My Soccer Refereeing Story

I don’t use this blog very often anymore—my preference for playing mind-numbing video games rather than enhancing my mental capacity after a ten-hour day at work probably has something to do with it, and as much fun as writing sports previews and personal articles were, I have never been as dedicated to my writing and analysis to build up any sort of following that would make me prioritize it.

This weekend, however, something happened to me that I wanted to put out in the public forum.

On Saturday afternoon, I was refereeing an Under-10 boys travel soccer game.  I have been refereeing now for eight years, having been encouraged to register with my club teammate by both of our mothers as we were in the middle of eighth grade.  While I am nowhere near the level of fitness that I used to be (i.e. I’ve gotten a bit tubby), I very much enjoy refereeing, and hope to continue to do so for many years.  Now that I am a recent college graduate and am working full-time, I do not need to continue to ref as consistently—after coming home from school I would try to pick up anywhere between 40 to 50 games in the month between my return home in mid-May and the end of the season in mid-June—but I continue to try and pick up as many games as I reasonably can on two counts, the first of which is my never-ending love for the game, which developed during the time I played high-level travel soccer (through high school—subtle brag; I wasn’t great by any means, but I got to start in the same lineup as a current MLS player when I was in high school, so that was cool) and has continued to rise as I’ve gotten lazier.  The other is my recognition of the relative shortage of referees in the game.

It is exciting to see that the game is growing throughout northern Illinois—when I was younger, there were five major teams that I can remember: Eclipse, the Hinsdale Hawks, the Chicago Blast, the Downers Grove Roadrunners, and the Berwyn Blazers were some of the big clubs within a ten-mile radius of my home in Clarendon Hills.  Today, I can think of eleven off the top of my head, including Eclipse, the Blast, the Roadrunners, and the Blazers, and now also including Team Elmhurst, Wizards, AYSO 300, Chicago Empire FC, OBSC, LTSC, and LaGrange Celtics.  In order for the game to continue to thrive, though, referees are inherently necessary; however, incidents like the one I faced on Saturday are the reason that referee participation is on the decline.

The events that led up to this are inconsequential, so long as I was not blatantly making calls towards one team or another; this was my first game refereeing for the home team in over two years, and I believe I called a fair game, as evidenced by the fact that the coaches of both teams, while vocal towards their players for the duration of the match, never once complained about my calls.  The parents of the away team, however, were a different story.

Following the final whistle, I walked back to my bag, and a player’s mother stormed up to me and demanded that I provide her with my name and information.  I had another game to get to, and was not obligated to provide any information, so I declined to offer it.  She then asked me for my credentials, so she could confirm that I had passed my referee test.  I replied saying I did not need to provide that information either, as the fact that I had a 2019 USSF badge was indicative of the fact I was properly credentialed for the game.  She continued to press me for information, and I continued to deny her that information, packing my bag so that once the players had finished their handshake line I could offer them a “good game” and go on to my next match.

From here, things escalated further; the woman’s husband came up to me and said “Aw shut up, are you kidding me?  Just give her what she asked for!”  I continued to deny the request, indicating that I was planning to leave and that I would not provide any information.  As he walked away, he called me a “f****** douche,” not at an elevated volume but clearly intended to be loud enough for me to hear.  I asked him what he had called me, and he responded that he said what he did because I had disrespected his wife, stepping back towards me in an intimidating fashion.  During this interaction, three more parents from the same team attempted to crowd me and take my picture to be sent in to the league office.

Fortunately, the president of the home team was at the game, and along with the staff coach of the that team, spoke up to encourage the visiting parents to leave me alone and move on to the parking lot.  While I was confident that nothing would escalate further beyond that, I was still shaken, and the president offered to help me submit a report to the league and walk me back to my car.  I declined, as I didn’t need any more people getting involved in the situation and needed to make it to my next game, but I obtained his contact information to allow for the verification of the events that took place, and I submitted my own objective report to the league earlier today.

There are more games to referee than ever—a great opportunity to make money, get exercise, and enjoy exceptional recreation simultaneously—but many are wary of the amount of responsibility and abuse that comes with the position.  Having played soccer for a long time, I am somewhat used to the yelling, and take advantage of the lack of referees by virtually having my pick of available matches I want each season (I have 34 games this fall).  While monetarily that’s great for me, this deficit of officials is not good for the game; I refereed a high-level Under-18 game yesterday where I didn’t have any assistant referees (the referee from the previous game offered to stay, and we did the game together).  Showing up to work a game alone is not fun.  Being called derogatory names at a game is worse; a twelve year-old could have refereed that U10 game, and if they were in the position that I was, I believe that there is a significant chance that they would not continue refereeing following that.  There are others that have heard similar stories and choose not to register themselves, or their children, to be referees.

I doubt that anyone that might ever read this could possibly do anything drastic about the massive amounts of abuse heaped on referees by parents, and sometimes even coaches and players.  Heckling referees is so common that it’s virtually an American pastime.  But that doesn’t mean that people are entitled to say whatever they want, especially at the youth level, when almost all of the games are helmed by people like me, for whom refereeing is a hobby rather than something they are wholly dedicated to.

So, with that, I have a few final points to make.  The first of those is this: I encourage those that are willing and able to step in and help referee matches, in soccer and in other youth sports, to please do so.  90 percent of the games I have officiated have come off without a hitch, and in those that had some sort of issue, I received excellent training to handle the situations at hand, and have consistently gotten great support from my referee assignor.  This disturbing incident has even furthered my passion for the game, and furthered my desire to see more people in the sport—there are plenty of fantastic opportunities to be had, as refereeing provides great leadership opportunities while also padding your pocket—and those that stepped up to defend me assured me that there are many great people in the game.  There are so many young people picking up this great game, and many others, and denying them the proper structure to play due to a lack of officials would be demoralizing on multiple counts.

My incident showed, however, that there is still a sense of entitlement that the referee is there to do everything right, and to take any criticism that comes their way without complaint.  We officials are not perfect—while I am sure I was correct in my handling of the game scenario that spurred these events, I am sure I made multiple mistakes in that game outside of that—and this is not something that we are required to do.  There isn’t a whole lot of training involved, sure, but when the shortage is forcing a lot of referees to give up a lot of their weekends to assure games can properly proceed, losing even a few more officials than we already have would leave leagues perilously short of proper referees.

So please, try to find some restraint within yourself to really yell at officials; true heckling is generally acceptable (unless it is a younger official; in which case, use common sense—don’t yell at a young teen), and so is an appropriate questioning of a call (my coach growing up was very vocal, and very good at this), as most officials, especially once they reach my age, will not take any comments personally, and if they are good at what they do, perhaps seek to clarify why they did what they did.  But the incredibly rude and very personal insult that I faced, and the numerous other ones many other officials have to deal with, are not acceptable.  I am as much of a competitor as the next guy, but we have to remember that the game is just a game, and that the official is simply trying their best to make sure the game is fair.  Additionally, if you see a coach, player, or another parent berating an official, don’t egg them on for your amusement; encourage them to recognize the reality of what they are doing.  As the game continues to grow, particularly in this region of the world, and even of the country, it is crucial to maintain its integrity, and if referees are going to continue to face these types of situations on a regular basis, then the game’s rise will be greatly halted as quickly as it has started.

My Story

This post is currently a work in progress!

To read the original “My Story” that I posted, and to get an idea of why it might possibly warrant an edit, please click here.

Also, be on the lookout for “My Story – Part Two” soon after this post is finalized.

An Ode to Joel Quenneville

I haven’t updated this blog in over 6 months.  Part of it has been on account of the fact that I haven’t been able to think of anything to write, and part of it has been because I’ve been incredibly busy—working during the summer, seeking a job for the following one, and trying to keep my grades up in what is my second semester as a college undergrad.  But seeing Joel Quenneville relieved of his duties as the Head Coach of the Chicago Blackhawks today spurred me into action.

My dad grew up playing hockey; he played competitively all the way through college, and continued to play recreationally as he moved into adulthood.  But I never found myself interested in hockey—for one, I couldn’t skate to save my life, and hated falling on my butt so consistently.  The main reason, though, might have been because my hometown team, the Blackhawks, were pretty bad, and didn’t broadcast any of their games on local television.  The team had made the postseason once in the past decade, and that, combined with their archaic media policies, made them a laughingstock throughout the sports world.

After President John McDonough was brought into the organization in 2007, a massive culture shift began within the organization.  McDonough, along with owner Rocky Wirtz, who took over the team after the death of his father, Bill, knew they needed to undertake some drastic changes in order to get a moribund team back on track.    So when Coach Q was first brought into the Blackhawks organization as a scout back in 2008, many suspected that it would only be a matter of time before he replaced the team’s head coach at the time, the legendary Denis Savard.  Despite Savard’s solid relationship with youngsters Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the organization didn’t seem to believe they, and the rest of the team’s core, were progressing as fast as they could have.  And so, four games into the 2008/2009 season, Savard was let go, and Quenneville was installed as the head man.

Of course, in hindsight it was easy to see that the roster that GM Dale Tallon had established was destined for something special.  Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook led the team in average minutes per game the prior two seasons.  Patrick Kane led the team in points.  Savard had the foresight to name Toews captain.  But nobody could have possibly anticipated the incredible run that the team went on, and that was spurred on by Quenneville.

The first full season with Q behind the bench made that especially clear.  It was Quenneville’s decision to give more playing time to Niklas Hjalmarsson, sticking him next to wily veteran Brian Campbell to form the team’s shutdown defensive pairing.  It was Quenneville’s decision to start rookie Antti Niemi in the playoffs over the more experienced (and more expensive) Cristobal Huet, and his decision to move defenseman Dustin Byfuglien into a forward role, often on the first line with Kane and Toews.  Both of those decisions were instrumental to the team winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Quenneville’s impact on the squad’s success reached its peak in his efforts across the next two seasons.  After Niemi and Huet were forced to leave due to cap constraints, Quenneville and his staff helped develop youngster Corey Crawford into the stud that he is today, in addition to continuing to provide an environment for guys like Toews, Kane, and Keith to become internationally recognized superstars.  Players like Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, and Kris Versteeg left within that timeframe, as well, but Quenneville made due by providing increased roles to guys like Nick Leddy and the duo of Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland, who became household names in Chicago after their contributions to the team’s win over the Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.  He helped work in multiple mid-season acquisitions, including Michael Frolik, Johnny Oduya, and Michal Handzus, almost flawlessly.

As the salary cap continued to dog the ‘Hawks, Quenneville continued to work his magic.  Important depth pieces like Leddy, Bickell, Bolland, and Ray Emery were all forced out the door; Handzus retired.  But Quenneville gave big roles to guys like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who were critical cogs of the roster for the next couple seasons and were unable to find anywhere near the level of success they did in Chicago after they, too, were forced to depart.  He lit a fire under Crawford by starting hometown-hero Scott Darling in five of the first six playoff games in 2015; upon his return to the lineup in Game 7, Crow turned in a virtuoso performance to lead the team on to the next round.

Off the ice, Coach Q was a perfect fit for the Chicago sports environment.  His mustache made him somewhat of a fashion icon, spurring multiple social media pages.  His passion to see the game succeed in the city after decades of poor performance was evident in every game he coached, but also in every press conference he gave, every camp he led, and every community event he attended.  He, along with also-fired assistant Kevin Dineen, established their homes in Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb, and fully integrated themselves into that community.  It became almost commonplace to see him at his favorite diner, Page’s, and in the annual Fourth of July parade, hoisting the Stanley Cup above his head as the community looked on in awe and appreciation.  He made hockey fans out of so many people, myself included—I can safely say that I wouldn’t be as passionate, or know as much, about this team if it weren’t for Q.

Quenneville certainly had his flaws—regardless of people’s thoughts on Q’s firing, the organization had some rationale to relieve the coach of his duties.  His relationship with Stan Bowman was not fantastic, and the two disagreed often as to the type of players that the team should be acquiring and playing on a regular basis (Brandon Manning is the best example this season). While his reputation for being difficult on younger players is largely unfounded—though the struggles of guys like Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz can support that claim—the one he gained for messing with lines so much, which largely stems from his disconnect with Bowman, that it effected team morale and performance was warranted; Toews, normally silent on issues within the team, even admitted as much. The team missed the playoffs last season, and is currently on a five game losing streak.  The power play, helmed by Quenneville and Dineen, has been atrocious, and the penalty kill hasn’t been much better.

With that said, it is undeniable that Quenneville is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the Blackhawks, the city of Chicago, and the game of hockey.  His legacy of three Stanley Cups will never be forgotten in this city; the image of his mustachioed-face lit up in a massive smile, looking down over a championship celebration with a sea of red-clad fans that he helped created, won’t either.  He deserves the greatest possible honors that the franchise could bestow upon him; he will be sorely missed behind the Blackhawks’ bench.

Come back next week for my analysis on why this decision was made and how the team will move forward

Niko

Today would have been the 11th birthday of our family dog, Niko.  He was born on this date back in 2007, an Easter baby, and upon bringing him into our family home he became the center of everyone’s lives.  He was unable to use his hind legs, and therefore had to be carried everywhere, in his final couple months, so I know that he did not have an excellent quality of life prior to his being put to sleep.  That said, I still miss him terribly, and wish he was still with us virtually every day.  So, on this special day, I hope to look back on some memories and pictures of him with joy in my heart—and, while I know that this post may be long, and probably pretty cheesy, I hope that you do, too.

My first memory relating to Niko is a humbling one: I never wanted a dog.  My younger sister, on the other hand, was constantly begging my parents for one, so when they found a breeder that was about to have a litter of Dobermans, the breed that my dad grew up with, my sister was ecstatic.  When we went to meet the puppies—11 in all—we were drawn to three of them.  I use “we” here very loosely—in addition to not wanting to take care of a puppy, I was also scared of them.  They were loud, nippy, and smelled funny.  My only real favorite at the time was “Blue,” so nicknamed because of the blue ribbon around his neck—and the only real reason for that was that blue is my favorite color.  “Green,” who my mom was drawn to, and “Red,” who my sister liked, were also in play.  Ultimately, our decision was helped along by “Blue” and “Green” being deemed show dogs, we ended up taking home “Red” within a couple weeks of first meeting him, my fears being thrown to the wind.

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You can see some of that fear in my face on the big day—the breeder and my sister were extraordinarily enthusiastic to hold the puppy, while I… was not.

He was the first born of his litter, and the name my mom found for him, Niko, literally means “victory of the people,” or, in another translation, “leader of the pack,” so we found it to be a very fitting moniker.

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His floppy ears and tiny body made him cute, but even then he had an aura of regalness, and his massive paws hinted at the massive creature he would become.

Despite this, I remained fearful of him for weeks.  The tide finally began to turn after we returned to see our breeder for a play date with some of his siblings.  He fell asleep on my lap on our drive back home—something that scared the living daylights out of me but also eased most of my remaining fears about him.

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In his recovery from his ears clipped—you can see the bandages on his ears in the last clip—he had to spend a lot of time inside.  That meant he very quickly got acquainted to the “lay of the land,” so to speak, in our house.  He was very excitable, as young dogs are wont to be, so my parents thought of using baby gates to prevent him from running rampant throughout the house, sliding across our wood floors and maybe falling on his healing ears.  It also proved to be helpful if he came inside with muddy paws, or when we had a large amount of company over.  As he got older he outgrew the gates, but they were still a very effective deterrent for him—when they fell over they made a loud noise that he didn’t appreciate, so he avoided going near them at all costs—unless food and treats were involved, and even then he was cautious.

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Being inside so much early in his life also earned him a lot of little goodies.  His first Christmas saw him accumulate a bunch of little toys, which were continuously added to throughout the years.  He seemed to be really good at chewing things to the point that they split in half, but never enough that they were completely destroyed (the only exception to that was my sister’s Crocs, which were the only thing I can remember him chewing that he wasn’t supposed to), and he seemed to switch which bone he preferred on a day-to-day basis, so by the end of his life we had a picnic basket full of toys throughout the years.  He would leave them everywhere throughout the house, too—there was many a time when we would find chew toys tucked under furniture, or when I would find a bone entangled in my sheets (after my parents and sister got new duvets, my bed was the only one he was allowed on; he was, however, allowed to sleep, with a blanket on, on a huge bed right next to my mom).

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His bed

He also got used to getting a very large amount of table scraps.  We weren’t as bad as my grandparents in giving him people food—they spoiled him beyond belief, which is a very grandparent-y thing to do—but he got his fair share from us, as well.  He was a big dog whose eye level was even with our table, so it was easy for him to snatch things off the table, which he did when he was younger, grabbing two of my mini donuts off the table and managing to take a sip of my soup.  To counteract that, we gave him little bits from our meals every day so that he wouldn’t simply grab at things.  That allowed him to develop some great discipline—we could leave food out on lower tables and he wouldn’t take any—but whenever we had food he would look at us with sad eyes that were virtually impossible to ignore.  As such, he developed great tastes for, among other things, steak, yogurt, peanut butter, ice cubes, white rice, scrambled eggs, fresh sweet peppers, and my vanilla ice cream, the remnants of which you can see on his nose here:

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Once he healed up and finally got to spend some time outside, he developed a reputation throughout our neighborhood.  Dobermans, Rottweilers, and Great Danes are frequently portrayed as being vicious in media—or, at the very least, villainous, as in Beverly Hills Chihuahua—so in the first couple years we had him, people would cross the street whenever they saw him walking down the street.  Pictures like this may hint at that reasoning a little:

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As time went on, though, and people around the neighborhood got to see more of him, they became much more comfortable with him, as they realized the truth—that he was a complete softy.  That sense of comfort was enforced even more whenever it was my sister walking him, like in the dog parade below:

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My mom was the person that took him for the most walks—she was around most often and enjoyed the chance to have long talks with him, and God, on their strolls, which in his prime could last as long as two and a half hours.  He made many friends throughout the neighborhood—Henry, Mini Me, Tuffy, Chloe, Frisco, Molly, and his best friend Cooper—that he enjoyed walking and playing with, as well.  I, myself, preferred to spend with my time outside with him just… running around.  We were afforded ample space to do that—we had a big backyard in our first house, and the second one backed up to a giant field, so there was plenty of space for him to roam.  His favorite things to do seemed to be chasing after tennis balls and sticks—about as stereotypical for a dog as you could get—but he also just enjoyed being able to run.  My friends and I would sometimes run to opposite sides of the field as quick as we could; he’d pick one of us to chase after, often plowing us over in his quest to turn around or slow down, before the other person got his attention and he’d chase them.  My dad would sometimes take this a step further, having Niko chase him up the sledding hill and then back down, an incredible feat of athleticism to watch.

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He wasn’t much a fan of rain—it reminded him of showers, which he hated, and it got in his ears pretty easily, so whenever it was raining and he needed to go outside it sometimes took a person with an umbrella leading him to coax him out—but he loved the snow.  He sometimes ran into the path of the snow blower when my dad had it out, and was big enough to look like a little horse prancing in and out of the bigger drifts.  He also really enjoyed chasing after squirrels—he never caught one, as his loud barking and inability to change directions made it near impossible—but watching him try to follow them, then jump up the trees the little animals had scampered up, was always amusing.

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As he got older, and his ability to be active in and out of the house began to diminish, he remained a constant presence in our lives.  We moved in the summer after my sophomore year of high school, and we put his favorite piece of furniture, a couch from our old office, in our front foyer.  It was there where he spent most of the rest of his days—he could see everyone coming walking near or up to the house, which gave him ample time to prepare to greet people with one of his trademark smiles, which always managed to brighten our days even after he couldn’t get up off of the couch to do it.  His lack of mobility also meant that his couch became the center of familial activity in the house—we all wanted to spend as much time with him as we possibly could, to the point where we would spend hours on end just sitting with him, talking, napping, and cuddling.

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I would go more into what he meant to me personally, but there’s just so much to share, so much to say, that I wouldn’t ever be able to properly articulate exactly how much he meant to me.  So I’m just going to end with this: he was the brother I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have.  He was my source of comfort in my hardest times and the one of the brightest lights in the good ones.  He lived with me in two different houses and met both of my girlfriends.  He was my best friend.  I will love and cherish him, and these memories of him, forever.

Niko Gaffney

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If you want/have more pictures, or want to talk more about Niko, comment below or contact me here.  I would love to hear from you.

2018 White Sox Season Preview

Last season wasn’t a great one on the field for the South Siders—they finished 67-95, fourth in the division, and said goodbye to arguably their most talented pitcher in Jose Quintana, as well as two of their best field players, Todd Frazier and Melky Cabrera, in mid-season trades.  That being said, we also got a glimpse of the bright future the team is shooting for—top prospects Yoan Moncada, Lucsas Giolito, and Reynaldo Lopez all cracked the Show last year, showcasing some of the immense talent that gives them team one of the nest farm systems in the game.  While this season figures to be much the same in terms of game results, we may see some more of their fellow prospects reach the majors, and if the performances of Giolito and Lopez so far are anything to go by, a lot of games could be exciting to watch.  So, on that note, here is my overview of the 2018 Chicago White Sox:

Outfield:

LF- Nicky Delmonico

CF- Adam Engel

RF- Avisail Garcia

Out of the three projected starters from last year, only one of them, Garcia, is expected to start the season with the bug club.  The 26 year-old finally managed to put things together at the plate after a couple seasons’ worth of on- and off-the-field struggles, hitting for an excellent .330 average, bashing 18 homers, and establishing himself as a good compliment to Jose Abreu in the middle of the order.  A lot of the team’s offense will figure to come from those two, and Garcia is going to have to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, but rather a sign of better things to come.

The other two outfielders are significantly less experienced—both made their MLB debuts just last season.  Delmonico is probably the better of the two—he hit .262 in 43 games with the club, getting playing time in left and at third base.  That flexibility will make him a valuable commodity on this year’s squad, especially if he is able to maintain the level of performance with the bat (and his glove) that he did last year.  Engel’s a bit of a defensive whiz, but didn’t offer much else last year; that being said, he had a great spring training, which is good because there’s really nobody else that could really challenge him for a spot at this point.  He’ll need to continue hitting as well as he has in the spring, though, to prevent guys like Charlie Tilson or Leury Garcia stealing some of his playing time.

Infield:

3B- Yolmer Sanchez

SS- Tim Anderson

2B- Yoan Moncada

1B- Jose Abreu

C- Welington Castillo

DH- Matt Davidson

The left side of the infield is made up of guys that I think have underwhelmed a little bit the past couple seasons, though for different reasons.  Sanchez hasn’t gotten a ton of playing time the past few seasons, with guys like Moncada, Todd Frazier, and Brett Lawrie blocking his path to playing time.  This has prevented him from really ever getting into a rhythm at the plate.  Based on this team set-up, I see him as the starting third baseman for now; however, he could shift into a back-up role if one of the team’s top outfield prospects make the bigs, as I think the team holds Nicky Delmonico in higher regard than Sanchez, and his primary position is third, not left field.  Anderson, meanwhile, has been the team’s everyday shortstop for a good part of the last two years and has all the athletic tools to be a star.  However, he’s had an inconsistent glove and some exceptionally poor plate discipline.  There’s no real challenge behind him in the system yet, but he needs to continue on his current level of performance—he’s been on fire to open the season—because if he doesn’t, with the rumors surrounding Manny Machado this past off-season, if I were Rick Hahn, I’d be acquiring him to replace Anderson and not Sanchez/Delmonico.

The right side of the infield has among the greatest star potential out of every pairing in the league.  Moncada was obviously the crown jewel of the Chris Sale trade, and while he struggled a bit with the bat in his time in the majors last season, he’s only 22, and has shown many a burst of power, or speed, that made him one of the game’s best prospects last year.  Abreu, meanwhile, is the steady veteran presence on the team—the slugger didn’t quite bounce back to the highs of his rookie year, but hitting 30 dingers while batting over .300 isn’t too shabby.  His role as a cog in the middle of the order is crucial; so, too is his status as one of the older, longer-tenured players on a team loaded with up-and-comers.

The other two projected starters, Castillo and Davidson, don’t really fit into either of the main tropes on this year’s team, seasoned veterans and youngsters.  Castillo started hot in his career with the Cubs but tailed off a bit while still remaining an adequate catcher.  His presence will be ideal for some of the inexperienced arms that will take the hill for the team this year, and he’ll offer a better bat than any of the team’s backstops from last year.  Davidson, meanwhile, was highly regarded after being acquired from Arizona in 2013, but didn’t get extensive playing time until last season, when he flashed some of the power that made him one of the team’s top prospects at the time he was brought in.  He might not be able to provide much more than that power and provide Abreu with a couple days off at first, but certainly has the ability to build off of last season’s burst of power.

Bench:

C- Omar Narvaez

IF- Tyler Saladino

UT- Leury Garcia

Narvaez was the one of the main men behind the plate last season, but figures to be the back-up this year with the addition of Castillo.  In all honesty, the role suits him pretty well—he isn’t super great with the bat, but he can have his moments, and is an excellent defender and pitch framer, both of which are valuable commodities in catchers nowadays.  He’ll be a nice piece to keep around.

Saladino is probably capable of starting over Moncada, and, I believe, is close to being on par with Anderson, but the other two are more highly-touted, so he’ll have to make do with being the first guy off the bench.  I still expect him to get in 80-100 games somehow, and his flexibility will be helpful to a team that doesn’t have much in the way of middle infielders in the pipeline.

Garcia’s main positions are second and center, but can play virtually anywhere; that being said, I expect him to see most of his time in the outfield.  He might not last long in Chicago if Rick Hahn feels the team’s young outfielders are ready for the big time, but until that happens, he’ll be the reserve outfielder.

Rotation:

Carlos Rodon- LHP

James Shields- RHP

Miguel Gonzalez- RHP

Lucas Giolito- RHP

Hector Santiago- LHP

I know that Shields is was the Opening Day starter, but I feel that Rodon will be the real ace of the team this year—the lanky lefty struggled mightily with injuries last year, with those problems carrying over into the start of this season.  However, if he can find a way to consistently control his pitches, he has the potential to be a high-end starter for years to come, especially with a pitch as excellent as his slider.  Shields will, probably, be unable to pitch up to the standard that his salary would normally require, but his ability to eat some innings will be nice for a team that doesn’t seem to have as deep of a bullpen as it did last year.

The back end of my ideal rotation features two veterans and one young gun.  Gonzalez, who was traded away last season but returned for another stint with the club, is, like Shields, a good innings-eater.  His ceiling is lower than the former Ray’s, but his floor is higher, and should be a solid option throughout the year, assuming he doesn’t get traded again.  Giolito, meanwhile, had a pretty good spring, especially in hitting a good velocity with his fastball, and should be provided ample opportunity to work on honing his off-speed pitches, particularly his nasty but inconsistent curveball, to grow into the immense potential that made him the centerpiece of the Adam Eaton deal.  Lastly, I know that Carson Fulmer and Reynaldo Lopez figure to play roles in the rotation going forward, but I believe that Santiago deserves the last spot for a couple reasons.  None of the trio had particularly good springs, but I feel Santiago was sharper as he got into better game shape, and having another lefty in the rotation instead of straight righties behind Rodon would help provide a little bit of balance.  That said, if Lopez or Fulmer are performing well enough to warrant more starts while not stalling their development, I’m all for it.

Bullpen:

Carson Fulmer- RHP

Luis Avilan- LHP

Danny Farquhar- RHP

Gregory Infante- RHP

Nate Jones- RHP

Aaron Bummer- LHP

Juan Minaya- RHP

Joakim Soria- RHP (closer)

The team’s bullpen was what kept it hovering around contention in the first half of the season, and it netted them a couple of good prospects once it was dismantled in July.  This year’s edition is not quite as strong, nor quite as deep, but it does have some exceptional players.  I think that a long reliever/spot starter role is the best role for Fulmer at this point in his career, so he’ll slot in here.  Aaron Bummer can also fill a similar role throwing from the left side.

Moving towards the back of the ‘pen, Farquhar and Minaya have perhaps the greatest potential to be the Tommy Kahnle’s of this season, while Avilan provides Rick Renteria with a lefty specialist for shorter appearances that Bummer wouldn’t be useful in.  Nate Jones and Gregory Infante make up what I believe to be one of the more underrated set-up duos in the game, and while they may not be pitching in a lot of situations where the team holds a lead, they’ll be exceptional nonetheless.  Jones, in particular, could catch eyes come mid-season and could snag a decent prospect.  The primary closer is penciled in to be Soria, who was traded to the team from the rival Royals this past season.  He wasn’t super effective in the past two seasons, so while I expect him to get most of the chances to close, expect Jones to get some chances, as well.

Possible Call-Ups:

OF- Eloy Jimenez

OF- Micker Adolfo

Reynaldo Lopez- RHP

Thyago Vieira- RHP

Jimenez is certainly the team’s top prospect now that Moncada should be locked into a full-time role; I’m putting him here, though, because of the sheer amount of prospect talent that this club has.  The DR native, who was the centerpiece of the Jose Quintana trade, has been wowing scouts for month with his incredible power and athleticism; I think the team would love to maintain his service-time so that they can maintain control over him for another year, but if he continues to rake in the minors, they might not have a choice in calling him up.

Adolfo is another big, athletic outfielder from the DR that has the potential to break into the line-up at some point this year.  Adolfo’s been in the team’s system for a while—he was signed back in 2013 as a 16 year-old, and his struggles with the bat, and with injuries, have kept him down the team’s prospect list.  That being said, he reportedly looked pretty solid this winter before hurting his elbow, and getting him some playing time at a higher level could be important to the team in determining if he will be an important part of their long-term future.

I think Lopez, the “less-regarded” of the two righties sent over from Washington last season, has a ceiling above his fellow former National, Giolito, and close to that of the team’s other fireballing prospect, Michael Kopech.  He had five quality starts in his eight times on the bump with the big club last season, and certainly has the talent to be a back-end starter this season, as evidenced by his solid start against the Blue Jays.  That being said, I think that another year of seasoning in AAA would be good for him, especially in helping him establish confidence in his off-speed pitches.

Vieira obviously didn’t start the season with the Sox—he’s got an incredible fastball, but it doesn’t have the consistency, or the complimentary pitchers, that other hard-throwing relievers like Craig Kimbrel have hung their hats on.  That being said, the Brazilian, who was acquired from Seattle in exchange for international bonus pool money, has some intriguing potential.  If he can establish some control, and a second pitch, he could prove to be a valuable asset in the heart of the ‘pen for the next couple years—or a possible trade chip as soon as this July.

Top Prospects:

3B- Jake Burger

OF- Luis Robert

Michael Kopech- RHP

Burger tore his Achilles in a spring game in mid-March, so we won’t be seeing any of him this season.  However, the team’s first round pick from last year reminds me a lot of a better version of former White and Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis.  Burger is a bigger player, but he’s got a lot of pop, and in his brief spring appearances seemed to showcase some good discipline at the plate for a younger guy.  Third base is one of the major holes in the big club right now, and I think Burger has the ability to fill that role for the team for years to come.

Robert is one of the best of the club’s immense stash of exceptional outfield prospects.  The 20 year-old Cuban, signed last season, is a tall, lanky specimen; he doesn’t quite have the power of Jimenez, but he’s still got it, and has shown himself to be a better fielder and baserunner than his countryman.  If he can continue to improve his ability to get the bat on the ball after he returns from injury—he’s out for around the next month and a half or so with a thumb injury—he could be a star.

Kopech is probably the most easily recognizable pitching prospect in the organization—partly because of his flowing locks and hard fastball, and partly due to his reality star girlfriend.  Despite the possible off-field distractions that the righty has faced (and is currently facing), he has the stuff to be a true top-end starter.  Like most young hurlers, he needs to continue to develop his off-speed stuff, but he already has a pro-level fastball to build on for the future.

Possible Surprises:

OF- Blake Rutherford

OF- Charlie Tilson

Robbie Ross Jr.- LHP

Dylan Covey- RHP

Rutherford was the centerpiece of the deal that sent David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to the Yankees.  He isn’t as flashy as many of his fellow prospects, but he’s a pretty solid contact hitter and has solid fundamentals in every aspect of his game.  He might not make it above AA ball this year, but he might also go on a tear that sees him streak through the minors and earn a September call-up.

Tilson’s injury issues last year were a huge drag on the New Trier graduate’s development—he was considered the frontrunner for the center field job last year, yet was one of the first cuts in spring training this year.  If he is able to work back to full strength and utilize the athletic gifts that caused his unlikely rise to the border of the bigs, he has a pretty good shot of getting playing time ahead of some bigger prospects so the team can preserve their service time.

Ross was a solid reliever for the Red Sox in 2015 in 2016, but struggled mightily last season while being bogged down by back issues.  Solid lefty relievers are a dime a dozen, so if Ross is able to regain his mojo, and one of the younger specialists that are currently projected to make the team struggle, Ross could end up appearing in 30-40 games.

To say that Covey had a rough 2017 would be an understatement; in his first year in the majors, the former first round pick (taken one pick after Chris Sale, coincidentally) didn’t win a game and had an ERA over 7.  That being said, there’s a reason he got to the big club—he doesn’t have any one out pitch, but he can control his arsenal relatively well, something which the team clearly holds in high regard, or else they wouldn’t have tried to stick with him throughout his struggles.  I doubt that he gets a lot of action this year, but could be a good back-end starter by the time summer rolls around.

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

2B    Moncada

LF     Delmonico

1B    Abreu

RF    Garcia

C      Castillo

DH   Davidson

SS     Anderson

3B     Sanchez

CF     Engel

The Sox are not going to be good again this year.  They don’t have as many tradeable pieces as last year’s squad, which is indicative of the level of major league talent they currently possess.  That being said, the summer could be fun—we may end up seeing guys like Shields, Gonzalez, Garcia, and Davidson shopped around as the year goes on.  We’re also very likely to see at least a couple of the big guns from the system come up to get their first taste of the Show.  That won’t prevent the team from providing a generally poor product—they should be one of the two worst teams in the American League, along with the rival Tigers—but environment around the whole organization is positive, and if you can look past what are sure to be some icky looking results in the win-loss column, this could end up being a fun and rewarding year for many fans of the South Side squad.

Please note that this roster reflects my preference for the team; the current roster may have players in the minors that are in the majors, and vice versa, and players that I have penciled in on my ideal roster my currently be on the DL.

2018 MLB Season Preview

The Chicago Cubs are about to take on the Miami Marlins in the first game of the 2018 MLB season!  This year the league decided to schedule every team to play on Opening Day, which allows every team and their fan base to get in on the fun as the season kicks off.  Last year, two teams with long histories of late post-season stumbles, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, gave us a fun-filled World Series that saw the ‘Stros bring home their first ever championship to a city still dealing with the recovery from Hurricane Harvey.  The team is incredibly confident that they’ve got the ability to repeat this year—brazen comments from star pitcher Justin Verlander made that very clear—but many teams have the talent to make the trek to the title.  Will Houston be able to hang on to the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of this year, or will another team manager to snatch it from their grasp?  Here are my predictions for the upcoming season:

 

National League

 

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (#1)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Colorado Rockies

San Francisco Giants

San Diego Padres

This division isn’t weak per se—I think the AL Central is the worst in the baseball, and the NL East is a (somewhat) close competitor—but LA should have no problems with cruising to the top here.  Their rotation gives me a bit of concern, since they’ll have to depend on some back-end starters that have an extensive injury history, but Clayton Kershaw and their loaded young line-up anchored by Corey Seager are good enough to make it work.  I would have put the Giants second, but the fact that they could be without their top two starters for up to two months will put a real dent in their ability to get something going this season.  As such, I’ve got the D-Backs at number two here.  They’ve got one of the best players in the game in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and a decent supporting cast, with a solid rotation headlined by Zach Greinke and a good sidekick in the line-up in AJ Pollock.  That being said, I don’t think said line-up is balanced enough to get them into the post-season—it’ll be close, but I think they’ll miss out.  The Rockies, meanwhile, have the opposite problem—their batting order, anchored by Nolan Arenado, is loaded with solid hitters, and they’ve got a pretty good bullpen.  Their rotation, though, outside of Jon Gray is a little shaky, and will see them drop down the pecking order in this division.  The Padres will bring up the bottom—they have an interesting mish mash of players with some decent bats, the most prominent of which is new signing Eric Hosmer.  However, they have the worst of both of their rivals’ worlds: neither their rotation nor their order have much depth.  They’ll linger at the bottom until their top ranked farm system produces some MLB-caliber players.

 

NL Central

Chicago Cubs (#2)

Milwaukee Brewers (#1 WC)

St. Louis Cardinals (#2 WC)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Cincinnati Reds

The Cubs were well on their way to their second straight appearance in the World Series before running into the buzz saw that was last year’s Dodgers.  To level up and try to topple their rivals, they took two of their pitchers, starter Yu Darvish and reliever Brandon Morrow.  They have enough talent to hang with LA, but they have a significantly more difficult division, so I don’t think they’ll be able to quite match their record.  They’ll be closely followed by the Brewers, who made two of the biggest moves this past off-season in acquiring outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.  They’ll come into a line-up that already features some strong performers, like slugger Ryan Braun and versatile Travis Shaw.  Their rotation doesn’t have any real high-end arms, but they’ve got enough firepower in their bats to carry them to the post-season.  The Cardinals, meanwhile, made a major outfield addition of their own, bringing in Yelich’s former teammate Marcel Ozuna and creating what is arguably one of the most talented trios in the game.  They have some serious injury concerns with their pitchers, most prominently with former ace Adam Wainwright and key reliever Luke Gregorson—but as is the case with the Cardinals of the modern era, they are incredibly balanced in every aspect of the game, and should have enough to get back into the play-offs.  The Pirates would have had enough to challenge them for that second wild card spot, but they got rid of two players who were arguably their best in righty Gerrit Cole and longtime outfielder Andrew McCutchen.  If they catch fire early on they could make some real noise, but expect them to deal away some of their remaining replacement-level players to restock their farm system.  The Reds, meanwhile, have Joey Votto and… not much else.  They’ll have ample opportunity to reload with high draft picks over the next couple years; here’s to hoping they’re good again before Votto retires.

 

NL East

Washington Nationals (#3)

Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta Braves

New York Mets

Miami Marlins

This is a huge season for the Nats—Bryce Harper is widely expected to leave the nation’s capital after this season and they haven’t won a play-off series with the star right fielder on the roster, so this might be their only real chance to fulfill their potential.  Harper anchors a good line-up, and the Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg duo is perhaps the best in baseball; that’ll be enough to win the division, but I think the Cubs and Dodgers are just a bit deeper and will finish with better records.  Behind them, the young Phillies are a popular dark horse in the race for a wild card spot this season.  Unfortunately, I still think they’re a year or two away—Jake Arrieta was a good addition, as was Carlos Santana (he’ll take some pressure off of budding star Rhys Hoskins)—but I still think they’re lacking another solid rotation arm.  They’ll be competitive before long, though.  In the now, they’ll be fighting for that wild card spot alongside the Braves, who I expect to surprise some people this year, and the Mets.  I think Atlanta’s rotation is underrated, and there are enough solid hitters around superstar Freddie Freeman for Atlanta to make some noise in the standings, and that doesn’t even take into account top prospect Ronald Acuna.  As for the Mets, they certainly have enough talent to be among the best teams in the game, but the best teams are able to stay both healthy and consistent, and this team is always bound to be unable to accomplish at least one of those things.  As for the Marlins… the less said about them, the better.  Take pity on Starlin Castro and JT Realmuto.

 

American League

 

AL West

Houston Astros (#3)

Seattle Mariners (#2 WC)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Oakland Athletics

Texas Rangers

Houston was a feel-good story last year—in the midst of the crisis their city was facing in the rebuild from the hurricane that decimated property across the South, the ‘Stros played incredible play-off baseball to pull out their first World Series in team history.  This year, they’ll get a full season from Justin Verlander, as well as from another star righty in the form of former Pirate Gerrit Cole.  Almost any other year they’d be good enough to earn a number one seed, but the Yankees are so good, and the Indians play in such a weak division, that they’ll have to settle for being number three.  The Mariners, meanwhile, are one of the more underrated teams in the game—sure, they have the longest play-off drought out of any team in the four major sports leagues in the US, and they’ve underperformed relative to their talent level for years.  But they also added Dee Gordon to a strong line-up headlined by Robinson Cano, and while former ace Felix Hernandez is on the way down, others, like Mike Leake and James Paxton, are on the up.  I expect this team to sneak into that second wild card spot.  To do so, they’ll have to fight off their division rival Angels, who made the biggest splash this off-season with their signing of Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani.  They’ve also made some less heralded moves, such as signing Zach Cosart and trading for Ian Kinsler, to boost their push.  However, I just don’t see their pitching staff as being good enough to warrant a play-off berth.  The bottom two will consist of the Rangers and A’s.  I’ll give the advantage to Oakland, who had the 5th best offense in the league during the second half of last season, over the aging Rangers, who have a very uncertain rotation and an offense that, outside of Adrian Beltre, won’t really strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers.  They could flip-flop, but regardless, I don’t expect either team to be very good.

 

AL Central

Cleveland Indians (#1)

Minnesota Twins

Kansas City Royals

Chicago White Sox

Detroit Tigers

The Indians will have a fairly simple season—they get to play a bunch of games against three teams that seem to be in the midst of full rebuilds and more against a team that doesn’t quite match up well against it.  Just based on that alone, they should be able to snag the number one seed in the AL with ease.  Their season will be judged on whether or not they’ll be able to achieve post-season success, which I’ll talk about a bit later.  On our way down, the Twins are really the only other team in this division with a shot at the play-offs.  They made some smart additions this season, acquiring Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, and Logan Morrison in a flurry of off-season moves.  That being said, I still have some doubts about their line-up—they’ll need solid seasons from both Bryan Buxton and Miguel Sano, and I simply don’t think those guys are at a level where they can provide them yet.  Another year of development and another bat, though, and these guys could be a good dark horse contender next season.  Of the three rebuilders, the Royals have the most top-end talent—Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, and the newly re-signed Mike Moustakas are all still around, so that will prevent them from going into an all-out tank.  That being said, they’ll be active in trying to get rid as many guys as they can that don’t have long-term potential, so expect to see Duffy and Moustakas in trade talks come mid-season.  The White Sox, meanwhile, have perhaps the least high-end talent of any team in the division, but also have the best farm system.  Once some of their top picks reach the bigs, they should have enough to pull themselves out of the basement.  The Tigers still have Miguel Cabrera at first and guys like Jordan Zimmemann and Michael Fulmer in the rotation, but somehow contrived to finish with the worst record in the game last year, so while those guys still could be top-flight players, the rest of the team should be poor enough to let them finish with the top pick in next year’s draft.

 

AL East

New York Yankees (#2)

Boston Red Sox (#1 WC)

Toronto Blue Jays

Baltimore Orioles

Tampa Bay Rays

This division is consistently the most exciting in the game—there always seems to be at least three teams that have legitimate shots at post-season glory, and I think this year is no different.  The Yankees have gotten a lot of attention for how incredible their line-up is going to look this year, and that makes a lot of sense—it’s been a long time since a pair with as much power potential as Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have been on the same team.  That said, I think it’s the team’s pitching staff, which is deep enough that former A’s ace Sonny Gray is penciled in as the number three starter and that excellent pitchers like David Robertson and Dellin Betances are merely set-up men for Aroldis Chapman, will carry the team to the top seed in the league.  The Red Sox will be nipping at their heels the whole season—they won the division despite some poor performances at the plate, and just added a power hitter of their own in JD Martinez.  They won’t quite be good enough to topple the mighty Bronx Bombers—I’ve got some concerns about the consistency of the back end of their rotation, both on the field and off of it with injury concerns—but they should have no issues snagging a wild card place.  The Blue Jays will be making a strong push for the other spot, especially seeing as how their star third baseman Josh Donaldson is likely to test free agency after this year.  They have an incredibly balanced batting order, but similarly to the Red Sox, I have concerns about the back of their rotation, and their top-end talent there, and in the bullpen, isn’t quite up to scratch for a play-off caliber team.  I think they, and the Twins, will just miss out.  The Orioles and Rays are both in tough spots—they have decent teams with stars (Manny Machado and Chris Archer, respectively) that rival any in the game, but they’re in a division that has what are arguably the two most talented teams in the AL.  They won’t struggle, but they won’t have enough to make the play-offs, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with their two big names, both of whom have been in trade rumors since last fall (my prediction: Machado stays put, while Archer is traded to some team in California, with the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres all being players).

 

Awards

 

National League

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

This figures to be Harper’s last season in Washington, and I think he’ll be especially motivated to make a difference and truly establish his legacy.  His closest competitor should be a duo of Dodgers (Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager), but the slugging Las Vegas native should take the title.

 

NL Cy Young: Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals

I’m kind of tired of Clayton Kershaw winning so may awards, so I went with a wild card pick here.  Martinez figures to be the ace of an improved Cardinal team, and he’s got the stuff to make a real breakthrough this year.

 

NL Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves

This is as close to a no-doubt pick as there is, really—Acuna looked incredible this spring, and he has the potential to be a superstar within a couple seasons.  No other prospect with a real chance of touching the majors this year has that potential.

 

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Adam Eaton, Washington Nationals

I admit that I’m a little bit biased with this one—Eaton was one of my favorite players with the White Sox before he was traded.  That being said, there was a reason that “Sparky” was acquired for a couple of solid prospects last off-season—he’s a very talented outfielder, and I fully expect him to bounce back and make a difference for the Nats this year.

 

NL Manager of the Year: Dave Martinez, Washington Nationals

For all the good that Dusty Baker did in managing Washington during the regular season, never winning a play-off series is a big blemish on his resume.  I expect Martinez to be able to steer his team to a solid season and at least one series win, which should be enough to earn him the award.

 

NL Best Offseason Acquisition: Tyler Chatwood, Chicago Cubs

The Cubs’ signing of Yu Darvish has gotten all the headlines, but I think that, for the money, Chatwood is a significantly better signing.  He pitched well in a tough Colorado environment last year, so while Wrigley Field is no pitcher’s paradise, he should be able to take advantage of not having Coors Field as his home park and leverage that by turning in another solid season.

 

NL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres

I actually really respect Eric Hosmer—he’s an exceptional hitter that made things tough for my White Sox many times over.  That being said, to get a six year deal, worth a ton of money, in this money, is a big investment; that it was made by a team that doesn’t really figure to contend for a couple, when Hosmer’s salary might look slightly ridiculous, made this one a bit much for me.

 

American League

AL MVP: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge will get a ton of attention all season long, but I think that Betts will benefit immensely from the addition of JD Martinez.  It’ll free him up from a lot of pressure and allow him to excel, so that, combined with his excellent defense, should win him this award.

 

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

THIS HAS TO BE THE YEAR.  Seriously, though: the inconsistencies of the 2015 White Sox probably cost Sale a chance at this award in his last season in Chicago, and he was on track to win the award last year before a poor final two months saw him drop off.  If he doesn’t win this year, I won’t have much hope for one of the greatest lefties of his generation to ever win the award (until I stop thinking he will).

 

AL Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Ohtani’s poor performance in spring training gives me pause in picking him to win this award; he made the team, but I think that had a lot to do with his salary and name recognition than his actual value to the team at this point.  That being said, I think he’ll be able to settle in by mid-June (faster at the plate than on the mound), which is more than enough time to develop into a good enough player to win this award.

 

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Tim Lincecum, Texas Rangers

This is a bit of an ambitious pick, especially considering the struggles “The Freak” endured the last time he appeared in the bigs.  That being said, his effort to regain a real role on a pro team is commendable, and he certainly has the natural ability to make his winning of this reward entirely possible.

 

AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians

The Yankees have gotten most of the attention this off-season, but remember that I have the Indians being the top team in the AL.  I think that somebody in the organization deserves to be commended for that, and I think it’ll be Francona.

 

AL Best Offseason Acquisition: Neil Walker, New York Yankees

Walker might not even be a full-time player, for the Yankees or some other team, by the time this season comes to an end.  That being said, the consistency he brings with his bat is incredibly valuable, especially at his current salary.  If he can maintain his status as the team’s starting second baseman, he could prove to be one of the most underrated signings of the last decade.

 

AL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Alex Cobb, Baltimore Orioles

I could type basically all of the things about Baltimore’s acquisition of Cobb as I did about San Diego’s signing of Hosmer—this was a big outlay for a team that doesn’t figure to be super competitive in a market that was even less competitive.

 

Playoffs

 

National League

Wildcard

St. Louis Cardinals over Milwaukee Brewers

 

Division Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over St. Louis Cardinals

 

Washington Nationals over Chicago Cubs

 

Championship Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over Washington Nationals

 

American League

Wildcard

Boston Red Sox over Seattle Mariners

 

Division Series

Cleveland Indians over Boston Red Sox

 

New York Yankees over Houston Astros

 

Championship Series

Cleveland Indians over New York Yankees

 

World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over Cleveland Indians

I didn’t have enough time to discuss the play-off match-ups before I needed to publish this, so if you have any questions on why I see those playing out the way I do, or any comments on any other parts of this piece, please contact me here.

Instant Reaction: 2018 NCAA Tournament

March Madness has now officially begun, as the Tournament Committee has finally announced the full 68-team bracket for the upcoming 2018 Division One basketball championship.  Here is my Instant Reaction to this year’s bracket:

The top four seeds in the bracket this year are Virginia, Villanova, Kansas, and Xavier, with the Cavaliers earning the distinction of being the top seed this year.  Out of all of those teams, I think that Jay Wright’s team have the easiest path to the Final Four.  The team with the best shot of toppling them in their quadrant is probably Purdue; that being said, the Boilermakers haven’t really played, and beaten, a team on the Wildcats’ level this season, and I don’t think anyone can match up to Jalen Brunson.  The other top-ranked teams in that quadrant, Texas Tech and Florida, simply don’t seem to have enough depth to be able to hang with the top team—the Gators are even at large risk for upset.  Meanwhile, I think that Tony Bennett’s team were given a really tough draw, especially for a number one overall seed—they lucked into a quadrant where the team that arguably has the most on-paper talent, Kentucky, is the 5 seed.  They also have a chance to face Cincinnati, a team that plays a very similar defensive style to them, or Arizona, which has caught fire behind their star forward, Deandre Ayton.

In terms of at-large teams, the fabled “Last Teams In” went to Arizona State, Syracuse, UCLA, and Saint Bonaventure.  Personally, I feel that all of those teams probably deserved to be in the tournament, though if I had to pick a team that didn’t deserve it, it’d be the Orange.  Oklahoma, too, deserved some consideration as a team to be left out.  The most notable teams to miss out were Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, with the Bonzie Colson-led Fighting Irish being identified as the first team out.  I feel they should have been in for Syracuse.  Some other big-time misses included Baylor, Southern Cal, and Middle Tennessee State.

Now, time for the nitty gritty: the actual match-ups.  In the South region, I can’t wait for the possible second round match-up between Arizona and Kentucky.  That might be the best game before the Final Four, and will determine one half of the game that will determine the winner of that region.  Despite the level of difficulty that I mentioned previously, I ultimately think that Virginia is too good of a team to not make it through.  In the East, I believe Villanova will have a fairly smooth road to the Final Four, but I think that the victor of the game between Texas Tech and the double-digit team that prevails between St. Bonaventure and UCLA could make some noise, so watch out for them.  In the Midwest, I think that it’s fairly inevitable that the top two teams, Kansas and Duke, are on a collision course, with only Michigan State having the talent to topple the blue-bloods.  In that game, I think that the Dukies will be the ones to pull out a win.  In the west, I see Xavier losing early to a dark-horse Missouri team, leaving the quadrant open to whoever happens to find their top gear the soonest.  Going into the tournament, Michigan seems to be the team that has the best rhythm of consistency, so I think they’ll be the ones to make the Final Four from that region.  In the championship, I think it’ll be showdown between the two “V’s,” Virginia and Villanova, with the Cavaliers’ suffocating defense limiting ‘Nova’s shooters just enough to win their first championship in school history.

 

A Leaving Legend

This past Wednesday marked the dawn of a new era in Chicago Bears football.  New head coach Matt Nagy gave a press conference at the NFL combine discussing some of the players that could be part of the team’s future.  It was fitting, then, that later in the day, there was a large announcement regarding a player from the team’s past.  One of the most memorable Bears of the last decade, a man that came to the city with a chip on his shoulder and no hair on his head who was forced out of town due primarily money.  I am talking, of course, about the departure of quarterback Mike Glennon.

OK, so maybe the lanky launcher’s release isn’t really much of a surprise—he would have been paid around $15 million next season, which is a huge amount of money for any player, much less one that would be a backup.  Glennon started his first four regular season games in a Bears uniform before being benched for the team’s incumbent first round pick, Mitchell Trubisky.  Glennon will certainly not be missed—his immobility and poor decision making on the field, combined with his exorbitant salary off of it, made him a polarizing figure.  The loads of criticism he received warranted more often than not, and he was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league during his time behind center.  That being said, while Bears fans are right to be thankful that Glennon is now gone, it’s worth taking a deeper look at his one year in Chicago.

The first, and possibly most important, thing I want to address is that it is certainly not Glennon’s fault that he was massively overpaid.  Sure, he made out well, and that makes it hard to feel sorry for him at all.  However, the money he received colored his reputation black, whereas I believe that all of the blame for this should fall on the team’s general manager, Ryan Pace.  Pace and his team have made some smart decisions during the GM’s time in Chicago—Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are an excellent one-two punch in the running game, Leonard Floyd has been a solid pass rusher, and Akiem Hicks looks like a potential star along the defensive line.  However, Pace has also made some very poor decisions, with decisions at the receiver position—which include, but are not limited to, the drafting of Kevin White and letting Alshon Jeffery walk—being among the most egregious.  Glennon’s deal, though, might go down as one of Pace’s more baffling decisions.  The buyout fee—$2.5 million—was relatively small, so that saves this from being Pace’s worst choice, which remains drafting White.  However, seeing the deals handed out to guys like Nick Foles and Case Keenum, both of whom were free agents along with Glennon last off-season and had more impressive performances on their resumes, makes Glennon’s look comparatively atrocious.  So too did the many reports that the team wasn’t bidding against anyone else for Glennon’s services.

Another one of Pace’s errors during Glennon’s duration in Chicago leads me to my second point—that he was doomed from the moment he signed his deal.  Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, and if you don’t have a plan at the position, then you won’t be competitive in the league.  When Glennon’s contract was announced, Pace touted the quarterback as a player that could be a long-term starter for the team that had the potential to alter the team’s drafting strategy.  While it wouldn’t have made sense for Pace to reveal the team’s plans, it certainly didn’t prepare anybody for what was to come.  The decision to trade up and draft Trubisky had to have taken a lot of consideration on Pace’s part, and yet he didn’t see fit to let the man he committed at least $17.5 million to in on his thinking until after the pick was made.  Trubisky’s selection left the former Buccaneer as a lame duck, talked up as the potential long-term solution at arguably the biggest position in all of sports only to be upstaged by a hotshot rookie.  To both his and Trubisky’s credit, both men were incredibly poised throughout the year during what had to have been an incredibly awkward situation.  Glennon’s comments made it incredibly clear that he would continue giving his all no matter what, and even after he was benched, the fact that he remained a team captain was a testament to his mental fortitude and value as a leader, which are traits that Pace and former head coach John Fox seemed to lack last season.

The final point relates to Glennon’s play—it became very clear by the time that he was benched that Trubisky is a significantly better player.  That being said, Glennon was hamstrung by Pace, who chose not to provide any of the dependable big-bodied targets that Glennon thrived with during his stints of extended playing time.  This comes back to Pace’s baffling decision to let go of Alshon Jeffery and place Kevin White in an important role—knowing White’s history, not having a backup plan could only come back to haunt the team.  Of course, White was ineffective in limited playing time before being lost to a left shoulder injury, while the loss of Jeffery’s perceived replacement, Cameron Meredith, to a torn ACL, highlighted how poor the team’s depth was.  The top receivers this past season were Kendall Wright, a talented but inconsistent slot receiver, and Josh Bellamy, another slot receiver whose hands are notoriously atrocious.  Glennon was also hampered by Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggins, who finally figured out how to cater their offense to their quarterback around week 14, when the season was long lost for both the team and its week one quarterback.  Neither of these things excuses Glennon’s horrendous turnovers, or his general lack of awareness of both where his receivers were or where the pass rush was coming from.  That being said, he did almost lead his team to a win over the defending NFC champs in his first regular season start, and he was at the helm for a win on Pittsburgh, neither of which can be overlooked.

Just in case I haven’t made it clear—I, too, will not miss Glennon.  Watching a quarterback that was unable to move to make plays or sense pressure, and thereby causing useless turnovers, was extremely frustrating, even knowing the team would be bad this year.  That being said, I have a lot of respect for him—he was a player whose GM didn’t cater to his limited skill set that worked under a coaching staff that reached some of the highest levels of incompetence in Bear history, yet despite his poor performance was well-regarded by his teammates.  His failures are emblematic of how bad things had gotten under Fox, but also give me pause about the performance of Pace.  The jury remains out on him as far as fans are concerned—he’s had his share of both hits and misses in both the draft and free agency—but I feel I am a bit more worried than most.  Trubisky flashed some solid potential last year, so there definitely is hope.  However, if Pace’s handling of Glennon is a sign of things to come, then the GM and his departed quarterback will almost certainly become the most prominent faces of the team’s continuous failures of the past decade.

Rapid Reaction: Super Bowl LII

It was an offensive explosion, back and forth for the entirety of the game, but in the end, it was the backup forced into the action by an injury to a star that prevailed, as the Philadelphia Eagles prevailed in a dramatic 41–33 contest against the New England Patriots.

Both teams started off fairly well, as both the Pats and the Eagles turned in first quarter drives that went 67 yards, each of which resulted in field goals.  Just like last year, though, things really took off in the second.  After Philly scored a touchdown (and missed an extra point) late in the first, Tom Brady led his team right back down the field, only to see the resulting field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski bounce off the left upright.  Nick Foles and company continued their dominance of the New England defense, grabbing a 15-3 lead on a drive culminating with former Patriot LeGarrette Blount pounding through some of his old teammates.  That seemed to wake New England up, as they scored on their next two possessions, sandwiched around an Eagles interception, to get them back within a score.  The Eagles, though, came back to grab the momentum going into the half, scoring on a fourth down trick play that saw Foles catch a touchdown pass from backup tight end Trey Burton.

The third quarter continued the theme of non-existent defenses, as every possession resulted in some sort of points.  Rob Gronkowski, who only caught one pass in the first half, became much more active in the second, catching his first touchdown to bring his team back within a score.  Foles, who won MVP and was brilliant in relief of the injured Carson Wentz, came right back with a perfect through to backup running back Corey Clement to restore the 10 point lead for the Eagles.  Brady, though, was not to be denied; he followed up the Eagles’ touchdown with a great throw of his own, to Chris Hogan, and following another Philly field goal, he tossed one up for Gronk to allow the Patriots to take their first lead of the game.

Foles stepped up to the plate to get his team back in it, finding star tight end Zach Ertz for a touchdown with just over two minutes remaining.  That left a lot of time for Brady, though, and the star veteran had a chance to step up and lead his team to victory.  However, the Eagles defensive line, which was fantastic throughout the season but had been held largely in check for the game, finally got to Brady; captain Brandon Graham got into the backfield and forced the legendary quarterback to fumble the ball back to the Eagles.  After yet another Philly field goal, the Pats were able to get the ball back with one last shot to tie the game, but another valiant effort from the Eagles’ defensive linemen prevented Brady from securing another comeback and sealed a victory for the underdog Eagles.

The USMNT’s World Cup Failure

Back in 2013, up-and-coming striker Aron Johannsson had a decision to make.  He had the opportunity to be a part of two senior national teams—the United States, where he was born, and Iceland, where his parents were from.  He spent his younger years in the Icelandic developmental set-up, giving them a perceived advantage in his recruitment.  That being said, it didn’t surprise many when he chose to represent the US.  Iceland was a tiny country with a population roughly the size of Corpus Christi, Texas, and it played in the toughest regional confederation in the world, while the US was an up-and-coming power with seemingly unlimited potential.

Earlier today, that tiny country played its first friendly since qualifying for next summer’s World Cup; in a few hours, the US prepares to play its first friendly since contriving to miss the tournament for the first time since 1986.  During the last qualification cycle, Mexico, the US’s primary regional rival, churned through three managers as they attempted to play through their struggles, eventually making the Cup via a play-off victory over New Zealand.  It was a huge disappointment that that team had even found themselves in that spot to begin with.  Of course, the question must then be asked: what would missing the greatest tournament on the planet be considered?  To be short: disaster of epic proportions.  There are many factors that played into this failure; this post will address what I believe to be the greatest downfall of the squad.

Much of the blame for the US getting knocked out will rightfully fall on the two managers that helmed the team through qualifying, Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena.  Klinsmann was the big-name hire the USSF had sought after for years—he had success playing for and managing his native Germany before coming to settle in California.  Arena was the steady hand, a man who had previously managed the team for two World Cups and knows more about the ins and outs of US Soccer than virtually anyone.  Both men had their successes—Klinsmann revolutionized the talent pool from whence team selections were made, while Arena stabilized a chaotic environment after Klinsmann’s departure.  Both of them were also felled by a similar issue—their team selection.

Klinsmann had a tendency to over-rotate his squad—he could never settle on a set formation, much less a starting XI.  This made things difficult for two reasons—it was tough for players to understand their role in the system of a manager that kept changing, and perhaps more difficult for those players to develop any sense of camaraderie with their teammates, something that is already a challenge considering the nature of national teams.  A prime example of this is the plight of Michael Bradley—as Klinsmann’s tenure wore on, the captain was often shunted into a role akin to an attacking midfielder.  While putting him there made sense based on the players the manager preferred, it definitely didn’t benefit the team performance-wise, and it certainly didn’t do Bradley any favors.  He was far from comfortable in the role, and possession often stagnated at his feet because of major indecision.  Putting him in his preferred spot would result in one of three things, though—moving Jermaine Jones, Bradley’s “normal” partner, if one could call him that, into the captain’s role, dropping Jones, or drastically altering the formation.  Klinsmann tried all three options—the first in a Gold Cup play-off loss against Mexico, the second in a 2-0 loss against Guatemala, and the third in a qualifier against Mexico in a 2-1 loss.  These three games were notable for many reasons—for our purposes here, though, two main ones.  The first is that, in every case, Klinsmann stuck a different person—Kyle Beckerman in the first case, Mix Diskerud in the second case, and Christian Pulisic in the third—near to Bradley in the center of the park, which, considering the importance of the matches, was a poor choice that limited his effectiveness.  The other was that these were games that were considered extraordinarily winnable, and their failure to do that could largely be attributed to Bradley’s poor performance.

Arena, meanwhile, had quite the opposite problem—he was far too predictable in establishing his team, and he eschewed more talented, and more productive, players for those that he considered his “favorites.”  These issues can be best represented in the squad and line-up selections for the last two games of the most recent Hex.  Arena decided to leave out Fabian Johnson, who is arguably the country’s best two-way player, and called in Gyasi Zardes, who played under Arena for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Johnson had, of course, struggled with injuries, and looked off the pace in the team’s previous qualifiers, but leaving him out and bringing in Zardes, who eventually had to withdraw from the team on account of his own injury problems and had greater struggles than Johnson when he was healthy, is inexcusable.  Just as baffling were Arena’s decisions on who to start in the biggest qualifying matches of the year.  He rolled out what he believed to be the best line-up in the first game against Honduras, choosing not to rest anyone for the match that would be held in the more difficult, and more hostile, locale of Trinidad and Tobago.  He also refused to rotate in the second game, which resulted in a sluggish start from which the team was unable to recover.  That line-up also did not feature Geoff Cameron, Johnson’s closest competitor for the country’s best two-way player, but did feature Omar Gonzalez, another of Arena’s former Galaxy men.  Gonzalez looked very out of place, especially in the second match, hitting in an own goal that prevented the US from snagging a point, thereby costing them a chance of at least making the World Cup via a play-off.

It is clear, then, that the US needs to find a manger that can find a balance between the two extremes of Klinsmann and Arena—over-rotation and a lack of it, little unity and no fresh blood.  They will also need to place a heavy focus on incorporating youth players into the senior team—players like Jones, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard, mainstays for the last two Cup cycles, will either be retired or past their prime the next time around, and the youth set-up, while immensely flawed, is more talented than ever, with players like Tim Weah and Josh Sargent primed to be stars.  It is for this reason that I think that the job should go, at least on a temporary basis, to Tab Ramos, the current technical director and U-20 manager.  I recognize that Dave Sarachan is in charge now, and I have a fondness for him due to his time in Chicago with the Fire, but I simply don’t think he’s the right fit here.  Ramos’s knowledge of the youth system will be imperative, especially for a team that will come to rely on that system more than it has in recent years.  If he is not viewed as a long-term option, then I would try to go after Alexander Nouri to run the show.  He showed some strong tactical flexibility in helping his old club, Werder Bremen, beat the drop last season in Germany, and also has a familiarity with America, having played in Seattle on loan back in the late 1990’s.  Furthermore, his previous experience in a league where many players, such as Johnson and John Brooks, to name two, play their club football would make it easier to know what to expect from a good chunk of his core, and they the same from him.  Nouri also has some knowledge of the talent pipeline for the US, as it was under his watch that Bremen signed the aforementioned Sargent to his first ever professional contract.  If he isn’t available, being patient in identifying the right candidate will be imperative—the last two choices were the wrong ones, and we’ve seen where that’s gotten us.

Rapid Reaction: 2017 World Series Preview

The Houston Astros have officially made their first World Series since 2005, and their first as a member of the American League, after defeating the New York Yankees 4-0 tonight in Game 7 of the ALCS.  In a back-and-forth battle of incredible pitching staffs, it was Houston’s that stepped up today; starter Charlie Morton went 5 strong innings, allowing only three baserunners and no runs on 54 pitches, and fellow starter Lance McCullers slammed the door with 4 shutout innings of his own.  The only runs in the game came in the 4th and 5th innings—two solo homeruns from Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve gave the Astros a 2-0 lead, and the momentum of the game was secured when catcher Brian McCann, a Yankee just last season, smacked a two-run double off of reliever Tommy Kahnle to plate the final runs of the game.

The team now prepares to face off against the pennant winners in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Dave Roberts’s team has had a few days to scout their potential opponents after dispatching of the defending champion Chicago Cubs in five games, so they have the advantage of rest going into the World Series.  The Astros, meanwhile, after struggling for much of the post-season, seem to have found their bats when it matters most, and have an excellent pitching staff the likes of which the Dodgers have not seen yet in these play-offs.  So who pulls out the win?  Here’s my brief breakdown of the match-ups in the series:

 

Pitching Staff

Advantage: Astros

LA has the unbeatable Clayton Kershaw, who seems to have overcome his play-off demons thus far, and Yu Darvish has looked pretty good, too.  But Rich Hills has labored through a lot of pitches, and Alex Wood has been very poor.  Houston, meanwhile, can counter with four fantastic starters—its two back-end guys were McCullers and Morton, who combined to shut down the Yankees tonight, and its two front-end guys, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, have been excellent so far.  Houston’s got the advantage.

 

Bullpen

Advantage: Astros

The Houston bullpen hasn’t really had to do a whole lot thus far due to their starters’ excellent performances.  The Dodgers, meanwhile, have gotten their normal lights-out performances from Kenley Janson, and the rest of the “no-namers” around him have been very good thus far.  The bats of the Diamondbacks and Cubs, though, did not quite have the firepower that the ‘Stros do, and I worry that LA’s bullpen will fall back into the slump that it had to battle through in the regular season.  For that reason, I think Houston has a slight advantage.

 

Lineup

Advantage: Dodgers

As I mentioned earlier, the Astros bats have been very inconsistent, seemingly having an on-off switch relating to their productivity, which is strange considering how excellent it was during the regular season.  The Dodgers have had no such problems—they have averaged six runs per game in their post-season run thus far, and that includes not having arguably their most balanced hitter, Corey Seager, absent due to injury for the entire NLCS.  They’ve gotten excellent hitting up and down the order, and their big guns, especially Justin Turner, have really stepped up to the plate.  LA has the advantage here.

 

Baserunning

Advantage: Dodgers

Both teams feature a lot of athleticism, but I think that the Dodgers have harnessed theirs a little bit better on the base paths so far—outside of the play at the plate that became a non-factor due to Gary Sanchez’s hard hands, the Astros weren’t that aggressive in taking the extra base.  LA hasn’t been afraid to try, and so far, it’s worked to their advantage.

 

Defense

Advantage: Astros

If you can’t understand why I’d give Houston the advantage here, watch the highlights of the last two ALCS games.  You’ll see the athleticism of Carlos Correa, the ranginess of Jose Altuve, the instinct of Alex Bregman, and the freak of nature that is George Springer.  This isn’t to say that the Dodgers have a bad defense—they don’t—but Houston’s is one of the most capable ones in the league.

 

Coaching Staff

Advantage: Push

Dave Roberts and AJ Hinch are both intelligent former players that have pushed every button correctly so far in these play-offs.  I don’t think either team has an advantage here.

 

Prediction: Astros in 7

I think that the first six games of this one will be won by the home team—as I mentioned earlier, the visitors have had a really tough time getting going, in any series thus far—and that would give us a winner-take-all showdown in Game 6.  If the pitching rotations go in the order that they have up to this point, that would mean a Game 7 match-up between the two starters that have arguably looked the best in these play-offs, Darvish and Verlander.  In the end, though, I think that the advantage that Houston has in its bullpen—not just in Ken Giles and Chris Devenski, but in guys like McCullers, who showed that he is a very capable reliever tonight, and Morton.  I expect one of those guys to be on the hill when Houston pulls out their first championship in franchise history.

10 Predictions for the 2017-18 NHL Season

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 24: A general view of the NHL logo prior to the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Skills Competition at the Nationwide Arena on January 24, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The 2017-18 NHL season will commence tomorrow, with the Maple Leafs taking on the Jets in Winnipeg with four games on the slate.  Last season, I tried to be a little bit more… bold in the selections that I was making for this award and that division winner.  I ended up getting, I think, one thing right out of anything on my list.  My classmate and fellow hockey fan, Daniel Foltz, found that…  amusing.  On top of that, for the first time in a while, his Ducks had also done better than my Blackhawks.  I was humiliated.  So I resolved to do some more research for this year, and to be accurate instead of bold with my predictions in order to avoid being made fun of by one of the few people that actually read my hockey post.  So Daniel, these are for you:

  1. Neither the Penguins nor the Predators will make the Stanley Cup Final

I made this basic prediction last year, as well, and of course the Penguins decided to prove me wrong and become the first repeat champion since the 90’s.  Maybe that was because the only teams that truly made big steps forward were either bad teams (Maple Leafs, Oilers) or the Predators themselves, who, of course, were no match for Sid the Kid and his crew.  There were no moves by last year’s contenders that really moved the needle, but I do feel that both of last year’s Final participants will take a step back this year.  For Pittsburgh, they lost Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley, among others, to free agency, and Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft, leaving them dangerously thin in many areas.  The Preds, meanwhile, lost their captain and 2nd line center Mike Fischer to retirement, and their bottom two lines don’t instill much confidence.  These losses will contribute to other teams catching the defending conference champs and prevent them from getting back into the Cup Final.

2. The Tampa Bay Lightning will win the Stanley Cup

The Lightning are a popular pick to win it all this year—heck, NHL 18 has them topping the Oilers in their simulation of the season.  They struggled to get it going last year, especially after captain Steven Stamkos was lost to injury, but the return of the Canadian sniper should give Tampa one of the most dangerous, and deep, offensive potential in the league.  I do have some concerns about their back end—this will be Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first year as the team’s undisputed starting goaltender, and their defense will could either be a boom or a bust.  That being said, the preseason performance of Vasilevskiy and young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev have me confident that the Lightning defense will be more than adequate enough to allow Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson to do their thing.

 

  1. Jaime Benn will win the MVP

Dallas was a bit of a mess last season—injuries swept through their forward lines, diminishing the potential of one of the most potent offenses in the league, while the defense and goaltending were… not great.  The additions of Marc Methot and Ben Bishop will definitely bolster the Stars’ back line, boosting them into contention for post-season spot.  The signings of Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal, meanwhile, will take some of the scoring, and defensive, pressure off of Benn and Tyler Seguin, making the team’s forwards even more dangerous than they were before.  With Radulov around, the two stars’ goal totals might be hurt a little bit, which is why I’m taking Benn for MVP over Seguin—the captain has more of a well-rounded game than his teammate.

 

  1. Mike Babcock will win Coach of the Year

The Maple Leafs were supposed to be a rebuilding for at least another year or two; instead, they surprised almost everyone by making the play-offs last season, keeping both the Lightning and the Islanders on the outside looking in.  This year, with the addition of veterans Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey, they might even challenge for a division title this season.  While I think that it’s still slightly beyond them to pull that off, the fact that they could even be in that position at all is a testament to the work that Babcock has done with this roster.  He was already thought of as a fantastic coach for the job that he did coaching the Red Wings, but he might be doing even better in Toronto, and deserves to be rewarded for his work.

 

  1. Nico Hischier will win Rookie of the Year

Unlike last season, when Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine were clear pre-season frontrunners for this award, there is no consensus as to who the best rookie will be this season.  Hischier is one of perhaps ten that are currently in the conversation; out of all of them though, I think he has a couple advantages.  The first is that Hischier will be one of very few rookies to have the opportunity to get top-6 minutes right out of the gate—the Devils are still in a bit of a rebuild mode, so they’ll have the minutes to allow the #1 overall pick of this past summer’s draft to develop.  The other advantage is size—while only 18, Hischier is 6’1” and a healthy 176 pounds.  He’s a good skater, and as he adds on a little bit more weight, he has the potential to be one of the few forwards that can beat players with both speed and strength.  He might not reach all of that potential this year, but we’ll see enough of it to see him earn the Rookie of the Year award.

 

  1. The New York Rangers will not make the playoffs

The Rangers made the post-season relatively comfortably last year, snagging 102 points and extending their streak of reaching the play-offs to 7 seasons.  That being said, some cracks started to show a little bit towards the end of last season—Henrik Lundqvist had games that made him look remotely human, and there were games where the young guns couldn’t help step up and make up for some slowing veterans like Rick Nash.  Going into the off-season, they needed to address issues at the center, defenseman, and backup goaltender spots.  They did a good job of getting Kevin Shattenkirk for a relative discount, but losing Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan are big worries.  It leaves the team needing big seasons from Nash, Lundqvist, and Mika Zibanejad to have great seasons to keep the burden of carrying the team from falling on some that aren’t quite ready for it yet.  At this point in all of those players’ careers, I simply don’t think they can do it.

 

  1. The Arizona Coyotes will make the playoffs

This is, perhaps, one of the two truly bold picks that I will make in this post.  The Ducks and Oilers are virtual locks for the post-season, and the strength of the Central division probably means that the third play-off spot in the Pacific will be the final one.  The ‘Yotes will be up against the Sharks and Kings, who have been among the top performers in the league over the past decade.  However, I feel that they’re both on a decline—John Stevens reinvigorated the Kings after last year’s poor start but still didn’t see any additions to bolster their lagging offense (24th in goals last year), and the Sharks’ aging core has a lot of wear and tear on their legs and don’t have many people in line to replace them.  Arizona, meanwhile, added veterans Derek Stepan and Niklas Hjalmarsson to a tantalizing young core of Jakob Chychrun, Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  Gaining experience and maintaining consistency will be crucial for the team, and in the long run, I think they’ll find enough to make the post-season.

 

  1. Patrik Laine will lead the league in points

Part of this comes down to pre-season performance—Laine has been absolutely electric in his brief time on the ice, which not many others can say.  The right winger put up 36 goals as a rookie last season, and if his performance thus far is any indication, he’s primed for more—of course, it doesn’t hurt that the youngster has one of the best passing centers in the game, Mark Scheifele playing to his left.  The strengthening of Winnipeg’s defensive corps will be beneficial to Laine, too, especially the return to health of possession-driver Tyler Myers—it’ll grant him a little bit more freedom to get out of the defensive zone early and utilize his speed to create opportunities.  The Jets will be a play-off team this year, and Laine will be a big reason why.

 

  1. Matt Duchene will be traded to the Nashville Predators

Duchene is the best player on what is perhaps the league’s worst team, the Colorado Avalanche.  Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar definitely realize that Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are the only two tradeable pieces preventing the club from going into full retooling mode, which explains why both of them have been circulated in trade rumors for much of the past year or so.  As a prolific two-way player, Duchene is in more popular demand, with Ottawa, Nashville, and Columbus being among the center’s suitors.  I think it will come down to a battle between the neighboring Blue Jackets and Predators—Ottawa has other, perhaps larger roster holes to fill before addressing its number 2 center spot—and in the end, I think that the Preds will be the one to snag him.  They signed Nick Bonino to replace Mike Fischer, but Bonino’s stats were not good in high-leverage roles for Pittsburgh last year, and the Penguins proved how critical it can be to have multiple star centers on the roster.  I think they’ll give up a high draft pick and a player from their large stable of defenseman to land him, which should be enough to satiate Colorado’s wishes.

 

  1. John Tavares will re-sign with the Islanders

This is probably the only other truly bold prediction that I’m making here.  The Islanders management situation is a real mess—the arena that they share with the Brooklyn Nets is out of the way for the core of their fan base and has been blasted for having some of the worst ice in the league, while the players that they signed to try and up the level of performance around their star center largely flopped.  Rumors have been flying about Tavares, whose contract expires at the end of this season, for some time now, with many destinations being floated about being his new home.  Tavares’s camp and the Islanders’ front office have maintained that this deal isn’t about money, which makes sense with how inconsistent they’ve been in the last eight seasons.  Despite the temptations of big payouts and big success elsewhere, however, I ultimately think the Canadian stays in New York long-term.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic

Lightning (#2)

Maple Leafs (#5)

Canadiens (#6)

Senators (WC #2)

Sabres

Bruins

Panthers

Red Wings

Metropolitan

Penguins (#1)

Capitals (#3)

Hurricanes (#4)

Blue Jackets (WC #1)

Islanders

Rangers

Devils

Flyers

Western Conference

Central

Wild (#1)

Predators (#4)

Stars (#5)

Blackhawks (WC #1)

Jets (WC #2)

Blues

Avalanche

Pacific

Ducks (#2)

Oilers (#3)

Coyotes (#6)

Sharks

Kings

Flames

Golden Knights

Canucks

PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference

First Round

Penguins def. Senators

Hurricanes def. Capitals

Lightning def. Blue Jackets

Maple Leafs def. Canadiens

Conference Semifinal

Hurricanes def. Penguins

Lightning def. Maple Leafs

Conference Final

Lightning def. Hurricanes

Western Conference

First Round

Wild def. Jets

Predators def. Stars

Blackhawks def. Ducks

Oilers def. Coyotes

Conference Semifinals

Wild def. Predators

Oilers def. Blackhawks

Conference Finals

Wild def. Oilers

Stanley Cup

Lightning def. Wild

2017 NFL Preview

In just under a half an hour, the 2017/18 NFL season will kick off in a match-up between two of the top teams in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs and the defending champion New England Patriots.  After the thrilling conclusion to last year’s season, the start of this year’s campaign has been eagerly anticipated for weeks, if not months, on end.  With all of the speculation about free agency, new coaching hires, and training camp battles now over, we can finally ask: who’s going to win that big prize this season?  Will the big, bad Pats be able to defend their crown?  Or will one of their many challengers be able to keep the Lombardi Trophy from returning to Foxboro?  Here is my view on how the upcoming year will look:

 

 

Regular Season Standings:

 

NFC

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks (#2)

Arizona Cardinals (#2 WC)

San Francisco 49ers

Los Angeles Rams

The Seahawks won their division with ease last year, and that should be the case this year, as well.  For all of the maddening inconsistencies that the team has with its offensive line, Russell Wilson and company but up some decent numbers with the football last year.  Now that they’ve got a four-headed running back group to take some pressure off of Wilson, their offense is close to having the firepower their defense does, even after the addition of Sheldon Richardson.  The Cardinals, meanwhile, lost their defensive lineman in Calais Campbell, and the offensive concerns surrounding quarterback Carson Palmer really haven’t gone away.  Their talent level, though, should be enough to boost them into the play-offs in a weak NFC.  The two teams at the bottom, the 49ers and the Rams, are both in a state of rebuilding.  I think that San Fran is a little bit better in the present day, with Kyle Shanahan reuniting with Brian Hoyer and Pierre Garcon, and especially with Aaron Donald still not suiting up for Los Angeles.  The Rams, though, will have a solid foundation to build on if they can lock up Donald and Sammy Watkins—this could be a sleeper team to watch out for as early as next season.

 

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (#1)

Chicago Bears

Minnesota Vikings

Detroit Lions

The Pack had some serious issues on both sides of the ball last year—they ended up having to convert Ty Montgomery into a running back, and their secondary was an absolute mess.  Fortunately, they’ve got a guy named Aaron Rodgers on their team, and he carried Green Bay to a thrilling play-off victory last season.  This year, playing in the weakest division in the NFC and having seen upgrades in their weakest areas, I expect Rodgers to lead his team to the #1 seed.  The Bears might look like they’re in a rebuilding phase, especially after trading up to take a quarterback with the second pick in the draft, but injuries decimated their defense and their offense was good but inefficient last year.  With strong, healthy defenders and Mike Glennon under center, I expect my hometown team to surprise some people and push for a play-off spot this year.  The Vikings, meanwhile, seem to be… average in almost every facet of the game.  If Dalvin Cook can develop quickly, maybe they have a shot at the post-season, but otherwise I think they’ll be very mediocre.  Detroit, meanwhile, very much resembles the New Orleans team that’s struggled the last few seasons—they have an excellent offense but a defense that is maddeningly inconsistent.  They’ll struggle to beat teams unless they put up 35 every game, especially in a division where every team has made large strides towards fixing their biggest offensive deficiencies.

 

NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#4)

Atlanta Falcons (#1 WC)

New Orleans Saints

Carolina Panthers

Picking the Bucs to finish above the defending NFC champions is a bit of a surprising pick, but consider this—Tampa finished only two games behind the Falcons last season, added a much-needed deep threat to compliment Mike Evans (DeSean Jackson), an up-and-coming star at tight end (OJ Howard), and a veteran safety to bolster their secondary (TJ Ward).  I understand that the Falcons also improved, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but with a fluke win or loss here or there, last year’s division title could have very easily gone to south Florida.  Combine those realities with the strides that third-year quarterback Jameis Winston is sure to make this year, and I think that Dan Quinn’s team will have to make it to the post-season in a wild card spot.  In the bottom half of the division, the Saints have done a fantastic job of recovering from their salary cap mistakes to bolster both sides of the ball, with their most notable addition being star veteran running back Adrian Peterson, but their defense is too inexperienced to really make enough of a difference for them to push for a division title this year.  The Panthers, meanwhile, will enter the season with a completely healthy Cam Newton, which is both a blessing and a curse.  The former Auburn star is a fantastic athlete, but with his style of play expected to be curbed due to recent injury issues, his flaws as a pocket passer will shine through, and I don’t think they’ll be good enough with the football to generate enough offense to offset their inconsistent defense.

 

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (#3)

Dallas Cowboys

New York Giants

Washington Redskins

The Eagles were incredibly active during this offseason—they added multiple weapons to surround young quarterback Carson Wentz, headlined by receiver Alshon Jeffery, used their first two draft picks to bolster their defense, and traded their inconsistent receiver, Jordan Matthews, for a number one corner in Ronald Darby.  With the regression to the mean that Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense will be sure to undergo, especially with Ezekiel Elliott on the verge of a six game suspension, I feel that Philly will be able to supplant Dallas at the top of the division.  That reality, combined with the strength of this division in comparison to the other three in the NFC, will, I believe, cause last year’s number one overall seed to miss out on this year’s play-offs.  The Giants and the Redskins, meanwhile, both have weak secondaries, which should prevent them from making much noise in this tough divisional race.  However, with quarterbacks as talented as Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins, don’t be surprised if they play spoiler to some team’s late-season play-off hopes.

 

AFC

AFC West

Oakland Raiders (#4)

Kansas City Chiefs (#2 WC)

Los Angeles Chargers

Denver Broncos

The Raiders were one of last season’s most popular teams, as fans rallied behind young QB Derek Carr and the excellent offense built around him.  Not many remember, though, that it was the Chiefs that actually won the division, thanks to a balanced offensive attack and a ferocious pass rush.  The same two clubs will duke it out for the crown this year, and I ultimately think that the addition of Marshawn Lynch will give the Oakland offense an extra dimension that will propel them over Kansas City this year.  The Chiefs will still make the post-season, though, with the underrated cast of athletes that Andy Reid’s offense features allowing them to snag the second wild card spot.  The Chargers are basically everybody’s dark horse pick for the upcoming season, and with good reason—their bevvy of offensive weapons are all healthy, and Phillip Rivers has yet to show major regression at age 35—but I worry a bit about the Charger defense, as well as back end of their defense, so I think they’ll fall just short.  In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos D is still elite, but starting to show some cracks—TJ Ward was released, DeMarcus Ware’s replacement (Shane Ray) is on IR, and Aqib Talib is on the wrong side of 30.  These things, combined with the uncertainty surrounding their quarterback situation, will see the team fall back into the bottom of the division for the first time since 2010.

 

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (#3)

Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals

Cleveland Browns

The Steelers were the only team in this division with a winning record last year—having an offense headlined by players that are arguably the best at their position in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will do that for you.  Pittsburgh’s defense still isn’t all that great, but it’s made some strides in recent years, and that, along with the explosive offense, is enough to let the team top the division.  Their closest competitors, Baltimore, are virtually the opposite of the Steelers—they have an excellent defense with multiple explosive players, but their offense is maddeningly inconsistent.  It is this that will keep John Harbaugh’s team out of the post-season.  The Bengals, who have been pretty close to a perennial play-off team in recent years, will drift off towards the bottom of the division after a poor off-season which saw them make many poor decisions when it came to retaining some of their team’s own free agents, especially along the offensive line.  Then, of course, there’s Cleveland.  The Browns will not be the doormat that they were this past year, and they had a pretty solid off-season (reminiscent of the one that the Raiders had in one of their most crucial rebuilding years, in fact), but they’re still ways away from being truly competitive in the conference.

 

AFC South

Tennessee Titans (#2)

Houston Texans (#1 WC)

Jacksonville Jaguars

Indianapolis Colts

Tennessee narrowly missed out on making the post-season last year, finishing with an identical record to the division-winning Texans, and that happened even while missing Marcus Mariota for most of the season’s final 2 games due to injury.  With Mariota back and ready to heave the ball to Delanie Walker and his two newest targets, Eric Decker and rookie Corey Davis, I expect the Titans to claim the division this year.  That doesn’t mean that the Texans will miss the play-offs, though—regardless of whom of the Deshaun Watson-Tom Savage duo ends up starting more games for Houston, their quarterback situation will be far more stable than it was last year.  All they’ll have to do is utilize the bevvy of freak athletes they are surrounded by, headlined by DeAndre Hopkins, and they’ll end up as the top wild card.  The teams at the bottom of the division have some major quarterback issues—Blake Bortles is maddeningly inconsistent, and Andrew Luck is seemingly always hurt or in danger of being hurt.  I think the Jags had a good off-season and built up some good talent on both offense and defense, so they’ll top the Colts, but neither team should be any good.

 

AFC East

New England Patriots (#1)

Miami Dolphins

Buffalo Bills

New York Jets

Even after losing their de facto number one receiver, Julian Edelman, to injury, the Patriots still have the most dangerous offense in the entire league, with four starter-quality running backs, three excellent receivers, and the best tight end in the league.  And that isn’t even taking into account Tom Brady, last season’s Super Bowl hero, and what he has to offer.  The Pats should cruise to a division title with ease, especially since two teams in their division are in the midst of full rebuilds.  The team that isn’t, Miami, was unfortunate to lose their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, before the season started, bringing in Jay Cutler to replace him.  Cutler won’t be bad—he’s got two receivers, Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker, that are very well-suited to his skill set—but I don’t think that he, or the Dolphin secondary, will be enough to get them to the post-season.  They could make things interesting, though, as they play the Buccaneers, Panthers, and Chiefs in the second half of the season, all teams with high play-off inspirations.  The two teams that are rebuilding, the Bills and Jets, are in separate spots.  The Bills actually have a few talented skill players on offense, including LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor, but their defense is not great, and despite their offensive talent, they aren’t super consistent, so they’ll continue to try and build through young players.  The Jets, meanwhile, will just be… bad.  They’re definitely shooting for a top-2 pick in next year’s draft—the less said about them this year, the better.

 

 

Awards/Individual Predictions

NFL MVP: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

The greatest quarterback in NFL history is surrounded by the deepest level of talent that he’s ever had in his career.  Next category, please.

 

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills

Jones isn’t the sexiest receiver in the world—he doesn’t have the high draft choice label like Corey Davis, or the speed of John Ross, or the big-school pedigree like Curtis Samuel.  But he also happens to be the top threat receiving threat on the outside for a Buffalo team that lost a lot of targets due to departures of some veteran wideouts. On top of that, even when Jordan Matthews returns from injury, he doesn’t figure to take away any of Jones’s playing time since the former Eagle likes operating in the slot.  Add that to the fact that underrated QB Tyrod Taylor seems to prefer larger targets than smaller, quicker ones, and I think that Jones could have a fantastic season.

 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: TJ Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Watt, like his brother JJ, was an electric player at the University of Wisconsin, but because of his stature and role in the Badger defense, not as much was expected of him this season.  His pre-season performances, though, have caused Steeler coaches to drastically increase the role that Watt will have this year.  That’s saying a lot, too, considering that he’ll be taking playing time from former first round pick Bud Dupree and the ageless James Harrison.  Watt’s work ethic is as high as his brother’s, and I expect a big year from him this year.

 

Best Acquisition: DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Part of the reason that Vincent Jackson was supplanted as Tampa’s number one receiver by Mike Evans so early in Evans’s career was Jackson’s declining ability to be good at what the team acquired him for, catching the deep ball.  Evans is more of a possession, go-get-it kind of receiver, and it was clear to see how desperately the Bucs needed a player to help stretch the field.  Enter Jackson.  The former Redskin may be 30, but he hasn’t lost a step of his blazing speed, and with his talent and reasonable contract, he provides an excellent option opposite Evans.

 

Worst Acquisition: Matt Kalil, OT, Carolina Panthers

Maybe pairing the former Minnesota Viking with his brother, Ryan, might improve his productivity.  But the truth of the matter is that Kalil is one of a long list of offensive tackles taken in the first round recently that haven’t reached their potential.  Kalil’s ceiling was higher than most, but it’s clear that his injuries and inconsistencies don’t warrant him getting a huge contract.  The free agent tackle market this year was thin, and I get that, but even so, Kalil got a lot of guaranteed money to essentially be a league-average player.  This contract will bite the Panthers long-term.

 

Coach of the Year: Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Part of me still feels that it was a mistake for the team to fire its old coach, Lovie Smith.  But the success that Koetter has had developing third-year quarterback Jameis Winston has been undeniable, and the cadre of offensive weapons the team has acquired for the young gunslinger is the best that he’s had in the league.  Add that to strong secondary, recently bolstered by the signing of former All-Pro safety TJ Ward, and Koetter has enough talent, and enough smarts (especially on offense), to lead his team to their first division title since 2007.

 

Biggest Surprise: Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons

Jarrett was excellent in his team’s defeat in the Super Bowl this February, flashing the potential that caused him to be considered as a high pick back in 2015 before his smaller stature made him slide down teams’ draft boards.  A pass-rushing tackle, the Clemson tackle was played at nose tackle for most of last year, preventing him from maximizing his potential.  Now, though, he has Dontari Poe next to him to clog the middle, and with the highly-touted duo of Vic Beasley Jr. and Takkarist McKinley attacking quarterbacks from the edges, Jarrett should see a lot of 1 on 1 match-ups, which bodes well for his development in stopping the run and rushing the passer.  I expect double-digit sacks from him this year.

 

 

Play-offs:

 

NFC

Wildcard

Philadelphia Eagles defeat Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons defeat Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This game almost feels like a battle between the new guard—the Eagles, with their second year quarterback Carson Wentz and second year head coach Doug Pederson—taking on coaching and quarterbacking veterans Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer.  I really like the Cardinals—I picked them to reach the Super Bowl last season—but I simply think that the Eagles have more talent on both sides of the ball after their moves this off-season.  They’ll move on.

Yes, I recognize that I have Tampa topping the Falcons in their race for the NFC South title, which would, in theory, mean that the Buccaneers would win this match-up, especially with their home-field advantage.  The Falcons, though, will be out to prove that their run to last year’s Super Bowl was not a fluke, so they will come into this one extraordinarily motivated to win, especially against a division rival.  For that reason, I think that Atlanta moves on to the next round.

 

Divisional

Green Bay Packers defeat Atlanta Falcons

Philadelphia Eagles defeat Seattle Seahawks

The first divisional round match-up will see a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship in which Atlanta romped all over Green Bay in their 44-21 victory.  I see this season’s result going a little different for two main reasons—that this year’s game would be held in Wisconsin instead of Georgia, and that the Pack have retooled the secondary that kept getting beaten by Matt Ryan last year.  Expect Aaron Rodgers and company to move on to the conference championship.

I’m a really big fan of the Eagles’ offense, but they may meet their match here in the ferocious Seattle D.  I still have Philly moving on, though, and that’s because I think that the strengths of the Seattle offense match up well to the strength of the Eagle defense.  In this defensive affair, I feel that the team with the greatest big-play ability will advance, and I view that as being the Eagles.  They move on.

 

Conference

Philadelphia Eagles defeat Green Bay Packers

This one, I think, ultimately comes down to defense.  Aaron Rodgers is clearly a better quarterback than Carson Wentz is, at this stage in their careers.  However, the Eagles will be going up against a defense that, while improved from last year, is still unproven, and even then won’t strike fear into a team as offensively talented as Philly.  The Packers, meanwhile, will go up against a good Eagles defense that only bolstered its secondary by adding the true number one corner it had been lacking in Ronald Darby.  None of this is to say that it will be a low scoring game—it definitely won’t be—but I feel that Philly will have enough to slow down the immaculate Rodgers and move on to the Super Bowl.

 

AFC

Wild Card

Kansas City Chiefs defeat Pittsburgh Steelers

Oakland Raiders defeat Houston Texans

Having two of the most historically gritty teams in the AFC square off in the wild card round will be a real treat.  Pittsburgh has the more explosive offense, which should cause problems for a slightly overrated Chiefs D.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I feel that Andy Reid’s team won’t at least have some success slowing the explosive options Pittsburgh has.  There is also the state of Pittsburgh’s defense to consider—while they are better in their front 7, their secondary still isn’t that great, and while there’s a reason the Chiefs moved up to draft Patrick Mahomes II, Alex Smith has extensive play-off experience, and some shifty players around him.  For that reason, I think that KC will move on.

The Raiders are probably more talented than the Texans, but Houston’s strengths, on both sides of the ball, actually match up pretty well with the weaknesses on Oakland’s roster, so it’ll be a closer game than some would anticipate.  In the end, though, I just think that the Raider offense just has too much firepower for the Texan defense to hold off, and for the Texan offense to keep up with them.  Oakland will move on.

 

Divisional

New England Patriots defeat Kansas City Chiefs

Oakland Raiders defeat Tennessee Titans

The Patriots are virtually unbeatable at home, which puts the Chiefs at an immediate disadvantage in this game.  New England’s defense is not elite, but they do have a better unit than the Steelers do, which further lessens their chances of beating the defending champs.  And then there’s the Patriot offense—they don’t pose the explosive threat that the Steelers do, but they have more weapons that are more dynamic.  All of that will just be too much for KC to handle—New England moves on.

This game will go virtually the exact same as Oakland’s previous game.  Tennessee has a pretty strong defense, and Marcus Mariota is certainly talented enough to tear the inconsistent Raider secondary into shreds.  Ultimately, though, I still believe that the Raider offense will be too strong for any defense outside of Seattle or Denver to stop, and unfortunately for the Titans, they are neither of those teams, and their offense is good, but not good enough to beat Oakland.  The Raiders will win this one.

 

Conference

Oakland Raiders defeat New England Patriots

This might be one of the best conference championships in history—the Patriots will be eager to prove that they won last year’s Super Bowl, as opposed to the Falcons blowing it, while Oakland will surely be spurred on by the fans who remember the heartbreak of the Tuck Rule game that led to New England’s first championship.  In the end, I think that neither team’s star quarterback will be the ultimate difference maker in this one—it’ll be Marshawn Lynch.  The recently un-retired back will be anxious to go all-in against the team that gave him his most heart-wrenching defeat, and while New England’s secondary may be strong, their run defense has some pretty big holes.  Expect Lynch to romp all over the Pats and lead his team to the Super Bowl.

 

Super Bowl

Oakland Raiders defeat Philadelphia Eagles

A showdown between two of the most passionate fan bases, between two of the most dynamic offenses in football, quarterbacked by two of the faces of the sport.  It doesn’t get much better than this.  Philadelphia has a better defense, which should help some in slowing down the Oakland attack.  However, the Oakland team is filled with players that have been in the thick of play-off competition before and will know how to step up during the big moments that will inevitably come, and Raider head coach Jack del Rio has extensive post-season experience.  Doug Pederson and his squad, meanwhile, had a losing record last season, and many of their younger players, particularly Carson Wentz, have never truly experienced such a high-stakes situation.  So: while the Eagles are, in my mind, slightly better on paper, I think that the Raiders’ intangibles will be what allow them to bring a well-deserved title to their fans in the Bay.

2017 English Premier League Preview- Part 2

While the fight for survival has been more interesting than the fight for the championship last few seasons, the competition at the top of the deepest league in the world has never been greater.  So who will manage to pull out on top this season?  Will it be Antonio Conte’s defending champions Chelsea, or will one of their London rivals snatch the trophy away?  Could a squad from Manchester, or from Liverpool, manage to top the table?  Here is the second part of my prediction for the upcoming season:

 

  1. West Ham United

The Hammers had a very disappointing season last year, with the drawn-out departure of Dimitri Payet seeming to throw a big hitch in how manager Slaven Bilic planned to construct his team.  The team also never seemed to get comfortable in the old Olympic Stadium, finishing with a -12 goal differential at home.  However, the team did finish strong by losing only one of its final seven games, and their four major transfer acquisitions—striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, winger Morgan Arnautovic, right back Pablo Zabaleta, and goalkeeper Joe Hart—shore up both sides of the field.  In addition, none of those newbies are “me-first” players like Payet, so Bilic should be able to construct a more balanced team.  As such, I see them bouncing back and competing for a spot in Europe this season.

  1. Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp has had a pretty frustrating transfer season—his top two targets, Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk, never came close to joining the Reds, and the team’s best player, Phillipe Coutinho, seems to have a foot out the door.  Klopp did bring in two other studs to fill gaps in the team—fleet winger Mohamed Salah to fill the gap caused by Raheem Sterling’s departure to Manchester City and Andrew Robertson so that James Milner doesn’t have to play out of position.  However, Coutinho’s partnership with countryman Roberto Firmino and winger Sadio Mane is what made the team’s attack so explosive last season, and I anticipate that his departure, without Klopp strengthening the center of the park with more defensive players, will put the team into a bit of disarray…

Want to see the full second part of my preview of the upcoming Premier League season?  Click here to visit my soccer-focused site, gunnerupdates.com!

 

 

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.