Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012 NL West Preview

Is this the poster for the new Judd Apatow flick?

1) Arizona Diamondbacks
2) San Diego Padres
3) Los Angeles Dodgers
4) San Francisco Giants
5) Colorado Rockies

Looking Back
I don't know what the hell to make of these teams. Last year I predicted the Dodgers to finish first (they finished third) and the Diamondbacks to finish last (they finished first). I didn't accurately predict where a single team would finish in this division. Having said that, I predicted this division as well as any other divisions in baseball. Huh? Well I may not have predicted their final record accurately, but what I said about each team was almost dead accurate, with the exception of missing on how good Arizona's rotation would look. I predicted returns to stardom for Matt Kemp and Justin Upton (2nd and 4th in the MVP ballot, respectively). I tabbed Clayton Kershaw as my player under 25 to watch and he won the Cy Young. I predicted that Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres had fluke seasons the year before and because of that they and Miguel Tejada would submarine the Giants' playoff chances despite the second best rotation in the league. I even predicted Cameron Maybin's break out and Willie Bloomquist landing and failing in the lead off spot. Even with almost everything going exactly as I said (save for the D-Backs not pitching and Ubaldo Jimenez having a great year again), I utterly failed in predicting this division. I fear I will make the same mistake this year...

Looking Ahead
Honestly, I feel more uncertain about picking this division than Joe Black would before a surgery to remove his third ball. I like the D-Backs offense to do about what they did last year. I don't see why Upton can't improve on his season and they still have solid hitters in Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, Chris Young and Paul Goldschmidt. It is anyone's guess what journeyman Ryan Roberts will do following his surprising year, but they added Jason Kubel to give the offense a slight boost. What I don't quite get is why the team would not focus more on their defense to back up a pitching staff that, besides Ian Kennedy, does not strike out a lot of batters. Gerrardo Parra was a third center fielder for this team, but he will now be on the bench behind the lead-footed Kubel. Goldschmidt and Roberts aren't exactly Keith Hernandez and Brooks Robinson either. Add in the fact that the team out performed their run differential by six wins, and I don't feel good about this pick at all. But they did win their division by 8 games and I expect the second place team from last year to be worse.

SLEEPER ALERT!!! SLEEPER ALERT!!! If you want a team that could surprise this year it is the San Diego Padres (not the Nationals, Marlins, Royals or Blue Jays). Some facts in their favor:

  • 2 seasons ago they won 90 games
  • Last season they under performed their run differential by 8 wins
  • Added Carlos Quentin and Yonder Alonso at positions that performed terribly for most of last year
  • While they lost their best pitcher Mat Latos, their ball park should make some mediocre pitchers look pretty good in his stead including the volatile Edinson Volquez and 27 year old Corey Luebke
  • None of the other teams in this division look to be all that good
So that's my best bet for a sleeper this year. I could see them win this division actually. Or they could be horrible. God I hate this division.

The Dodgers get the 3rd spot simply because they have the best hitter and best pitcher and were a little better than you probably realized last year. It took them time to shake off the negativity of the McCourts, but  Kemp and Kershaw kept them respectable throughout the year. Since the Dodgers didn't make the playoffs, Kemp was denied the MVP award, but I don't think people realize how great his season was. In addition to 39 homers and 40 steals, he played very good defense and got on base. According to Baseball-Reference, he had the 46th best season of any player under 30 by Wins Above Replacement. Unfortunately the rest of his teammates aren't very good so sports writers didn't think he was as valuable as the guy who played with Prince Fielder, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke and John Axford. If anything, the Dodgers added downgrades in a lot of spots so 3rd is as high as I think they will finish this year. And still, Frank McCourt.

What the hell are the Giants doing? Are they just cool with the 1 World Series? That was enough for Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and now Madison Bumgarner? They have 3 of the best pitchers in the National League, none of whom is older than 28 and their big offensive addition this year is Melkey Fucking Cabrera? This team had the worst offense in the National League and they added a mediocre outfielder coming off what was by far his best season? Why would Cain want to stay beyond this season? Why is Brian Sabean still employed? Why am I getting so fired up about the Giants?

You could seriously flip my predictions over and have that be how this division turns out this year. The Rockies could field a strong offense led by Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. But I think their pitching will really struggle this year. I was ready to make this team my division winner until I looked at the depth chart. Jeremy Guthrie in Coors Field? They may have to keep the balls in a pool before the game instead of a humidor to keep them in the park. And he is their number 2 pitcher. Besides Tulo, Marco Scutaro is the second youngest at 36. Casey Blake and Todd Helton are both 38. They added Michael Cuddyer to the outfield, but I find him to be one of the more overrated players in the game because people give him too much credit for his intangibles. The one saving grace could be rookie pitchers Alex White and Drew Pomeranz busting out in spring training, earning rotation spots and carrying the rotation through the year. But if you think it's safe to rely on not one but two rookie pitchers then I've got a bridge I want to sell you. Or something like that.

Player to Watch Over 35

Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies, 38 years old

Helton is going to make for a very interesting Hall of Fame case. His career was very obviously helped by Coors Field (1.071 OPS at home, .869 OPS on the road), but at some point we have to give some credit where it is due. A 1.071 OPS over 15 seasons is still an amazing feat. His power dropped pretty dramatically after the implementation of the Coors Field Humidor (49 HR in 2001, 30 in 2002), but he has still posted a .939 OPS in the 10 seasons since then mostly thanks to a ridiculous .424 OBP over that time. He has always been a good defender, albeit at first base. Some of his top comparables include Hall of Famers Johnny Mize and Orlando Cepeda, but they also include borderline candidates Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez and Will Clark (also Jeff Bagwell, who is technically borderline but only because sports writers are very ignorant). In career Wins Above Replacement he is surrounded by other borderline guys like Keith Hernandez, Buddy Bell, Dick Allen and Graig Nettles. The best comparable to me is Walker, just because he shares the Scarlet C (for Coors Field) with Helton and is not gaining much traction despite strong evidence that he was great outside of Coors as well. Helton has two more years on his deal and though he does not play full time anymore he posted a decent season last year. Two more of those and maybe they will be enough to change the BBWAA's mind...but I doubt it. "Thinking outside the box" is not a requirement for entry into that little club.


Aubrey Huff, 1B, Giants and Brandon Crawford, SS, Giants

That anger over the Giants has not subsided yet. Imagine if I had a reason to be angry with my favorite team? I do? Oh shit. Anyway, the team had the worst offense in the NL last year and had two spots where they could make huge upgrades. Huff had a good not great year in the Giants' World Series year so they gave him a 2 year deal. He responded by posting a .306 OBP in the middle of their lineup. Brandon Crawford took over for Zombie Tejada and put up a .288 OBP. But, um, he's young so I guess that's nice. Now I shouldn't get so mad with the team because the Free Agent market was weak in first basemen and short stops and they don't have any internal options. Wait, what? That's right, the strength of this market was first basemen and short stops AND they have an internal replacement in Brandon Belt at first. I understand not going after Pujols or Fielder because they had Belt in the wings. But how could this team not sign Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins or Rafael Furcal? Yes they all come with risks, but good god. A .288 OBP in an already shitty lineup? I I am Matt Cain next year, how can I not sign with the Red Sox or another team with even a mediocre offense? It's like they got so mad at the Bonds/Kent era that they hate offense now. If these two are the starters for the majority of the season, the Giants have no shot at the playoffs.

2012 NL Central Preview

1) Cincinnati Reds
2) St. Louis Cardinals
3) Milwaukee Brewers
4) Pittsburgh Pirates
5) Chicago Cubs
1,535,704,345) Houston Astros

Looking Back
This was my worst division winner prediction. Last year, the Cubs were my "bold prediction". This year I will have none of those. I thought a rotation led by Matt Garza would be the best in the division (barely edging out the Astros; I must have been drunk). I thought the offense would be underrated. Truthfully, I look back and can't understand what I was thinking. I seriously discounted the top 3 pitchers on the Brewers and the advantage having two MVP candidates (Braun and Fielder) in your lineup provides. I had no idea Lance Berkman was still Lance Berkman or that the Braves would defend their rightful playoff birth like the French in WWII, but that's no excuse for choosing the team with the best player in baseball to finish 4th. I will try to do better this year.

Looking Ahead
I am rolling these previews out based on how exciting I think each division will be. The only reason I don't think this division will be as exciting as others is because of it's lack of star power. Gone are Fielder and Pujols. Ryan Braun will probably be suspended for the first 50 games. Lance Berkman should go back to being Fat Elvis. The Pirates have Andrew McCutcheon, but how many of you really know much about Andrew McCutcheon. And I challenge you to name one player on the Astros besides Carlos Lee (and I bet most of you would not have even got that one). However, I do think there will be a great race at the top.

The Reds did the most to upgrade their team this year simply by not losing any MVP candidates. Instead, they added a potential number 1 pitcher that could be as good as any pitcher in the division. Mat Latos is coming over from the San Diego Padres so you may expect he may see some struggles going from the best pitchers park to one of the worst, but he's allowed a .635 OPS at home and a .637 OPS on the road. They also have the new king of the NL Central, Joey Votto, coming off a season that was almost as good as his MVP season. Jay Bruce may never be the superstar that I expected, but he should make a few All Star teams and serve as a great Jazzy Jeff to Votto's Fresh Prince. Their already deep bullpen is now deeper with the addition of lefty setup man Sean Marshall and new closer Ryan Madson. They have the feel of last year's Brewers to me, some good top end talent and enough depth to take the division. In addition, a great way to pick a team on the rise is to look at how the team performed relative to their run differential (runs scored vs. runs allowed). The Reds under performed their expected record by four wins. With the addition of three players that could add about 6-8 wins, this team could improve by double digit wins next year.

The Reds will face serious competition from the defending champion Cardinals (I'm actually dubious about this team without Pujols, but I've been burned too much by this team in the past so I'm going to pretend this is what I think). They may have lost the second best player in team history (Stan the Man had a longer career), but they may have done enough to cover up that loss. Adam Wainwright will return from Tommy John surgery and has the ability to win the Cy Young this year if he is healthy. That alone is enough to make up Pujols' production last year. The team also added Carlos Beltran who had a nice bounce back last year after struggling with injuries the previous few years. They will get a full season out of Rafael Furcal that could solve their leadoff issues and they should see improvements from Allen Craig, John Jay and playoff hero David Freese. Ultimately I think they will fall just short of the Reds because I don't think Berkman can do what he did last year and there are more injury risks on this team than any other from the old guys (Carpenter, Berkman, Holliday, Beltran, Furcal) to the young guys (Freese, Wainwright, Craig).

The Brewers will not repeat as division champs if Ryan Braun is suspended. The Brewers may even fall behind the Pirates if Ryan Braun is suspended. The team did a good job preparing for Life After Fielder with the addition of Aramis Ramirez. They still have a great front 3 in their rotation and a closer, Jon Axford, who was among the best in baseball last year. But if Ryan Braun misses the first 50 games, this team will fall too far behind the Reds, Cardinals and possibly the Pirates. Also, as the Reds under performed their expected record, the Brewers OUT performed theirs by 6 runs, which shows their talent levels were not all that different last year. Of course, one of the best ways to out perform your record is with great end of the game pitchers like the Brewers had in Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. Relief pitching is so unpredictable though when you aren't named "Mariano Rivera" that it would be foolish to predict how these two will pitch this year.

Rather than talk about the Pirates, who I think are headed for their 19th straight sub-.500 season though they will be a pesky team, I want to talk about their young star, Andrew McCutcheon. McCutcheon is a 24-year-old centerfielder who plays excellent defense, runs the bases, gets on base and hits with power. He made his first All-Star game last year on the back of a nearly .900 OPS in the first half of the season. In his 3 season career, he has posted OBPs of .365, .365 and .364. This guy should be a huge star. I was going to say that if he were playing in a big market like Boston or New York he would be. But seeing as how Reggie Smith and Ellis Burks, excellent centerfielders for the Red Sox who never got the attention they deserved, are his top comparable players, it makes a little more sense. For some reason, and I hope it's not race, this particular skill set is undervalued by the general public.

The Cubs stole Theo Epstein from us and until they pay us back I refuse to talk about them.

The Astros have the potential to put the least talented team on the field in the history of baseball. Bud Norris is the only player on this roster who could be a part of a contending Astros team years and years from now. A shitty owner that hired a shitty general manager have doomed this franchise. Luckily for the good folks of Houston, those two are gone and have been replaced by forward thinking management. This, combined with the first overall pick this year and most likely the first overall pick next year, should speed up their rebuild.

Player to Watch Over 35

Chris Carpenter, RHP, Cardinals, 37 years old

Carpenter has had a really strange career. He was a completely average pitcher his first 6 seasons with the Blue Jays (his ERA+ was 99, which means his ERA over that time was almost exactly league average). He didn't strike out many guys; he walked a few too many guys; he gave up far too many home runs. Then he was released by Toronto, picked up by St. Louis and lost a full season to Tommy John surgery. When he returned and hooked himself up to the Dave Duncan Rejuvenation 5000 he was a completely different pitcher. His strikeouts improved by over 1 per nine innings; his walks dropped by 1.5 per nine innings; his homers remained highish, but with few free passes he could survive a few solo shots. Then he had 2 seasons that placed him in the conversation for best player in baseball (including 1 Cy Young Award) before going down with another elbow injury and missing almost 2 full years. When he returned he was again one of the best pitchers in the league 3 years running. Which brings us to now, where I have reservations on whether he will remain successful. In the last ten years there have been just 7 pitchers aged 37 with ERAs more than 10% better than average, or less than 1 per year. While these are some VERY arbitrary cutoffs (why 10%? why exactly 37? why the last ten years? I don't know, this post is getting long, stop questioning my methods), I think it shows just how rare it is for a 37 year old pitcher to have an elite season. That group includes Curt Schilling's magical 2004, Pedro Martinez's last good season for the Mets and Randy Johnson's Cy Young season in 2001. Carpenter is better than some of the other players on that list (Rick Reed and Kenny Rogers) but there are also a lot of pitchers that had better careers than Carpenter that did not make it to this list (Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens pre-steroids). This makes him my player to watch over 35.


Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Reds

Your acoustic guitar isn't going to save you this season Bronson. After a completely disastrous 199 inning season last year, Arroyo should be on a shorter leash than the one around my friend Joe Black's three balls. Arroyo allowed 46 home runs for a rate of 2.1 HR per 9 innings. The rate was the 9th worst of ALL TIME (you may be surprised to learn that 7 out of the bottom 10 seasons happened after 2000). The total? 3rd worst ever. Only Bert Blyleven with 50 (in 72.2 more innings than Arroyo) and Jose Lima with 48 (who, you know, is Jose Lima) allowed more. In a season where the division could be decided by 1 or 2 games, Arroyo cannot be allowed to pitch if his gopheritis returns. I would argue he should not be allowed in the rotation (there are 5 better Reds starters I believe) barring injury. Of course, with Dusty Baker at the helm, anything is possible. If I didn't have such strict personal rules on my "Y-Factor" I would make Dusty my guy. I mentioned before that strong bullpens help teams out perform there run differentials. One of the factors in teams under performing their run differentials is a bad manager. So the Reds under performing last year was probably luck, but it could also be the man with the toothpick, who, sadly, will be in line to capture manager of the year if the Reds win the division this year.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

2012 AL Central Preview

Can you believe Prince has lost weight since then?

1) Detroit Tigers
2) Kansas City Royals
3) Cleveland Indians
4) Chicago White Sox
5) Minnesota Twins

Looking Back
Last year, we predicted the White Sox would take the title on the strength of perennial power source Adam Dunn and the division's deepest rotation. While the rotation was certainly deep, it lacked the elite top talent that ultimately won the division for the Tigers (who we predicted to finish second, so not too shabby). What doomed the White Sox was Dunn, Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel all getting at least 440 At Bats and all posting OBPs between .265 and .296. Yikes. A team can get away with one or maybe even two sub .300 OBPs in their everyday lineup, but not 4 and not from defensive sieves like Dunn, Rios and Morel. We did nail the 10th Man (Joaquin Benoit with a 2.95 ERA over 61 innings for the Tigers) and the player to watch under 25 (Billy Butler with a .822 OPS in 159 games for the Ryoals). Our other big whiff? The surprising second place Indians were our pick to bring up the rear.

Looking Ahead
I mentioned in my last post that this will be baseball's most boring division this year. The reason is that I don't see any realistic contenders to the Tigers for the division crown and I don't see any other team being able to challenge for a Wild Card spot even if a second Wild Card is added (when the fuck is Bud going to make a decision on this by the way?) 

Coming back from last year's team that won the division by the largest margin of any division winner last year are the AL Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander and MVP Candidate Miguel Cabrera. Those two players alone could be enough to win this division for the Tigers. They also bring back a couple young players who had breakouts last year in Austin Jackson and Alex Avila. I expect both to take a step back this year, but still be productive. I do predict they will get a mini breakout from strikeout machine Max Scherzer. Add in full seasons from Doug Fister and Delmon Young (who I think sucks, but whatever) and how can you not like this team? Oh ya, they got Prince Fielder too. I think we can write this one down in (virtual) ink.

One caveat on the Tigers: this could be an historically bad defense if they stick with their stated plan. As of today, Jim Leyland plans to play Prince at first, Miguel at third, Jhonny Peralta at short and Delmon in left. Prince is a bad first baseman. Miguel was a bad third baseman 5 years ago, the last time he played the position regularly. Peralta was a bad short stop who moved to third last year. And Delmon is probably the worst of all of them. On days when Verlander and Scherzer pitch, this shouldn't matter too much since both are high strikeout pitchers. Same with most of the bullpen. But when Fister, Rick Porcello or Jacob Turner/Andrew Oliver pitch things could get ugly. These 4 pitchers will put a lot of balls in play this year and without a reliable defense they could see a slew of extra baserunners. This can all be fixed pretty easily by putting Brandon Inge at 3rd on days when a groundball pitcher starts and Andy Dirks in left when a flyball pitcher starts.

The next three spots are kind of a crap shoot for me. I think these teams will all end up at about .500 this year, but the Indians should lead the pack. The team has assembled an unprecedented collection of ground ball pitchers (though Fausto Carmona could be out for the season due to his legal issues) to put in front of a decent infield defense that just got better with the addition of elite gloveman Casey Kotchman. Wouldn't it be cool if Cleveland was forced to give up its offensive current moniker and go with a rotating nickname that fit the composition of that year's teams? Wouldn't you want to buy Cleveland Worm Burners merchandise? They will also get full seasons out of promising youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhal and are hoping for better health from Grady Sizemore, Shin Soo Choo and Travis Hafner so the offense should be better this year. But it probably won't be.

The Royals are going to be a lot of "experts" break out pick this year, and for good reason. I ultimately don't think they will have enough developed talent to overcome the Tigers, let alone the Indians, but they should show flashes this year as all their minor league talent matriculates (that's a word, right?). Their talented young offense finished 6th in runs last year and returns Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and my breakout pick for the AL, Eric Hosmer. They could also see a midseason promotion of uber prospect Wil Myers in right giving the team 5 impact bats under the age of 28. The rotation is why I think .500 is their ceiling. They made a decent trade for Jonathan Sanchez but they would need some serious improvement from "Ace" Luke Hochevar and young pitchers like Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery would have mature quicker than they probably will if they want to contend. It will be an exciting season in beautiful Kauffman Stadium, but they will have to wait at least another year until they host a playoff game. *X-Mark's Note 2/21: I forgot to mention that the Royals under performed their expected record by 7 games last year, which gives them a little more breakout potential than I gave them. Still think they will fall short of the division, but I like them ahead of the Indians now.

The White Sox lost their best pitcher (Mark Buehrle) and second best hitter (Carlos Quentin) and yet I think they have a chance to be better than last year. Look, I would bet all three of Joe Black's testicles that Dunn, Rios and Beckham will not hit as bad as they did last year. Dunn and Rios were historically bad. Rios posted the 20th worst OBP of any player in the expansion era (since 1969) and Dunn posted the worst batting average of any player with at least 490 plate appearances ever. EVER!!! That is just impossible to repeat. The main reason I have them fourth though is because it looks like GM Kenny Williams is going to tear down the walls and start over. However, he is the most unpredictable GM this side of Ruben Amaro so I still think there is a chance they add pieces and beat last year's record.

Then there is the Twins, a team built around two former MVPs who will always have to deal with potentially career ending injuries. Justin Morneau (concussions) and Joe Mauer (knees) are expected to start the season as full time regulars. The Twins would need vintage seasons out of both to even climb out of the bottom of this top heavy division because the rest of the roster is ugly. There are very few upside players on this team. The rotation behind injury risk Francisco Liriano is low in both variability and talent. The lineup is filled with guys who don't get on base. Ben Revere and Denard Span are the only players with upside on this entire team, but even that is limited. Of course, if last year is any indication of my predictive powers...Ladies and gentlemen meet your 2012 AL Central Champions, the Minnesota Twins!

Player to Watch Over 35
Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox, 36 years old

I love Paul Konerko's similar player list through is age 35 season. On that list of ten, there are 2 Hall of Famers (Cepeda and Jackson), 3 players who have spent or will spend a long time on the Hall of Fame ballot but will ultimately never get in through the BBWAA (Murphy, McGriff, Hodges), four contemporaries who probably won't get the required 5% of Hall Votes to stay on the ballot beyond the first year (C. Lee, D. Lee, Delgado and Ortiz), and the unique case of Palmeiro. And that seems about right to me with Konerko. He seems like 20% of a Hall of Famer, which is clearly excellent. He is a very underrated player because he has played during one of the best first base eras in history. And yet, he's still made 5 All-Star teams. He has only had one season (2003, his age-27 season when most players peak) that qualifies as below average. And yet, he posted his best overall season just two seasons ago at age 34. He was traded twice in his first full season at the age of 22. And yet, he now has 396 home runs and shows little sign of slowing down at a time when guys once again age properly. If the Chicago White Sox are to contend this year, it will be on the back of their 36 year old first baseman and best player.

Delmon Young, LF/DH, Tigers

I mentioned this before: I think Delmon Young sucks. The former number 1 overall pick has not improved since he was 18. He was once considered an elite athlete and defender. Now, he's fat and slow and should never be allowed near a glove. He was once supposed to have elite power. He has never had more than 21 home runs in any season and is more likely to hit 10 than 20. He has never gotten on base (highest OBP is .336) and when he came over to the Tigers and was supposedly such a big piece of their post-season push, he got on base less than 30% of the time. With the combination of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in the middle of that order, I don't think it necessarily matters who they put around them, but just know that if the Tigers don't run away with this thing, Delmon Young will be Y.

Note: I was soooo tempted to have Yuniesky Betancourt in this spot, but as long as he is just a utility player he should not have too much bearing on how the Royals do this season. Of course, in Kansas City, any shit is possible. 

2012 MLB Previews are Coming

Hello faithful Sexy Boston Sports readers! Your favorite Bill Simmons knock-off is back and better than ever! How am I better than ever? Because in 2 short weeks Sadie Sloe Gin and I will be moving to the Fenway neighborhood, just 6 blocks away from the Pahhhhhk. The mothership has beckoned and I am answering its call. My new found proximity to all the season's home games should provide me with instant credibility (subtle stab at mainstream sports writers that probably none of you got). From my tiny bedroom I will hear every crack of the bat, roar of the crowd and calls of "Shipping up to Boston". Oh. Right. Still, this is an epic move for the Boy with the Yazzy Tattoo and I hope to provide more Sox coverage than ever this year.

For about 1/3 of all MLB teams, today is PACRD (Pitchers and Catchers Reporting Day) while the Sox celebrate PACRD tomorrow. So with that, it is time to give all of you who stuck with me through my hiatus (Collapse induced rehab) the gift of my MLB previews.

Over the next week or so, I will write up a preview of all 6 divisions starting with the most boring (AL Central) and ending with the most exciting (NL East). Like last year I will predict the standings of each division, but there will be a few changes and additions this year. First, I will briefly revisit my predictions to see how I did (SPOILER ALERT: Really bad). Then, following the preview, I will highlight two players in each division. Last year I talked about a hot player under 25 and the "10th Man", or X-factor if you will. This year I have decided to mix it up. During the Great Wild Card Comebacks of 2011 (see what I did there?), two types of players played major roles that I will highlight this year. 

The first is players over 35. Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter were the offensive and pitching leaders for the Cardinals in their run to the World Series so this year I will try to find the next AARP member who could impact a division race. 

The second will be the Y-factor player. As in, "Y is this player allowed near a baseball diamond?" This is an award inspired by none other than John "Wilbur the Albatross" Lackey, whose 9.15 ERA in September played a major role in allowing the Rays to come back from the dead. This year I will be trying to find which player in each division could be so terrible that they negatively affect a team's chance at the playoffs.

So in typical X Mark fashion, I have wrote a 5 paragraph preview about my preview that could have been done in 3 bullet points. I'm in mid-season form already! Up first, the AL Central. Welcome back ya'll!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Sunday

Super Bowl 46 (Sunday - 6:29pm)

The day is finally here. Time for the incessant talk to stop. We've heard all the stories: the Giants D-line vs. the Pat's O-line and Brady. A rematch of the game that shall not be discussed. Belichick and Coughlin are both Parcells' disciples. Gronk's ankle. Brady vs. Eli in Peyton's house. Yada yada. I could write for hours about this game and still not say everything that I want to, so I'll try and keep it short. Plus I'm too damn excited to write or concentrate enough to form coherent sentences.

All I know is I've been watching the past Super Bowl DVD's over the last two weeks and couldn't wait another day. One thing that was apparent from the past Super Bowl teams was that they were all truly teams and handled adversity equally as well as their triumphs. The 2011 Patriots have certainly had their share of adversity - from losing Ms. Myra, the constant criticism of the defense, and losing back to back games for the first time since God knows when - here they are; one game away from being crowned kings of the NFL. If anything has been telling of the nature of this years Pats team, it has been Belichick's laid back attitude the past week. He's been engaging with the media, even
cracking jokes and you can tell he feels his team is well prepared for the biggest game of the year.

After watching highlights from the regular season match up between the Giants and Patriots, we know this game will be a battle. Both defenses set the tone in that match up, with hard hitting and exceptional tackling, leading to a 0-0 halftime score. The Giants ultimately won as Tracy White, a career special teamer, failed miserably in his efforts to replace both Brandon Spike and Gary Guyton at linebacker who were both injured in that game. White had textbook form on how to play the worst pass coverage imaginable. Brady also had too many turnovers, and that was that. Since the return of Spikes and Chung, the defense has shown marked improvement and should perform much better than they did in the 2nd half of that game. Of course that is much easier said than done when going up against a receiving corps as talented as the Giants. The pass defense has been the ultimate question mark for this team throughout the season, now it's time for their ultimate test.

If you've read anything that I've written during the playoffs, then you'll know the keys to today's game will be turnovers and red zone efficiency. Brady will need to protect the ball much better than he did in the last match up if the Pats want to win. One other key to watch will be how strictly the referees enforce holding penalties. Watching the Giants over the past few weeks, their suspect O-line gets away with more holding penalties than any team I've seen in recent memory. If they are allowed to hold the Patriots pass rushers and give Eli time to extend plays, it could be the difference maker in tonight's game.

At the start of the playoffs, I wrote that this Giants team had the feel of one of those teams that is just destined to make a run to the Super Bowl. That feeling was stronger than ever watching Eli float passes into double coverage two weeks ago in the NFC Championship game. On two occasions, San Francisco defenders knocked each other out of the game because the passes were so bad that they collided trying to intercept them. But that stops tonight. This Patriots team has proven their mental toughness time and time again throughout the 2011 season. Belichick prepares them better than anyone. Over the past two weeks, the Patriots have gotten the feel of
being the underdog even though their 2 and a half point favorites. In a season which they dedicated to the loss of their beloved first lady, tonight the Patriots deliver Bob Kraft his 4th Lombardi trophy in the honor of his sweetheart.

New England 31 - New York 20

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Game That Changed It All: 10 Years Later

Rather than bore anyone to death by rehashing the same story lines that have been on repeat for the past two weeks, I figured I'd take a different route - right down memory lane and celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Greatest Game of All Time .

February 3rd, 2002. New Orleans, Louisiana. The New England Patriots are 14 point underdogs vs. "The Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams. The Rams are the class of the NFL, while the Pats came out of nowhere after their incumbent QB went down and was replaced by a 2nd year QB who was drafted in the 6th round. New England has never won a Super Bowl - losing both of their prior appearances (both in New Orleans) - and no one is expecting an upset. After watching the Red Sox for the past 84 years, the region knows better than to get their hopes up. But they did beat the Raiders in the Snow Bowl, and went into Pittsburgh to win the AFC Championship, so you never know.

Right from the pregame introductions you could tell there was something different about this team. What is now an unoriginal cliche started on this night. The Rams went through their pregame intros coming out one by one and recognizing some of the greatest offensive players in the league - Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Issac Bruce, T
orry Holt. Once they finished, something happened that had never been seen before in the Super Bowl. "Now introducing" boomed Pat Summerall in his ever distinct tone "the American Football Conference Champion New England Patriots" - followed by a swarm of blue jerseys flying out of the tunnel. This was a team, they got here together and wanted to show the world the power of their togetherness both with their introduction and with their play.

What I remember most about this game was made apparent from the first drive - the Pats were going to make St. Louis earn every yard and make their receivers pay for every catch. Each reception was met with a punishing hit into the Super Dome turf. The Rams weren't used to this type of abuse, and it eventually payed off with a forced fumble on Ricky Prohel late in the first half. The teams battled back and forth for most of the first two quarters, with the defenses having the clear advantage. St. Louis took an early 3-0 lead, and held on to it for the first quarter.

The Pats had
been applying consistent pressure, but weren't getting quite close enough to Warner. Warner took a short drop and was looking to hit a quick slant when Mike Vrabel came in untouched, got his hands up and altered the throw. This allowed Ty Law to jump the route, and he was off to the races. Touchdown Pats. The Pats sideline was going crazy, the fans were going crazy, we were going crazy in my friends living room - could they actually do this? (Downer side note: Watching the replays, it's hard to imagine that nowadays that play would not have drawn some kind of roughing the passer/illegal hands to the face penalty with the modern (read: pussy) 'protect the QB at all cost' rules. Very happy the NFL was tougher back then.)

The defensive struggle continued until Prohel's aforementioned fumble. Terrell Buckley had a solid return, getting the ball past midfield with just under two minutes left in the half. This led to the only offensive TD for the Pa
ts on the day. Brady surgically executed the two minute drill - complete with a patented NE bubble screen to Troy Brown, and a toss-sweep out of the shotgun (when was the last time a team ran that play) to Kevin Faulk. In vintage Faulk form he picked up the first down on third and short, snuck out of bounds and saved NE's final time out. The drive culminated with a picture perfect throw from Brady to David Patten in the corner of the end-zone for a TD with just over 30 seconds left. The Patriots were up 14-3 at the half and en route to the upset.

Those who follow the Pats know that Belichick's main defensive philosophy is to take away the oppositions primary offensive threat and make them play in a style they are uncomfortable with. For all the hoopla that "The Greatest Show on Turf's" passing game got, it was evident from the start that NE was focused on stopping Marshall Faulk on the ground. The Pats frequently loaded the box with defenders and were playing very disciplined, gap control D against the explosive Faulk. Marshall was able to get very little going in the first half, with St. Louis even resorting to using him in an end around to try and free him up. As much as NE was trying to contain Faulk inside, it looked like NE didn't think the Rams could set the edge against their run game and Antowain Smith. They looked like Lombardi's Packers running power sweeps for much of the game. I was never the biggest fan of Antowain, but he had a very productive game and ran hard throughout.

Another thing that stands out is the sound tackling that the Pats executed that day. There was a 2nd down and 3 play where Faulk looks like he is finally about to break contain when Bruschi scrapes across and meets Faulk in the hole and lays a textbook form tackle on him to stop him short of the first down. On the flip-side, St. Louis' TD to tie the game late in the 4th was the results of some of the most feeble attempts at tackling that I've ever witnessed.

As has been demonstrated throughout the playoffs this year, turnovers played a major role in this game. 17 of New Englands 20 points were a direct result of turnovers - Ty Law's pick 6 was one of the TD's; and Terrell Buckley's recovery and ensuing return of Prohel's fumble set up Pattens TD to close the half. O.T.I.S. Smith had an interception when Torry Holt slipped running his route to set up a field goal. Warner also threw another pick to give the Patriots a huge advantage in the turnover battle. The Rams also had another turnover resulting in a TD called back (4th & Goal from the 3 - Warner fumbles and Tebucky Jones returns it for a TD) when Lefty Mcginest tackled Faulk on the world's most blatant defensive holding penalty.

One stat I found amazing: the Rams didn't get into Red Zone until 4th quarter. As talented as the Rams offense was, nothing speaks greater volumes about Belichick's preparation than that. Also of note considering I've been preaching the importance of Red Zone efficiency all year - the Rams came into the game with the #1 Red Zone Offense in the NFL, while the Pats ranked #1 in Red Zone D.

As well as the Pats D played, the Rams quick strike offense was able to come back and tie the game with 90 seconds remaining. Just enough time for a legend to be born. We all know the story of Tom Brady by now,
but on this night he was just a scrappy 24 year old kid playing in the biggest game of his life. The Patriots offense had struggled to pick up points for much of the game, but all they needed was 3 on this drive to hoist their first Lombardi Trophy. The Rams settled into their prevent defense, leaving nothing open downfield for Brady. No worries - a few of checkdowns to J.R. Redmon and the drive was under way. The Rams sloppy tackling allowed Redmon to slip out of bounds and stop the clock just past midfield. A couple of incomplete passes and the Pats were looking at 3rd down with only 29 seconds left. Then Charlie Weis called in the most famous play in Patriots history; '64-Max-All-In'. Brady dropped back, scanned the field and found Troy Brown cutting across the middle for 23 yards, and again the Rams poor tackling let Brown slip out of bounds. One more completion and the stage was set for Adam Vinatieri to kick the game winning 48 yard field goal. Holy. Shit.

Red, white and blue confetti everywhere; Antowain Smith high stepping across the field; Lonnie Paxton doing "snow" angels, Belichick hugging Lawyer Milloy. They did it. The Patriots won the effing Super Bowl. No one said it better than Vinatieri, as he turned to Bob Kraft and said "We shocked the World, but we didn't shock ourselves". Here's hoping the Pats give us a proper anniversary gift come Sunday.