EPL Season Preview- Part 1

After a dramatic off-season that included two major tournaments (three, if you count the Olympic tournament, which is currently in progress) and many big-named players switching clubs, the 2016 Premier League Season is finally upon us.  While the EPL is arguably the deepest league in the entire world, there have to be some teams that don’t get to experience finishing up at the higher end of the table, teams that have the guts but just simply don’t have what it takes to get the glory. Here is Part 1 of my projection for the upcoming season, starting at the bottom of the table:

 

  1. Hull City

Hull City have bounced back and forth between the Premier League and the Championship over the past few years, and you would think that they would have an advantage over the two other teams promoted with them because of their previous experience in staying up.  However, the club is currently in a state of disarray- they do not have a manager, with caretaker Mike Phelan set to start the season in charge after the resignation of Steve Bruce.  One of the team’s best players, Mo Diame, left for Newcastle in the Championship, citing the possibility of a better future.  They haven’t made any major signings, and their squad is woefully thin.  I just don’t see any way that they can stay up.

 

  1. Burnley

Sean Dyche is a fantastic manager, and his disciplined style of play, and his players’ typically flawless execution of it, will give the Clarets a chance to hang around the top flight next season.  However, outside of fleet striker Andre Gray and goalie Tom Heaton, the team just doesn’t have many Premier League-level talents, and like relegation rivals Hull, have not been able to secure any signings to help bolster their campaign to stay up.  The team will enjoy the money that the EPL will give them, and the experience of playing top-flight football, then they will drop back down to the second division.

 

  1. Sunderland

It seems like Sunderland ends up in a relegation battle every season, and I don’t expect this one to be any different.  The current players have shown that they are fully capable of stepping up their game to maintain their Premier League status, but I just don’t see it happening this year.  The club is transition between managers, and while both Sam Allardyce and David Moyes are fantastic coaches, the old manager, Allardyce, has a coaching style that is better suited to a relegation right than his replacement, Moyes.  Also, the squad is woefully thin- there are only 20 first-team players on the current roster.  The defense looks very weak after the departure of Wes Brown (released) and DeAndre Yedlin (returned to Tottenham), and could get weaker if Lamine Kone completes his move to Everton.  There hasn’t been anyone signed to help ease the burden on the aging Jermain Defoe.  I just don’t think the Black Cats have what it takes to survive another season.

 

  1. Swansea

Swansea have been very popular since their arrival in the Premier League back in 2011, when Brendan Rodgers was at the helm.  Their attractive, possession-based game won them a League Cup in 2012 and has helped them maintain their longest top-flight stay in club history.  However, teams started to figure out how to overcome the Swans’ possession domination last season, and the club struggled throughout the season.  They have made moves to upgrade last year’s faltering attack, but their defense will be sorely lacking after captain Ashley Williams inevitably departs for Everton.  The team is good, but they’ll be in for a season even tougher than the one they had last year.  They’ll have just enough to stay up, but they’ll need some serious improvements if they expect to recapture the success they had when they first arrived in the Premier League.

 

  1. West Brom

The Baggies are not blessed with overwhelming talent, but are blessed with hard-working players, embodied by the aptly-named vice-captain Chris Brunt, and a manager, Tony Pulis, whose direct style is well-suited to this roster and to a relegation battle.  The team could use a couple more signings to help settle fears over the possible departures of mainstays Jonny Evans and Sadio Berahino, but with or without them, I feel that the team has what it takes to hover above Sunderland and Swansea while staying in the league for next season.

 

  1. Bournemouth

The Cherries, like their promoted counterparts, Watford, weren’t expected to do anything last season; in fact, they were favored by many to drop back down to the Championship, especially after star striker Callum Wilson went down with an injury early in the season.  However, some great managing by the young Eddie Howe, and a few brilliant results mid-season, including back-to-back wins over Chelsea and Manchester United, secured them a place in the EPL this season.  The club knew it needed to add more pieces to stay up this season, and it did so wisely by investing in solid youngsters Brad Smith, Emerson Hyndman and Jordan Ibe.  With a strengthened squad and a full season of Wilson up ahead, I expect Bournemouth to take a (small) step forward from last season.

 

  1. Crystal Palace

Alan Pardew’s Eagles got off to a flying start last season, and it looked like they may turn into real European contenders.  That was before the offense dried up, and the Eagles slumped so badly that they were close to getting really deep into a relegation battle.  The team has made some good signings- they inked Andros Townsend and Steve Mandanda to bolster a core that already includes Yannick Bolasie and Yohan Cabaye, but Bolasie might depart for Everton, and the team still doesn’t have a truly dependable striker to put an end to their scoring woes.  Palace won’t be relegated, but their year won’t be particularly exciting, either.

 

  1. Watford

Last year, the Hornets were promoted to England’s top league for the first time since 2007, and they weren’t expected to do all that much.  However, the Pozzo family had built this team up to be the crown jewel of their portfolio of three pro teams, and the club ended the season in an impressive 13th place.  The team has managed to hang on to its biggest names- forwards Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo- and have a deep roster, with numerous players capable of filling multiple different roles and playing in different formations.  I worry slightly about overall defensive talent, and also about new manager Walter Mazzarri, who has a style of coaching that is more defensive than pragmatic.  This is why I feel that Watford will finish slightly lower than they did last year.

 

  1. Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough have been on the verge of regaining their place in the Premier League since manager Aitor Karanka took over back in 2013, and this past season finally saw the former Jose Mourinho confidant lift his team to the big show.  The team had a decent, but seemingly below Premier League quality core upon coming up to the first division, but Karanka invested wisely in some players to bolster his squad.  He got Victor Valdes and Brad Guzan to fight for the #1 goalkeeper spot, Marten de Roon and Gaston Ramirez to upgrade the midfield, and Alvaro Negredo to join the underrated Jordan Rhodes up top.  I still think they could add another defender or two to bolster their back line, but otherwise, I feel this team has enough to stick around for another season.

 

  1. Southampton

The last three years, the Southampton team has been purged of its core.  2014 saw Nathan Clyne and Rickie Lambert leave, while last summer, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin left for Manchester United.  Both of the corresponding seasons, though the Saints responded with a fantastic finish in the league.  This year, though, with manager Ronald Koeman leaving along with Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, and Victor Wanyama, I think the team from St. Mary’s will finally drop off a little.  They’ll still be good enough to hang with the big boys in some games- Claude Puel is a very good manager, and his top players, defender Jose Fonte, midfielder Jordy Clasie, and striker Shane Long, are no slouches, but they don’t have the true game-changers, or the depth, to finish as high as they have the last two years.

 

  1. Everton

The Toffees are an interesting team.  They have a solid core to build off of with Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, with some solid veterans like Gareth Barry and Leighton Baines in support of them.  However, over the past couple seasons, they have played below the overall sum of their parts.  They have a new owner, Farhad Moshiri, that is ready to spend, and a new manager, Ronald Koeman, that seems perfectly suited to this kind of team.  The defense seems a little shaky after the departure of John Stones (enforcements are expected, but they won’t come close to matching Stones’s talent), and I think it will take a while for Koeman to get the squad to play his style instead of the more possession-based game of his predecessor, Roberto Martinez, and because of that, I feel the blue side of Liverpool will have to slog through another mediocre season before things change around.

 

  1. Stoke City

This season will be Mark Hughes’s 4th season at the helm of the Potters, and he has drastically reshaped the team’s image from what it was under Tony Pulis.  Led by Swiss dynamo Xherdan Shaqiri, the team is incisive and attack-focused, yet disciplined at the back.  The have the talent to make a run at a spot in Europe, but sometimes too much is forced on either Shaqiri or fellow winger Morgan Arnautovic, and that makes Stoke a one man team that is easy to stop.  They need to discover cohesiveness as a team in order to really make a push towards the top, and while Hughes has assembled a very solid squad from top to bottom, with their current team balance, I just don’t think they have that yet.

 

You can check out Part 2 of this preview on my new soccer website, gunnerupdates.com

A Tribute to Derrick Rose

Wizards v/s Bulls 02/28/11

I’ve underestimated Derrick Rose for a long time.

When the Chicago Bulls were lucky enough to land the number one overall pick back in 2008, the majority of people seemed to favor the team taking Rose, who had just finished a phenomenal freshman year under Coach John Calipari at Memphis, with that pick.  I was in the minority that believed that Kansas State forward Michael Beasley should have been the Bulls pick.  Both players were young, with high scoring totals and high ceilings, but I felt that Beasley’s versatility would make him the better selection.

Rose won the Rookie of the Year award with 111 first place votes; the next highest vote getter got 5.  Beasley got 0.  Rose led his underdog team to within one game of defeating the defending champion Boston Celtics, tearing through a strong defense headlined by wily veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett with a quiet confidence; Beasley did not start a playoff game that season.

Even after the amazing playoff performance Rose put on, I still did not have a lot of faith in him; he had shown some top-level athleticism, no doubt, but it seemed like he was a little bit selfish with the ball, especially for a rookie, and I didn’t think that his shooting numbers would be any greater than mediocre, at best, and that those two things would hold him back.

Rose made his first All-Star game in his second year, and in his third year, absolutely blew up, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the MVP Award while leading the Bulls to the league’s best record and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the great Michael Jordan had donned a Bulls jersey.

When Rose suffered his first major knee injury as a pro, crumpling to the ground in a play-off game against the Philadelphia 76ers, I felt horrible for him; I also felt that his life as a starting point guard, much less an elite point guard, was over, that the injury, which kept him out for over a year, would rob him of his trademark explosiveness and turn him into a run-of-the-mill backup, struggling to hit 40% of his shots while occasionally finding a moment of brilliance.

He may not have come back as strong as many had expected, but by averaging almost 16 points per game in his first month of playing competitive basketball in roughly 18 months, Rose proved his toughness and determination were beyond incredible.

After he sustained his second knee injury, tearing the meniscus on the knee opposite to the one that he had previously injured, I thought that his fate as a star that burned bright, but burned fast and faded out faster, was essentially cemented, that two major knee injuries for a guy that lived and died by his ability to be shifty, whose shot was still nothing special, would end Rose’s career with a whimper.

Of course, I was wrong again.  Rose returned at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, and he showed that he still had the ability to take over games, as evidenced by the 32 points that he dropped on the Washington Wizards midseason.

Shortly after that game, Rose injured his knee, again, putting myself and other Bulls fans everywhere back onto an emotional roller coaster.  This injury, I felt, would be the one to truly destroy the point guard’s confidence, to undermine all of the hard work that he had put in recovering from his previous two injuries and make him into a shell of his former self.

Of course, Rose came back two months later, putting in a couple of clutch playoff performances, including a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer to defeat LeBron James and the archrival Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now, Derrick Rose is gone.  Traded, that is- to the New York Knicks, in a package deal that sends center Robin Lopez and two point guards to Chicago.  In my opinion, the trade looks like it could be a good one for the Bulls- the team was able to get Rose’s astronomical salary off the books while getting a starting center (Lopez), a potential stud at point guard (Jerian Grant), and a steady veteran guard (Jose Calderon) in return.

Of course, the one way that this trade could really blow up in Chicago’s face is if Rose, whose seemingly constant injury problems and perceived lack of effort have made him a divisive figure in the recent years, completely rejuvenates his career with the Knicks.

If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think that it’s going to happen- I feel that Rose’s knees, which have taken tons and tons of abuse, just won’t hold up well enough for him to re-establish himself among the upper echelon of point guards in the league.  I also believe that Rose might be the third option, at best, on a Knicks team featuring Anthony and upcoming big man Kristaps Porzingis, and that won’t give him an opportunity to really showcase his talents.

But then again, I’ve underestimated Derrick Rose for a long time.

Regardless of what the ultimate result of this trade is, I’d like to give a big thanks to Derrick Rose for a phenomenal 8 years with the Bulls.  If Dwayne Wade put Chicago basketball back on the map, Rose made sure everybody knew it was back; he made the Bulls exciting, into real contenders.  He put in a lot of performances that were truly awe-inspiring, making seemingly impossible plays seem almost normal.  His dedication to Chicago was unbelievable; he became a role model for children throughout the city and the state, especially to fellow Chicagoans Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor, who followed his path from the inner city to the NBA.  His impact on the organization, and on the entire game of basketball, cannot be understated- though I hope my hometown team makes out better in this deal, I wish Rose the best in the Big Apple.

 What Happened to the Blackhawks?

Perhaps I should have seen this coming.  Perhaps I should have known that this team’s struggles at the end of the season were indicative that maybe this team just wasn’t as good as people thought they would be.  Perhaps their lack of a real positive vibe, a real “it” factor, should have set off bells and whistles in my head.  But I didn’t- going into the playoffs, I was fully confident that my hometown Chicago Blackhawks, with their drive and talent and experience, would, at the very least, have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in seven years.

Well… so much for that dream. The St. Louis Blues, who have had plenty of off-seasons to wallow in their playoff letdowns while their rivals celebrated success, defeated the ‘Hawks in 7 games, advancing into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2012.  In no way, shape, or form did the Blackhawks lose this series- the Blues played with unmatched grit and determination, and their stars, players like Vladimir Tarasenko and David Backes, stepped up in clutch moments.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s still baffling to see Chicago gone after the first round.  Here are a few reasons that I feel the ‘Hawks will be making early tee times this summer:

 

Lack of defensive depth

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman did a phenomenal job of retooling the Blackhawks’ forward lines with a couple of shrewd mid-season trades.  Richard Panik, who played unbelievable on the top line next to Jonathan Toews, was acquired in January for a trade that sent the underachieving Jeremy Morin to Toronto.  Former ‘Hawk Andrew Ladd was brought back to Chicago in a deal that sent a first-round pick and the disappointing Marko Dano to Winnipeg.  Dale Weise, who scored the go-ahead goal in the 6th game of the Blues series to allow it to go to a seventh game, and Tomas Fleischmann were acquired for a second round pick and Phillip Danault.  However, as in recent years, Bowman wasn’t able to help the team improve its defensive depth.  Last year, this didn’t come back to haunt the team, as Johnny Oduya performed reasonably enough to help the trio of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson lead the way to a Stanley Cup.  This year, however, there were some issues with the top 3.  Keith was suspended for the first game of the series.  Seabrook made a decent amount of costly turnovers.  Hjalmarsson was hobbled by the crazy number of shots he blocked.  In past championship seasons, if these three were struggling, guys like Oduya, Michal Rozsival, or Nick Leddy stepped up their game.  The guys on this year’s team, however, just weren’t up to the task- Rozsival struggled, and the alternatives to the gritty veteran were the inexperienced Trevor van Riemsdyk, the offensively adept but defensively shaky David Rundblad, and the mistake-prone Erik Gustafsson.  Each of them had their moments- a puck that went off of TVR’s skate won Game 1 for the Blues, Rundblad wasn’t hitting on his passes, and Gustafsson committed a turnover that led to Troy Brouwer’s series-clinching goal.  While offense is certainly important, it’s pretty clear that upgrading at the blue line- finding a top-4 defenseman- will be key to Bowman’s offseason plans.

 

Exhaustion

It seemed that, at times, the Blues simply wanted it a lot more than the Blackhawks did.  I really don’t think that was the case- Jonathan Toews leads a core of players that, despite all their recent success, is still hungry for victory- but I think that Chicago just simply didn’t have the legs that their opponents did. In the past seven post-seasons, dating back to the first of the Blackhawks’ most recent Stanley Cups, Chicago has played 22, 7, 6, 23, 19, 23, and 7 games in the playoffs, totaling 107 games.  Many of those games finished in overtime, and after the first Cup win, many of those games were especially grueling, since everyone had bulls-eyes on their backs.  The Blues, in the same time period, have played 0, 0, 9, 6, 6, 6, and 7* games in the playoffs, which comes out to 33 games.  Of course, there were fresh legs that cycled into the Blackhawks’ rotation, such as Artemi Panarin, and more grizzled players that came to St. Louis, such as Troy Brouwer, but as a whole, Chicago was much more worn down, and it really showed- the Blues were livelier whenever they needed to be.  Hopefully, having an early start the summer will help the ‘Hawks recover some of their energy.

 

Not converting (important) chances

There were certain times where both teams absolutely dominated a game- Chicago’s second period in Game 6 is probably the best example of that.  However, based on what I watched, I felt that St. Louis happened to have had more dominant moments.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that the ‘Hawks had outshot the Blues by seven shots per game and outscored them by a total of three goals throughout the series.  Despite this, the Blues managed to win the series.  Some of it can be attributed to Brian Elliott- he played unbelievable throughout the series, and if the Blues make it into the Stanley Cup after eliminating the Blackhawks and the equally-potent Stars, he deserves some major Conn Smythe consideration- but a lot of it comes down to poor execution on Chicago’s part.  That Andrew Shaw was the team’s leading goal scorer was very telling- Toews was nowhere near the offensive force he usually is, being stonewalled by Elliott on a couple of 1-on-1 opportunities.  Patrick Kane only had one goal, and his shooting seemed to be a little off.  Panarin struggled to find a rhythm.  Ladd hit the pipes as many times as he hit the back of the net.  It also seemed like Chicago’s big guns couldn’t step up when they needed to, as opposed to the vets from St. Louis, like Backes and Brouwer, who won the first and last games of this series with some truly remarkable plays.

 

Special teams

Chicago had an interesting reversal of strengths when it came to man-advantage situations this season.  In past years, the team’s power play units had struggled while their penalty kill units excelled.  This year, it was the complete opposite, and that was especially evident in the playoffs- out of all the teams that played in the first round, the ‘Hawks had the third best power play percentage and the third worst penalty kill percentage.  That is not necessarily a problem in and of itself- the San Jose Sharks had similar stats to the Blackhawks, and they managed to completely dominate the Los Angeles Kings.  The problem is how the team managed to accumulate the stats that they did.  A couple of the power play goals that the team converted were in situations that didn’t exactly make a difference in the game- Shaw’s strike when the team was dominating Game 6 is a perfect example of that.  Also, the team’s poor penalty kill played a major impact in the result of the game- Jaden Schwartz scored the game-winning goal in Game 3 while his team was on the power play, and the two goals that St. Louis scored on the power play in Game 2 are the difference between a Blues win and a Blackhawks win.  As the Sharks have shown, you can be successful while having a good PP and bad PK, but the Blackhawks need to convert, or prevent conversion, in the most crucial situations more often.

 

So now what?

It’s obvious that Mr. Bowman has some work to do.  There are a couple of people that I expect to see back- Shaw, who seems to be a top priority for the team, Fleischmann, who should be cheap, and Panik, who played exceptionally well in the playoffs- but even after retaining those players, and some other more minor pieces, the roster will still have some holes.  Assuming my math is right, I anticipate the team having about $2 or 3 million in cap space after its re-signings (and guys, I’m obviously being optimistic by putting Ladd in there, but a boy can dream, right?).  I feel that they should dedicate about it to signing a 4th defenseman- a guy like Roman Polak or Kevan Miller- and if re-signing Ladd doesn’t work out, spending about $2 million on a third-line forward Lee Stempniak or Dominic Moore while also signing a defenseman should be the team’s priority.  Of course, there’s always a chance that Stan the Man has some tricks up his sleeve.  Maybe he is able to convince some skilled veteran looking for a Cup to take significantly less money to come to Chicago, like he did with Brad Richards, or find a team to take on some, or all, of Bryan Bickell’s obscene salary.  Assuming that he doesn’t, though, here’s what I’d like to think that the team’s rotation could look like next year.

 

Panik-Toews-Teravainen

Panarin-Anisimov-Kane

Ladd-Desjardins-Hossa

Fleischmann-Kruger-Rasumussen

 

Keith-Hjalmarsson

Seabrook-Miller

van Riemsdyk-Rundblad

 

Crawford-Darling

 

Extras: McNeil, Motte, Mashinter, Pokka, Gustafsson

 

 

 

 

2016 NFL Free Agency Review

Yesterday marked one month since the beginning of the 2016 free agency period for the National Football League.  While the debate over whether building through the draft or free agency is the better move, teams across the country dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on players that they hope will make their teams better in the coming seasons.  Whether the signings pan out or not, of course, remains to be seen; here, I attempt to bring some semblance of organization to a month filled with transactions and unexpected drama while analyzing some of the most impactful moves so far this off-season.

 

 

Big Signings

Malik Jackson to Jaguars- 6 years, $90 million

Brock Osweiler to Texans- 4 years, $72 million

Two of the three most expensive of this year’s free agent signings are former Denver Broncos.  The first, Jackson, is a true three-down defensive tackle that is capable of providing an effective pass rush while staying solid against the run.  There are some minor worries about his motivation, considering that he’s admitted that his decision to leave the defending champs for the lowly Jags was entirely due to money, and also about his consistency- the most amount of snaps per game he played before last season was 55%- but if the Tennessee grad lives up to his potential, Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell couldn’t have picked a better player to spend a lot of his cap space on.

The second of the two ex-champs, Brock Osweiler, was a surprise defection from the champions- he was slated to be the full-time starter after the retirement of the legendary Peyton Manning.  However, perhaps slighted by the team’s decision to bench him in favor of the aging Manning once the postseason started, Osweiler moved on to a new challenge in Houston.  The pressure on head coach Bill O’Brien to get him to produce will be heavy, considering the price tag, and I think that it will be money well spent- Osweiler is a freak athlete with a strong arm, and with great weapons like Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins at his disposal, I expect the QB to develop into the greatest gunslinger in the Texans’ brief history.

 

Oliver Vernon to Giants- 5 years, $85 million

Janoris Jenkins to Giants- 5 years, $62.5 million

This was the first off-season in recent memory that the Giants had a lot of cap room to play around with, and they certainly filled it up fast by attempting to address their porous defense, which finished last in the league in yards allowed last season.  To help their pass rush, they took Vernon from Miami with a contract that has more guaranteed money than JJ Watt’s.  Spending a lot on the former Dolphin wasn’t wrong, because he is one of the game’s most consistent pass rushers, and at 25, he has yet to enter the prime of his career, so he is due to improve on his 7-sacks-a-year average.  However, to make a guy that may turn out to be a player that’s on the field in mostly passing situations one of the highest paid defensive lineman in the league seems a bit excessive.  I don’t doubt that Vernon will produce, but I can’t see him providing as much as his contract warrants he should.

Sadly for New York, I think that their other major signing, Jenkins, will give the team another defender that won’t live up to the expectations brought on by his high salary.  The former Rams cornerback is a playmaker, no doubt- since being drafted in 2012, his 34 passes defended is good for 7th most in the league, and his 10 interceptions ranked 12th– but his aggressiveness has also left him prone to big plays, something the G-Men were all too familiar with last season.  Putting him opposite another aggressive corner in Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie does not serve to highlight Jenkins’ strengths, and will he could help improve the Giants’ secondary, he’s just as likely to leave them just as bad as last year.

 

Kelechi Osemele to Raiders- 5 years, $58.5 million

Russell Okung to Broncos- 5 years, $53 million

Often unheralded in the national media, offensive lineman got in on the spending fest this off-season, too.  The OL that got the most money was Osemele, who left Baltimore for Oakland to get a deal that will see him receive an average salary of just less than $10 million a year.  I think this is a brilliant signing for the Raiders- Osemele was overshadowed by his All-Pro teammate, left guard Marshall Yanda, but the youngster was arguably the Ravens’ best offensive lineman last season.  He gave up only one sack at left guard before finishing the final four games of the season with a seamless transition to left tackle.  This versatility, combined with the 26 year-old’s immense strength and strong run blocking ability, make him, in my opinion, one of the best acquisitions of this off-season.

When I first saw the Russell Okung signing, I thought it made little sense at first- Okung was a very solid left tackle for his old employers, the Seattle Seahawks, but it seemed as if his ability had waned in recent years, and that some of that waning could be attributed to the injuries that the former Oklahoma State star has suffered with recently.  He is definitely better than the man he was slated to replace, Ryan Clady, but with Clady and his $9.5 million salary still on the books, I just didn’t think signing Okung was necessary, especially considering all the free agents that Denver could have put money towards.  However, with Clady now a New York Jet, Okung looks like a solid pickup for the defending champs- for slightly more money than they would have paid Clady, they’ll get far better production.

 

Damon Harrison to Giants- 5 years, $46.25 million

Kelvin Beachum to Jaguars- 5 years, $45 million

These two are, perhaps, the most intriguing signings of the 2016 off-season.  The first of them, Harrison, is leaving the Jets for the Giants in a deal that is sure to thrill the former undrafted free agent.  Since becoming a starter back in 2013, Harrison has been one of the best defensive tackles in the business, picking up 72 tackles and an All-Pro selection by Pro Football Focus.  The problem with Harrison is that at 350 pounds, he is only a two-down player, and a base salary of $9.25 million is a little steep for someone in his position.  Unlike some experts, though, I feel like Harrison’s impact to help improve the Giants’ 24th ranked defense will help make his high salary extremely worth it; the Jets will regret letting him go to their very close rivals.

Beachum, meanwhile, got paid a ton of money by the Jaguars and might not even be guaranteed a starting spot along their o-line.  The incumbent starter at left tackle, former first round pick Luke Joeckel, has struggled, and Beachum was brought in, effectively, to give him competition for the spot.  The way his contract is structured- Beachum will get paid a base salary of $4.5 million in his first year before a sharp increase in years 2 through 5- is ideal for the Jags, but his signing is puzzling at best and an extremely high risk at worst.  If Joeckel retains his spot, the Jaguars spent $4.5 million on a lineman that will barely play.  If Beachum wins the job but doesn’t play well, they might be forced to move on from both him and Joeckel, who will surely be offended at being benched.  If Beachum wins the job and plays well, the team will essentially have to own up to the fact that they messed up by picking Joeckel so early in the draft.

 

Other Big Signings:

Alex Mack to Falcons- 5 years, $45 million

Brandon Brooks to Eagles- 5 years, $40 million

Sean Smith to Raiders- 4 years, $38 million

Bruce Irvin to Raiders- 4 years, $37 million

Marvin Jones to Lions- 4 years, $40 million

Coby Fleener to Saints- 3 years, $36 million

 

 

Underrated Signings

Eric Weddle to Ravens- 4 years, $26 million

I’m a huge fan of Weddle’s- his presence upped the Chargers from a below average defense to an average one, and even though he’s 31, his performance the last couple of seasons has shown that he certainly has a lot left in the tank.  Weddle is a strong tackler and a big playmaker that will provide the Ravens with a steady safety for the first time since Ed Reed’s departure, and he will certainly help bolster the team’s ranking in points allowed per game (24th last season).

 

Robert Ayers to Buccaneers- 3 years, $19.5 million

A former first-round draft pick out of the University of Tennessee, Ayers is definitely not a star, and at 30 years old, he probably never will be.  But the former Giant has been steadily improving every facet of his game as he’s gotten older- he became a sturdy presence against the run with the team that drafted him, Denver, and had a career-high 9.5 sacks in New York last season despite playing in only 12 games.  He is also very versatile, having played defensive end, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker at points during his career.  That the Buccaneers were able to get him on a relatively short contract, for less than $7 million a year, is a real coup.

 

Evan Mathis to Cardinals- 1 year, $4.01 million

Mathis’s showings in Denver made him appear as if he was nowhere near the dominant force that he was during his prime years in Philadelphia, but that can be accounted for- Mathis signed with Denver fairly late (August 25) and so had limited time to adjust to the scheme he was asked to play while struggling with aches and pains throughout the year.  On track to being 100% in training camp after off-season ankle surgery, the former All-Pro will give the Cardinals a stud opposite Mike Iupati at left guard for a salary that is only slightly higher than what he made last season.

 

Jared Cook to Packers- 1 year, $2.75 million

Cook has definitely not been the most durable guy in the world, and hasn’t put up the best stats considering his status as one of the most athletic tight ends in the league.  However, the former Ram is now healthy, and is surely over the moon at the chance to play with an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. I think that Cook will become one of the Packer star’s top targets, just as Jermichael Finley was in his prime, and fulfill the potential that the Rams had hoped he could provide.

 

 

Overrated Signings:

Mohamed Sanu to Falcons- 5 years, $32.5 million

I actually really like Sanu- he’s very fast and very versatile, and before this season, I felt that he should be the number two guy in Cincy behind AJ Green.  However, I think that paying almost $6.5 million for a guy that isn’t among the best #2 options in the league is a little bit steep, especially when a guy like Rishard Matthews, a player whose talent I see as similar to Sanu’s, is making $5 million a year.

 

Chris Ivory to Jaguars- 5 years, $32 million

Last year, the Jags drafted Alabama running back TJ Yeldon, who averaged 4.1 yards per carry beyond an offensive line that didn’t exactly set the world on fire, showing that Yeldon is both an explosive and powerful back.  The Jacksonville management, however, obviously doesn’t agree with that, and decided to spend over $6 million on Ivory.  The former Jet is a good back, but he’s expensive for a running back in an age of passing and will stunt the young Yeldon’s growth.

 

Travis Benjamin to Chargers- 4 years, $24 million

Yet another case of a team overpaying for a speedy receiver that doesn’t deserve his salary; Benjamin had a fantastic year in Cleveland, playing with below average quarterbacks while posting a 996/5 line in a contract year.  The problem with Benjamin is that while he has shown some great big play ability, he hasn’t been very consistent, and his performance faded down the stretch.  Benjamin is good, but he’s not $6 million a year good.

 

Casey Heyward to Chargers- 3 years, $15.3 million

I don’t think that this deal is as bad as the other ones listed here, but it’s still a questionable one.  As a Bears fan, I got to see my fair share of Heyward in a Packers jersey, and he didn’t impress me all that much, especially for a guy that was so highly touted coming out of college.  San Diego also paid Heyward more than the guy who he is effectively replacing, Patrick Robinson, who is, in my opinion, a better and more productive corner than the former Green Bay man.

 

 

Key Re-Signings:

Kirk Cousins, Redskins- 1 year, $19.95 million (franchise tag)

It took a while for the ‘Skins to decide between Robert Griffin III and Cousins as to which quarterback would be made the fact of the franchise, and it seems that their patience with the former Michigan State star has finally paid off.  After a rocky start to the year, Cousins led his team into the playoffs with a phenomenal season, and he figures to be the long term answer at QB the team has been after for a long, long time.

 

Von Miller, Broncos- 1 year, $14.1million (franchise tag)

Miller confirmed his status as one of the league’s elite defensive players in the Super Bowl, finishing with six tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, and one MVP award.  With Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler off to new pastures, the Broncos will be more of a defense-oriented team than ever before, and having Miller back in the fold ensures that they will still be a force to be reckoned with next season.

 

Alshon Jeffery, Bears- 1 year, $14.6 million (franchise tag)

The first pick in the 2012 draft for the Bears, former Boise State star Shea McClellin, didn’t turn out so hot- he struggled to find a position in Chicago before departing to New England this off-season.  Their second round pick, Jeffery, is a much different story- the former South Carolina receiver has developed into one of the league’s best pass catchers and is, by far, the team’s most talented player.  Keeping him in Chicago gives Jay Cutler a go-to weapon this upcoming season, and hopefully for many more to come.

 

Eric Berry, Chiefs- 1 year, $10.81 million (franchise tag)

Berry is a truly phenomenal story- he was one of the league’s top safeties before being diagnosed with leukemia, and once he beat the cancer, he returned to become…  one of the league’s top safeties.  His determination, energy, and leadership are unparalleled, and the Chiefs are lucky to be blessed with such an amazing player and an amazing man.

 

Doug Martin, Buccaneers- 5 years, $35.75 million

Signing Martin to a big deal was seemingly out of the question before this season started, when the Bucs declined the fifth-year option on the running back’s rookie deal.  However, with the pressure, and spotlight, on Jameis Winston instead of Martin, the former Boise State stud played in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year, picking up 1,402 yards on the ground to go along with his 7 total touchdowns.  Making sure he stayed in Tampa ensured that the Bucs will have a balanced attack as long as he and Winston stay in the pewter and red.

 

 

Best Unsigned Players:

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB (Teams in play: Jets, Broncos, 49ers)

It’s expected the Fitzpatrick will re-sign with the Jets- he and receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have a great relationship, and both parties seem willing to bend a little to get a deal done.  However, considering how long the two sides have been debating the terms of a contract, there’s always a chance that a team searching for a QB, like Denver, or a dark horse team looking for competition, like San Francisco, gets in on the sweepstakes for the Harvard grad.

 

Leon Hall, CB (Teams in play: Bengals, Titans, Jaguars)

Hall was once an All-Pro cornerback, but the 31 year-old former first-round pick no longer has the pace to deal with the league’s top wideouts.  However, his performances last year show that he still has some gas left in his tank, and his veteran savvy would be valuable for any young secondary.  There’s an off chance that he returns to Cincinnati, but I expect him to eventually sign with either Jacksonville or Tennessee, up-and-coming teams that have (seemingly) solid offenses with inexperienced defenses.

 

Greg Hardy, DE (Teams in play: Unknown)

Hardy is sure to generate at least a little bit of interest- he is a true physical specimen that showed that even when the world is against him, he can still be a fearsome pass rusher.  However, Hardy’s history off the field, paired with recent comments that he made to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, have, rightfully, turned many teams off.  It’ll be interesting to see how his market changes throughout the spring and summer months.

2016 MLB Preview

One of the most amazing things about professional baseball is its incredible parity.  In other sports, you can count on the same teams rising to the top virtually every year- the Spurs and whatever team LeBron plays for in basketball and the Packers and Patriots in the NFL- but that isn’t the case with baseball.  Last year’s World Series participants, the Royals and Mets, were teams that were branded as perennial strugglers as recent as three years ago; this year, they go into the season among the favorites.  The Red Sox missed the playoffs, something seemingly unacceptable for a team that has one of the largest payrolls in the game.  Both of those facts, and many others, make it plainly obvious that baseball is really, really hard to predict.  You never really know which teams will show up and be contenders and which ones will be pretenders.  This is my best shot at predicting the upcoming 2016 season:

 

NL

NL West

Giants (#3)

Diamondbacks

Dodgers

Padres

Rockies

The top three teams in this division all have legitimate shots at winning the division and making a run at a World Series title, and a good reason for that is each team’s pitching- the Giants will be spearheaded by their pitching trio of Madison Bumgarner and new signees Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, the D-Backs by major acquisitions Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller, and the Dodgers by ace lefty Clayton Kershaw and the phenomenal bullpen headlined by Kenley Jansen.  Each staff is pretty equal talent-wise, so the difference, I think, will come from the lineup.  The Giants, who have Buster Posey, Denard Span, and Hunter Pence to lean on, seem to have a more balanced rivals, and I feel that they’ll sneak into the playoffs as the division winner with the worst record in the NL.  The bottom two teams… well, there just aren’t a lot to them.  The Padres have James Shields and Matt Kemp, and while both are talented players, neither of them, nor anybody else in San Diego, are consistent enough to warrant putting them higher in the division.  The Rockies can boast of their two bona-fide stars, Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez, but not much else- their pitching staff is nothing to write home about, especially in the thin air of Colorado, and that will make them one of the worst teams in the whole league despite the efforts of their stars.

 

NL Central

Cubs (#1)

Cardinals (#1 WC)

Pirates

Brewers

Reds

The Cubs have gotten a lot of publicity this offseason, and it has certainly been warranted- Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein filled the teams holes (2nd base, outfielder, 3rd starter, long reliever) about as perfectly as they could have, poaching Jason Heyward and John Lackey from their rivals down in St. Louis and making them the team to beat in this division.  However, despite the losses of two important players, you can’t count the Cards out- they performed unbelievably well last season, and that was without righty Adam Wainwright available to front the rotation.  His return, and the addition of Mike Leake, will allow the Cards to grab the first wild card spot with relative ease.  I feel bad leaving the Pirates out of the playoffs, because Andrew McCutchen is phenomenal and Francisco Liriano has been wowing me since he was fanning countless White Sox as a member of the Twins, but I just don’t think that the rest of their lineup is good enough to carry them to the playoffs.  At the bottom, both the Brewers and the Reds have lineups that feature some good players- Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Bruan for Milwaukee, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce for Cincy- but both teams’ pitching staffs are not that good, Cincinnati’s especially so.  They’ll both land top-ten picks in the 2017 draft.

 

NL East

Mets (#2)

Nationals (#2 WC)

Marlins

Braves

Phillies

The Mets were somewhat of a surprise last year, but they won’t be creeping up on anybody this year- with a new middle infield featuring Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera, plus full years from Yoenis Cespedes and Matt Harvey, they might be even better on paper than they were during last year’s World Series run.  That’s not to say that Washington won’t try to make things interesting again, though- with veteran manager Dusty Baker at the helm and megastar Bryce Harper leading the way, the Nats will force their way into the playoffs, where they should have been last season.  If everything goes right for Miami, there’s a chance that Don Mattingly and co. can sneak their way into a wild card spot, but the back end of the Marlins’ rotation just doesn’t do it for me, and I think they’ll start to fade right before the trading deadline.  As for the Braves and Phillies, Atlanta have two solid pieces to build around in Freddie Freeman and Julio Tehran, while the Phils are looking to rebuild with prospects acquired through trades and the draft.  That’s really all there is to say- these two team will be whipping posts for the division’s elite.

 

AL

AL West

Astros (#3)

Rangers (#2 WC)

Mariners

Angels

Athletics

This division always manages to confound me- the Astros, who were perennial doormats for years, weren’t supposed to do much last year, and the Mariners, with their addition of Nelson Cruz, were.  Now, the ‘Stros, led by their young core of Dallas Keuchel, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, look to be legit playoff contenders for years to come.  Coming in behind them will be the Rangers, who will offset the fact that Yu Darvish is on the DL to start the season by getting a full season from Cole Hamels, which will allow Texas to make the playoffs as a wild card team for the second straight season.  The Mariners have some extremely talented players- Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and the previously mentioned Cruz are just a few, but as a whole, the team lacks consistency, and the back end of their rotation isn’t very good.  They’ll be in the race for a wild card spot for a while, but just don’t have enough to get over the hump.  The Angels have the lineup of a playoff team, but their pitching staff beyond Garrett Richards just doesn’t do it for me- I think they’ll struggle to get outs, and therefore struggle to make the final 10.  Oakland has an odd team- if everybody could exceed their potential, they could make some noise in the playoff race, but beyond Sonny Gray, it just doesn’t seem like anyone is capable of doing that.  The A’s will continue to rebuild and snag a top-5 pick.

 

AL Central

Royals (#2)

Tigers (#1 WC)

White Sox

Indians

Twins

I think that this is the toughest division in baseball- it is one of two divisions, along with the AL East, in which every team has a decent shot at the playoffs, and there’s no one team that’s enormously better than another.  The defending champs managed to keep an important piece of their core by re-signing Alex Gordon and have an extremely deep pitching staff that will allow them to pull away from the rest of the pack.  The back end of Detroit’s rotation is a little bit unstable, but owner Mike Illitch spent some major dollars to acquire a great pitcher in Jordan Zimmermann and a powerful outfielder in Justin Upton that should help Detroit recover from last season’s abominable season.  My beloved White Sox are good enough to be in the thick of the playoff race, I just don’t think that they’ll get enough from their outfield offensively, and I’m worried that the drop-off that the rotation suffered last year is a sign that maybe it doesn’t quite have the balance that it should, so I think they’ll miss out (for more on the Sox, please click here).  I picked the Indians to win the division last year, and think that their top three pitchers are the best trio in the division, but just can’t see them getting enough production from their lineup to get them into the playoff conversation.  The Twins had a good record last year, but many stats showed that they got very, very lucky, very, very often.  They have some good players, but no real boppers in their lineup, and their pitching staff just doesn’t impress me- I think they’ll fall back to earth this season.

 

AL East

Blue Jays (#1)

Red Sox

Rays

Orioles

Yankees

Losing David Price to a division rival certainly won’t help the Blue Jays, but full seasons of Marcus Stroman and Troy Tulowitzki definitely will.  The back end of the rotation makes me a little bit nervous, but I think that the team has a lineup that is just so unbelievably loaded that it can be made up for easily; so easily, in fact, that I think they’ll be the AL’s #1 seed.  Price moving to Boston was a big signing for the organization, but I feel that the performance of last year’s rotation, sans Eduardo Rodriguez, was closer to being the norm than it was an aberration, and that the offense relies just a tad too much on a 40 year-old David Ortiz to be considered a playoff team.  Tampa Bay seems to have a fantastic rotation and a vastly underrated bullpen, but lineup anchor is in the middle of a slow, steady decline, and there’s really nobody else in the order that really stands out.  The Orioles are going all-in with the signings of Yovani Gallardo and Pedro Alvarez, and while I think that the Orioles will score a lot of runs with their power this season, beyond Gallardo, I’m not all that impressed with any of the Baltimore pitchers, and I think they’ll struggle, just like they did last season.  As for the Yankees, the pitching staff seems to either be inconsistent or in disarray, and I don’t think that many of the aging core they count on to provide offense will have seasons as productive as they did last year; those things will see the Yanks fall from a wild card spot last year to a top-10 pick this year.

 

 

Awards

NL

NL MVP: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks

Even though I don’t though I don’t think that the D-Backs will be making the playoffs this season, I think Goldschmidt will pick up some well-deserved hardware- he’s been arguably the best player not named Mike Trout over the past three seasons, and now that he’ll finally be a member of a contending team, he’ll be recognized for his efforts.

 

NL Cy Young: Madison Bumgarner, Giants

Two starters were signed to take some of the pressure off of MadBum, and I think that’ll do wonders for his stats.  The lanky lefty will have to battle his division rivals, Greinke and Kershaw, for the award, but will ultimately prevail to win his first Cy Young.

 

NL Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager, Dodgers

Seager is heavily favored to win the NL ROY award, and with good reason- the brother of Mariner’s third baseman Kyle Seager is a freak athlete that is good both at the bat and in the field.  Should be an easy victory.

 

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

The St. Louis ace suffered a gruesome injury last spring while running out of the batter’s box, and if he were healthy all season, the Cards might have performed better in the playoffs.  He’s won 20 and 19 games, respectively, his last two full seasons, and I expect him to approach those totals again this season.

 

NL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Cubs

It’s one thing to have unbelievably high expectations, as the Cubs do this season, and another thing to meet them; I feel that Maddon’s wacky yet easygoing personality will be a perfect foil to said expectations and will win him the award over a former Cub skipper, Dusty Baker.

 

NL Best Offseason Acquisition: Zach Greinke, Diamondbacks

Seeing Greinke leave what seemed like a potentially powerful Dodgers team for an underachieving Diamondbacks one seemed baffling at first, but now, I feel the deal is a win-win: Greinke gets the last massive contract of his unbelievable career, and Arizona gets a bona fide ace for many years to come.

 

NL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Ben Zobrist, Cubs

This isn’t to say that Zobrist isn’t a very talented player that fits Joe Maddon’s ideal vision of a player- a patient hitter that is adept in multiple positions- because he is all of those things.  I just feel that paying $56 million for a 35 year-old guy that doesn’t play a premium position is a little much, even for a team as rich as the North Siders.

 

AL

AL MVP: Carlos Correa, Astros

Last year the young shortstop showed that he is capable of carrying a team to the playoffs.  Even though pitchers will now have had a year to figure out his weaknesses, I think that the talented youngster will continue to improve, eventually beating out fellow shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and a resurgent Miguel Cabrera for the MVP.

 

AL Cy Young: Cole Hamels, Rangers

This was a toughie, since guys like Sonny Gray, Chris Sale, and Chris Archer are all studs that might not warrant any conversation in the Cy Young award race.  The transition that the former Phillie made to the Junior Circuit last season was nothing short of amazing, and I think that Hamels will continue to be a top-flight performer in his first full season in Texas.

 

AL Rookie of the Year: Byron Buxton, Twins

Buxton is an absolute animal that has the athletic ability to fit in playing any sport, and his closest competitor for the award, teammate and former Korean League star Byung Ho Park, will take some time to adjust to major league pitching.

 

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Cobb, Rays

Cobb was slated to be the ace of last year’s Rays team before ending up having Tommy John surgery.  With Chris Archer around to take some of the pressure off of the lefty, I think that Cobb bounces back and has a career-year and keeps the Rays in playoff contention through late September.

 

AL Manager of the Year: Brad Ausmus, Tigers

The Tigers were a high-priced flop last season, and that put Ausmus under a lot of fire from many media members.  Even though I don’t think too highly of Detroit’s moves this offseason, I feel that the success of the Tigers, in the face of last year’s disappointing finish, will win Ausmus his plaudits.

 

AL Best Offseason Acquisition: David Price, Red Sox

I feel that Dave Dombrowski overpaid a tad for the star lefty, but he gives the team a true number one, something that their unstable rotation sorely lacked last season.  Price has been nothing if not consistent, and will almost certainly bring that consistency to Boston.

 

AL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Ryan Madson, Athletics

A lot of the big money that was thrown around this off season was distributed by National League teams, and there weren’t any really glaringly bad moves in the AL.  The A’s addition of Madson, though, seems to make very little sense- a budget-conscious, non-contending team handing out $22 million to a 35 year-old reliever is very out of Billy Beane and company’s wheelhouse.

 

 

Playoffs

NL

Wildcard

Cardinals over Nationals

The quality of this game shows how talented the NL’s elite are this year- the traditionally powerful Cards matching up against the Bryce Harper-led Nats.  Adam Wainwright outduels Max Scherzer, and a 3-run Matt Holiday homer pushes St. Louis on.

 

Division Series

Cubs over Cardinals

The Cubs had a fairly easy time with the Cards in last year’s NLDS, which made sense, considering how hot the Cubbies were and how banged up Mike Matheny’s squad was.  Both teams have improved this offseason, and while having a full team at his disposal will certainly help Matheny, I think the Cubs just have too much talent.  They move on.

 

Giants over Mets

Both of these teams have pitching staffs that are good enough to allow them to reach this point.  In a bummer for the Mets, though, the Giants not having to play in the Wild Card game means that Madison Bumgarner can make two starts, and I just don’t think that New York can do enough to overcome him to prevail in this series.  The G-Men move on to keep the even-year theory alive.

 

Championship Series

Cubs over Giants

Watching Jake Arrieta square off against MadBum will be one of the best pitching duels in the past decade of playoff baseball, and while the Giants may be more playoff-tested than the young Cubs, I just think that the Lovable Losers have a more powerful, and more consistent offense then San Fran does.  Chicago moves on.

 

 

AL

Wildcard

Tigers over Rangers

I’m a big Jordan Zimmermann fan- in fact, I predicted that he would win the Cy Young award last season- and even though the Tigers’ righty-heavy lineup will be ideal for Rangers star Yu Darvish to exploit, I think that the former Nationals starter will shut down Texas, and that Detroit’s slugging trio- Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, and JD Martinez- will find a way to power the Tigers to the ALDS.

 

Division Series

Blue Jays over Tigers

The problem for Detroit will be that, after Zimmermann, they don’t really have anybody to count on in their rotation.  Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez are both obviously on the downturn of their careers, and the Mike Pelfrey/Daniel Norris duo won’t intimidate the powerful Blue Jays.  Toronto advances to their second straight ALCS.

 

Royals over Astros

A rematch of last year’s highly entertaining LDS, in which Houston went up 2-1 in the series before losing the next two games, will surely bring some more excitement this year.  Even though Houston has gotten better after adding Doug Fister and Ken Giles, I just feel that the Royals have enough magic left in them to overcome the young ‘Stros.

 

Championship Series

Blue Jays over Royals

As good, and as pesky, as the Royals are, the Jays will want revenge for last year’s ALCS.  While the Jays have lost David Price, I think that the Royals replacing Greg Holland and Ryan Madson with Joakim Soria, Johnny Cueto with Ian Kennedy, and losing Ben Zobrist to free agency are far bigger hurdles to overcome than losing Price.  The Jays will advance after an entertaining series.

 

World Series

Blue Jays over Cubs

Part of me want my hometown Cubs to break their seemingly never-ending World Series drought this year.  The White Sox fan in me wants that drought to extend one more year.  Regardless of whatever I’m feeling, I think that it’s pretty clear that while the Cubs may have the more well-known, and well paid, players, that the Jays are a better team.  This one won’t end in a walk-off, but it will certainly be a dramatic, back-and-forth series that Toronto and Series MVP Jose Bautista take in 6 games.

2016 White Sox Season Preview

Along with the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, the Chicago White Sox were among the busiest teams last off-season, acquiring big Jeff Samardzija in a trade with Oakland, signing Melky Cabrera and David Robertson to big deals, and inking relievers Zach Duke and Dan Jennings.  The moves didn’t help the Sox all that much, as they finished 76-86, missing the playoffs for the 7th consecutive season.  This year, Rick Hahn didn’t make as many major moves, but the ones that he did make seem to have made the team much better, and much more balanced, than they were last year.  Will the team be able to reach its expectations, or will it fall short again?  Here is my outlook for the White Sox’ 2016 season:

 

Outfield:

LF- Melky Cabrera

CF- Austin Jackson

RF- Adam Eaton

Just like last year, the Sox signed a big name player to fill a spot in their outfield.  Of course, the deal that Austin Jackson signed is much shorter than the one that Melky Cabrera got last offseason- the centerfielder, who ended last season on the North Side, got a one-year deal worth only $5 million.  However, he hits for a decent average and is a pretty solid base stealer.  The number one reason why he was brought in, though, is probably because but he provides something that the Pale Hose sorely lacked last year- good defense.  Both Cabrera and former center fielder Adam Eaton were major contributors to a defensive effort that was, by far, the worst in the league last year, and Jackson, a terrific athlete, will track fly balls and line drives far better than Eaton did last year, something that should limit the pressure on the two corner outfielders.

Hopefully, this lessened pressure will allow Eaton and Cabrera to focus on improving with the bat.  In 2014, Eaton’s first year in Chicago, he only played in 123 games, but he played phenomenally, batting .300 and providing a spark as the team’s leadoff hitter.  In 2014, Cabrera played like an all-star, hitting .301 when he was with the Blue Jays.  Last year, though, Eaton started the batted a combined .192 in April and March, and Cabrera had one more hit than he did in 2014 in 19 more games.  Both men picked it up as the season drew to a close, and they’ll need to continue hitting well in order for the team to improve on their league ranking in runs scored (28th, only more than the horrendous Phillies and Braves).

 

Infield:

3B- Todd Frazier

SS- Jimmy Rollins

2B- Brett Lawrie

1B- Jose Abreu

C- Alex Avila

DH- Avisail Garcia

There is a distinct possibility that the left side of the infield could be manned by two veteran newcomers this season.  One of those is Frazier, who was acquired in what might have been the best trade in the offseason.  While he strikes out a decent amount and doesn’t hit for a great average, Frazier is a great clubhouse guy and will slot in nicely behind Jose Abreu as the first legit power threat at third base that the team has had in my lifetime.  On his left should be Rollins, the veteran who struggled with injuries last year in Los Angeles.  The 37-year old doesn’t have as much pop as he did when he was a megastar in Philadelphia, but he did hit 13 homers and had only 9 errors in 134 appearances, something that could only boost the Sox’ abysmal D from last year.  He’ll provide a good stop-gap until Tyler Saladino discovers his bat or Tim Anderson makes the big leagues.

The other major trade that the Sox pulled off this offseason was to acquire Rollins’ double-play partner, Lawrie.  To say that he has been a mercurial presence is an understatement- he was touted as a future superstar in both Toronto and Oakland before being traded away from both teams, but his talent is undeniable.  He could be the x-factor in the team’s run at the playoffs- if he’s able to live up to expectations, he can help carry the team to the postseason; if he struggles to find a place in the clubhouse, the team could be thrown into further disarray than what it’s already in.  The anchor of the infield is obviously Abreu, who struggled a bit last year as pitchers learned his weaknesses yet still managed to knock in 101 RBI’s, and he will be counted on as the focal point of the team’s offense, just as he’s been the last two seasons.

Another newbie, Alex Avila, figures to be the left-handed bat in a platoon at catcher, and with all the right handed starters in the division, figures to see the most playing time.  He has an intimate knowledge of the AL Central, having spent all of his 7-year career as a Detroit Tiger, and while he seems to have lost most of the hitting ability that made him an All Star in 2011, he has a .251/.358/.423 line against righties for his career, which isn’t all that terrible.  The DH this year, now that Adam LaRoche is officially retired, falls to Garcia, who struggled mightily in his first full season in the majors last year.  Now that his expectations are very low and he doesn’t have to worry about wielding a glove very often, he might be able to reach his potential, but until he proves he can figure it out, I see him as one of the team’s biggest liabilities.

 

Bench:

C- Dioner Navarro

2B- Carlos Sanchez

SS- Tyler Saladino

I’ve always thought pretty highly of Navarro since his breakthrough season for Tampa Bay back in 2008.  The tubby backstop has a career average of .270 against left handed hitters, which will do wonders to help the Sox’ poor offensive results from the catcher position last year and isn’t too terrible at hitting righties, in the case that Avila struggles at any point.

Sanchez struggled at the plate last season after being called up to replace fellow youngster Micah Johnson, but kept his job for the rest of the season due to his superior defense.  Knowing how injury-prone Lawrie has been over the past couple years, and how temperamental he has been in a couple of instances, having Sanchez on the roster is insurance is probably in the team’s best interest.

Saladino and Rollins are currently in a battle for the shortstop position that I think the vet will pull out.  However, with the former Phillie’s age and production being possible question marks, I think that keeping Saladino with the big club is the right move, as he impressed in his limited action last season.

 

Rotation:

Chris Sale- LHP

Jose Quintana- LHP

Carlos Rodon- LHP

Mat Latos- RHP

Erik Johnson- RHP

Basically the entire team fell below expectations last season, and the pitching staff was no exception.  Even the normally infallible Chris Sale saw his ERA balloon to 3.41 last season.  However, it’s expected that the lanky lefty will bounce back with a better defense backing him up on the field and more stability in the rotation behind him.  Jose Quintana will move up to the number two role, while Carlos Rodon, perhaps the team’s best hurler last season, will fill the number three spot.  These two lefties, who have styles that are drastically different from Sale’s, seemingly give Robin Ventura a three pitchers that no team would want to face.

The back of the rotation, however, generates nearly as many questions and doubts as it did last year.  Latos figures to be the #4 starter, and he has the potential to be a #2 guy, but his temper and weight are both very hard to predict, and he has struggled since being signed away from Cincinnati last season.  I would love to see Erik Johnson, last year’s International League Pitcher of the Year, fill the number 5 spot in the rotation (it won’t happen, but a boy can dream), because I think he has the potential to be special.  However, he has limited experience, and had a couple of up-and-down outings in his few major league appearances.  Even though these guys are certainly better than last year’s options, they might be just as inconsistent.

 

Bullpen:

John Danks- LHP

Zach Putnam- RHP

Zach Duke- LHP

Matt Albers- RHP

Dan Jennings- LHP

Nate Jones- RHP

Jake Petricka- RHP

David Robinson- RHP (closer)

The ‘pen was not the greatest last year, but were far better and far more consistent than they were back in 2014, having accumulated 3.1 Wins Above Replacement as a unit, and with all of the main guys returning, they figure to do about as well this year.  Obviously, a guy as expensive as Danks isn’t going to see himself in the bullpen at all- he’ll either be starting or designated for assignment- but I feel that, at this point in his career, the lefty is better suited to be a spot starter and long reliever than he is to be a guy that gets the ball every fifth day.

Staying with the lefties, both Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, who were signed last offseason, saw their ERA’s spike sharply last year, but they are still among the best specialists in the game, and figure to have better seasons with a better defense and more stable rotation.

When it comes to righties, the main guy is obviously the closer, Robertson, who saved 34 games last year and gave Sox fans a guy they could trust at the end of games for the first time since Bobby Jenks (!!!) was in his prime.  The rest of the bunch, while nowhere near as heralded, were pretty good last year, too- Putnam struck out a career-high 64 batters, while Albers, Jones and Petricka finished with ERA’s of 1.21, 3.32, and 3.63, respectively.  It’ll be important for them to maintain their consistency in order for them to have a shot at the playoffs.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

UT- Leury Garcia

OF- JB Shuck

Scott Carroll- RHP

Leury Garcia doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a utility player, but he is capable of playing in both the infield and the outfield, and showed that he is a very capable backup while filling in for Eaton when he was injured back in 2013.  I think he’ll see the big club if either Rollins or Saladino struggle to get going.

Shuck impressed in limited action last season, finishing the season with an acceptable OPS of .689.  The signing of Jackson knocked him out of a roster spot- keeping Sanchez in the big leagues to back up a volatile Lawrie is probably in the team’s best interest at this point- but if anything happens to any of the team’s outfielders, Shuck will be the first guy to be called up.

Scotty Carroll, who has bounced up and down between the majors and the minors over the past couple seasons, is a very capable long reliever, as he showed last season, and he could fill in for an injured starter if he was needed.  His age and consistency are a couple of considerable question marks, and that’s why I think he’ll start the year in the minors, but he will be a quick call-up if anything happens to anyone on the staff besides late-inning relievers.

 

 

Top Prospects:

SS- Tim Anderson

OF- Courtney Hawkins

Carson Fulmer- RHP

Anderson, the Sox’ first round pick in 2013, is the prospect that is the most likely to see significant playing time outside of the minors this year.  Even though the team seems to have a need at shortstop, many believe that the speedster won’t see the majors until sometime later this year.  However, whenever he does make the big club, he figures to be a fixture in the middle infield for many years to come.

Hawkins was the team’s first round pick the year before they drafted Anderson.  He has seen a lot of playing time this spring and has occasionally showcased his undeniable athleticism, but he has struggled mightily at the plate in the minors.  He’s capable of making a splash somewhere down the road, but he still has a lot of work to do (something that doesn’t reflect well on the Sox’ drafts before Rick Hahn started having a larger role in baseball operations).

Fulmer, the team’s most recent top pick and its top prospect, has looked certainly looked the part.  He has some iffy mechanics, which messes with his control, but he has some decent speed to his fastball, and his jerky pitching motion didn’t stop him from being dominant in college (nor did it stop Chris Sale, I might add).  The former Vanderbilt ace needs some polishing in the minor leagues, but he could be a late season call-up if he can control his pitches.

 

Possible Surprises:

1B- Adam LaRoche

3B- Matt Davidson

1B/OF- Travis Ishikawa

LaRoche seems very content with his decision to retire, and that could be a good thing for the Sox after all the drama he’s caused (combined with his lack of performance).  However, if he chooses to come back to baseball, the Sox still have his contractual rights, and they could try to eke some at-bats out of him if he and Kenny Williams can patch up their differences.

Davidson was acquired in a deal with the Diamondbacks back in 2013 in exchange for former Sox closer Addison Reed and was thought to be a steal. However, he batted a dismal .199 in AAA in 2014, and despite the team’s struggles at third last year, was never called up to the majors.  He still has the potential to be an everyday player, and has looked pretty good so far this spring, but right now, he’s stuck behind Frazier.  If he continues to prove he isn’t a bust, though, he could soon find his way on to the big league roster as a reserve infielder.

Ishikawa making the roster and having an impact may not be a huge surprise- the retirement of LaRoche left an opening for a backup first baseman, and the veteran, who had his share of important hits during his two playoff runs with the San Francisco Giants, is an able replacement.  The fact that he is even able to be in this position, though, is a surprise, and there is a chance that the Sox decide to go in the direction that I seem them going, which is keeping eight relievers and having Abreu play virtually every day.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

RF   Eaton

LF   Cabrera

1B   Abreu

3B   Frazier

2B   Lawrie

CF   Jackson

C     Avila

DH  Garcia

SS    Rollins

I made a mistake in underestimating the Royals last year- despite losing ace James Shields, KC still dominated the Central division and went on to win the World Series.  I won’t make that mistake again- as much as I like the moves that the Sox made this off-season, I don’t think that, as a club, that they are good enough to topple the defending champs at the top of the division.  I also feel that the Tigers, who added some major firepower on the mound and at the plate with the signings of Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton, will bounce back quickly after missing the playoffs for the first time in 5 years last season by snagging the first wild card spot.  That leaves the Sox in a battle with the Rangers, Angels, Red Sox, Rays, and division-rival Indians for the second spot.  The South Siders will have enough to overcome the Angels and Rays, but the other two teams will be too good for the club to knock off- I just don’t think that the Sox will get enough from their outfield offensively, and I’m worried that the drop-off that the rotation suffered last year is a sign that maybe it doesn’t quite have the balance that it should.  The team will go 83-79 and miss the playoffs, but they won’t be near as big of an embarrassment as they were last season, hopefully a sign of things to come.

 

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

2016 NCAA Tournament Preview

To say that the NCAA men’s basketball regular season was unpredictable might be a drastic understatement.  The top ten teams in the country lost a combined 83 games, and the top four seeds have lost a combined 23 games; both of those are the most in history.  Basically, there hasn’t been one major power that has separated itself from the rest.  Conference tournaments saw many teams that underwhelmed during the regular season crash the Dance, and they come in hungry to continue their unlikely run towards a national championship.  The unpredictability will surely make for a very intriguing tournament- here’s how I think it’ll play out:

 

South Region

First Round

#1 Kansas def. #16 Austin Peay

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

 

#9 Connecticut def. #8 Colorado

Colorado has looked like a team on the verge of breaking through to top-tier contender status for the past few years, and this season was no exception- they have a great post player in senior Josh Scott, and the team as a whole is filled with solid defenders and rebounders.  However, the Pac 12 wasn’t really filled with great teams this year, and there were quite a few games when the Buffalos played down to their competition.  UConn is less talented then the Buffs, but they are riding momentum after their win in the American conference tournament.  Kevin Ollie’s Huskies advance.

 

#5 Maryland def. #12 South Carolina State

I’ve thought that Maryland was the frontrunner for the national championship since Day 1, but the end of the season wasn’t good to the Terrapins, and star recruit Diamond Stone did not exactly live up to expectations.  But Stone on an off day can still be a force to be reckoned with, and the presence of veteran guards Melo Trimble and Rasheed Suliamon will stabilize the team and allow them to fend off an upset bid from SCSU.  Mark Turgeon and co. move on.

 

#4 California def. #13 Hawaii

California is an extremely frustrating team- Cuonzo Martin’s skills at recruiting brought in young athletes that are extremely talented, athletes that could eventually be NBA regulars- but because of their youth and inexperience, they have been inconsistent.  Hawaii is a team that seems like it could be a perfect foil to the Golden Bears- they are a cohesive unit that is good enough on defense to limit their opponents’ scoring ability and athletic enough to keep pace with them- but I think that Cal’s talent will just be too much for them to overcome.

 

#6 Arizona def. #11 Wichita State

This was such a difficult game for me to pick- Ron Baker and Fred Van Fleet form one of the best and most experienced guard tandems in the country, and Coach Gregg Marshall is definitely going to have a plan to slow down the Wildcats.  But Sean Miller’s team are dangerous, especially as a team that feels that its talent warrants a higher seed.  This one will be incredibly entertaining, and I think that Miller’s veterans from past teams, along with freshman stud Allonzo Trier, will do enough to push past the Shockers.

 

#3 Miami (Florida) def. #14 Buffalo

The Bulls did well, making it to the tournament for the second straight season despite the departure of Coach Bobby Hurley.  However, they got a bad matchup in Miami- Jim Larranaga’s team is loaded with top-notch talent from top to bottom, as evidenced by their high finish in the extremely competitive ACC, and I just don’t think that anything that Buffalo could throw at the Hurricanes would slow them down enough to pick up an upset.  Miami wins, with ease.

 

#7 Iowa def. #10 Temple

Iowa’s season virtually mirrored the season that its football team had- both teams started the season on fire, contrary to the expectations that many people had for the teams.  Then, as the season drew to a close, both teams fought with dignity, but seemed to slump from their early season high.  Jared Uthoff and his teammates could have been as high as a two seed, but lost a couple of late season games they should have won, including a Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois.  However, now that they’re out of conference play, where their tram didn’t match up well with many of their opponents, Iowa has a chance to find its groove, and they start their quest to make a run through the tournament with a win over a solid, but slightly less talented Temple team.

 

#2 Villanova def. #15 UNC Asheville

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Villanova- they seem to be a far better regular season team than they are a tournament team.  However, I feel like this year’s team has been relatively consistent throughout the season, and that will make all the difference against a UNC Asheville team that will be ready to try and make the Wildcats’ tourney struggles continue.  Jay Wright’s team breezes into the next round.

 

Second Round

#1 Kansas def. #8 Connecticut

In the last round, Connecticut will have been able to get by Colorado due to some March Magic, but the magic will run out pretty quickly for the Huskies- Kansas is better and deeper at every position, and it isn’t really all that close, either.  The Jayhawks dominate and make their way to the Sweet 16.

 

#5 Maryland def. #4 California

An intriguing battle between two exceedingly talented teams that may have fallen a little short of expectations.  There aren’t many upperclassmen in this matchup, but the two that could have the biggest impact on this game both happen to play for Maryland.  As with the last game, Melo Trimble and Rasheed Suliamon lead their team on to the next round.

 

#6 Arizona def. #3 Miami (Florida)

As I said before, I think that Sean Miller’s team can be dangerous because of their lower seeding- it relieves pressure and allows them to try to utilize their explosiveness.  Miami is an extremely good team, and I think that if they met anyone else in their region in this game I would pick them to advance, but I can’t shake the fact that Miami has never really been deep in the tournament before, and that Miller, and the other Wildcat vets, have.  Arizona in a shootout.

 

#2 Villanova def. #7 Iowa

This is a toughie.  It would have been a close game in favor of the Hawkeyes if they were in-form, because ‘Nova’s tough guards would be able to counteract the interior presence of Jared Uthoff and his gang well enough to keep it close.  However, the Big Ten team ended the season in a relative slump, and Villanova played well enough to warrant consideration as a number one seed.  The Wildcats advance.

 

Sweet 16

#5 Maryland def. #1 Kansas

My loyalty to Maryland really shines bright in this game- the Terps have been relatively consistent all year, and the Jayhawks have been good enough to survive adversity in the Big 12 and use their amazing streak of conference domination as a springboard to the number one overall seed.  However, I think that they’ve only really been tested in one game this season- their triple-overtime victory over rival Oklahoma- and in that game, they only had to worry about containing one offensive weapon.  Maryland has two formidable threats in Stone and Trimble, and they are the two reasons I see Mark Turgeon’s team eliminating the top team.

 

#2 Villanova def. #6 Arizona

Both of these schools will be playing with chips on their shoulders- they have both underachieved relative to the talent that each team has.  While Arizona has the big play ability to keep this game within reach, I think that ‘Nova just has a little bit more talent, and a little bit more grittiness, than ‘Zona does; that will allow them to inch ever closer to a Final Four bid.

 

Elite 8

#5 Maryland def. #2 Villanova

This is where I think the Wildcats’ valiant run to prove their detractors wrong finally ends.  Yes, Villanova has been far more consistent than the Terps this season, but I think that Maryland had to play a tougher, more competitive schedule than Villanova did, so I feel like they are more battle-tested for this game.  I also feel that Stone will be looking to prove he is the real deal on a national stage, and that Trimble and Suliamon will look to end their college careers at the summit.  The collective force of those three players will be enough to get Maryland into the Final Four.

 

 

West Region

First Round

#1 Oregon def. #16 Holy Cross

Bill Carmody’s Crusaders are absolutely on fire- they come into this game with four straight road wins in their conference tournament, including one over former Cinderella Lehigh, and a victory over Southern in Dayton.  Despite that, there’s a reason that they entered the tournament with the third-worst record in the history of the 64-team bracket, and a reason that the Ducks are a number one seed; Oregon advances.

 

#8 Saint Joseph’s def. #9 Cincinnati

The Bearcats make it to the tournament of every year through their hard work on the boards and on defense.  They also have an exceptional point guard in Troy Caupain, who could have single-handedly led Cincy to the American conference championship if it weren’t for the amazing luck that UConn always seems to get come March.  But Phil Martelli’s crew, led by potential prospect DeAndre Bembry, have an extremely efficient offense, and the team has been playing well as of late, defeating VCU in their own conference championship game.  Saint Joe’s moves on.

 

#12 Yale def. #5 Baylor

Both teams thrive off of offensive rebounding- especially Baylor, who are led by star forward Rico Gathers.  Despite Gathers’s talent, and the quality of the talent around him, Scott Drew’s men have shown a tendency to be streaky, and I think that against a team like Yale, who will look to conference rival Harvard’s blueprint for winning a first-round game in the Big Dance, that Baylor won’t be streaking in the right direction.  Justin Sears and co. pull off the upset.

 

#4 Duke def. #13 UNC Wilmington

The Blue Devils have a lot of holes, and teams better than the one Coach K has this year have lost to lower seeds earlier in the tournament.  Of course, the team does have the divisive Grayson Allen and Justice Winslow-lookalike Brandon Ingram, and despite the relative lack of talent compared to Duke teams of the past, this squad does have a lot of fight in it.  UNC Wilmington is a good team and will put up a good fight, but Duke will move on.

 

#6 Texas def. #11 Northern Iowa

Texas has exceeded expectations in their first year under head coach Shaka Smart, and has played similar to the way that Smart’s VCU played in their heyday- extremely fast paced, and extremely streaky.  The Longhorns have defeated both North Carolina and Oklahoma this season, but they also lost to TCU and were defeated in the first round of the Big 12 tournament.  Northern Iowa, who have been tournament darlings since their upset of Kansas, have been very good of late, winning 12 of their last 13 games, with two wins coming against Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State.  However, Texas guard Isaiah Taylor has the potential to allow the Longhorns to break this game open, and I believe that Smart will give him enough motivation to do so.  Texas advances.

 

#3 Texas A&M def. #14 Green Bay

It stings a little to watch Green Bay do so well after the departure of Brian Wardle, who used to star at my high school, but I have to admit that the Phoenix are a very high-octane, and high-scoring, offense.  However, Billy Kennedy’s Aggies, an experienced squad that gave Kentucky a run for their money in the SEC tournament final, are a good defensive team that should be able to at least somewhat harness the prolific Phoenix, and are also a good passing team that should be able to control the tempo and play the game at their own pace.  The Aggies move on for an in-state matchup.

 

#10 Virginia Commonwealth def. #7 Oregon State

Both teams have two extraordinary players- VCU’s Melvin Johnson is a fantastic shooter, and Oregon State’s Gary Payton II is one of the best two-way players in the country.  Both teams also live and die by the three, and because of that, have had somewhat tumultuous seasons.  I think that the Rams’ defense will do just enough, though, to prevent the Beavers from draining enough shots to beat them.  VCU moves on.

 

#2 Oklahoma def. #15 California State-Bakersfield

In a year that many top teams have bounced up and down the rankings like bouncy balls, Oklahoma has been one of the most consistent teams in the country, and its star, Wooden Award favorite Buddy Hield, has been truly unbelievable this season.  This Cal State-Bakersfield team has a lot to be proud of, though Hield’s talent alone will be enough to boost the Sooners to the next round.

 

Second Round

#1 Oregon def. #8 Saint Joseph’s

The Ducks and the Hawks both have extremely efficient offenses, and both teams come into the tournament on a relative hot streak.  It could come down to who can get the most out of their frontcourt, or even who happens to have more overall ability.  I think that Oregon, with versatile big man Chris Boucher, wins the front court, and I feel the Ducks have a greater variety of scoring options than St. Joe’s does.  The Ducks roll on.

 

#4 Duke def. #12 Yale

Even though Yale is a gritty team who has a major strength- rebounding- that is one of Duke’s major weaknesses, I don’t think that the Bulldogs will have an answer for the two Blue Devil stars.  Duke wins a fairly easy one.

 

#3 Texas A&M def. #6 Texas

As well as Shaka Smart has done with the Longhorns, the Aggies could be the cream of the crop coming from the SEC, and I feel that for all the pressure that Texas will try and put on its in-state counterparts, A&M has enough talent, and enough leadership, to deftly maneuver the press.  The Aggies advance.

 

#2 Oklahoma def. #10 Virginia Commonwealth

VCU has used its Havoc defense and exceptional shooting to upset some big-name schools in past tournament runs, and they’ll be looking to do the same against the Sooners.  However, Buddy Hield and his teammates have had a couple of very solid games against West Virginia, a team that, while not as aggressive as the Rams, have far more talent than them.  Oklahoma should be able to ease to victory.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Oregon def. #4 Duke

Duke has played in a lot more competitive games than Oregon has this season, and I feel that they are a lot more scrappy for it.  In order to knock off the Ducks, they’ll have to be-whereas the Blue Devils primarily revolve around two players, there are multiple guys that Dana Altman can count on to step up on any given night.  As tough as Coach K’s team is, I don’t think they have enough in them to contain all of Oregon’s weapons; the Ducks live to quack another day.

 

#2 Oklahoma def. #3 Texas A&M

A battle of former Big 12 foes will make for a very interesting game- they seem to be relatively equal to each other in every facet of the game, from passing to rebounding to transition defense.  The difference in this one, I believe, will be what has carried the Sooners to the heights that they have reached this year- Buddy Hield.  The superstar guard will allow his school to sneak by their rivals to the south and into the Elite Eight.

 

Elite 8

#2 Oklahoma def. #1 Oregon

Both teams are exceptional offensive teams that have multiple players who can be the focal point of their respective game plans.  Oregon has a frontcourt that can stretch the Sooners out a little bit, and Lon Kruger’s crew has a more explosive backcourt that can open up a big lead very quickly.  In the end, I think it will come down to toughness, and I think that the Sooners, who come from the ultra-competitive Big 12, will have more fight in them than the Ducks, which will allow them to prevail in a tightly-contested game.

 

 

East Region

First Round

#1 North Carolina def. #16 Florida Gulf Coast

Florida Gulf Coast managed a couple of giant killings in their last tournament appearances, but the teams that they defeated were nowhere near as solid as the team that Roy Williams is running out this season.  North Carolina wins with ease.

 

#9 Providence def. #8 Southern California

This is a game between teams with contrasting styles- Andy Enfield’s USC, a balanced squad that has six players who average double figures, and Providence, whose success has typically been determined by the type of game that Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil turn out each night.  In tournament play, when gameplay slows down and efficient teams typically take the cake, a team like USC would seem like a straightforward pick; that’s probably why they have a higher seed in this game.  However, in what could be his last game as a Friar, I think Dunn steps up, and that Bentil provides a great foil, allowing Providence to squeak by into the next round.

 

#12 Chattanooga def. #5 Indiana

I love Indiana- I think that Tom Crean is a fantastic coach, and that Yogi Ferrell is one of the three best point guards in the country.  However, I think that Chattanooga, one of the few mid-major teams that won their conference tournament as a number one seed, have enough cohesiveness to limit Ferrell’s effectiveness and prevent his up-and-down teammates from getting going.  The senior won’t go down without a fight, but I think Chattanooga advances.

 

#4 Kentucky def. #13 Stony Brook

Kentucky started the season slow and had a tough time coming together as a unit, but the team found their rhythm as the season went on, culminating in their recent victory in the SEC tournament.  Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray form one of the most dynamic backcourts in the game, and even though this Kentucky team isn’t as loaded as its been in past years, they are still good enough to make a decent run in the tournament.  The Wildcats will move on.

 

#6 Notre Dame def. #11 Michigan

I must admit that I’m a little bit biased towards the Fighting Irish- I’ve been a fan of theirs for as long as I can remember.  However, Mike Brey’s squad has proven that they are capable of a deep run in the tournament- they came thisclose to knocking off a loaded Kentucky squad last season, and have an extremely efficient offense.  North Carolina showed the way to dominate the Irish- defend the perimeter and work from the inside-out on offense- and while Michigan has extremely talented perimeter players, I don’t think that the underrated duo of Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson are strong enough inside to eke out a victory over the Wolverines.

 

#3 West Virginia def. #14 Stephen F. Austin

West Virginia, along with Texas, is a big team that plays with the mentality of a little team.  They play outstanding defense and count on the depth of their team to keep the tempo up all game and wear out opponents.  That means bad news for the Lumberjacks, who might have been hoping for a team that was a little bit more susceptible to a giant-killing.  The Mountaineers will advance easily.

 

#7 Wisconsin def. #10 Pittsburgh

Early on in the year, it looked like both of these teams would struggle all season- Wisconsin under the burden of defending their Big Ten championship, and Pitt with the reality of playing in a conference with as much talent as the SEC.  However, both teams have managed to find their footing, and come into the tournament capable of winning a couple of games.  This match-up will be a tight one, but the sidekick to last year’s Frank Kaminsky show, Nigel Hayes, will carry his Badgers on to the next round.

 

#2 Xavier def. #15 Weber State

Weber State has a couple qualities that could allow them to topple the Musketeers- a star to rally around, Joel Bolomboy, and a lot of grit.  However, Xavier is capable of being tough when it needs to be and explosive when it senses weakness in its opponent.  This game might be closer than some expect, but eventually, I think Xavier will pull this one out.

 

Second Round

#1 North Carolina def. #9 Providence

There’s always a possibility that Kris Dunn puts up 40 points, Ben Bentil turns in a double-double, and the rest of Ed Cooley’s Friars pick up enough of the slack to squeak out a win against the Tar Heels.  That’s the only way that I can really see Providence moving on from this game, and despite my fondness for Dunn, I just can’t see it happening; North Carolina advances.

 

#4 Kentucky def. #12 Chattanooga

Yogi Ferrell is good, but he alone can’t hold a candle to Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray; Chattanooga won’t be able to contain both of the Wildcats’ elite guards, and Kentucky should breeze through to the Sweet 16.

 

#6 Notre Dame def. #3 West Virginia

West Virginia has an absolutely ferocious defense; Notre Dame has one of the country’s most efficient offenses.  West Virginia’s offense is either really good or really bad; Notre Dame’s defense is lackluster at best, but has been good enough to limit some good offensive teams.  So…  something has to give, right?  I think that the Mountaineer defense will try its very hardest to crack veteran guard Demetrius Jackson; if he plays well, the Irish win, and if he plays poor, Bob Huggins and company will win.  I think Jackson rises to the occasion.

 

#2 Xavier def. #7 Wisconsin

Both of these teams were among the top performers as the season came to a close, and are relatively similar in the fact that they don’t really stand out in the front or backcourt.  However, I feel that Xavier has been consistent for longer than the Badgers due to their superior talent, and that talent will propel the Musketeers to the Sweet 16.

 

Sweet 16

#1 North Carolina def. #4 Kentucky

This might be the dream Sweet 16 match-up, a game between two of the biggest powerhouses in men’s basketball history.  Ulis and Murray are superior to what the Tar Heels will run out at guard, but Brice Johnson and North Carolina’s frontcourt is arguably the tops in the country, as well.  I feel that the experience that UNC has in relation to the Wildcats will see Roy Williams’ squad move on to the Elite Eight.

 

#6 Notre Dame def. #2 Xavier

This will be a game between two teams with extremely efficient offenses and extremely inconsistent defenses.  I think that Xavier is slightly better in the paint, but Notre Dame is superior on the perimeter, and has had more experience making forays this deep into the tournament than Xavier’s core has.  This will be an exciting one that I think the Irish will pull out.

 

Elite 8

#1 North Carolina def. #6 Notre Dame

              These two teams have already squared off twice this season.  In their first matchup, back on February 6, the Fighting Irish upset the then-second ranked Tar Heels in South Bend, winning by 4.  In their most recent match-up, in the semifinal of the ACC tournament (on a neutral court, I might add), North Carolina shellacked the Irish, winning by 31, neutralizing the interior presence of Zach Auguste and playing tight perimeter defense to limit the Irish’s shooting effectiveness.  While I expect this game to be a little bit closer than the blowout UNC laid on Notre Dame a week ago, I still expect the Roy Williams’s team to win easily.

 

 

Midwest Region

First Round

#1 Virginia def. #16 Hampton

Hampton might be the best 16 seed in the tournament, but Virginia is a giant killer’s nightmare due to their ability to control possession.  Tony Bennett’s crew wins with ease.

 

#8 Texas Tech def. #9 Butler

Butler hasn’t been as impressive as it was when Gordon Heyward, Shelvin Mack, and Brad Stevens were hanging around campus, but they are still a very formidable team- led by Kelan Martin, the Bulldogs can put the ball in the hoop when they’re on their game; however, they seem to be nothing special on defense.  Texas Tech, which held its own in the always treacherous Big 12 thanks to Coach Tubby Smith’s patented defensive approach, has the ability to cause Butler to lose its rhythm, but aren’t overly talented with the ball.  As is the case in most postseason tournaments, the team with better defense will win out; the Red Raiders will go on.

 

#5 Purdue def. #12 Arkansas- Little Rock

Purdue wasn’t overly flashy this season- and they probably never will be under coach Matt Painter- but the Boilermakers impressed many as the season drew on, and they came into greater national prominence after their run to the final of the Big 10 tournament.  Boilermaker senior AJ Hammons leads a very large, and very strong, frontcourt; while Little Rock is a very good defensive team, and seems to have the toughness required to pull off a giant-killing, Purdue’s size will just be too much to overcome.  The Big Ten team advances.

 

#4 Iowa State def. #13 Iona

Both of these teams are fast paced, transition oriented squads with legit stars- Iona’s AJ English is an absolute baller; his ability to score would cause even the best defenses headaches, and his ability to pass keeps the amount of double teams he sees to a minimum, or else his teammates would be constantly left open for easy buckets.  ISU’s Georges Niang is coming to the conclusion of a career that will see him remembered as one of the best two-way players in the history of Cyclones basketball.  While English may be a slightly better players, Niang’s supporting cast is far superior to English’s, and will allow the Cyclones to grind out a tough win.

 

#6 Seton Hall def. #11 Gonzaga

Seton Hall really came on at the end of the season, winning the Big East tournament and showcasing the shifty star that is Isaiah Whitehead.  Even though Gonzaga has two unbelievable players in Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis and come into the tourney on a little run, the ‘Zags haven’t really been consistent all year, struggling in a West Coast Conference that only had one other true contender.  I feel like they fail to find a rhythm, and the Pirates capitalize on that to pull out a victory.

 

#3 Utah def. #14 Fresno State

The Bulldogs have shown that they can handle some relentless defensive match-ups, and they also have Marvelle Harris, a proven scorer they can turn to if all else fails.  But Fresno hasn’t play a team that was as effective from top to bottom as the Utes have been this season (they played Oregon before the Ducks caught fire), and they haven’t seen a player as talented as Utah bruiser Jakob Poetl.  Utah prevails in a tight one.

 

#7 Dayton def. #10 Syracuse

Both of these teams have underwhelmed this season- Archie Miller’s Flyers struggled as the season drew to a close, and the Orange have hit some weird rough patches throughout the entire season.  While Dayton’s offense isn’t all that great, Syracuse comes close to being a team that lives and dies by the 3, and I think the Flyers are good enough to prevent the ‘Cuse shooters from getting going.  Dayton wins.

 

#2 Michigan State def. #15 Middle Tennessee State

MTSU played VCU tough earlier this season…  And that’s the only thing they really have going in their favor.  They performed very well within their conference tournament and certainly deserve to be here, but Denzel Valentine and the rest of his Spartans are just too big and too fast to handle.  Michigan State wins in a rout.

 

Second Round

#1 Virginia def. #8 Texas Tech

Both teams are capable of playing some real lockdown defense, so I think that this one will be a low scoring affair.  The difference will be Malcolm Brogdon- he is creative enough to find enough cracks in the Red Raider defense to give his team some breathing room here.  The Wahoos advance.

 

#5 Purdue def. #4 Iowa State

The Cyclones are true to their nickname- they play at a fairly fast pace- but that doesn’t translate very well to tournament play, when the game typically slows down.  It also doesn’t translate very well to a game against Purdue, who can easily dictate any game’s tempo with their impressive array of bigs.  Purdue will dominate the paint and walk away with an easy victory.

 

#6 Seton Hall def. #3 Utah

I think that talent wise, these teams are about even, but Utah came into the tournament off a beat down from Pac 12 rivals Oregon while the Hall come in to the tourney after knocking off a good Villanova team in the Big East championship.  The Pirates pull the upset.

 

#2 Michigan State def. #7 Dayton

This one might not be all that close- Michigan State’s patented tough defense is tough to crack, even for good teams, much less a mediocre offense like the one Dayton has, and as good as the Flyers are on the other side of the ball, the Spartans are good enough at passing and shooting to give Archie Miller’s team fits.  Sparty is Sweet.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Virginia def. #5 Purdue

The Boilermakers will be an interesting test for the Wahoos, because Purdue is superior in the paint and has the ability to frustrate any team’s attempt to control possession.  However, I think that Virginia is seasoned enough, and gritty enough, to impose their will on the game and grind out a win over Matt Painter’s team.

 

#2 Michigan State def. #6 Seton Hall

Both of these teams are fairly balanced from top to bottom and come in to the Dance on hot streaks.  The thing that the Spartans have that Seton Hall doesn’t, though, is veteran know-how- Denzel Valentine and co. have been here before, and their experience will be the deciding factor that allows them to topple the Pirates.

 

Elite 8

#2 Michigan State def. #1 Virginia

This is a game that coaches can watch for a clinic on solid defense and possession-oriented basketball.  This was also a match-up that we saw last year, one that the Spartans were able to win because of their superior offensive ability.  I don’t see the result of last year’s game changing- Sparty moves on to the Final Four.

 

 

Final Four

#2 Oklahoma def. #5 Maryland

              Watching Buddy Hield and Melo Trimble go at it will be a dream to watch for any aspiring guard- seeing two guys square off, at the top of their game, on a national platform.  I feel that the Sooners are more consistent and cohesive as a unit than the Terps are, and that will allow them to frustrate Stone and put too much of the burden on the Maryland backcourt.  Oklahoma moves on to the title game.

 

#1 North Carolina def. #2 Michigan State

              This game is sure to be the match-up of the tournament- two balanced teams, starring two fundamentally sound players and coached by two of the game’s legends.  I think that Roy Williams’s squad is better on offense and that Tom Izzo’s crew are stronger on defense; however, I feel like the ACC tournament showed that Carolina can bamboozle teams that play a variety of different defensive systems, and that their defense has largely improved since the season began.  The Tar Heels move on in a thriller.

 

 

National Championship

#1 North Carolina def. #2 Oklahoma

              With all due respect to Maryland and Oklahoma- they are both very talented teams with phenomenal athletes led by exceptional coaches- as soon as I saw the bracket, I knew that North Carolina would meet Michigan State in the Final Four, and that that match-up would be the de facto championship game.  As good as Buddy Hield is, and as underrated as Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard, the Tar Heels have an efficient offense, know how to buckle down defensively when they need to, and have the veteran know-how to get them out of tight spots.  North Carolina wins to give North Carolina another championship under Roy Williams.

Will MLS Ever Be an Elite League?

My first exposure to professional soccer came through the FIFA video game series.  FIFA 2005, to be exact.  At that point in time, I didn’t really know any teams like Manchester United or Real Madrid, much less David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, the English stars that were the headliners for those teams.  After a few months of playing it, I started to pick up on a few things- which leagues had the best teams (England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga are considered to be the best) which teams I liked, which players were faster than others (Samuel Eto’o from Cameroon and Ronaldinho from Brazil), et cetera.  The game developed my love for Arsenal, a team based in London, and its scoring force, the Frenchman Thierry Henry; both of them remain my favorites today.  It also developed my hatred for Tottenham and Chelsea, two other teams based in London, which the video game said were Arsenal’s arch rivals.

Major League Soccer (MLS), the professional league in the United States, was represented in the game, which meant that my hometown team, the Chicago Fire, was available to play with.  However, I very rarely chose to do so (only when I felt like playing with defenseman Denny Clanton, whose brother, Derek, was my trainer for the now-defunct Hinsdale Hawks soccer club), and I never played with any of the other MLS teams.  While so many of the English and Spanish teams were rated 4 or 5 stars, I can’t remember an MLS team that was rated above 3.  The passes seemed less sharp with MLS players, and the speed of the players seemed significantly lower.

Of course, the reason that it seemed as if those things were true is because they were.  The reason the MLS teams had less stars in relation to European teams is because the clubs in Europe were of a far better quality than those in America.  And, in all honesty, it made sense.  MLS was formed fairly recently, in 199().  The English Premier League (considered to be the best league in the world, with the greatest variety of talent), had been in existence in some form since the late 1800’s.  Soccer was not a mainstream sport in the US as football and baseball were; there wasn’t even a thought of formulating a true high class league until the US was awarded the 1994 World Cup, which is why MLS has been existence for such a short time.  In Europe and South America, though, soccer was the top priority, and in some countries, the only priority, when it came to athletics.  The best athletes didn’t dream of playing for the Chicago Bears or the New England Patriots, but rather Sao Paolo FC, FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, or Liverpool FC.

Of course, the very thought of something in America being second best was a travesty to those in charge of MLS.  The league started as a way for Americans to be able to play professionally, and therefore compete with other countries internationally.  However, as time has passed, it has tried to compete with the leagues abroad, and draw in more fans, by competing for more elite players.  Beckham, one of the biggest celebrities in the entire world, signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in January of 2007, which resulted in rule changes that allowed teams to circumvent the low salary cap by signing three Designated Players (DP’s) at an unlimited salary.

Beckham’s signing was supposed to be the catalyst for star foreign players to come to America, in search of more fame and more money.  And, in a sense, it did just that.  Later in 2007, the Columbus Crew brought in Argentinian star Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who won the MLS MVP award, and the championship, in 2008.  In 2010, Henry joined the New York Red Bulls from FC Barcelona.  Other stars, such as American Claudio Reyna, Colombian Juan Pablo Angel, Swede Freddie Ljungberg, and Mexicans Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rafa Marquez, all flooded to MLS.  All of these players were big names and elite players.  But there was just one problem- all of these big name players were over 30.  At 32, Beckham was the youngest of these players at the time of his signing.  While the international profile of MLS was rising, the reputation that it was gaining wasn’t one of an elite league, but of a retirement league, for players looking to make one last hurrah and make one last (huge) paycheck.  This season saw many players over 30 join the league, such as David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, and Didier Drogba, only adding to the idea that the league was for washed up superstars.

There are other problems with MLS, too; it has an allocation order for signing international players, which forces teams to sign players through the league instead of doing it directly, making things more complicated than they need to be.  There are also the issues of expansion and promotion.  The majority of the top soccer leagues in Europe have twenty teams, which is the number that MLS has now.  However, the league has plans to expand to 24 teams by the year 2020.  This increase in teams will stretch the existing talent pool to its limit and make it harder for truly elite teams, and rivalries, to form; these things are what make the elite leagues great- in England, everybody wants to beat Manchester United, and the large talent pool allows even the league’s bottom dwellers to have rivalries amongst one another.  The lack of a promotion system also harms the league; in all elite soccer leagues, if you finish in the bottom 3 of the league, you are moved down to a second-tier league, and the top three from the second tier league move up to the top league.  Without a system of promotion, MLS allows its lesser teams to dwell in mediocrity without fear of demotion to another league, and loss of profits

Of course, the league has made other, more positive developments that have brought it closer and closer to the upper echelon of soccer leagues.  Soccer-specific stadiums have been built for teams throughout the country, allowing soccer teams to sign lucrative stadium and advertising deals, which earns them millions of dollars to filter into their clubs.  The salary cap has risen, to about $3.5 million for roughly 18 players, allowing teams to retain domestic stars and fish for international players while remaining under the cap.  The manager and technical director of the men’s national team, Jurgen Klinsmann, has filtered more money into the country’s youth development programs, which has improved the quality of many players coming through the system of MLS teams; youngsters Clyde Larin and Matt Miazga of Orlando SC and the New York Red Bulls, who have come into their own this year, are prime examples.  Younger players and elite internationals, such as Italian dynamo Sebastian Giovinco, Mexican speedster Giovani dos Santos, Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta, and American stars Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, have all joined MLS within the past year, and with the increased salary cap, more players are bound to join in the near future.

So, the jury is still out on whether or not MLS will ever reach the top-tier status that it wishes to obtain, whether it will always be more of a retirement league, a league that draws in elite players from across the globe, or something in between.  What do you think?

Cubs Season Review

Outfield: A-

The player that most people will remember from this year’s outfield group is rookie Kyle Schwarber, and rightly so- the former Indiana slugger displayed some truly astounding power this season (That homer that landed on top of the scoreboard at Wrigley?  Nuts!).  There were many other contributors, though, to this very solid grade.  Dexter Fowler was a fairly consistent leadoff hitter that stole 20 bases.  While he did struggle with injuries, and had a power output that was lower than many expected it to be, Jorge Soler provided a decent average (.262) and a couple of important base knocks.  Chris Coghlan, who started the year in left field, and Chris Denorfia gave the club a very capable pair of veteran backups, and another relative vet, Matt Szczur, filled in nicely when Fowler was hurt in the middle of the season.  Deadline acquisition Austin Jackson didn’t make too big of a contribution, but did have a couple nice hits, and defensive plays, that helped out the Cubbies.

Infield: A-

The players at the corners of the infield were among the best players, not just on this team, but in the entire league, this season.  Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant lived up to all the hype that surrounded his call-up in April and is almost a shoo-in to win the NL Rookie of the Year after knocking in 99 runs and playing very steady defense at third.  Anthony Rizzo cemented himself as the best all-around first baseman in the league, jacking 31 homers while saving 8 runs with his glove.  The middle infield wasn’t quite as impressive, but were still productive.  Starlin Castro started the season slowly and playing shortstop, but later in the season he moved to second and improved greatly, coming up with a couple of clutch hits.  His replacement at short, Addison Russell, frequently flashed the potential that made him the heralded centerpiece of the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland, and he still has plenty of room to grow.  Reserves Tommy La Stella and Javier Baez did not get a lot of playing time and were somewhat unsteady, but at times showed that they are capable of being good fill-ins for the current starters.  Miguel Montero was underwhelming with his bat for a guy that got paid $12 million this season, batting a dismal .248, but both he and his backup, David Ross, were exceptional with their gloves and provided veteran leadership to a very young team.

Rotation: B-

Jon Lester was brought in to be the ace of the staff for the team this year, but that role ended up falling to the force of nature that is Jake Arrieta.  The 29-year old righty won 22 games and had a miniscule 1.77 ERA this season, and is one of the two frontrunners for the NL Cy Young award.  For his abilities, Lester had a relative off year, considering that his statistics in the NL (the league that typically has pitchers with better ERA’s) were worse than his stats last year playing in the AL, but he should be able to bounce back next year to be one of the best, if not the best, number two pitcher in the game.  The two pitchers behind the big stars, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel, are solid back-of-the-rotation options, and each of them had a couple of impressive outings this season.  But in a league in which extremely deep pitching staffs are virtually a necessity to playoff success, the 3 and 4 guys in the Cub rotation only threw for 180 and 170.1 innings, respectively, and were frequently pulled early in games by manager Joe Maddon.  The two men that got the most starts as the number 5 guy, Travis Wood and Dan Haren, were decent, as far as 5 starters go, but as both men are fly ball pitchers, they both had some trouble with the small dimensions of Wrigley Field.

Bullpen: A-

There was nobody in the Cubs ‘pen that was extraordinary this season, but the grade that they receive is based on the pitchers’ consistency, even while being used many, many times.  The man with the most appearances, Pedro Strop, pitched in 76 (!!!) games this past season, picking up 28 holds and finishing with a respectable 2.91 ERA.  Hector Rondon solidified the closer position for the first time since Carlos Marmol was good (it’s been a while), appearing in 72 games and saving 30 of them.  Outside of those two, there were other people that had a significant effort coming on in late innings for the Cubs.  3rd year man Justin Grimm was a strikeout machine, averaging over 12 K’s per 9 innings, and veteran Jason Motte was relatively impressive coming off of Tommy John surgery.  The two lead lefties, James Russell and Zac Rosscup, were both hit fairly well by the opposition- Russell finished with a 5.29 ERA and Rosscup had a 4.39 ERA- and were fairly inconsistent throughout the year.  On the whole, though, this year’s relievers were extremely consistent.

Coaching: A+

Joe Maddon was brought in from Tampa Bay to provide a veteran baseball mind, with playoff success, to stabilize a very young team with very high hopes, and the Pennsylvania native did just that.  Maddon and his staff mixed and matched their lineups to perfection, used the right pitchers at the right times, and brought nurtured the Cubbies’ young core into manhood very quickly, allowing them to exceed expectations and make it to the NLCS before anybody really expected them to.  A great job by the coaches.

Front Office: A

This season’s success was the result of a master rebuilding job led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.  Patience, fantastic scouting, well-worked trades, and impressive free agent signings all led up to the establishment of this year’s squad.  A great year for the Cubbies’ brain trust.

 

Overall: A-

 

Looking to the Future

It’s fairly obvious what the Cubs are going to go after this offseason- a big name pitcher to work with Arrieta and Lester.  Zach Greinke and David Price are the two big names that the Cubs are rumored to be interested in, and I think Price is the most likely man to come to Chicago, due to his past relationship with Maddon.  There are other, less subtle areas that might need some improvement, though, in order for the Cubs to be successful in the playoffs next year- another lefty bullpen arm, and perhaps a consistent, power-hitting outfielder.  Whatever ends up happening, though, it’s obvious that the team is in good hands with Epstein and Hoyer.

2015 NBA Preview

Last season was an exciting one in the NBA.  The season began with controversy in Los Angeles, moved along with big contributions from rookies, was cut short for many due to catastrophic injuries, and culminated in a championship matchups between a traditional power (a LeBron led team) and a group of up-and-coming superstars (the Warriors).  This season is sure to bring just as much excitement and drama as the last, but how will it shake out?  This is my prediction for the upcoming season:

 

Eastern Conference

Atlantic

Celtics (#5)

Raptors (#7)

Knicks

Nets

76ers

This is, by far, the worst division in basketball, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some decent players here.  The C’s unexpectedly crashed the playoffs in Brad Stevens’s first year and got a good playoff spanking from LeBron James and the Cavaliers, but are in a good position to be even better than last year.  The experience gained by last year’s players, and the additions of David Lee from Golden State and Amir Johnson from rival Toronto, will boost Boston above the Raptors.  I love DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and I think they’re two of the most explosive players in the game.  But they also have a tendency to be fairly streaky, and their supporting cast is fairly flawed- Patrick Patterson isn’t great on offense, DeMarre Carroll has only had one truly good year and hasn’t shown any consistency, and Jonas Valanciunas has hit to fulfill his potential- so I see them finishing towards the bottom half of the playoff places this year.

The bottom half of this division has 3 teams that could be vying for top-10 picks at the end of the year.  Carmelo Anthony will get his points for New York, as always, but the rest of Anthony’s supporting cast is either unproven (Kristaps Porzinigis, Jerian Grant) or very hot-and-cold (Robin Lopez, Aaron Afflalo), and they might take a while to gel.  Their neighbors in Brooklyn, the Nets, also have some talented players in Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, and Thaddeus Young.  But Lopez struggles with consistency and injuries on a yearly basis, Johnson is losing his scoring touch as he ages, and Young is more of a steady sidekick than he is a player than can carry a team on his shoulders.  And in Philadelphia, nobody really knows what’s going on.  They could have a very, very good frontcourt if Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor develop, and that isn’t even considering Joel Embiid.  The rest of the team, though, is…  suspect, to say the very least.


Southeast

Wizards (#3)

Hawks (#4)

Magic (#8)

Heat

Hornets

Picking a winner in this division was fairly easy- Atlanta was fantastic last year, but with the loss of DeMarre Carroll and an expected regression to the mean, I think that Washington will be the top dog.  John Wall and Bradley Beal have transformed into one of the best backcourts in the entire league, and big men Kris Humphries and Marcin Gortat have been fairly good wingmen.  The difference maker for Randy Wittman, though, is that Otto Porter Jr. is finally starting to translate his first-round talent into solid production.  Atlanta will still be a very good team- as a club with Jeff Teague and Mike Budenholzer running the show, and a philosophy that allows them to excel even if a couple of their starters have off days, they will certainly be one of the top teams in the East- but the Wiz will be the team leading the way in this division.

The bottom half of this division has a few interesting teams.  The core in Orlando, highlighted by Victor Oladipo, is very fairly inexperienced, but new coach Scott Skiles is very disciplined and might help the team’s talent finally break through.  The Miami Heat have a two high volume scorers in Goran Dragic and Dwayne Wade that are complimented nicely by Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside, but the team isn’t very good on defense and has an on/off switch when it comes to offensive consistency.  The Hornets, headlined by Kemba Walker, made the playoffs two seasons ago, but haven’t been able to gel as a team since the departure of Josh McRoberts.  Each of these teams has the potential to be in the race for the final playoff spots in the East, but I think that the one that will make the playoffs, and that’s the Magic.  I can’t see the youngsters having their talent go to waste this season under Skiles, and I think they’ll hold off their division rivals to sashay into the playoffs for the first time since Dwight Howard was in town.

 

Central

Cavs (#1)

Bulls (#2)

Bucks (#6)

Pistons

Pacers

Cleveland is unquestionably the class of the Eastern Conference.  Even though Kyrie Irving will start the season out with injury, having LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Iman Shumpert as your core players isn’t too shabby.  The Cavs still need to figure out how to have a more balanced offense, but their talent alone will propel them to the top of the conference.  Right behind them will be the Bulls.  Joakim Noah had a longer postseason than normal to rest his troubled knees and should return as the leader of one of the deepest frontcourts in the league.  New coach Fred Hoiberg will bring in a breath of fresh air into a team that seemed fatigued by Tom Thibodeau’s non-stop attitude.  If Mike Dunleavy can stay consistently healthy and Derrick Rose can produce at high levels, there’s even a slim chance that the Bulls can surpass Cleveland, but I just can’t see that happening at this point.  Lurking behind both these big Eastern powers are Milwaukee.  The Bucks were one of last year’s surprises under Jason Kidd, going from a team in the lottery to a tough out in the playoffs.  This year, with the addition of Greg Monroe and the return of Jabari Parker from his ACL tear, the Bucks might even be able to find a way to sneak into the top half of the playoff bracket.  For now, though, I see them staying in the bottom half as a 6-seed.

The bottom two teams in this division are building on something special- they won’t make the playoffs this year, but could make some noise the following season.  Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy shuttled Greg Monroe out of town and has decided, rightly, to build his team around Andre Drummond.  Van Gundy acquired Marcus Morris and locked up Reggie Jackson to a long-term deal to help support Drummond, and the team has the contracts and players (Brandon Jennings and Steve Blake come to mind) to make a deal for another solid supporting player, if necessary.  In Indiana, Paul George will be able to play for the entire season, and he will be ably supported by George Hill and Monta Ellis.  Once Myles Turner develops and the team establishes some depth, they could be on their way to making it back to the upper echelon of the East.

 

Western Conference

Southwest

Rockets (#1)

Spurs (#3)

Grizzlies (#5)

Pelicans (#7)

Mavericks

The best division in basketball houses half of the playoff teams in the superior conference.  They’ll be led by Houston, which is led by two bona-fide superstars in James Harden and Dwight Howard.  The trade for Ty Lawson will make this one of the most exciting offensive teams in recent memory, and while there are worries about Lawson’s defense, I think that Patrick Beverly is more than capable of being the defensive spark plug off the bench.  San Antonio will be right on the heels of their in-state rivals.  GM RC Buford made arguably the biggest offseason move by signing star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to bolster a roster that already included do-it-all Kawhi Leonard and the ageless wonder that is Tim Duncan.  The aging of Tony Parker and the lack of real depth are the only things preventing this team from being the top dog out West.

The other three teams in this division are all capable of making the playoffs.  The Grizz have an amazing frontcourt led by Marc Gasol, and point guard Mike Conley Jr. has finally come into his own.  The Pelicans are led by the otherworldly Anthony Davis, and have good players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Jrue Holiday to support him.  The Mavs have Chandler Parsons, an aging but still silky smooth Dirk Nowitzki, and Deron Williams.  I think that the injuries to Mark Cuban’s big signing Wesley Matthews, and the loss of Tyson Chandler to Phoenix, will hurt the team a lot, though, and prevent them from making it to the postseason.  However, the other two team s have enough to hang around the middle of the pack, and possibly challenge for a higher seed.

 

Pacific

Warriors (#2)

Clippers (#4)

Suns (#8)

Kings

Lakers

This team is, of course, headlined by the defending champion Warriors.  The only real loss from last year’s star-studded roster is veteran big man David Lee, who saw his minutes decrease as Draymond Green grew into a superstar.  Because of that, there is no doubt in my mind that Golden State, despite whatever health complications coach Steve Kerr is having, will be very competitive in a loaded conference.  Right on their tails will be the Doc Rivers-led Clippers, who overcame the adversity of the Donald Sterling scandal to have a very solid season, advancing to the conference semifinals.  The addition of Paul Pierce, one of Rivers’s best players when he was the coach in Boston, can only serve to help the players in Lob City, as can the controversy surrounding the re-signing of DeAndre Jordan, which should give the mercurial center some extra motivation.  I also see the Suns, who have tried to use outstanding guard play the past two seasons to overachieve relative to what was expected of them, to make the playoffs as a number 8 seed.  The signing of Tyson Chandler gives the team an interior presence that should take some pressure off of Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe on offense and a true stopper on defense.  This balance should be enough to break into the playoffs after two years of coming close.

The two teams at the bottom of this division are both in states of disarray.  The Kings have two big-name players, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, that seem to be frequently conflicting with coach George Karl, and have a very messy ownership situation.  The Lakers, meanwhile, have done well to build for the future through the drafting of college superstars Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, but the team is still centered around an aging Kobe Bryant, and the signing of big man Roy Hibbert is in direct opposition to the balanced “small ball” approach that the Warriors, and other successful teams, have made almost commonplace.  Both teams will have trouble getting going this coming season, and might need to take a serious look at the structure of their organizations before they can really become competitive.

 

Northwest

Thunder (#6)

Jazz

Trailblazers

Nuggets

Timberwolves

This division is the weakest in the West, but all of the teams here have enough talent to make some noise in the playoff picture if the right things fall into place.  The Thunder, led by the electrifying trio of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka, should top the division.  They shouldn’t end up in the top half of the playoff bracket, because when one of the team’s stars gets hurt their depth isn’t very good- and one of the previous players is almost bound to get hurt.

The other four teams in the division are quite literally in the middle of the road.  They are stuck in a place between building with youth and using the existing talent they have to try and be competitive.  The Jazz, for example, have two solid players in Gordon Heyward and Derrick Favors, but those two haven’t been enough to make Utah a playoff worthy team, so they have landed college stars like Alec Burks, Trey Burke, and Dante Exum in recent drafts.  The Blazers, who lost big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez to free agency, will give more responsibility to youngsters Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee, as well as third-year guard CJ McCollum.  The Nuggets have jettisoned Ty Lawson and hung on to Danilo Gallinari, but the Italian’s playing time is diminished, and the keys to the team belong to Kenneth Faried and rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay.  The Timberwolves have two former NBA champs on their roster in Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince, but have two number one picks as the faces of their franchise in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.  All of these clubs are going to need to make up their minds as to how to proceed from here- what to do with their vets and how aggressive to be in free agency- because as of right now, they are all AT LEAST two solid rotation players away from being true contenders.

 

 

Playoffs

 

Eastern Conference

First Round

Cavs def. Magic

Bulls def. Raptors

Wizards def. Bucks

Hawks def. Celtics

Just like Boston last year, the Magic have some good talent that they can build on, but they won’t ever be able to topple a team led by a grizzled veteran like LeBron.

The Bulls-Raptors matchup might be the most intriguing of the playoffs- a typically disciplined Chicago team against a Raptors squad filled with many explosive players.  I think that the difference here will be Hoiberg taking over the Bulls- the players will still have the discipline from previous seasons in their heads, but Hoiberg will allow them to be more free-thinking and creative when coming up with offensive and defensive sets, and that will make the Bulls the victors.

The Wiz against the Bucks is like matching the vets against the young guns, both playing and coaching-wise.  I think that Randy Wittman’s flexibility with his lineups in last year’s playoffs really enhanced what his team is able to do, and even if the Bucks are able to neutralize some parts of Washington’s offense, the Wiz still have John Wall, and he will make the difference in this series.

The Hawks both have unorthodox coaches and unorthodox rosters- the Mike Budenholzer-led Hawks don’t have one star that really stands out, while the Brad Stevens and his Celtics seem to be strongest in their front court.  The Hawks’ depth, and their playoff experience relative to Boston’s, will allow them to move on to the next round,

 

Conference Semifinal

Cavaliers def. Hawks

Wizards def. Bulls

When the Cavs and the Hawks met in the postseason last year, Cleveland romped all over Atlanta, winning the series 4-0.  One could argue that the loss of Kyle Korver in Game 2 upset the balance of the Hawks’ offensive game plan, which caused them to be largely underwhelming, and that person would be right.  However, Cleveland was missing Kyrie Irving for two games of that series, and as much as I love Korver, Irving’s ability, and impact on his team, is far greater than the sharpshooter’s.  I think Cleveland waltzes to the next round, just as they did last season.

It hurts to think that my Bulls won’t have the chance to face LeBron in the coming season’s Eastern Conference finals, but given the problems that Chicago has had with the Wizards in past playoff series, it makes sense not to pick them to move on.  Washington’s recent lineup adjustments to play more unorthodox lineups will cause the Bulls some problems, and, at this point, I think that having a John Wall-run team is better than having one run by Derrick Rose.  Washington moves on.

 

Conference Final

Cavaliers def. Wizards

The big difference maker that will have propelled Washington to this point is most certainly John Wall.  In Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers have a man that matches up to Wall better than virtually any point guard in the Eastern Conference.  Bradley Beal is a very well-rounded player, but the length of Iman Shumpert, the scoring ability of JR Smith, and the energy of Matthew Dellavedova are sure to cause the former Florida Gator some fits.  And, of course, there are LeBron James and Kevin Love to consider.  I don’t think that the Wizards have anyone that can really match up with either of those two guys- not that many teams do, consider that they are both top-25 talents- and for that reason, Cleveland will advance to its second straight NBA Finals.

 

Western Conference

First Round

Rockets def. Suns

Warriors def. Pelicans

Spurs def. Thunder

Clippers def. Grizzlies

The Phoenix Suns used to the ultimate example of what talented players could do in a high paced offense.  Steve Nash was the playmaker on a team that broke numerous scoring records.  Houston is the modern-day equivalent of those Suns, and shouldn’t have much difficulty outscoring the present Suns to move on to the next round.

These teams met in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and despite Anthony Davis’s best efforts, the Warriors won the series fairly simply.  I don’t expect this season to be any different- the Warriors are simply a deeper and more talented team than New Orleans.  The champs move forward.

This is the most intriguing first round matchup of the entire playoffs for me.  Both teams certainly have star power- OKC has Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka, and the Spurs can counter with LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, and Tim Duncan.  However, I think that San Antonio’s playoff know-how, and their depth (which isn’t great, but is better than Oklahoma City’s) will propel Gregg Popovich’s squad into the next round.

The Clippers are going to have a chip on their shoulder this coming season- they underwent a lot of heat for the resigning of DeAndre Jordan, and haven’t been as successful in the playoffs as many have expected after Chris Paul came to town.  They’ll steamroll over a Grizzlies team whose window for success is quickly closing.

 

Conference Semifinal

Rockets def. Clippers

Spurs def. Warriors

The Clips will come into this series fired up and filled with confidence after their easy first round win.  But they won’t be able to topple a team that, on the whole, doesn’t have as much depth that they do, but has a much more talented starting 5, one that should especially challenge them on the defensive end.  It will be close, but I think Houston pulls it out.

San Antonio realizes that the window of success with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker is very, very narrow, and they’ll be upset that they were knocked out in the first round last year trying to defend their title.  The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge gives this team a more balanced attack than they had last year, though, and I’m sure of the fact that The Big Fundamental, Parker, and their buddy Manu Ginobili have enough left in the tank to compliment the new big man and help pull off the upset over the defending champions.  The Spurs move on.

 

Conference Final

Rockets def. Spurs

The Spurs have a distinct coaching advantage here- I would take Gregg Popovich over Kevin McHale any day- and both teams have talented players and a squad with below average depth, so it seems that the Spurs have an advantage.  The thing is, I think that while Kawhi Leonard may be unguardable for San Antonio, the Rockets have two, if not three, players on offense that are extremely tough matchups, and Leonard obviously can’t cover them all.  At least one of the Harden-Howard-Lawson trio will be able to do his thing each night, and that makes the difference for me in this series.  Houston moves on.

 

NBA Final

Cavaliers def. Rockets

Obviously, all eyes would to be on the two superstars in this series, Harden and LeBron.  The two scorers effectively cancel each other out, as do Dwight Howard and Kevin Love.  And both coaches, Kevin McHale and David Blatt, are not known for their exceptional motivational abilities.  The outcome of the finals, then, will come down to the teams’ lesser heralded players.  Ty Lawson and Kyrie Irving can both be offensive forces, but the former Duke star is a much better defender.  Cleveland also has a deeper, more experienced bench- Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt, with JR Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Mo Williams in the backcourt, while Houston has only two real experienced backup is point guard real impact backups in Corey Brewer and Patrick Beverley.  The greater talent level, and depth, that the Cavaliers have will, I believe, bring Cleveland the long-awaited championship it deserves.

 

Individual Awards

MVP: James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets

It makes sense for the best player on the team that I see winning the toughest conference in the league, both record wise and in the playoffs, to be the MVP.  Many argued that Harden was a more worthy victor than the man that won it last year, Stephen Curry, and I think that the addition of Ty Lawson will only help boost Harden’s stats, catapulting him over his closest competitors- Curry, LeBron, and John Wall.

Rookie of the Year: D’Angelo Russell, PG, Los Angeles Lakers

Many NBA scouts thought that Russell’s game would translate the best to the NBA out of all the other prospects, and while I’m not a scout, I can sure see where they are coming from.  Russell is a capable scorer, but is also relatively strong on defense and seems to be very tough, very resilient.  All of those things are very important when transitioning from the college game to the pros, and I think that as Kobe’s role begins to diminish, Russell will step in and take up his mantle as the face of the Lakers.

 

Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, C/PF, New Orleans Pelicans

Being from a suburb Chicago, it’s always fun to make up lineups of great players in the league that have come from the city.  Derrick Rose.  Dwayne Wade.  Jahlil Okafor.  Patrick Beverley.  The man that makes an all-Chicago team so great, though, is obviously Davis.  His offensive game exploded this past season, and he has become one of the top-5 players in the entire game.  However, while his offense has gotten him a lot of plaudits recently, Davis has been a defensive animal since his time at Kentucky, and this year, I expect him to be rewarded for it.

 

6th Man of the Year: Paul Pierce, Los Angeles Clippers

This is assuming that Lance Stephenson will keep his starting job throughout the season, which will not happen if he plays like he did last year in Charlotte.  If he does, though, Pierce will be coming off the bench for, really, the first time in his career.  While teammate Jamaal Crawford has won this award twice in his career, I just can’t see a fiery, pure scorer like The Truth being kept down, even if he is coming off the pine.

 

Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

I don’t think that there were many people that expected much out of the C’s last season, and yet they ended up making the playoffs anyway.  Many experts consider the Raptors to still be the favorites in the Atlantic, but if the season goes the way I think it will and Boston wins the division, it will be difficult to overlook how impressive Stevens’s work will have been in his 2 years at the helm of one of the league’s most historic franchises.

 

Red Sox Season Review

Outfield: C-

Youngsters were the best players in Boston’s outfield this past year. Mookie Betts was arguably one of the biggest breakout stars of this past season, as the centerfielder hit .291 and played some exemplary defense. His backup, Jackie Bradley Jr., struggled in the 2014 season, and wasn’t fantastic with his bat this year, but provided the team with some amazing glove work and exemplary speed after being called up from the minors. The rest of the outfield was a disappointment. The Hanley Ramirez experiment in left was a catastrophic failure- his defense was horrendous, and he didn’t do near enough with his bat to make up for his horrible glove. Shane Victorino was hurt at the beginning of the season and struggled mightily when he did play, and he ended up getting dealt to the Los Angeles Angels. His replacement, Cuban import Rusney Castillo, struggled to adjust to major league pitching in his first professional season, finishing with a .253 average.

 

Infield: C+

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts had long been regarded one of Boston’s best prospects, and after an underwhelming 2014 season, Bogaerts broke out this past year, finishing second in the AL batting race with an average of .320. The rest of the infield was plagued with inconsistency and disappointment. Pablo Sandoval has never been a player that has hit for a high average, but his .245 batting line, combined with his 10 homers in 126 game played, made the Kung Fu Panda one of the worst free agent signings in the entire league. Dustin Pedroia was his normally steady self, but his season was shortened due to a hamstring injury that kept him out for almost 2 months. His backup, Brock Holt, was a very steady fielder, but didn’t stand out for his work with the bat. First baseman Mike Napoli, expected to be a power outlet with fellow veteran David Ortiz, was abysmal, hitting .207 with 13 home runs in 329 at bats before being designated for assignment. The man that replaced him, lanky lefty Travis Shaw, was fairly average, but didn’t do enough to impress the coaching staff to keep his starting job, as it has been reported that Ramirez will be moved out of leftfield and over to first base in hope of re-booting his career with the Red Sox. Neither of the BoSox’s main catchers, Blake Swihart or Ryan Hanigan, were similar to Shaw- they didn’t exude much confidence in themselves with their performance in the batter’s box. David Ortiz did his typical David Ortiz thing, combining a middling average with some extraordinary power numbers (37 homers and 108 RBI’s).

 

Pitching Staff: D

There was talk before the season that the Red Sox would live to regret the fact that Jon Lester went to Boston, and that their entire rotation was essentially composed of 3 or 4 starters. That most certainly was the case. The de facto ace, Clay Buchholz, made only 18 starts due to injury. The number 2 man, Rick Porcello, was startlingly bad, and only a late season boost in performance got his ERA below 5, to 4.92. The number 3, Justin Masterson, was even worse- the man who started his career in Boston before becoming a solid starter in Cleveland had a terrible season, finishing with an ERA of 5.61 before being released in mid-August. Team win leader Wade Miley was fairly steady, but he was slightly below average overall. Mid-season call-up Eduardo Rodriguez was a revelation, as he finished with 10 wins and an acceptable ERA of 3.85, but he projects more as a mid or back-of-the-rotation starter than he does a number 1 or number 2.

 

Bullpen: B-

Boston’s bullpen was probably the best facet of the team this past year, which, considering how underwhelming the rest of the team was, isn’t saying a whole lot. Koji Uehara was exceptional in his 43 appearances, but a broken wrist cut his season short, and his role as closer is under threat in the upcoming season. The trio of Robbie Ross Jr., Tommy Layne, and Rangers castoff Alexi Ogando, each of whom had at least 50 appearances, were steady is not spectacular. Veteran lefty Craig Breslow did well, considering that he was the only reliable lefty arm in the BoSox’ ‘pen, making him easy to for opposing managers to plan for. Uehara’s countryman, Junichi Tazawa, underwhelmed a little bit this year, but he has the stuff to bounce back to an elite level next season.

 

Coaching: C+

There are a couple of bonus point thrown in here due to the extremely unfortunate plight of manager John Farrell. On a whole, though, the coaching staff largely underperformed. The team didn’t incorporate its new players very well, and the onus for that often falls on the coaches providing an environment that builds chemistry. The pitching staff was the biggest disappointment, player wise, and was also the most disappointing aspect coaching wise, because Farrell himself is a former Boston pitching coach. Farrell incorporated the team’s call-ups flawlessly, but he has to help his team perform much better next year. After, of course, he completes his treatment for cancer, which is currently top priority.

 

Front Office: D

Ben Cherington was the man that made the bet on having a pitching staff that was built on pitchers that had no business being at the front of the rotation, the man that decided to sign Pablo Sandoval, the man that decided to sign Hanley Ramirez and stick him out in left field. The biggest moves, and the biggest failures, of this past season fall on Cherington’s shoulders- it makes sense that he was relieved from his duties. Succeeding Theo Epstein could not have been an easy task, but Cherington was generally underwhelming in his term as Red Sox GM, and this season was a culmination of that.

 

Overall: D+

 

Looking to the Future

Dave Dombrowski and Mike Hazen will have their work cut out for him to make this a competitive team, not just next year, but two or three years down the road. Big Papi is a consistent source of offense, but at 37 he’s getting up there age wise. Betts and Bogaerts were phenomenal this year, but they are almost certain to regress to the mean this upcoming season. Figuring out what to do in order to accommodate, or move, Pablo Sandoval ad Hanley Ramirez, will be vital, especially considering the salary of the two players. Also, finding a catcher, and possible upgrades at the corner outfield positions, will be towards the top of the two men’s to-do list.

The biggest problem they have to deal with, though, is obviously the rotation. Buchholz and Rodriguez might be the only two pitchers that really belong in the pitching staff of a team as ambitious as the Red Sox. Expect the team to pursue the big names, like David Price and Zach Greinke, but also less heralded players, like former Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann.

White Sox Season Review

Outfield: C

The beginning of the year was a poor time to be a Chicago White Sox outfielder. Spark plug leadoff man Adam Eaton was batting under the Mendoza line, expensive new signing Melky Cabrera was very close to it, and Avisail Garcia was fairly rusty in his first full season with the team after tearing his labrum early last season. The right fielder was up and down all season, and he never seemed to get in the groove enough to produce the power he was capable of. Both Eaton and Cabrera bounced back to have fairly decent seasons with the bat- Eaton finished with a .287 average, while Cabrera finished batting .273- but their below average play in the field, and their lack of production in games that truly mattered, made them relative disappointments. There was a late season spark here in the form of Trayce Thompson, who was very impressive when given an opportunity to play, but where he figures to get future playing time in a fairly expensive outfield remains to be seen.

 

Infield: C-

This grade is bolstered by the beast that is Jose Abreu. Even though the Cuban first baseman’s average was down from 2014, his performance was still phenomenal, as he joined Albert Pujols as the only two players in baseball history to hit at least 30 homeruns and knock in 100 RBI’s in their first two seasons in the big leagues. The rest of the infield… well, to say that they underachieved might be an understatement. At third, Connor Gillaspie was unable to produce the form that made him one of the best hitters in baseball in the first half of the 2014 season, and he was designated for assignment. His replacement, former Cub Mike Olt, flashed some power, but also showcased his major strikeout problem that has prevented him from fulfilling his first-round potential. Tyler Saladino showed some promise late in the season, but none of his at-bats had any meaning, so it will be interesting to see how he performs in more competitive games next year. 35-year old shortstop Alexei Ramirez finally started to show his age, and was one of the worst everyday players in the game. Young second basemen Micah Johnson and Carlos Johnson flashed some good leather, but neither were able to produce anything with their bats; neither did proverbial backup Gordon Beckham. Catcher Tyler Flowers didn’t, either. The biggest disappointment, though, had to be Adam LaRoche. He was heralded as being a slightly less powerful, but far more efficient, version of Adam Dunn. He was less powerful, but his average, .207, was definitely Dunn-esque.

 

Pitching Staff: C-

The inconsistency that plagued this team all year was especially prevalent in the starting rotation. There were times when Chris Sale looked like a man that could easily win the AL Cy Young award, but there were also times that he got shelled by teams that he had no business getting destroyed by. There were times when Jeff Samardzija looked like the 1A to Sale’s 1, but those times were few and far between, as The Shark finished with a high ERA of 4.96. Jose Quintana had the best area out of all the qualified starters, but he still finished with more losses than he did wins. John Danks continued his steady decline, finishing with a 7-15 record and an ERA of 4.71. The man that started the season as the number 5 starter, Hector Noesi, finished without a win in his 5 starts and was eventually designated for assignment. The Sox got a boost from two minor league call-ups- former first round pick Carlos Rodon lacked some control in the majors, but showed that he had the stuff to dominate major league hitters, while International League Most Valuable Pitcher Erik Johnson looked good in his 6 starts.

 

Bullpen: B

The bullpen in the 2014 season was absolutely horrendous, so the signing of David Robertson to fill the closer role automatically made the ‘pen better. Robertson did have a fairly high ERA for a closer at 3.41, but he was generally consistent at shutting the door on teams, which was vital. The two left relievers that were brought in, Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, had their rough moments, but both finished with over 50 appearances and had ERA’s under 4. Nate Jones came back from his steady in the 19 appearances he made after returning from two surgeries he underwent the previous summer. The best relievers from 2014’s disaster, Jake Petricka and Daniel Webb, had mixed results- Petricka was solid in his 62 appearances, while Webb struggled mightily, finishing with a 6.30 ERA in 27 appearances.

 

Coaching: C

Robin Ventura and his staff came under considerable fire this past season- expectations for this team were very high, but they failed to meet them as the club finished under .500. Some of the criticism was warranted- many veteran players had steep fall offs in performance, and there was no fire to really instigate improvement. The team just never really seemed to mesh. On the other hand, there is only so much that the coaches could have done- a lot of the blame for this season’s results should fall on the players’ shoulders- and it seemed like Ventura did a solid job of incorporating minor league call-ups into the lineup and rotation, which is never an easy task.

 

Front Office: C-

The team’s biggest acquisition, Samardzija, was about as big of a flop as a pitcher of his caliber could possibly be. The other major transactions, the signings of both Cabrera and LaRoche, look to be expensive mistakes at this point. The biggest holes that were obvious in last year’s offseason- middle infielders, a good hitting catcher, and back-of-the-rotation starters- are still major weaknesses. Rick Hahn and his cronies did do a good job of bolstering the bullpen and promoting the proper players to help the big club, but they’ll judged mostly on their big moves, which were decidedly poor.

 

Overall: C

 

Looking to the Future

Hahn seems to have built this team in with a “win-now” mentality and in order to do that, he has a lot of different things to evaluate. Determining if Thompson has a permanent place in the outfield- possibly by moving Garcia to the DH slot and designating LaRoche for assignment, or reducing the right fielder to a backup role- will be important. So will determining whether or not to exercise Alexei Ramirez’s $10 million option, and whether the team will wait for its young infielders (Saladino, Sanchez, Johnson, and Tim Anderson) to develop or make a foray into free agency to find a more proven player.

Samardzija will likely be gone in free agency, unless he decides to take a hometown discount to stay with the Sox. If the team thinks Rodon can step into his role as the #2 man behind Sale, then Hahn can target innings-eaters in free agency instead of going after another big name. The bullpen seems pretty much set, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Hahn went after another arm or two, because in all honesty, you can never have enough relievers.

10 Bold Predictions for the 2015/16 NHL Season

Let me preface this: I am not a knowledgeable hockey fan. When my dad, a former college hockey player, screams at the TV screen at players, two-thirds of the time I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. But I know enough about hockey to know what a good team looks like and what a bad team looks like, which players are on the verge of superstardom and which players are over the hill. So, without further adieu, here are my 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season:

 

1. Neither the Blackhawks nor the Lightning will make this year’s finals

Saying that the Lightning won’t make the Cup this year is a fairly easy proposition for me. Jon Cooper’s squad will certainly make the playoffs, and I think that Steven Stamkos will have a much better year in the playoffs than he did this past season. However, I think that the more involved the captain becomes in the Lightning offense, the more off-balanced it will become, taking away valuable ice time for “The Triplets,” Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, who carried throughout last year’s run. But being a Chicago boy, saying that the ‘Hawks won’t be able to reach the final, much less retain the Cup, is very hard for me to think about. However, I think that the loss of Patrick Sharp, the dependence on new (and somewhat unproven) role players to fill the second line, and a lack of defensive depth will destabilize the team enough to allow one of their challengers topple them.

 

2. The Minnesota Wild will win the Stanley Cup

The challenger that will do so will be the team from the north, the Wild. I realize that Mike Yeo’s squad have been battered by my ‘Hawks in the past two postseasons, and that the Anaheim Ducks, led by Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, are probably the prohibitive favorites to lift the Cup this season. However, I think that there are a couple of points in the Wild’s favor for this upcoming season. Chicago purged some good players after Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s extensions kicked in, and they will have a weakened roster compared to last year’s, so the Wild’s nemesis is weakened. The Wild also developed some valuable playoff experience last season, with tough series against the ‘Hawks and the St. Louis Blues. These two factors, and their talented roster, will lead to the first Cup in team history.

 

3. Tyler Seguin will win NHL MVP

In 2013, after the Boston Bruins lost the Stanley Cup to the Blackhawks, moves had to be made to cut salary. One of the moves GM Peter Chiarelli made was to trade youngster Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. Since then, Seguin has become a bona fide goal scorer, but the Stars weren’t built to be a top team primed for a playoff run. Now, with the acquisitions of Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, and Antti Niemi, they are. While Jaime Benn is the best all-around player on the Stars, and his new teammates are very good players, Seguin is the highest scorer and the face of the franchise, so his production will not diminish. That new supporting cast will allow his team to make the playoffs, which will give a big boost to Seguin’s MVP candidacy. A candidacy that I think will see him lifting the Hart Trophy next summer.

 

4. Michael Therrien will win Coach of the Year

Montreal’s lack of success in the playoffs has brought a lot of heat down on Therrien, and many fans have urged Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin to fire the coach. Some of the criticism levelled at Therrien is fair, but most of it is not. For a team that has relatively limited offensive potential, and without the threat of the legitimate top-tier superstar that other teams have (PK Subban is close, but not quite there), the Canadiens under Therrien sure do finish with a hell of a lot of points. I think that this is the year that the Canadiens finally get the recognition they deserve for their consistency, and that Therrien will be honored for heralding said consistency.

 

5. Max Domi wins Rookie of the Year

Connor McDavid might be the next Sidney Crosby. Jack Eichel seems to be primed to take Buffalo by storm. But I think that Domi will win the Calder Trophy over the both of them. I think that pressure makes the difference here- McDavid and Eichel will be in the spotlight all season long as the faces of their franchise, and they don’t really have experienced players to help show them the path to success. In Arizona, meanwhile, the Coyotes have little to no expectations, so Domi will be in the lineup making a difference virtually every night, and he has grizzled veteran captain Shane Doan to show him how to play. It’ll be close, but Domi will win.

 

6. The Maple Leafs will make the playoffs

Yes, the Maple Leafs were atrocious last year. Yes, they lost arguably their best rotation player in Phil Kessel. But the trading away of their leading scorer might be a good thing- he seemed somewhat malcontented in Toronto- and the signing of legendary coach Mike Babcock will help breathe some fresh life into one of the NHL’s most important teams. They might not have the prettiest season, but I think that Babcock will get enough out of his role players to allow the Leafs to sneak into the playoffs.

 

7. The Red Wings will not make the playoffs

This is as much a product of Mike Babcock’s departure to Toronto as my prediction involving the Maple Leafs is- Babcock is a master motivator, and keeping a team of aging superstars and raw up-and-comers together, as he did last year, will not happen under new coach Jeff Blashill. The stability at the back of their team also worries me a little bit- Petr Mrazek showed that he can be very good and very bad, while veteran Jimmy Howard struggles with injuries and is inconsistent when he plays. I also think that they will put too much dependence on a defenseman, Mike Green, that isn’t as good as he looks. It’ll be a shock, but the Red Wings will be out of the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

 

8. The Avalanche will end up with a top-5 pick

I love Patrick Roy. I don’t doubt his leadership abilities, and the fire that he will consistently try to light under his team. I love Nathan MacKinnon, and think that he very closely resembles a younger version of Jonathan Toews. But I just don’t find the rest of Colorado’s roster all that impressive, even with the addition of Jerome Iginla. It also doesn’t help, of course, that the Avalanche play in the toughest division in the game, where each team is capable of making a run in the playoffs. Every team, that is, except for Colorado’s. I expect them to slump and end up being fairly bad this upcoming season.

 

9. Cam Ward and Eric Staal will both be traded

The Hurricanes won a Stanley Cup in 2006 on the back of their stars, captain Staal and goalie Ward. Today, both players are still in Carolina, but the team around them is far different. That is, to say, it’s much worse. The only player that might crack the rotation of another top-level team besides the previously mentioned players is Eric’s brother, Jordan. The presence of the Staals, and Ward, prevented the team from being bad enough to fall into the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes, and will keep them on the outside of a truly enviable drafting position until they are all gone. After a couple years of rumors, I think that this will be the year that GM Ron Francis finally pulls the trigger on getting rid of his highest paid players, sending them to teams needing a #1 or #2 center (Florida, Montreal, Nashville) and veteran stability at goalie (St. Louis, Washington, Anaheim), respectively.

 

10. John Tavares will score 50 goals

The last season in the Nassau Collesium was not a bad one for the Islanders. After an extended period of slumping brought upon by Rick DiPietro’s albatross of a contract, GM Garth Snow built a team around its captain, Canadian John Tavares, that was in the race for the President’s Trophy for much of last season. Tavares himself had a pretty good season; not a traditional scorer in any sense, the center put away 38 goals, good for 4th in the league. Now, with the Isles entering a new stadium, I expect the team to up their game even further. To topple their in-state rivals, the Rangers, it will, of course, take a full team effort, but I think that Tavares will step up to the plate and produce more than he ever has. I believe he can, and I believe he will. 50 goals is A LOT of goals.

 

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic

Canadiens (#1)

Lightning (#2)

Panthers (#6)

Maple Leafs (WC#2)

Bruins

Red Wings

Senators

Sabres

 

Metropolitan

Penguins (#3)

Islanders (#4)

Rangers (#5)

Capitals (WC#1)

Blue Jackets

Devils

Flyers

Hurricanes

 

 

Western Conference

Central

Blackhawks (#2)

Wild (#3)

Stars (#4)

Predators (WC#1)

Blues (WC#2)

Jets

Avalanche

 

Pacific

Ducks (#1)

Kings (#5)

Canucks (#6)

Flames

Sharks

Oilers

Coyotes

 

 

PLAYOFFS

 

Eastern Conference

First Round

Canadiens def. Maple Leafs

Lightning def. Panthers

Penguins def. Capitals

Islanders def. Rangers

 

Conference Semifinal

Canadiens def. Lightning

Islanders de. Penguins

 

Conference Final

Islanders def. Canadiens

 

 

Western Conference

First Round

Ducks def. Blues

Wild def. Stars

Blackhawks def. Predators

Kings def. Canucks

 

Conference Semifinals

Wild def. Ducks

Blackhawks def. Kings

 

Conference Finals

Wild def. Blackhawks

 

 

Stanley Cup

Wild def. Islanders

2015 NFL Season Preview

              The past 7 months of professional football have been relatively dramatic, considering that nothing that has happened has been on the field.  Since the Patriots topped the Seahawks in a dramatic 28-24 victory, a lot has happened in the National Football League.  Many big stars have switched teams.  High-profile coaches have been fired, and new up-and-comers have been hired.  New hotshot rookies were drafted or signed into the league.  Some underperforming veterans were released.  Deflategate has constantly lingered in the background, as have deeply serious issues about concussions.  But all of those things can finally, FINALLY be pushed to the side.  In a couple short hours, Tom Brady and his Patriots will square off against Ben Roethlsiberger’s Steelers.  Football will be back.  How this season will play out is anyone’s guess- here’s my guesses for what will happen, ON THE FIELD, in the coming months.

 

 

Regular Season Standings

NFC

 

NFC West:

Rams (#2)

Seahawks (#1WC)

Cardinals

49ers

              The Seahawks are a very trendy pick to win the Super Bowl this upcoming season.  And I understand why- Russell Wilson led his team to a Super Bowl last year, and now he has a legitimate passing game weapon in Jimmy Graham at his disposal.  But I think there are a couple of issues with this team- the loss of Max Unger, whom they traded away to get Jimmy Graham, being the first and foremost one.  His loss cannot be understated.  I also think that some cracks are starting to show in the ‘Hawks vaunted secondary- Kam Chancellor might hold out for a good chunk of time, and while Cary Williams is a decent cornerback, he will get beat up on more than Richard Sherman’s other partners did.  These weaknesses will allow the Rams to supplant them.  The Rams front 7 are filled with absolute beasts, and that doesn’t even include the soon-to-breakout Alec Ogletree, their first round pick in 2013.  The acquisition of Nick Foles will allow the team to better utilize their speedy wide receivers, and the drafting of Todd Gurley gives the running game perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the entire league.  The Rams also happen to have a slightly easier strength of schedule than their rivals.  All of those things will allow the Rams to top what is arguably the best division in the game

The Cardinals and the 49ers are not bad teams, by any means.  The Cards get Carson Palmer back after an injury caused him to a good portion of the season, and he will have a trio of athletic receivers to throw to.  In San Fran, the signing of speedster Torrey Smith and the promotion of young, powerful back Carlos Hyde will keep their offense at least above average.  The problem for both of these teams will be their defenses.  The Cardinals lost run-stuffing defensive tackle Dan Williams and elite cornerback Antonio Cromartie to free agency, while the 49ers were decimated by retirements by three major contributors.  In a league that is well into a period of offense-first mentalities, these two teams’ shortcomings will see them fall short of playoff places.

 

NFC North:

Packers (#3)

Vikings (#2 WC)

Lions

Bears

              The Pack were dealt an early-season blow when Jordy Nelson tore his ACL, and things got really scary after Randall Cobb landed hard on his shoulder.  Thankfully for Mike McCarthy’s club, the speedy Cobb didn’t get a serious injury, and will be at close to 100% when the season starts.  With Davante Adams and Jeff Janis stepping in to help fill the Nelson-shaped void, Green Bay’s offense will be a step below high octane, but Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, and Cobb are talented enough to boost this team to the top of the division by themselves.

The best of the rest will be the Vikings, who will be one of my two “surprise” playoff picks for the upcoming season.  Obviously, the return of Adrian Peterson will get the most publicity, but I think that the addition of Mike Wallace as a compliment to Charles Johnson at receiver, as well as the drafting of potential superstar corner Trae Waynes, are the two moves that will make the biggest difference for this team.  Teddy Bridgewater’s development will accelerate faster than many anticipated, and the former Louisville man will help guide his team into the second wild card spot.

The other two teams in this division could be fighting for a wild card spot or a first round pick, depending on how their season starts.  The Lions will have to depend on their offense more than they have had to in the past few years, thanks to the losses of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but I expect Calvin Johnson to continue to struggle with injuries and for Golden Tate to fall off a bit after a career season last year.  If Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah can pick up a lot of slack, then the team could be ok.  But otherwise, they could be in some trouble.  The Bears have a much improved defensive coaching staff this year, and picked up a couple of intriguing players (Pernell McPhee and Antrel Rolle) to fill pressing needs.  However, major injury concerns at wide receiver, and a merry-go-round at offensive line, present major problems.  If the Monsters of the Midway can get them sorted out, they may be a fringe contender- otherwise, Bears fans could be in for another long year.

 

NFC South:

Falcons (#4)

Panthers

Buccaneers

Saints

This is perhaps the weakest division in football- their division winner finished under .500 last year, for goodness sakes!  There are a couple of reasons that I think that the Falcons will be able to rise to the top.  The first is the dedication to a younger running game on offense- by starting rookie Tevin Coleman and backing him up with second-year man Devonta Freeman, the Falcons will have some explosiveness in the backfield to take pressure off of Matt Ryan.  The second, and most important reason, is the hiring of Dan Quinn as the head coach.  He will bring a fiery leadership to help rejuvenate a defense that has been pretty vanilla in the past couple seasons.  The third reason is that Atlanta has the easiest strength of schedule of any NFL team this season.  I don’t expect them to make it look easy, but I do think they will win the division.

The next two teams, the Panther and the Bucs, have relatively similar defenses- a few good role players in certain places and a middle linebacker that wreaks havoc.  They both have running games that have the potential to be special, but have largely failed to do that in recent years.  This, to me, means that the play of the teams’ two quarterbacks will determine who finishes second in this division.  Though Jameis Winston will be a better, more polished version of Cam Newton once he matures, and currently has better weapons than the Auburn man, but at this point in their careers, Newton has more ability to carry his team, so I think the Panthers will sneak above the Bucs.

I feel badly putting the Saints in last place in the division because of how much respect I have for Drew Brees.  But the offense has lost some of its luster with the trades of Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham, as well as the parting of ways with Pierre Thomas.  Even the normally dependable Marques Colston is starting to slow up a little bit.  And on the defensive side of the ball, after the release of troubled pass rusher Junior Galette, there just aren’t any real playmakers.  Despite Brees’s best efforts, this is a team headed for a top-10 pick.

 

NFC East:

Cowboys (#1)

Eagles

Giants

Redskins

              I’ve never seen the problem that people have with Tony Romo- yes, he doesn’t always perform the greatest in high pressure situations, but only a select few are able to consistently do so.  After an impressive statistical season last year, the only offensive starter that departed the team was DeMarco Murray, and Joseph Randle has enough talent to make up for most, if not all, of his production.  The quality of the defense worries me a little bit, but the ‘Boys offense is solid in every area imaginable, and will help guide them to a division title and the number one seed in the NFC.

I, unlike many football experts, liked most of the move that Chip Kelly made this past offseason (except for the Byron Maxwell signing).  However, the Eagles defense just doesn’t seem like it will be all that great at stopping the pass, and while DeMarco Murray is a solid NFL running back, he benefitted greatly from playing behind a beastly O-line in Dallas, and I don’t think he’ll do enough to prevent many teams from sending 5 or 6 players in all-out blitz mode, gunning for the oft-injured Sam Bradford.  The Eagles have a talented pair of wideouts, but that won’t be enough to see them to the playoffs.

The bottom two teams in this division will be one of the two worst teams in football.  The Giants offense has a lot of firepower, with Eli Manning and two elite receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz (and even a solid slot guy in Rueben Randle), but the defense is no longer what it once was, and will struggle to stop many teams.  The Redskins, outside of Alfred Morris, are a complete mess.  Their quarterback situation is extremely chaotic, the weapons they have outside of Morris are very streaky, and their defense doesn’t have anyone on it that really stands out outside of Ryan Kerrigan, who, as a defensive end, can only do so much with the players he has around him.

 

AFC

AFC West:

Broncos (#4)

Chargers (WC #2)

Chiefs

Raiders

              The Broncos and Chargers are, to me, two fairly evenly matched teams.  At this point, Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers are very similar ability-wise.  Both teams have an above-average pass rush and two Pro Bowl-caliber players in their secondary.  The biggest difference between the teams, to me, is the talent level of the skill players on offense.  I really like Keenan Allen, but he doesn’t compare to the freak of nature that is Demariyus Thomas.  Emmanuel Sanders is far better than Malcolm Floyd.  The combination of Virgil Green and Owen Daniels will outperform the combination of Ladarius Green and Antonio Gates.  CJ Anderson is far more explosive than Melvin Gordon.  The Chargers will make it tough on Denver, but the Broncos offense has more firepower than Denver’s does.  Both teams will make it into the playoffs, but Gary Kubiak’s men will take the division.

The futures of the Chiefs and Raiders have me really conflicted.  I think that both teams made some nice additions this offseason- Jeremy Maclin and Marcus Peters for the Chiefs, Amari Cooper and Curtis Lofton for the Raiders- and both clubs have solid, experienced veteran coaches in Andy Reid and Jack Del Rio.  However, it just feels to me like something is…  missing.  I don’t quite know what it is, but the two things that come to mind for me are offensive consistency and defensive talent.  I think that those two things will make it difficult for either team to make a real playoff push, and they both finish in the bottom half of the league.

 

AFC North

Bengals (#1)

Steelers

Ravens

Browns

              I know what you’re thinking.  You’re wondering, “Why do you have the Bengals winning this division, and as a #1 seed?”  Well, Jeremy Hill is a top-5 NFL running back with a quality backup in Giovani Bernard.  Marvin Jones is back after losing all of last year to injury, and Tyler Eifert is returning from a major injury, too, giving Andy Dalton the most potent offense he’s ever had.  Marvin Lewis’s front 7 is filled with talent, and added Super Bowl winner AJ Hawk to provide a capable backup and steady veteran leadership.  Steady corner Leon Hall works opposite the fleet Adam Jones.  The team is somewhat weak on its back end safety, but other than that, it’s impossible to find a flaw in this team that they can’t easily compensate for.  So while it is altogether possible for Dalton and co. to flop in the playoffs, this is a good enough team to be the top AFC team in the regular season.

Each of the remaining teams in this division were in playoff contention for most of last season, but have flaws that, to me, will be enough to keep all of them out of the playoffs, and maybe even keep them from being as successful as they were last year.  The Steelers have one of the best offenses in the entire league, but their defense, despite strong efforts to improve it, is nowhere near the quality that it once was, especially in the secondary.  The Ravens defense, too, isn’t as strong as it was in its glory days, but its biggest problem is that its offense can’t be counted on to be super effective- Dennis Pitta is injured, Steve Smith is aging, Breshad Perriman is unproven, and Justin Forsett can’t be counted on to recreate his career year.  The Browns have a decent defense, led by All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden, but their questions at quarterback, and their lack of weapons in the passing game, will prevent them from making it anywhere in a league where the teams with the better passing games are likely to trump other teams.  The AFC North was definitely the AFC’s best division last year, but I can’t see them repeating the performance this season.

 

 

AFC South

Colts (#3)

Jaguars

Texans

Titans

              The Colts have been considered one of the weaker division winners of the league because of the lack of quality within the rest of the division.  But the team made a couple of veteran additions that might make Indy a threat to be the top team in the AFC.  Putting Andre Johnson opposite TY Hilton gives them a possession-orientated threat to complement Hilton’s speed, and signing former San Fran running back Frank Gore gives the team a true top-10 back for the first time since Edgerrin James left for Arizona.  The defense still has some weaknesses, but the offense is good enough to carry this team to a very solid record this year.  Following them in the standings will be one of my surprises of the year, the Jaguars.  Despite the injury to first round pick Dante Fowler Jr. and many people’s doubts about the development of Blake Bortles, but by bringing in former Denver star Julius Thomas and drafting running back TJ Yeldon to help the offense, along with the signing of defensive end Jared Odrick to improve the team’s pass rush, the Jags, who will be playing 4 games this season against two teams that will be among the worst in the game, will definitely see their record from last year, and maybe, just maybe, they can make a run at the playoffs.

As I said earlier, I believe the bottom two teams in this division will struggle mightily this season.  I really like Brian Hoyer, and (kind of) have since his days at Michigan State, but the uncertainty surrounding the injured Arian Foster, as well as the departure of franchise icon Andre Johnson, will make it tough for the team to really get any momentum going, despite two freaks like JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney leading the defense.  The Titans have a similar problem to the Texans.  I love Marcus Mariota, and I think that the defense will be much improved with Brian Orakpo joining longtime defensive anchor Michael Griffin.  But having Bishop Sankey as your running back and Harry Douglas as your number 1 receiver will not strike fear into any opposing defenses, especially when your quarterback has yet to play an NFL game.  Look for these AFC South squads to land a top-10 pick.

 

 

AFC East:

Patriots (#2)

Bills (WC #1)

Dolphins

Jets

              The AFC East will battle with the NFC West to be the top division in football.  The Jets, while surrounded by controversy brought on by the punch to Geno Smith’s face, have improved in many areas.  They’ve brought in star receiver Brandon Marshall to bolster the passing game.  The brought back Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie while drafting former USC star Leonard Williams to bolster the defense.  The Dolphins brought in megastar defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to work with Cameron Wake and Brent Grimes on defense, and added receivers Kenny Stills and Greg Jennings to help out Ryan Tannehill.  All of those players are very talented, and have the potential to push their teams into contention.  But one team in front of them has made moves that will make them a legit playoff contender, and the other one… well, the other one is the defending champion.

The Bills are my dark horse this year- I like Tyrod Taylor more than most people do, and I think that the unbelievable amount of explosiveness surrounding him, highlighted by LeSean McCoy, supplemented by Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin, will make things easier on Taylor and allow him excel.  Plus, with Rex Ryan coming in to help provide his own wrinkles to a defense that finished 4th overall in total yards allowed last season, I think the Bills will be good enough to take the first wild card slot.  The Patriots, meanwhile, may have lost Darrelle Revis to the division rival Jets, but a full year of Tom Brady and a healthy Rob Gronkowski will make the Pats tough to beat.  Combine those two with Julian Edelman and LeGarrette Blount, and they will be VERY tough to beat.  The Pats take the division, but Ryan continues to be a thorn in Coach Bill Belichick’s side.

 

Playoffs:

NFC

 

Wildcard

Seahawks defeat Falcons

Packers defeat Vikings

              The Falcons will have a home field advantage, and also happen to have one of the best receivers of his generation.  And those are about the only things they have over the Seahawks.  Russell Wilson is better than Matt Ryan and has more valuable playoff experience, and Marshawn Lynch can top the Falcons’ running back duo any day.  And then there’s defenses- Atlanta’s may improve this year with Seattle’s old defensive coordinator at the helm, but they have a long way to go to match Pete Carroll’s team in terms of personnel.  The ‘Hawks will literally run over the Falcons and into the divisional round.

Meanwhile, in the other wildcard matchup, it’ll be an intra-divisional matchup between the star QB of the NFC North, Rodgers, and his heir apparent, Bridgewater.  The Pack have two major advantages over their rivals.  The first is home field advantage- Packers fans are very passionate, and will be even more so when the playoffs come around, making Lambeau Field a real fortress.  The other advantage, and the one that determines this game, is playoff experience.  Rodgers has been there before and Bridgewater hasn’t.  The former Cal man keeps his cool and guides his team on to the next round.

 

Divisional

Rams defeat Seahawks

Cowboys defeat Packers

              Both of these games have winners that may seem against the grain in terms of predictions, especially the Rams winning over the 2-time defending NFC champs from Seattle.  But I think that the same flaws that make allow the Rams to win the division will let them triumph over Pete Carroll’s squad here.  The multifaceted Rams offense will keep the ‘Hawks guessing and make it harder for the team’s ferocious pass rush or Richard Sherman, from taking over.  The Rams’ phenomenal front 7 is able to penetrate the Seahawks’ line without their anchor, Max Unger, there to provide a steady calm.  The Rams will move in.

A rematch of last year’s game!  How perfect!  I think this year, though, the result will be different- Tony Romo will want to make up for his loss last season, and the advantage of having the game of Dallas instead of the raucous Lambeau Field will make it much easier to do so.  Plus, I think it will be easier for the Cowboys to hone in on their tormenters from last year’s game, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, without having to worry about Jordy Nelson.  “America’s Team” advances to the conference championship.

 

Conference

Rams defeat Cowboys

              During most of this of this post, I’ve frequently emphasized a team’s offensive prowess in regards to whether or not the team ends up being successful.  But, as the old saying goes, “Defense wins championships,” and defense will be the determining factor in who wins this game.  And the Rams defense is on a far higher level than Dallas’s.  Yes, the Cowboys have a great offensive line, but the fearsome front 7 of the Rams (there are just so many ways to describe these guys!) will give them some issues, taking some pressure off of their average secondary.  The Dallas front 7 doesn’t come close to comparing to St. Louis’s, and won’t provide the secondary much relief.  St. Louis moves on to the Super Bowl in their first playoff appearance since 2004.

 

AFC

Wild Card

Bills defeat Broncos

Colts defeat Chargers

              Peyton Manning is a competitive person, and I know he wants to win again, but in all honesty, I think that he should have retired last season.  Playing against a ferocious defense in colder weather, with a weakening arm, will not do the legendary quarterback any favors.  And while the Broncos defensive members are no slouches, there are explosive players all over Buffalo’s offense, and I think that Denver will have a harder time stopping Buffalo than vice versa.  Rex Ryan and co. pull off the upset to move on.

Both of these teams have relatively middling defenses and offenses that are right on the edge of being great, so talent wise, these teams are pretty even.  However, I think that the matchups in this one favor the Colts.  Vontae Davis is the perfect foil to Keenan Allen, while Brandon Flowers will have a tough time matching up with the towering Andre Johnson.  Melvin Gordon will have trouble evading D’Qwell Jackson, while the wily Frank Gore should be able to mess with the young Manti Te’o and the inconsistent Donald Butler.  The Colts win a close one.

 

Divisional

Patriots defeat Colts

Bengals defeat Bills

              Back in the day, this game would be the matchup of matchups- Tom Brady facing off with Peyton Manning.  The rivalry between Brady and Andrew Luck isn’t anywhere near as strong, but will still make for an amusing game.  Both teams will be fighting to prove last year’s result wasn’t a true reflection of their team- the Patriots with Deflategate and the Colts for getting blown out.  In the end, though, I think Brady’s playoff savvy is enough to hold off the league’s best young QB to advance to the AFC championship game.

Out of all the playoff games, this was probably my toughest to call- I don’t think anyone really expects either of these teams to make it this far, so I’ve become kind of fond of them, and it was difficult to pick one to knock out.  However, I think Cincy prevails in this one, solely because of playoff experience on the part of the Bengals.  Yes, they’ve lost every game they’ve played with Andy Dalton as their quarterback, but they only lost last year due to a superhuman performance from Andrew Luck.  Tyrod Taylor is not Andrew Luck, and while the Bills defense is far better than Indianapolis’s, Dalton and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will have a few things up their sleeve to allow Cincy to prevail.

 

Conference

Patriots defeat Bengals

              Both teams have offenses that match up fairly well against each other’s defense- New England does not have a great run defense, which will allow Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to take advantage, while the Bengals have nobody that can truly match up well with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski (I mean, who does, really?)- so I see this one as being somewhat of a shootout.  And, having played, and won, many, many shootout games against Peyton Manning when both quarterbacks were in there prime, Brady will know what it takes to win.  New England advances to its second straight Super Bowl.

 

Super Bowl

Patriots defeat Rams

              I really thought about the Bengals being here and winning it all, giving a deserving Marvin Lewis a Super Bowl win and allowing Andy Dalton to stick his tongue out at all his haters.  Instead, we get a rematch of the Patriots first ever Super Bowl victory.  The Rams offense may not be the “Greatest Show on Turf” anymore, but their balanced attack, with two high quality running backs and a pair of speedy receivers, might make trouble for the Pats’ newly rebuilt secondary.  Jeff Fischer’s front 7 is filled with talent, and will be gunning to slow the Patriots all game long.  The problem for St. Louis is the same problem they had the last time they squared off against New England in the Super Bowl: Tom Brady.  Brady will be fired up to show that last year’s victory over the Seahawks was no fluke, and if he was able to have his way with Seattle’s secondary last year, I expect him to do the same to the Rams this year.  So while most of the players that take the field for both teams will be different from the last matchup back in 2002, the one that remains, Brady, will make the difference.  The Pats will win 27-20.

 

 

Awards/Individual Predictions

NFL MVP: Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

              Let me start by saying how much I love Giovani Bernard.  I wholeheartedly believe that if he hadn’t gotten injured last year, he would still be the starter in Cincy, and Hill would be his solid backup.  But that isn’t the case- Hill is the starter and will get most of the carries.  The former LSU is a powerful runner that averaged over 5 yards a carry last season while running for 1,124 yards, despite only starting his first game in week 9.  With a full season as a starter approaching for Hill, I can see his YPC average dropping a little bit, but his running style and talent are conducive to him having another huge season.  I can see him having an Adrian Peterson-type season and pull away the MVP award from Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers.

 

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers

              The three front runners for this are, to me, the obvious choices: Gordon, St. Louis running back Todd Gurley, and Oakland receiver Amari Cooper.  Gurley will not start the season as he completes his recovery from a torn ACL and will be splitting carries with Tre Mason for at least part of the season, so I don’t think he’ll have the stats to win the award.  I love the potential that Cooper has, and he is very similar to his predecessor at Alabama, Julio Jones, but he isn’t the freak of nature that Mike Evans is, and I think it will take at least half the year for Cooper and David Carr to get on the same page.  Therefore, I think that Gordon, San Diego’s undisputed #1, with a solid offensive line in front of him and a good play action quarterback, will excel in San Diego to win the ROY.

 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Atlanta Falcons

              Atlanta has been crying out for a decent pass rusher after John Abraham left for Arizona following the 2012 season.  Beasley is quick off the edge and, due to his exceptional football mind, can play both defensive end and linebacker if needed.  Just imagine the different uses that Coach Dan Quinn will have for the former Clemson player.  It’s actually a little bit scary how good he could play in Quinn’s Leo role.

 

Coach of the Year: Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills

              Ryan definitely wore out his welcome with the Jets, but he gets a fresh start in the division he is most familiar with after taking over the Bills.  Ryan inherits a solid defense that he will be able to bring his own special twist to, and due to a couple of controversial offseason moves he has a few playmakers to work with on offense.  An unproven quarterback is a little bit of a worry, but that hasn’t stopped Ryan from making the playoffs before, and I think he’ll take a Bills team with relatively low expectations to the playoffs.

 

Best Acquisition: Orlando Franklin, OT, San Diego Chargers

Franklin outperformed his more heralded teammate Ryan Clady last season, and yet, after leaving Denver, he signed on in San Diego with a contract that is worth $20 MILLION less than the deal Clady is currently working on.  On top of that, Franklin is reunited with his former offensive coordinator (and a former offensive lineman) Mike McCoy.  Peyton Manning still has enough in the tank to keep the Broncos above the Chargers, but once Melvin Gordon settles in to San Diego, he, Phillip Rivers and Franklin will combine to make a lethal combination for the Chargers.

 

Worst Acquisition: Byron Maxwell, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

              Here’s a little newsflash for people that haven’t picked up on this yet- the Seahawks defense of the past 3 years makes everyone seem better than they really are.  Brandon Browner was thought to be the next star after having a great year opposite Richard Sherman, and Walter Thurmond III was thought to be a high quality nickel back.  Both of them failed to live up to their potential after leaving the comfy confines of the Northwest.  Maxwell may be a decent corner, for all we know, but to splash $62 million on a guy that may just be “average” was a big mistake by Chip Kelly.

 

Biggest Surprise: Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills

              In order for the Bills to make the playoffs, in an era of high volume passing, the Rex Ryan is going to need his quarterback to step up.  After a few years of backing up Joe Flacco under QB guru Cam Cameron’s tutelage, Taylor looked sharp and accurate in preseason action, and it seemed that he worked out the kinks that caused his completion percentage to be low.  With a couple quick receivers and a solid running game to take the pressure off of him, don’t be surprised if Taylor is the best QB in the entire AFC East.  Yes, even better than Tom Brady.

What is Wrong with the Chicago Fire?

The first Chicago Fire game I ever remember going to was in 2008. My cousin was ball running for the Fire, and David Beckham was playing his first game in Chicago as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy. The year was a good one for the Fire, as they made it to the conference finals, losing out to one of their bitter rivals, the Columbus Crew, and their star, MVP Guillermo Barros Schelloto. The following year was also a good one for the Men in Red, as they again reached the conference finals, this time falling to Real Salt Lake on penalties. Things were looking up for Chicago- after being dominant immediately after being founded, the team was finally back on its feet after a few years of mediocrity. Until they weren’t.

In the 2009/10 offseason, manager Denis Hamlett was relieved of his duties and replaced by former El Salvador manager Carlos de los Cobos. His hiring started a long run of inconsistent form for Chicago- they have only made the playoffs once in the last five seasons, and have never finished higher than 4th in their conference. For this season, I predicted that the Fire would finish with 40 points, a decent amount for a team in a relative rebuild. They are currently on pace to obtain 35 points, failing to obtain the modest number I set for them in my prediction. Bleacher Report recently penned an article that said the Fire are the most disappointing team in MLS. So what has brought this once-storied franchise (as storied as a franchise younger than me can be) to its knees? There are four possible contributing factors: the owner, the technical staff, the manager, and the players.

We’ll start at the top with owner Andrew Hauptman, who as been the front man for the franchise since he bought the club from AEG Holdings back in 2007. The Anschultz Corporation CEO Phillip Anschultz, the man whose company oversaw the Fire’s previous owners, was (probably) always going to be a bigger soccer enthusiast than Hauptman- Anschultz was one of the founders of Major League Soccer and had a major role in the formation of the Fire and 6 other MLS teams. Even so, performance of the team has been nothing close to what one would expect from a team that plays in as big of a marker as the Fire do. Many have criticized Hauptman, who lives and works in Los Angeles, as an owner who doesn’t care much about the well-being of his team, that he frequently makes the safe, easy choices because he is simply uninterested in putting too much effort into the team. They cite his lack of action in bringing in designated players as a major issue- his relative lack of fight over the allocation of US Men’s National Team stalwart Jermaine Jones to the New England Revolution and his willingness to bend over to allow former Ivory Coast and Chelsea star Didier Drogba to play in his preferred locale, Montreal, instead of playing in the Windy City, to name two recent examples. Hauptman may also be criticized because he is not super comfortable in the public eye, and that whenever he does decide to make appearances on behalf of the team, he tends to, rightly or wrongly, be judged poorly, alienating the fan base. Hauptman did bail the team out when few were interested in buying the team from AEG, and his business senses are often very astute, as he has introduced different, more modern changes to the club’s hierarchy, such as introducing a technical director, and has managed to keep the team profitable (and worth a fair amount, by MLS standards) by being careful with which players he invests in, but the club’s lack of success has brought him under a lot of fire (pun intended) from supporters.

The director of soccer operations (or technical director, here in the US) has been an important role in Europe for almost two decades now (or semi-important role, depending on the club). While what the person in the job does is relatively unclear, the best description that I can give is that the person in the role works to help make sure the team stays in line with the salary cap, assisting the manager (and the league) in the signing and scouting of players, and overseeing the club’s academy. The Fire have had two technical directors- former coach and star forward Frank Klopas, and the current one, former Columbus Crew technical director Brian Bliss. Outside of the signing of 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee, Klopas struggled in his role, as his Designated Player signings were, on a scale of 1-10, closer to the 1 than they were to the 10. But Bliss has done a pretty decent job. Young star Harry Shipp joined the Fire under a Homegrown Player spot and has become the fulcrum of the team. Scottish star Shaun Maloney was relatively affective before being transferred to Hull City, speedster David Accam has arguably been the team’s best DP since Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and Kennedy Igboananike has finally started to catch fire (again, pun intended). Bliss, too, has overseen an academy that has recently seen Shipp and Matt Polster ascend to high standing in the US youth teams. Obviously, what improvements are made in the coming years will have a lot of effect on whether or not Bliss’s tenure is considered successful, but it’s been so far, so good for the former USMNT defender.

The manager post at the club used to be a sought after position. The original coach of the team was Bob Bradley, who would go on to be the manager of the USMNT. The coach that succeeded him was Dave Sarachan, an assistant coach for the USMNT under Bruce Arena before going to Chicago. After Sarachan was fired, and Andrew Hauptman came in as general managing partner of the club, the managerial hires in the Windy City have been creative ones, but ones that have largely been failures. Juan Carlos Osorio, Hamlett, de los Cobos, and Klopas each lasted less than two seasons in the job. The biggest issue with the current manager, Frank Yallop, is his lack of creativity. He has been criticized for playing unattractive, more defensive tactics, which, with a team with simply an average in a league when the attacking prowess is increasing, it has slightly backfired on Yallop. As a veteran MLS manager, Yallop has tended to pick experienced veterans, such as Bakary Soumare, Patrick Ianni, and Guly do Prado over younger, more prolific players, like Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry, and Quincy Amarikwa, decisions that have come back to bite Yallop. These relatively bland tactics, and his personnel mismanagement, has seen the Fire struggle to form some chemistry with one particular lineup, which has definitely harmed the team’s results. Yallop, however, has had to make due with the slim roster options that he has been given, and seems to have finally found midfield and forward rotations that he likes, no mean feats considering the sudden departure of Maloney and Magee’s return from injury, so while the team’s performance hasn’t exactly been top notch, it is obvious that his years of experience piloting the lesser-heeled teams in the league (Yallop was the head coach of the re-formed San Jose Earthquakes from 2008 until he took the reins in Chicago) has been a big plus.

This year’s crop of players are as good as any in the past five years or so, but are just as inconsistent as ever. The team is backstopped by Sean Johnson, who is arguably one of the best keepers in MLS. The defense is marshalled by captain Jeff Larentowicz, but has been largely disappointing this season, as injuries to Adailton and Ty Harden, along with streaky play from Larentowicz, fellow center back Eric Gehrig, and outside back Lovel Palmer have seen the Fire allow more goals than 14 teams in the league. The midfield has probably been the brightest spot in this team, but has still managed to underwhelm. Maloney was a good veteran addition to the team, but injuries lessened the impact that the Scot had on the team. Right winger Patrick Nyarko is starting to find form, but he, too, has struggled with injuries. Accam has been a revelation on the left wing, and the center of midfield has been steadily anchored by Shipp and Polster. Up front, Igboananike and new acquisition Gilberto lead the line- both are known for being prolific talents, but seem to have on/off switches in terms of production.

So there’s a lot of goods and bads that can be seen in each of the categories that could be to blame for the Chicago Fire being one of the worst soccer teams in the country. For me, the problem lies with how the club generally seems to be stuck in a rut of “conservatism.” Let me explain what I mean by that- the club built around a traditional strongman, Larentowicz, at center back, a traditional number 10 in Shipp, and a traditional poacher in Magee. The team is not aggressive in any one particular area, either soccer related (looking for unusual fits in certain positions) or business related (marketing, recruiting and keeping fan interest). They are not doing anything along the lines of, say, the Seattle Sounders, a team that is willing to splash the cash om players with different styles, from different demographics, like former Premier Leaguers Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, mix and match them with role-playing veterans that want to play to win, all while getting the fans involved to make a successful club and a solid top-to-bottom organization. The Fire aren’t being aggressive enough to find talented players that don’t fit the traditional soccer player mold, and for that, their on-field performance, and fan interest, is quickly waning. This conservative feel to the organization starts at the top with Hauptman- he needs to seriously consider selling the team to a more avid soccer fan, possibly someone more local, that will take a greater interest in the team and help rejuvenate its fan base. His next in command soccer wise, Yallop, should be allowed to stay for a regime change, but should be on a short leash if he fails to adjust to the new, (hopefully) pragmatic owner, because if, and (hopefully) when the new owner takes over, the direction of the franchise needs to be reversed 180 degrees to make it relevant again.