Saturday, July 30, 2005

Trade winds

Less than 29 hours remain until the non-waiver trading deadline passes. A week ago, all the talk was about A.J. Burnett, Mark Redman, and Joe Randa. All that, however, has been eclipsed by Manny Ramirez, who has requested a trade out of Boston. His gigantic contract virtually assures that the Red Sox cannot get equal value, at least in terms of production on the field, and will probably end up paying the majority of his salary for the rest of the year. It also limits the trading partners tremendously.

FANTASY

At first glance, those teams would seem to be either the Yankees or the Mets, but don't count out large market teams like either Chicago team or the Dodgers. Quite frankly, Manny is exactly what the White Sox need to inject some life into their anemic offense, which so far has been bailed out by their pitching staff. The White Sox would have to give up Brandon McCarthy, one of their bullpen performers in Damaso Marte, and perhaps even an Aaron Rowand to get Manny. Is that worth it? In my opinion, yes. He's a Hall of Famer who is a proven clutch performer. The Dodgers have a couple of stud middle infielders they can offer--but that's exactly what Boston already has in its system in Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia. The Dodgers would probably have to give up Jeff Weaver, Edwin Jackson, and Hee Sop Choi, or maybe even Yhency Brazoban. Given that the Dodgers are shopping Weaver anyway, that doesn't seem like too bad a deal, but I doubt Boston would take it. The Cubs can offer stud prospects Rich Hill, Felix Pie, and then throw in a major leaguer or two, like Todd Walker or Mike Remlinger, or perhaps even the recently demoted Corey Patterson. That trade wouldn't exactly mortgage the Cubs' future, given that their two best pitchers are already under 25.

REALITY

Of course, as I'm typing this, all the news over the airwaves is a 3-team deal that would put Manny Ramirez and Danys Baez on the Mets, with Mike Cameron and Aubrey Huff going the Red Sox, while a veritable bounty of prospects would go to the Devil Rays: the Mets would give up Lastings Milledge and Yusmeiro Petit, respectively among the best outfield and pitching prospects in the game, and the Red Sox would give up Kelly Shoppach, an older prospect blocked by Jason Varitek, and Anibal Sanchez, who has had injury troubles but has great strikeout potential. Let's look at the trade in terms of VORP value so far in the season:

Boston would lose 34.3 runs with Ramirez going, getting back 17.0 and 14.9 back with Cameron and Huff, respectively, for a loss of 2.4 runs, not to mention the fact that they would be giving up two prospects. Ramirez and the Boston fans, however, have placed the front office in a situation where they basically HAVE to move him, no matter what the cost. And make no mistake--getting Manny's salary off the books will definitely benefit the Red Sox, as they'd save a few million dollars this year and many more over the next couple years. Also, Huff has underperformed this year at an almost astonishing rate; it's hard to imagine him doing worse in Boston, although his left-handedness doesn't help matters. All that stuff is silver lining though. In a vacuum, there's no way the Red Sox would do this deal. But their hand is forced.

The Mets would gain Manny's 34.3 runs and Baez's 9.8 (not bad for a reliever), while only losing Cameron's 17.0, for a net gain of 27.1, which is about 2 or 3 wins. In a tight NL East and Wild Card, that could make the difference between playing and golfing in October. While the Mets would lose their top 2 prospects, they would take solace in knowing that Beltran and Ramirez would have blocked Milledge anyway. There's no way to soften the blow of losing a prospect as promising as Petit, but that's the way it works in New York--win now, or win never.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile would officially make themselves the most promising team of 2007. Adding those 4 prospects to a system that already includes such young studs as Scott Kazmir, Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Jonny Gomes, and Joey Gathright. And with all those extra outfielders, they could even leverage that into a trade for more pitching at some point. They lose 24.7 runs this year, but when you're in last place, what's a couple of wins? If anything, it gives them a shot at the #1 pick in next year's draft. Tampa will have to improve its pitching staff if it doesn't want to end up like the all-bat no-arm Reds.

MORE REALITY

Okay, that deal fell through and even more players are in the mix. I'm going to take this as my cue to stop speculating and sit out until the deals actually happen.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

NFL contracts

Jason Whitlock has a nice article on ESPN today about the effects of the non-guaranteed contract in the NFL. One such effect is that a dozen or so high profile players threaten to hold out each year in the hopes of signing a more lucrative contract. This year, Terrell Owens, Edgerrin James, and Javon Walker are the big names in the news. I can certainly see why they would want to do so. Based on their performances last year and the market, they all could be making more money than they are currently making. What I don't understand is why NFL players want to hold out for longer contracts. The nature of the non-guaranteed contract is that the length of it has virtually no effect on the player, since the team can cut him at any time without having to pay him a dime. The only deterrent to cutting a player at all is that salary cap calisthenics are required. The only guaranteed money in NFL contracts is the money received as a signing bonus. So my question is: why do NFL players hold out for longer deals? It seems to me like players would benefit more by asking for shorter deals with larger signing bonuses and smaller salaries. The way it seems to go, teams dish out long term deals with most of the salary loaded on the last few years, meaning that though a player might have played for 50% of the time specified by the contract, he might only have received 40% of the salary. If the team cuts him halfway through the deal, they save money. So why does Edgerrin James want a long-term deal? Given that football careers are relatively shorter than other sports, I would think that players would care less about long-term stability and more about immediate payment. James made 8 million dollars last year--why would he want to sign a new deal that would pay him, say, 7 million a year, but could end prematurely? These questions are not rhetorical by the way--insight is appreciated.

Forza Chicago

The AC Milan/Chicago Fire game last night was much more competitive than I expected. Milan ended up winning 3-1, but only after being outplayed by Chicago for the first 70 minutes of the game. Chicago generated far more scoring chances during this span, and were unlucky only to get one goal, as they hit the post and the crossbar between the 62nd and 64th minutes. They could have had even more goals had not striker Andy Herron completely flubbed two breakaways.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised that Milan played without much luster--they are still in their preseason. They showed almost no cohesion in the first half, although there were flashes of individual brilliance by Rui Costa anf Cafu, and the long ball sent in by Paolo Maldini that led to the first goal was a thing of beauty. Milan didn't get things going until the last 20 minutes of the game, when halftime substitutes (and normal 1st team starters) Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf concocted a brilliant give-and-go, resulting in Seedorf one-touching Pirlo's return across the goal mouth to an unmarked Alberto Gilardino, who tapped the ball into an empty net. It was a glorious reminder of soccer's inherent beauty, and despite the previous 70 minutes, everyone in the stands knew that Chicago was probably not capable of such a play.

Serginho added on in stoppage time with a strike that went in off the crossbar, leading to a very misleading final score. A fair result of the game would have been a 2-2 draw, or perhaps even a 3-2 Fire victory. I came into the game expected a 3-0 or 4-0 blowout in favor of Milan; their back line of Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, and Jaap Stam is probably the best in the world. The game would have been more lopsided had Milan played at full strength--they were missing Andriy Shevchenko, the best striker in the world, Kaka, a top-5 worldwide attacking midfielder, and Dida, a top-5 goalkeeper--but Chicago showed that the new FIFA rankings with the US at #6 are no fluke. There are no US national team stars on Chicago; their best players are borderline World Cup squad members. So if a bunch of no-name US players can outplay one of the world's elite clubs, imagine what a full US squad will be able to do in the 2006 World Cup.

Update: Just read that last night the Columbus Crew beat Fulham 2-1 in another friendly. While Fulham isn't even in the top tier of the Premiership, it's still a surprising result that bodes well for Major League Soccer. I like to rag on the MLS sometimes, but that will certainly become more difficult to do in light of these results.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A-Mazing

I've decided to be a bit more rapid fire with these and less calculated, because it's a freaking blog. It'll be more fun this way.

-The A's have now won 7 in a row after pasting Cleveland tonight, and are leading the wild card race. I'm not sure why I feel so exhilarated by Oakland's success. It's probably a combination of having picked them and watching the anti-stats crowd have to watch eat crow afte reveling in Oakland's anemic first two months. The dangerous thing about Oakland is that their offense could drop off at any moment, sending the team back into the dark ages. Even if that happens, the pitching should be good enough to keep them in contention.

-Looks like A.J. Burnett will be traded to either the Red Sox or White Sox. I'm not sure why either team wants him, because they certainly don't need him. It makes a bit more sense for him to go to Boston, but to get him, they'd have to trade Bronson Arroyo. Burnett has been worth about 8 more runs so far, but it would hurt to lose Arroyo's flexibility and playoff experience. If Boston does end up pulling the trigger and getting Burnett, expect them to throw a ton of rookies in September (like Papelbon and Hansen) in the hopes that they can emulate the 2002 Angels and Frankie Rodriguez. The White Sox don't need Burnett at all--he'd be the 4th starter on this team. I don't think it's worth giving up their best pitching prospect and a reliable left-handed reliever for a 4th starter.

-Homerism: The Reds made a good deal, acquiring two young starting pitchers with high strikeout rates and fairly low walk rates in the minors. Can't do too much better than that for a 35-year old journeyman third baseman. Word is that the Reds will be looking to move Rich Aurilia to some gullible team, but likely won't get as much in return.

-How ridiculous is the NL East? Since when has an entire division stayed in contention through the non-waiver trade deadline? Frankly, if I were the Marlins I wouldn't trade Burnett if I were still within 5 games of the division lead.

-Larry Brown would be a great fit in New York. His emphasis on defense and teamwork is exactly what the Knicks need, and I see two precedents for success. 1) Brown's tenure in Philadelphia. He took a team that was even more messed up than the Knicks are and had them in the Finals in 3 seasons. If Brown can last for 4 years with AI, he can last for 4 with Marbury. 2) Pat Riley's tenure in New York. Though Riley was a bit younger when he took the job in New York, the circumstances were quite similar--underachieving Knicks team that had talent but couldn't play defense, and an incoming coach with a championship reputation. My gut feeling says that Brown would get the Knicks past the first round in 05-06 and then contending for the Eastern Conference title when Shaq crashes and burns, which shouldn't be too long from now, given his health.

-Pittsburgh won the Sidney Crosby lottery, which essentially saves the franchise. Good for them. It will be quite exciting to see Master Lemeiux and his apprentice, that is, if the NHL can get itself a TV deal. I would have to think that ESPN would bite, although I would expect every game (even the playoffs) to be on ESPN2. I certainly hope it is, because this will really be Year Zero for the league. There will be seismic player movement (teams like Philadelphia and Detroit have started things off already), new rules, and very little exposure. With ticket prices being slashed around the league, it seems like teams are counting on luring fans back the old-fashioned way.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

It's all over!

Well, it finally happened. I finally saw the White Sox lose. I've been going to White Sox games for four years now, and I estimate that I've seen about 20 games in that span. The Sox won every single game, most of them easily, but some of them in fine dramatic style, like Frank Thomas's walk-off homer, and Jose Valentin's walk-off 3 run job to beat the Cubs, setting off a racucous celebration. But last night, the White Sox offense lost its teeth (not that it had many to begin with), succumbing meekly to Wade Miller and losing 3-0. The few times the White Sox had men on base, they "small-balled" themselves into oblivion, getting caught stealing twice and giving up an out with a sacrifice bunt that they desperately could have used later in the inning.

Manny Ramirez essentially won the game for the Red Sox, muscling a two-run homer to the opposite field in the first inning off of El Duque, who settled down after that. Ramirez made one of his trademark misplays around the fifth inning, freezing in his tracks at a ball hit directly at him, causing it to fly over his head and land for a double. But in my mind, Manny more than made up for this error in the 9th inning, when it mattered most. Paul Konerko led off the inning with a blast that one-hopped the fence in left; Ramirez played the hop perfectly, then fired a perfect throw that one-hopped to second base, causing Konerko to stop halfway to second and scramble back to first, keeping the double play in order. The final play of the game was a high drive into the left field power alley. Ramirez tracked the ball the instant it left the bat, ran a perfect route to the ball, and made a difficult catch running along the warning track. He performed a celebratory slam into the padded fence, and Curt Schilling smirked a little, probably thinking, "That's Manny." He's so confounding, but he'll consistently remind you that he's the best right-handed hitter of his era (until Pujols came along, at least).

The real reason I'm making this post is because it was exactly a year ago today that I saw the most memorable baseball game of my life. Serendipity had it such that my first game at Fenway just happened to be one of the best games of the regular season; it wasn't the best-played game, but it was certainly the most dramatic, considering the rivlary, the stakes, the brawl, and the comeback against the best relief pitcher of all time. Not a single detail of that game has been lost, and on occasion, I still look at the scorecard I kept to relive some of the moments. Needless to say, such a game swept me up into the drama of then Sox/Yanks rivalry, and gave me a lesson about how much Boston fans really care about their team, no matter what they might say. The game also helped me to appreciate the epic 2004 postseason--both the ALCS and the NLCS. As a baseball fan, and as a human being, I thank my lucky stars I was at that game. I can't really think of much more to say about it, so here is what I wrote about it at 2 AM, the night following the game. I have pages of notes that could coalesce into the writing project I allude to, but I'm still not exactly sure what I'm going to do with it. Even if the project never comes to fruition, the fact that this game stirred my creative muse is a testament to the powerful effect the game had on me.

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7-24-04, 2:38 AM

This is the baseball game that will linger in my memory for the rest of my life. Every time I see a photo of Fenway Park I'll think of tonight's game. Every time I see a Boston or New York uniform I'll think of tonight's game. Every time I see a baseball diamond I'll think of tonight's game. And I hope Josh and I grow old and one late July evening in 2054 we can return to Fenway, if it's still standing, and think of tonight's game, and fans will crowd around us, wondering aloud: "you were there?"

It was not a well-played baseball game, nor is its outcome immediately significant. There are still two months to play and while the Red Sox are currently tied for the Wild Card lead, they could quite easily end up missing the playoffs, rendering this game relatively meaningless.

But it was meaningful -- I would even say spiritually meaningful -- to me. It was the best baseball game and best sporting event and probably best any event I've ever witnessed, and I doubt that anything I'll ever see can top it. I don't think I've ever felt more alive than when Bill Mueller's drive cleared the right field fence in Fenway and I leapt into the arms of my brethren strangers in the right field grandstand.

I text-messaged a few people telling them to turn on ESPN and watch the highlights of the game. Upon arriving home, Josh and I watched the highlights ourselves. It was enjoyable, but part of me was deeply disturbed that something of such magnitude for me could be reduced to a highlight reel. It seemed like the game had been gutted, and I was seeing its skin hanging up on a smokehouse wall. This is what I told my friends to watch?

So, I'm going to write about it. Not here, and not now. But that's what I'm going to do. I have to give this game its guts. When I get the time, I will sit down and write and write and write about this game until I can write no more. It will probably be enough to fill a book. And maybe that's what it will become. I have an urgent need to show every one of my close friends (especially my fellow baseball-loving friends) exactly how I felt and exactly what I saw. Writing is the best possible way I can think of to do this. I can't pass up this opportunity to share my life with the people I care about.

All this from someone who isn't even a Red Sox fan.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bits

I regret that I haven't been able to post as much lately, but summer activities, vacation, and law school applications mean that I'm spending less time in front of the computer (which I suppose is a good thing). Nevertheless, it's time for an illicit post from work!

-A.J. Burnett to Baltimore makes sense only if they can retain him. As it is, the Marlins are only going to trade him if they can also package the horribly underachieving Mike Lowell. Acquiring Lowell makes absolutely no sense for the Orioles, as they already have the second best 3B in the AL, Melvin Mora, not to mention that Lowell is owed $21m through 2007. If the Orioles could somehow dump the overpaid ($13.5m through 2006) Sidney Ponson into the deal, then they should pull the trigger. With the graying of the AL East, the relatively young duo of Burnett and Bedard could put the O's in a position to contend through the end of the decade. There's still plenty of time before the deadline, so I wouldn't be surprised if the deal got changed so that Lowell was left out entirely.

-The NHL Draft is tentatively scheudled for July 30, but it should honestly should be called the Sidney Crosby Lottery. For those not in the know, Crosby is a lad of 18 from Nova Scotia, with breathtaking puckhandling skills and an almost omniscient offensive awareness that has drawn comparisons with Wayne Gretzky. Some of Crosby's more flabbergasting goals have already been shown on SportsCenter, the most memorable being when he drew the puck up on the blade of his stick and shot it into the net lacrosse-style...from behind the goal. The kid's got skillz; he's a natural; he's The One; yada yada yada. The question is, who's going to get him? Shockingly, the NHL came up with a pretty good solution. Each team starts out with three balls in the Lotto Machine (TM), but has a ball removed for each playoff appearance in the past 3 years and each #1 pick in the past 4. However, each team is guaranteed one ball. Only 4 teams have been bad/unlucky enough to retain all three chances: Buffalo, Columbus, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers. If Crosby ends up on the Rangers, expect the conspiracy theorists to come out of the woodworks. But the fact is, the entire landscape of the league will be changed with the new salary cap, and there will be real competitive balance no matter where Crosby plays. Crosby is as much about marketing as he is about actual skill, so I wouldn't mind if he ended up in New York. Anything to keep poker from outrating hockey.

-It may just be me, but I sense that the Oakland A's are inevitably headed for the playoffs. Guess what: Rich Harden is best young pitcher in the majors, Barry Zito has rebounded and is now better than Hudson and Mulder, and Huston Street and Justin Duchscherer are the best 1-2 bullpen combo (based on combined VORP) in the majors. The O.C. Angels should be terrified.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Finally...

The NHL will return! Seems like a waste of time to be bitter--true fans will return, just as they did in baseball. The new financial structure seems to hint at the league's realization that it is now a niche in this country. The only possible way for the league to even approach its former popularity in the 80s and early 90s is to hope the offense goes way up and that Sidney Crosby really is the next Gretzky. I'm not sure if I agree with the goals being expanded, but I have no problem with shrinking goalie pads and getting rid of the red line. Of course, the real solution to the scoring woes would be to contract to 16 or so teams, but the owners wouldn't have any of that, would they?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Observations on a summer's day at Wrigley

Before I get to the main content, a quick word about the All-Stars--I think it's time to cut out player voting. Just looking at the overall numbers, I believe the fans did better than the players did at picking out the All-Stars. The AL starting lineup is almost exactly what it should be, while Rolen and Beltran are the only really questionable picks in the NL (and one can make a good case for them based on career output). True, Ensberg is the biggest snub, and he's in that position because of Rolen, but I have more of an issue with the players picking Shea Hillenbrand over Travis Hafner, Ichiro over Hideki Matsui, Cesar Izturis over Felipe Lopez (although LaRussa saved Lopez), and Pudge Rodriguez over Jorge Posada. I'm all for getting rid of the player vote, and perhaps replacing it with a G.M. vote. After all, they're the people actually watching all the games.

Ok, on to some observations I made while watching (and scoring) the dramatic Nats/Cubs game at Wrigley on Sunday the 3rd. The Nats won 5-4 in 12 innings, but not before weathering two Cub comebacks in the bottom halves of the 9th and 11th frames. It must've been a tough loss for the Cubs to take, especially since it cemented a Nationals sweep.

Observation 1: I've already written about why the Nats are doing so well in close games (combination of good bullpen and judicious use of the bullpen by manager Frank Robinson), but I think I figured out another piece of the puzzle while watching the Nats' outfield in action. Centerfielder Brad Wilkerson made 4 or 5 outstanding plays, all on hits which would have either started a rally or driven in critical runs. Wilkerson was getting fantastic jumps on the ball, and turned what seemed like sure extra bases into routine line-outs. Frankly, Wilkerson did what Andruw Jones is reputed to do--he made it look easy. As the Bernie Williams disaster in the Bronx this year has shown, the importance of having a good defensive centerfielder cannot be overstated. Wilkerson's Rate2 shows him at only a 98 this year (though he was at 108 last year), but I can tell you to throw the stats out the window on this one. Wilkerson's defense won the game. With a team so dependent on winning close games, the Nats outfield D could be what wins them the division.

Observation 2: While I praised Frank Robinson earlier, I'm using this space to lambaste him for some bonehead decisions. In the 6th inning, with Washington up 2-0, Jose Guillen singled and Vinny Castilla walked, putting men on 1st and 2nd for the 5th batter in the lineup, Marlon Byrd. Byrd attempted to bunt the runners over, and popped out into a double play, killing the rally. This illustrates why it's a bad idea to force guys who aren't used to bunting into bunting (Byrd only has 6 in his career). It's also a bad idea to play for one run when you're already up by 2. It's much better to play for a big inning during the early and middle stages of a game--bunting is, in essence playing for only one run. This can be crucial late in games when the score is tied, but a single run in the 6th is not as valuable as the potential of a bigger rally. So yeah, bad decision. You know what an even worse decision was? Having Byrd attempt to bunt again in the 8th, IN THE EXACT SAME SITUATION. Guillen singled, Castilla walked, Byrd struck out while attempting to bunt. Given Byrd's previous failure, wouldn't it make more sense to let him at least try to get a hit? One might argue that Robinson showed confidence in Byrd by charging him with the task a second time, but that only had to make the failure all the more crushing for Byrd, who finished 0-6 with 4 strikeouts. All of this makes me wonder--why the hell is Byrd batting 5th anyway? Ok, well, the real answer to that is because Nick Johnson and Ryan Church are injured, but seriously--the #5 hitter is SUPPOSED to swing away with runners on base. Driving in runs is his job. If you don't have enough confidence in a guy's hitting ability to let him swing away with 2 men on, none out, and a 2-0 lead, why the hell is he batting 5th? Wait, I'll answer that too--because Carlos "My best season was on Tyler's 1992 Strat-O-Matic Card" Baerga and Jamey ".350 SLG" Carroll are hitting behind him. This is why the Nationals are so confounding. There can't be a #5 hitter worse than Marlon Byrd, yet they're on pace to win 100 games!

Observation 3: In addition to recording outs and hits in my scorecard, I also noted how deep in the count every at bat went. It was a bit tedious, but the results confirmed something obvious--Carlos Zambrano runs his pitch counts high because he throws a lot of balls. Some of the credit has to go to the Nationals for being disciplined, but compare Zambrano's outing with his counterpart, Washington's Ryan Drese. Drese is one of those guys who pitches to contact--in other words, he throws strikes and hopes his defense catches everything, which is exactly what happened Sunday. In fact, only 3 out of the 24 batters Drese faced went to 2-2 or 3-2 counts. Compare that with the Zambrano, who went to 2-2 or 3-2 on 3 batters in the first inning alone, and 12 of 28 batters (excluding an intentional walk). The results? Drese allowed 4 hits and no walks in 7 innings, but only struck out 1 batter. Zambrano allowed 6 hits and 3 walks 7 innings, and struck out 7 batters. These numbers illustrate the difference in "stuff" between the pitchers. Zambrano's pitches dart out of the strike zone, and disciplined teams are able to lay off and work deep into the count. In contrast, Drese's stuff is straight and not very electric, but he's able to place it well enough that he lets his defense do the work, as was demonstrated on Sunday. Drese's style is particularly suited to the vast expanses of RFK Stadium, and for the Nationals good outfield defense. He's proving to be a good, cost-effective pickup.

Observation 4: It seriously doesn't get any better than Wrigley in the purely aesthetic sense. Fenway was awesome because of the people there, and PNC is breathtaking, but Wrigley has something unique about it that pushes above all the rest in my book. I suppose it's the combination of the ivy, the scoreboard, the pennants keeping track of the standings, the people on the rooftops, the El, the lake, and the skyline--it's baseball, pure and simple.