredibly talented, writers and researchers, passionate and detail-oriented editors, and creative design staff, and this phenomenal combination led us to receive the prestigious Pacemaker award for our work.  Since then, though, the Advocate, and many other journalistic sources throughout the country, have been stricken with issues that could leave their futures in jeopardy.

Before delving into those problems, though, it’s worth doing a brief overview of how things came to be as they are today.  Formal journalism as we know it has been in practice since before the United States even existed.  The longest running newspaper in the country, The New Hampshire Gazette, has been in operation since 1756 (!!), and the longest running daily paper, The Hartford Courant, has been in circulation since 1764.  There were even papers that dated back to the early 18th century.  Up until that time, people in the US found out their news through word of mouth, letters, or almanacs, which were sometimes not factually based and not published on a very regular basis.  The introduction of newspapers changed all of that, and people began to rely on daily papers to catch up on their local news, and also to gain insight from noted opinions columnists.  Their ascension to fixtures of public domain was rapid, as they became immensely influential in the development of the American Revolution; one of the most famous of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, used the paper that he owned and published, the Pennsylvania Gazette, to further the initiatives of the revolutionaries, and many other papers supported those rebelling against the English.  As the influence of papers grew, so did their numbers; when George Washington took office in 1789, there were 92 daily papers in operation in the United States.  20 years later, that number had almost quadrupled, to 376, and that number quadrupled, to roughly 1200, by 1835.  The specialization of papers increased, as well; newspapers on a variety of subjects, such as business, foreign affairs, and even farming, materialized, as did papers from specialty groups, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s famous Liberator.

Newspapers remained the main source of journalism for people throughout the 19th century, and for the first 20 years of the 20th century; in fact, it was not uncommon for any one person to purchase, and read, three, four, or five newspapers every single day.  Around 1920, though, journalism as we know it was altered forever through the use of the radio as a broadcasting medium.  People could get up-to-the-minute news from the comfort of their own homes, and once they had a radio, the news was, essentially, free.  Newspapers continued to be the most popular medium for traditional journalism, but radio was slowly eating away at their slice of the pie, vocalizing the news that publishers had to work incredibly hard to get out on paper.  FM radio was established in the US around 1935, becoming more and more popular as the technology improved, and that same year, CBS hired Edward Murrow as its “director of talks,” headlining a series of news bits over CBS’s national airwaves while informing, and inspiring, hundreds of thousands of people.  As the medium spread more and more across the country, broadcast journalism, as it came to be known, became far more spontaneous than print mediums ever could.  It was much harder to hold back one’s opinions when constantly broadcasting, so it was in this time that journalism started to become more blatantly partisan.

Just as radio started to take off, though, a new medium for journalism emerged—the television.  In 1940, the famous radio broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, anchored the first ever live telecast of a political event, the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, an event that thrust the popularity of the television into the public spotlight.  Thomas was also the man that was the host of the first ever regularly scheduled television-news broadcasts 10 years later, in 1950.  Within the next few years, the major radio communications providers of the time, NBC and CBS, worked hard to establish daily news broadcasts in locales throughout the country.  The fact that these broadcast journalists could not only be heard, as they could be on radio, but also seen live, rocketed some of the more well-known broadcasters, such as the legendary Walter Cronkite, into superstardom.  ABC and WGN entered the television industry shortly after their rivals, racing to establish news agencies in every major city.  As more and more networks were created, the partisanship of journalism continued to increase; the visibility of broadcast journalists allowed people to put words to a face, and those journalists often used that to their advantage, using their positions of prominence to give their views on current events.  This partisanship was what led to the creation of more targeted news stations, such as Fox News and CNN.

While there is, of course, much, much more detail to go into, the evolution of the mediums discussed above are enough to connect the state of journalism today.  The field is extraordinarily large, with journalists opting to work for a satellite television station, on digital radio, or podcast, platforms, or even glorified blogs, instead of the traditional, yet still fully functioning, mediums.  However, with the contentiousness surrounding our country’s recent election cycle, and the man that it elected, Donald Trump, journalism, as an industry, has been under fire more than it has been in recent memory, and perhaps ever.  The number of people with newspaper subscriptions has decreased, and the trust levels that people have in those papers is shockingly low for publications that pride themselves on integrity.  Immense partisanship, immense bias, is not only to be expected, but is also readily obviously slanted, to be either conservative or liberal, especially over radio, where pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken reign supreme.  Claims of “fake news” are running rampant.  The President himself has lambasted the media for its coverage of him, while CNN president Jeff Zucker has admitted that the way that they handled Trump and his campaign may have contributed to him being viewed more favorably across the country.  This isn’t a post where I’m interested in delving into politics, about who is “right” and “wrong”—but I am interested in making clear that there is a real problem with the direction that the journalism industry is headed.

Come back on Tuesday to read Part II!

This Week at Babson

To say that things on campus have been chaotic lately would be like saying that Michael Jordan was just some basketball player, apple pie is just a dessert, or that I am just a little stressed for my TOM exam tomorrow.  The results of Tuesday’s election were certainly what set this chaos in motion, as an unexpected victory by real estate mogul Donald Trump has, rightfully, ignited some doubts and fears over the relative stability, and tranquility, of our country.

Of course, Mr. Trump does not take office until January, so we have two months until our whole world might be flipped upside down, but part of that tranquility was shattered almost immediately, thanks to Edward Tomasso and Parker Rand-Ricciardi, who decided that it would be a good idea to drive around Wellesley College yesterday in a pick-up truck, waving a Trump flag and accosting the students of Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, all while documenting the entire thing on Snapchat.  Exactly what occurred is up for some debate, but there are a couple things that are pretty clear.  The first is that these… classmates of mine (that’s a difficult thing to write, believe me) were acting so unbelievably poorly and so unbelievably wrong.  The second is that their actions have definitely shaken everyone on campus.

The entire environment at this Babson maintains a delicate balance, whether it is election season or not.  We are a business school, which makes us, largely, inherently economically conservative.  Our leadership largely consists of people are also economically and, to some extent, socially conservative.  This environment would, naturally, attract some students that are conservative socially, as well, and hail the election of Trump as something that will right the political ship, so to speak.  Our student body, though, is, I believe, as a whole, more culturally aware than any group of people our age anywhere else in the country, and our diversity in race, religion, and gender makes that student body more forward-thinking than any other college campus I know of.  That being said, there are enough people that embody the archaic views that Edward and Parker revealed in their escapade that openly condoning their motivations could be viewed as an infringement on free speech and an insult to their values.  This is a sad reality.  It’s also a sad reality that I don’t expect them to be expelled in a timely manner, as they should be, for bringing shame upon themselves, their fraternity, their school, and their voting base, all while doing irreparable harm to our dear friends at Wellesley College, because of the contentiousness surrounding their actions.  

This is why I think that the dialogue that arises from what occurred yesterday should not be one that takes away any hope that Edward and Parker have for a future, but should make it abundantly clear that their motivations and actions are not something that can be tolerated on this campus.  Most importantly, though, I think that in this time when the tensions on this campus are at an all-time high, that the people that believe that this will simply blow over, that any aspect of what these boys did can be explained in any way, shape, or form, need to take a hard look at themselves and give some serious thought to whether or not they belong in our community.

Our community is a place where the craziness of the last few days should be made at least a little bit easier to bear.  A place that should be a safe haven for any person, regardless of where they are from, what gender they identify with, or who they voted for, where love reigns supreme over not just hate, but selfishness and arrogance, as well.  A place filled with thoughtful discussion about how each and every one of us can contribute to allowing everyone to have the college experience that they deserve.

Our community is a place that is, and should, embody the intelligence, the thoughtfulness, the kindness, and the respect that Babson has come to be known for.  And we need to come together in whatever way we can—not just for the sake of unity, but to make sure that nothing, not the divisiveness of the election, nor the anger surrounding Edward and Parker, nor anything else, ever changes that.  We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to allow this amazing campus to be the best place that it can possibly be.

I have been embarrassed and humbled at multiple points today, reflecting on my own thoughts, seeing the social media comments surrounding everything that has gone on in the last day, and seeing our campus come under fire.  I have cried, multiple times, on account of the role my privilege may have had in perpetuating what occurred yesterday, and for the state of our campus.  I would like to take the chance to thank the friend that encouraged me to write this article, for showing me what it means to be a real Babson student.  I also encourage anybody that has any concern with any of my thoughts here to write to me here, so that I can better understand the issues that you are facing here on this campus, because to compensate for my past ignorance, I would really like to help you in any way I can.