Sunday, April 5, 2009

One Last Look at the SF Giants Before the Majesty of Opening Day

It's official—Opening Day for the 2009 Major League Baseball season has finally arrived.

The first pitch of the game tonight between the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves will herald the opening of another 162-game sprint. The rest of baseball opens tomorrow or on Tuesday.

Our beloved San Francisco Giants are among that latter group of teams whose fans must endure not one, but two barrages of opening days before seeing their favorite set of nine take the diamond.

Hopefully, the '09 season will be worth the wait.

And, if you like the optimistic interpretation of the Orange and Black's spring session, there is very good reason for hope.

By now, the secret (if you could ever really call it that) is out regarding San Francisco's pitching staff. Even the cooler heads around MLB expect the Giants to sniff around the edges of the National League West race based on the arms alone.

Having done so a number of times, there's no reason to further extol the virtues of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, Brian Wilson, and the rest of the bullpen.

Nothing has changed except for the usual minor bumps and bruises of the preseason.

Who knows whether those are genuine or just possum sightings in an extended Spring Training and who cares? The Big Unit's sore, Sanchez burned his finger, and Wilson has some sort of infection in one of his digits—none of that sounds terribly serious even if legit.

Nah, the developing story as SF romps into the regular season is the offense:

1. Pablo Sandoval hit .442 with three home runs in 77 spring at-bats.

2. Freddie Lewis hit .366 in 71 ABs.

3. Emanuel Burriss hit .341 in 85 ABs.

4. Eugenio Velez hit .324 in 68 ABs.

5. Travis Ishikawa hit .316 in 79 ABs.

It's true veterans like Edgar Renteria, Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand, and Bengie Molina all struggled. But this was a brutally long and alien preseason because of the World Baseball Classic.

If veterans tend to coast through a normal Spring Training, it would stand to reason 2009's was even less enthusiastically received. This is why it's important to pump the breaks as the boys break camp (I'll get to that later).

Barring substantial injury, Winn is gonna hit around .300 with 10-15 HRs, 30-40 doubles, and he'll steal you around 20 bags. Forget about his spring and write it down—not only are those essentially his career averages over 162 games, they're basically the numbers Randy's tallied every year since 2002.

Rowand and Molina should put up a very similar year compared to the production the two players combined for in 2008.

By that, I mean Molina will probably regress a little because his '08 body of work was a masterpiece of clutch hitting and carrying an offense using sheer power of will. His year doesn't look too unusual compared to the rest on his resume, but he was playing the role of Barry Bonds last year and not doing a poor job considering the amount of pressure such entails.

It's unfair to expect Big Money to do that again—the man is mortal like all others (except for the chemically enhanced Super Bonds).

On the other hand, Rowand had the year most people expected after leaving the potent lineup and small yard in Philly. He lost almost half his '07 runs, over half of his bombs, almost 20 runs batted in, and he dropped 30 points off his average.

While Bengie will probably come down to Earth a tad, Rowand should be able compensate by having a better year, the one he's capable of having—it won't look like his breakout season in 2007, but somewhere in between should do nicely.

Who knows what the Giants will get from Renteria? I doubt it will be as profound an upgrade as the brass is trying to spin it, but the dude HAS to be an upgrade.

Even if the new shortstop returns to his most glorious of glory days, this was never a splinter that was going to power the offense. At his pinnacle, Edgar was a very nice piece to move runners around and score runs himself.

But his OPS maxed out at .874 in 2003 and has broken the .800 barrier precisely three times in a 13-year career. In other words, all versions of Renteria will need help from the rest of the bats—a rejuvenated one included.

Which is why the springs put together by some of the younger guys are so encouraging.

Unfortunately, it is my duty to remind you, fair reader, Spring Training must be taken with a grain of salt.

It is not usually representative of the regular season for many, many reasons. Perhaps the most significant is the different approaches different players take.

Unproven commodities trying to make the team or win a starting spot tend to attack the preseason with a midseason ferocity. Established players tend to coast or focus on weaknesses.

Pitchers usually work on their arsenals in a piecemeal fashion—that greatly skews the hitting sample because a power pitcher may be working on his dookie or a crafty vet may be working one approach with predictable and hittable repetition.

Mix it all together and you'll see some highly misleading results.

This is the other way to interpret the spring session—the pessimist's perspective. And there's more to it.

If SF's glass is half-empty, you must also include the rising expectations and the solidifying NL West picture.

A young ballclub like the Giants needs to sneak up on people to maximized its potential. Our guys can no longer do that—MLB has circled Sandoval as a guy to watch and treat gently.

The impressive production from the other youngsters will certainly raise a few eyebrows, skeptical brows though they may be.

I implied the cover had recently been blown off the pitching staff, but—in truth—the Freak's Cy Young probably did that a while ago and the Big Unit's arrival only drew more attention. It's a safe bet even casual observers knew this would be the strength of the team and one of the better collections in all of baseball.

The San Francisco Giants are no longer flying under anyone's radar—they're a big, loud blip on the screen. That doesn't necessarily mean they won't play loose and free to potential, I'm just saying it's gotten more difficult since February.

Furthermore, both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks are looking stronger and stronger.

LA obviously gets a boost from Manny Ramirez, but Matt Kemp sounds like he's maturing mentally as well as physically and that could mean trouble for the rest of MLB. The rotation still looks borderline dreadful to these eyes, but James McDonald could turn that ship right around if he can tread Big League water.

In Arizona, you're starting to see stirrings from Eric Byrnes and Felipe Lopez is beginning to worry me. If Byrnes can return to a shadow of his top gear and Lopez becomes the player experts once thought he was destined to become, the Snakes' O gets a dramatic boost.

Throw in a resurgent Chad Tracy, a core of young-but-experienced uber-talents (Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Chris Young, Connor Jackson, Justin Upton, etc.), that ridiculous staff with Max Scherzer progressing at the back end, and the Diamondbacks look more like the team to beat with each sweep of the clock.

If you've got your rose-colored specs on, the young maple and ash has you feeling pretty good about the boys. The pitching should be able to compete with any team's stable so it won't take too much offense to hang with the other contenders.

The seeds of that offense seem to be blooming so indulge those dreams of an NL West flag.

If you've draped yourself in a wet blanket, Spring Training is meaningless and popping up on the radar screen turns the San Francisco Giants from dark horse to overrated in the wink of an ESPN column.

The beautiful thing about Opening Day is that we get to start stripping away the ifs and see who's right.

It's time for some real baseball.

Today, life is very good.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sticks & Stones Break Bones—Words Are More Dangerous in the UFC

By now, if you will ever care enough to be so, you are aware the notoriously porous filter between Dana White's brain and his mouth has gotten the the Ultimate Fighting Championship President in a some rather lukewarm water.

Despite his apparently sincere-though-rough apology, I'd imagine the story has a little more leg left in it.

And, to be honest, it should—just not for the reasons driving its current popularity.

I see no reason for homosexual slurs to be tolerated any more than racial ones. If this reporter from Sherdog happened to be black and monsignor White had dropped the n-bomb on her, seas would've boiled with even more fervor and justifiably so.

But therein lies the rub—heretofore those haven't been the rules of engagement for the colorful language Dana used.

I know not to drop "n*gger" in any sense that could be construed as inappropriate. As a white male, that basically means I can never use the word; there's a decent chance that last one might get me in some trouble (I hope it doesn't since I'm discussing the word and continually referring to the n-word and n-bomb seems unnecessarily childish—we do not live in a Harry Potter novel).

And that's fine—I've got no truck with taking that particular profanity out of my lexicon nor do most reasonable people.

If that's the direction society wants to go with "f*ggot" and its equivalents, wonderful. I'll sign any petition or rally behind any tangible effort, even though I tend to agree with the other side of the argument i.e. the only way to make a word go away is to rob it of its significance by pretending it doesn't have any until it doesn't.

Regardless, you can't just spring a new import on people.

We can't suddenly decide Dana White is the sacrificial lamb that announces to the country, "if you use the word, everyone gets to assume you're a bigot across the board."

Liberal/progressive thought to the contrary—and I put myself in the latter part of that group—only the n-word (I'm not pushing my luck) has raised that presumption before now.

Those based on homosexuality, gender, religious affiliation, etc. have been heavily frowned upon and get you a serious slap on the wrist if you're a public figure caught using one. But a racial slur ups the ante in America (especially one directed at African-Americans) and everyone knows the implication is a more indelible one.

I don't know how you make a similar pronouncement about other slurs, but you can't simply point your finger and say, "you're the one." Especially not when the target is the face of an essentially renegade entity built around revenue from a combat sport.

Let's be clear about this—Dana White is kind of an idiot and he certainly deserves a reprimand of some sort, but this rant alone is not reason enough for me to believe the guy discriminates against homosexuals.

It's just another example of Dana being a fool, playing to the bad-boy CEO image he adores so much.

I generally like him, but I don't believe for a second that the dude's 100 percent on the up-and-up. And this is hardly the first time he's used suspect judgment and/or language. As Irish Mike D pointed out in the latest of his too-rarely occurring masterpieces, this is a guy whose catch phrase is not a hallmark of articulate eloquence.

This is not Roger Goodell nor David Stern nor even Bud Selig. The UFC is not the National Football League nor is it the National Basketball Association nor is it Major League Baseball. And most of its fans hope it never is.

The sport of mixed martial arts is simply too brutal to ever become as popular as any of the big three. Not in its current iteration. Only a much more sanitized version could ever crack into the upper echelons of popular athletics.

For instance, my father and my flatmate (what is the American equivalent because roommate makes it sound like we share a room and we share an apartment) would have to be described as macho men. They both are the rugged outdoors types, love football, guns, fishing, hunting, the whole nine yards.

And neither one will watch MMA—the spectacle of two humans apparently trying to do substantial damage to each other will never appeal to them.

Shoot, I love MMA and was hooked when Gerard Gordeau kicked some sumo dude's teeth into the crowd at UFC I. But even I have a hard time stomaching fights like the ones where Edwin Dewees got opened up or the same happened to Joe Stevenson at the hands of B.J. Penn (and yet I watch every second, what does that say about my mental health?).

Bottom-line—if you enjoy seeing one individual spurt blood all over another, I hope we're friends because I want you on my side.

Yet, opening a gushing wound is a primary goal in MMA for many reasons—it can directly stop the fight, the sight of your own blood freaks some people out, it can reduce vision, etc. Furthermore, any blow with an elbow or knee—legal and effective blows in the UFC—that finds its mark will usually cut/split flesh.

Other MMA "touchdowns" or "home runs" would be viciously knocking your opponent unconscious with said knee/elbow/any of the other four strike points, straining/tearing ligaments via submission (although done effectively, it's merely the threat of such damage), choking him/her into surrender, or simply pounding the other fighter until an impartial observer has seen enough punishment.

No, the UFC and its combat partners are not meant for as general consumption as football, basketball, and baseball. Can you imagine one of those commissioners openly associating with these men?

Those are the executives who started a multi-million dollar business (TapOut) from scratch and the face-paint is standard i.e. it's not coming off for board meetings.

Additionally, they are sufficiently large pillars of the MMA community that the UFC gave a touching tribute to the man up front (Charles "Mask" Lewis) who recently died in pretty horrible car crash.

The UFC is basically a real-life version of professional wrestling minus a good deal of the sideshow. So why is there such profound outcry over Dana White putting his foot in his mouth (again)?

Is this woman even a lesbian? Did White know she was a lesbian?

It seems to me Dana was merely giving over to his typically ridiculous, profanity-spewing character with his usual lack of discretion. Again, it shouldn't be ignored because, as the UFC gains in audience, it should respect the broader consequences of such influence.

But let's try to stay calm, folks. Even our beloved partner, FOX Sports, issued an article by Alex Marvez saying this episode could spell the end of the UFC. How does that make sense?

The gaping wounds, fracture bones, broken joints, and brain trauma are no problem, but Dana's rant? No sir, the advertisers won't do business with that. Which is what I'm talking about.

In order for Marvez' piece to be even remotely possible, we'd have to read serious significance into White's words. We'd have to believe his use of homosexual slurs reflects an inherent bigotry, much like the inference raised by public use of racial slurs.

It's just not true or, rather, the leap isn't fair—show me a red-blooded American male and I'll show you someone who's called one of his friends a "f*g" or some derivation at one time or another. In jest or in the heat of battle.

Hey, I've done it and I've got absolutely no problem with homosexuality.

I used to work out at the Gold's Gym in the Castro here in San Francisco because I lived in the Lower Haight. This is not the place for homophobes, but if you're cool with gay men (there are no women here—ok, there's one for every 30 men), it's great. It was like a two-hour ego boost because, apparently, gay men really like obviously straight ones.

And theirs is a different world, man.

I had a dude hit on me—after asking me to remove my earphones, mind you—by telling me I was putting on weight and it looked fabulous (I'm not kidding in the slightest).

If I drop that line on a young lady, there's gonna be a mushroom cloud of destruction radiating from her and extending to any female within earshot. But this dude—who could have beat the [expletive] out of me, by the way—said it like it was the highest compliment given in his world. Bizarre.

Anyway, the point is we are told as children that words can never hurt you. As we become adults, we learn this isn't exactly true and there are some words that society has decided actually do hurt its members.

Malicious slurs of all kinds fall into this group, but only racial slurs have historically been deemed so injurious as to strictly prohibit their use—no matter the intent or context.

The story should not be what an evil man Dana White is and how his inappropriate language may shake the foundation of the sport. It should be used as an examination of how this country views homosexuality and whether it's time we acknowledge that being gay is no different than being a different race or gender.

It's not something anyone can control so why is it that, historically, people like Dana White haven't been castigated like Michael Richards? Why is it that, historically, we haven't been expected to be as careful with homosexual slurs as racial ones?

Why is it that an unprejudiced man's defective judgment will catch a racial slur, but not a homosexual one?

That should be the story because that is the difficult question and, consequently, the more important one.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Curse the Chicago Bears and Jay Cutler

This is all going to end poorly.

And I don't mean poorly for the Chicago Bears or Jay Cutler—I mean poorly for us, the non-Bear fans of the National Football League.

My stance on Jay Cutler is a matter of public record. I won't rehash the subject—suffice it to say I'm not a fan of the way he handled the situation. However, I never doubted the guy's talent. Jay Cutler is absolutely one of the most talented quarterbacks currently spiraling the pigskin.

When you have oodles and oodles at QB, it doesn't take too much more talent to create a special situation.

I don't know much about the Denver Broncos except that their defense was putrid last year and the entire team was decimated by injuries to key parts. And that they almost made the playoffs on Cutler's back.

Cutler still managed to buoy the franchise to some big wins and the peripherals of the American Football Conference playoff race despite the marginal players around him—granted, had the team made it, it would've been through the side door since the AFC West was so weak (eventually sending the 8-8 San Diego Chargers to the playoffs).

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the precocious QB would've taken the Broncs to the postseason if not for losing the tie-breaker to the Bolts.

So, yeah, Jay Cutler's got some run in him. He's got game if I can date myself.

Enough game, actually, that Da Bears have suddenly become a juggernaut in the National Football Conference.

Seriously, you KNOW that defense is going to bring the wood. Its ranking from 2008 is misleading because Chicago's D saw the most offensive plays in the NFL. That would presumably be a function of their notoriously poor offense since Urlacher's unit allowed a paltry 4.9 yards per play, good for fifth in the League.

Trailing only the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Tennessee Titans. Who looks out of place on that list?

Hint: it's the team that watched the playoffs from home.

Yes, Brian Urlacher has lost a step—there's no shame in succumbing a tad to the grind of the NFL and that's all he's lost, a tad. I'm still taking him over most of the linebackers in the League.

And I'm not a Bears fan.

I have nothing against them since their legendary battles with my San Francisco 49ers were a little before my time in football. Rather, I point out I'm not a fan of the team to emphasize that health may very well have been a factor in Chicago last year as it was in Denver. It doesn't matter too much to me since I think the defense was underrated in '08 anyway.

But it could be astounding in 2009 considering Jay Cutler should reduce the defense's workload, which should help Urlacher and the rest of his mates stay fresh (and healthier if it was an issue in '08).

I know one man (or man-boy) cannot turn a bad offense into a great one, but a fantastic signal-caller can turn a bad offense into a decent or even good one. Cutler's ability is, without a doubt, fantastic.

Of course, let's not forget the emergence of Matt Forte last season. If not for the superlative seasons of Matt Ryan and (to a lesser statistical degree) Joe Flacco, Forte would've gotten a lot more love because the kid put up one hell of a season.

Toss in the signing of Orlando Pace, the steady and superb Olin Kreutz, the developing Devin Hester, an overlooked talent in Brandon Lloyd (who's now got a real QB throwing him the ball), the athletically gifted Greg Olsen at tight end, and there are some pieces to like in a vacuum.

With Jay Cutler figuring in the equation? They become a whole lot shinier and the picture starts looking less like a one man show.

More importantly, each incremental step of progress on offense should be matched by a much larger one on defense. That should, in turn, help the offense with better field position, larger margin for error, less pressure, etc. With each side feeding the other and Cutler's supreme talent as the seed, the final product should be more than anyone in the NFC can handle.

And that's really bad news for NFL fans who don't happen to root for the Chicago Bears because it only reinforces Jay Cutler's behavior.

He whined, stamped his feet, and lied—sorry, I don't believe for a second Josh McDaniels and Pat Bowlen are lying about their attempts to get Cutler on the phone. He acted selfishly and conceitedly because, as Mark Schlereth pointed out, this is hardly the first time an employee has been lied to by his bosses (if that's in fact what happened).

Now, it seems he'll be rewarded for it.

Because, if and when the Chicago Bears begin turning heads next season, who do you think the networks and media outlets are going to side with? Who do you think will be crucified? All the more so if the Broncos struggle—as they probably will having lost a franchise QB and replacing him with Kyle Orton and draft picks.

Not to mention a new and (increasingly) unpopular coach.

When all is said and done, Jay Cutler's going to come out smelling like a rose and Denver will have a different odor.

And that's unfortunate.

Because it's tolerating the Jay Cutlers that produces a Plaxico Burress or Chad Ocho Sinko or Terrell Owens or...Jay Cutler.

Apparently, this guy has already crossed swords with Ron Turner when he was at Illinois. And he refused a trade to the Cleveland Browns because he didn't want to play for Eric Mangini.

The release of Owens and Burress where small steps forward for the NFL, moving the League closer to a future where the lunatics don't have such free reign over the asylum.

Steps that will be totally obliterated when the Chicago Bears and Jay Cutler become the toast of the town in 2009.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Manny Ramirez in La La Land—One Step Closer to the Abyss

Whenever I'm feeling particularly agitated, I turn to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Why you ask? Because, as a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan, I can spew venom all over the Bums and do so haphazardly with little or no repercussions.

That's the beauty of being in a blood-rivalry.

As long as I stay away from really crossing the line in a personal manner, especially with regards to Dodger fans, I feel confident that all will be forgiven if I'm wrong.

Maybe not forgiven as much as turned against me with a commensurate lack of mercy or care and that's the way it should be. All in good fun.

The players in these wars are always fair game. Obviously within reason—if ever some Dodger has, say, a handicapped kid or relative and I were to incorporate that in an attack born of baseball hatred, I should be taken behind the woodshed.

Same if I were to sincerely and recklessly imply something like infidelity, fraud, parental neglect, or some equally serious accusation.

There's no reason to take swings in real-life like that. Baseball is a game and there is plenty of ammunition provided for criticism between the foul lines. But when it comes to that performance on the diamond?

Game on and gloves off.

Enter Manuel Aristides Ramirez with his latest public pronouncement that he needs more work before being primed for the regular season.

Manny says Manny needs more flyballs in games because the speed just isn't the same for Manny in practice. Manny says Manny needs more at-bats before Manny will feel comfortable and hit like Manny. And he's right.

Ramirez made an error in the field on one of the few chances he got in Arizona and even the best hitters need a minimum number of looks at pro pitching before they can find their swing.

Of course, as is typical of Manny, it's always "I need this, I want that, I, I, I, me, me, me." And it's always something with him. Furthermore, the bitching and moaning is frequently in public.

More importantly, Ramirez rarely (I originally wrote 'never') takes personal responsibility for his role in creating the sources of his complaints. Clearly, in this latest episode, the fault for the rust on his game lies at the feet of Manny Ramirez.

Exclusively and without question.

He petulantly and greedily sat at home (or wherever) while his super-dog agent haggled for the "perfect" contract to protect both massive egos. When Manny finally did arrive, it was well into Spring Training and he went down with a hamstring issue almost immediately—whether it was genuine or not is essentially irrelevant since his availability was limited in either case.

It comes as no shock to anyone except possibly Man-Ram that he's still behind in his development for Opening Day. So why is he making a point about the need for additional reps?

Who knows? And that's the most important problem with Manny Ramirez—he has an ugly recent history that allows for hacks like me to speculate wildly about his latest grievances.

Is this a subtle jab at Joe Torre for using the prized slugger too soon in the field, resulting in the aforementioned ding? The thought crossed my mind and I'm sure I'm not alone because that's what Manny being Manny has meant to me lately—copping out and hiding from responsibility.

Is it setting up an excuse for a slow start Manny's planning because he's decided playing a full season at full tilt is unnecessary, both to win the division and to maximize his 2010 contract? Again, it seems reasonable to this Dodger-hater and, again, I'm sure I'm not alone.

Or is it just a pro ballplayer innocuously responding to a question put forth by a reporter? Yeah, that's probably what it is. I'd love to say this is the least likely scenario, but, in truth, it is blatantly the most probable one.

Unfortunately, with Manny Ramirez, that ceases to matter with time.

It's only April 2nd—Manny's already generated more headlines for off-field issues before the season's even started than most good players will make all year. And this is before he's really gotten completely emerced in the celebrity glitz and glamour of Los Angeles.

The more nonsense he generates, the less slack he gets.

How long before the Los Angeles press turns on him? How many of these public little gripes will the city's most opinionated pens tolerate his incessant squabbling? Even when they're in response to questions put forth by their own ranks.

Even when Manny's right and the comment is harmless.

Some journalists love a good story regardless of whether it means clawing at a local superstar—it happened here in San Francisco with Barry Bonds and he was no less sympathetic a figure in the City than Manny is in LA. Remember, almost every Giants fan LOVED BLB at the height of his chemically enhanced powers and many of us still do (the player, not the man).

With Manny lacking an adequate filter between his brain and mouth combined with his love of an open microphone, there will be no shortage of material even in the best of times.

In the worst of times, Manny's mouth is a gushing hydrant of gasoline on an open flame.

Good Manny means an exciting season spent at the front edge of contention for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bad Manny means their season disappears into the abyss.

And each sound byte from Manny that can be misconstrued is one step closer to it. That's bad news for the Bums.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

John Calipari: Following Nick Saban's Lead Right Down to the Conference

Kentucky basketball is screwed.

Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, maybe not for many years down the road. But the check is already in the mail—the only question is how long its transit time will be.

"I want to be here. This is where I want to coach."

Those were John Calipari's own words soon after his Memphis Tigers were eliminated from the NCAA tournament when questioned on rumors of his jump to the University of Kentucky. He went so far as to dismiss the whispers as just your typical postseason carousel speculation that fans of major programs hear every year.

"Our fans, I think, have gotten used to it."

Yeah, you know what else college fans have gotten used to?

Bald-faced, through-your-teeth, pants-afire liars.

And handing our athletically gifted teenagers over to them for "guidance."

People like Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino jump to mind, but the college ranks of job-hoppers are swelled by more than just these two men (and now Calipari). Who knows how many unaired, yet equally explicit promises have been broken as guys bounce from one big payday to the next biggest one on the rung?

You can say that none of the above were lying, that they really did want to stay where they were and couldn't envision leaving. To which, my response would be, sell that [expletive] somewhere else.

Hey, these "men" aren't totally dumb—they know the name of the game and the game is always looking for greener pastures. So either these pubescent adults were lying to the public or themselves and I"m not sure which is more dangerous.

Granted, not all coaches are dishonest—some stay true to their word and give it sparingly.

And not all of the snakes will get caught. The real world doesn't work in absolutes although it makes for a nice opening hook to, say, an online article.

In fact, the percentage of despicable college coaches probably lands well short of even 70 percent.

But should we tolerate business as usual if only a third of coaches are crooked as a dog's hind leg? Maybe, unless your kid happens to be considering a school and, thusly, the sway of one such reprehensible individual.

After all, when it's your kid's athletic and psychological maturation at stake, one in three looks a damn sight more perilous.

Furthermore, what are the chances that other coaches see the examples set by guys like Calipari/Saban and think it's a bad idea? These are two highly successful and well-compensated coaches, it wouldn't appear their conduct has hurt their prospects or reputations in the slightest.

Saban just won Coach of the Year and is raking it in at Alabama.

Meanwhile, Calipari just got over $30 million from a public institution in an economy that's seeing HUGE pillars of this country's financial infrastructure crumble in a matter of months.

(Quick digression: Petrino's at Arkansas, why is it the SEC that keeps loving the scoundrels?)

Shoot, judging from these guys and others, maybe sleazing your way from job to job is a good idea. A strategy best emulated rather than avoided.

So where is the justice?

For the individuals? Justice rarely comes or it happens privately. If a guy like Petrino ever does get his comeuppance, there's a very good chance we'll have stopped paying attention and he'll never volunteer it.

Unfortunately for the fans and the players, the public vindication befalls the universities that choose to employ and richly reward men who have demonstrated a willingness to chase whatever is in their best interest to the detriment of anyone in his universe.

Men who have a proven ease and comfort with deception that wouldn't sit well with me if I were entrusting them with the relatively fragile minds and psyches of a portion of America's youth. Not if I were entrusting them with that profound responsibility and then giving them millions of dollars to do it.

Do you think a man who would come on air, reassure a rabid and wounded fanbase that he's not going anywhere, and then leave within a week would have a problem breaking an NCAA regulation here or there?

Think that guy's gonna totally respect the number of phone calls and text messages you can send to a recruit? Or any other of the thousands of little technicalities that, superficially, look impossible to patrol?

The snag, of course, is the details are NOT impossible to regulate—programs get flagged every year.

Unfortunately, the coach usually isn't the one paying because he has moved on (or easily can). It's the fans, the current players, and the other people connected to the school with more permanence that suffer the true indignation of having wins stripped or scholarships yanked or probation imposed or some other disciplinary sanction.

Nah, the coaches can usually skate—it's everyone else who feels the sting.

Now, let me clarify that I have no problem with moving around as long as you're up front about it. I wouldn't be writing this if Calipari had said, "yep, going to UK is a real possibility," or "we'll see what happens," or even, "there's a small chance, but I like it here."

Any of the three would be the way an admirable leader should answer because such a person should know there will be public outcry no matter what—that is the nature of being in the spotlight and answering difficult questions.

The easy road is the one you can hide from by dealing with it remotely i.e. by lying to delay it until you are safely ensconced in supporters of the program benefited by your move.

The right one is to treat those connected to the program with the respect and integrity they deserve. The right one is the honest answer, which first requires that you're honest with yourself.

And Kentucky just landed an expert in deception. So good luck with all that.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No. 756 in the Warm and Fuzzy World of Barry Lamar Bonds

I have no illusions that this will be a popular article. People will not react positively to it or will flat-out ignore it and that's cool—I'm well aware that Barry Bonds is persona non grata as far as the general public is concerned.

For good reason.

The guy is a Class-A prick by all accounts and there are just too many to dismiss them all as suspicious hearsay.

Bonds is the perfect example of what happens when a (presumably) spoiled and pampered child matures, but in body only. The vast majority of the blame is on Barry, but some of the figurative blood is on our hands—on our culture's hero-worship of gifted athletes from high school onward in Barry's day and much earlier now.

If you think guys like Barry were/are bad, just wait for the 10- to 12-year-olds who are being slobbered upon today to arrive in the professional ranks tomorrow. But that's a story for another time.

A second lesson Bonds' exemplar teaches is what happens when a ballplayer takes the very accurate description of baseball as a team game assembled from individual confrontations and carries it to a deleterious extreme.

Barry Bonds truly believed and made himself an island in a clubhouse that should function as a cohesive unit. He was arguably good enough to compensate for the damage he did in this regard, but Bonds did damage.

Make no mistake about it.

Baseball is not as discrete as it looks—there are subtle threads that connect the batter to the baserunner to the fielders to the pitcher and they are constantly being adjusted. Except when Barry was out there—ironically, in this regard, he came no-strings-attached (hahaha, wordplay).

There are many other negative things you can say about Barry Bonds, the least of which is his ongoing performance-enhancing drug issues.

Each new name has proven and will continue to prove the PED problem cannot be used to smear one individual from this era.

Whether it be Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, Brian Roberts, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Rick Ankiel, Jason Grimsley, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, Ken Caminiti, Wally Joyner, Jack Cust, Ryan Franklin, Chuck Knoblauch, Paul Lo Duca, Kevin Brown, or any other of the hundreds of users (either admitted, alleged, or undiscovered).

It's all or nothing, baby.

Still, PED-use is not a badge of honor yet it's firmly affixed to Barry's over-inflated chest. That it doesn't even rank as one of the reasons to be righteously disgusted by the guy says more than you need to know about just how flawed the man is.

But this is about how I see Barry. And I'm a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan who couldn't care less about the personal lives or habits of celebrities/pro athletes.

Honestly, take that TMZ crap, People magazine, all those behind-the-scenes shows about athletes on ESPN, MTV Cribs, etc. and sweep 'em up into a pile. Then nuke the entire thing—the world would be an infinitely healthier, wealthier, and wiser place.

Really though, it's about rooting for the team that Bonds carried to contention almost single-handedly—even the years with more talent around him in the lineup (like 1993 and 1997-2002) saw Barry do most of the heavy lifting. Considering how average many of those pitching staffs were, there was a lot of lifting to do.

So I've always loved the guy. To me, he is only Barry Bonds the great San Francisco Giant—he is not Barry Bonds the odious off-field personality. It's a fine and convenient line, I know.

But it allows me to be one of the few people who gets to really savor the New and Technologically Improved Home Run King. More specifically, it allows me to be one of the few people who gets to appreciate just how special No. 756 was.

Major League Baseball, its fans, and basically the entire baseball-watching world has ignored Bonds' record-breaking big fly from the moment it cleared the fence. Again, I've got no problem with this—I'm not saying everyone should appreciate it.

I'm just emphasizing how few people really look at it closely enough to realize how perfect it was.

And it was perfect. P-E-R-F-E-C-T...

1. No. 756 came at home in Pac Bell Park.

Bonds had already become public enemy numero uno in 2007 so this was the only place the big bomb would've played well. Plus, Pac Bell is the Park that Barry Built regardless of what Peter McGowan wants you to believe.

Most SF fans love him and we went crazy when he finally hit the milestone.

2. It came on a 3-2 pitch.

The most incredible thing about the chemically-enhanced Barry was how he never seemed concerned with the count. It seemed like he squared EVERYTHING up on the screws regardless of whether it was 0-2 dookie or a 3-1 cripple fastball (which he never saw).

Plus 3-2 is just a cool count because you know something will happen and that's the way it was with Barry Bonds—you didn't miss his at-bats because you knew something was going to happen.

3. It was a solo shot.

Barry Bonds redefined how the opposition handles supremely dangerous hitters in watered-down lineups. He simply did not see pitches to hit with men on base if the hurler could help it. Consequently, it seemed like all of Bonds' long balls came with the sacks empty—that's the only time pitchers dared challenge him.

Who says ballplayers are dumb?

4. No. 756 put the Giants ahead 5-4.

It wouldn't surprise me if 90 percent of Barry's homers put the Giants ahead, pulled them even, or brought them to within a run. Obviously, the proportion isn't close to that so I would be very surprised, but you get my point—most of his dongs seemed to be crucial to the team's ultimate success.

Barry leaves a wide swath of irony wherever he goes.

5. Barry crushed that ball.

This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of MLB trying to move passed the moment as quickly as possible (again, not a bad/unfair decision) because you don't see the shot replayed very often. Well, I've got it saved for posterity on my TiVo (or until it gets reset) so all I have to do is hit play to watch it whenever I want.

Trust me, Bonds got every little bit of that ball. He hit it well out to the deepest part of Pac Bell, I'm talking WAY out of Triples Alley. Even the heftiest of hefty hitters rarely challenges this particular dimension.

If you're wondering how Benjie Molina managed to record a three-bagger in 2007, I give you Triples Alley. And No. 756 sailed right over it.

Furthermore, everyone knew it was gone from the minute it left the bat.

It was a HUGE fly with the all-important and melodious click of bat on ball that's really the pill saying, "Adios, I'm gone for good."

6. The Giants ended up losing the game in extra innings.

Individual excellence resulting in eventual team failure—the story of Barry's professional career, especially in San Francisco. He could take his team through many promised lands, but he couldn't ever goad them into The Promised Land.

Bonds came close in 2002 and would've been the World Series Most Valuable Player had Dusty Baker not wrestled defeat from the jaws of victory in Game Six. But baseball ain't horseshoes and it ain't hand grenades.

His 756th home run was incredible for the particular physical feat, for what the single homer announced about Barry's cumulative achievements, and because it embodied almost every element of his superlative career—warts and all.

Is Barry Bonds a wonderful human-being?

I don't know the man, so I won't answer definitively. But the signs point to 'No' and they're pretty tough to argue.

But, even if true, that just places Bonds on a very long list of very flawed individuals who have been blessed with incredible gifts—gifts that bring them attention, scrutiny, and pressure the likes of which most of us will never know.

Of course, this doesn't excuse Barry's behavior, attitude, or general treatment of other people in the slightest. And it's on him that so many people who love the game of baseball don't get to appreciate such a quintessential moment.

Instead, they feel obliged to acknowledge it if forced to do so and then to return to a world where it doesn't exist, which is exactly how most in baseball weathered the man himself. In a way, that makes the monumental shot even more perfect.

It sesms the only thing missing was LA.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Forget Firing Robert Powell, Make Him Suit Up for the Lions

One of the more surreal stories the National Football League has ever spawned is developing in Dallas, Texas.

Considering all the chaos issuing forth from the NFL on an annual basis, that's saying something. It's so bizarre on so many levels, it's pushing even the memory of Terrell Owens to the back of the football world's mind despite taking place in the city that just gave him the boot (don't think TO hasn't noticed).

I'm glad I'm not Robert Powell in the wake of this story. Because I suspect he'll get exactly what he deserves and it shan't be pretty.

It seems Ryan Moats wasn't the first NFL player to be held at the mercy of this infant on a power trip. Although Zack Thomas wasn't the one cuffed and arrested for making an illegal u-turn, his wife is a close proxy and, in several instances, the law views one spouse as an extension of the other so the stretch is not a huge one.

There are several ways to interpret this latest news:

(1) Powell has a personal vendetta against pro football players because the odds of two people with direct connections to the League being his random victims are too small.

(2) Powell is a racist bigot—Maritza Thomas is Latin American. The Dallas Morning News calls her "Hispanic," but I thought that's a no-no. Whatever, I'm not really politically correct anyway since I don't care what race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. a person identifies as—it's all cool with me as long as you don't force it down my throat.

The point is Maritza Thomas ain't white and neither are Ryan Moats nor the occupants of his truck. Robert Powell is.

(3) Powell is simply a perfect example of one abhorrent cop splashing mud all over the good shields of his fellow officers—drunk with the ripples he can send through his little pond.

If you ask me, I say it's No. 3.

That both Maritza Thomas and Ryan Moats happen to be connected to the millionaire-celebrity lifestyle of the NFL has to be mere coincidence. It's a crazy one to be sure—one level of surreality—but life is full of crazy coincidences.

My freshmen year in college, I happened to be put in the same dorm as a kid I used to trade Star Wars action figures with back in preschool. I had absolutely no connection to him in the 10+ years since then because we went to different kindergartens and then my family moved to San Francisco.

Plus, I only ran across his name looking through the facebook (the real thing before it was a cyberspace phenomenon) for cute freshmen girls. Otherwise, I would've never known he was there because of the way Stanford segments some of its larger dorms.

And that's one example—I'm sure other people have far more impressive examples.

The racism angle is, frankly, plausible. And this is coming from someone who loathes the race card.

Given the context, it's at least reasonable to argue this is another crazy cracker, good ol' boy from Texas going around and exploiting minor transgressions to their fullest extent under the letter of the law. Just to screw with minorities and establish an illusory dominance over them.

I lived in Austin for a year.

The capital is almost without a doubt the most liberal city in the Lone Star state, or it was in 2001 (admittedly, that's a pretty long time so things may have changed). Even so, I'd here n****r dropped in casual conversation on what seemed like a daily basis. Not just by young kids and bitter senior citizens, and in no way that could be construed as harmless or innocent.

In addition, the State was executing people like crazy. Most of whom were people of color and most of the crimes were not of the incredibly grotesque nature for which liberal use of the death penalty should be reserved.

So it's plausible, but the same coincidence rationale applies and with ever more force.

The number of non-white people in Dallas is obviously and exponentially larger than the number of people directly connected to the NFL or some other approximation. Furthermore, I have no real idea what the racial atmosphere is like in Dallas or Texas today.

My first-hand experience is from another city and damn near a decade ago. I'll give Texas the benefit of the doubt and extend it to Robert Powell via the State's implicit endorsement of him.

More importantly, what makes the interpretation of the episodes a no-brainer for me is we've all seen these kinds of authority figures.

Whether it's a cop in your own city, a security guard at some mall, some yard duty at a high school, a junior officer in your company, whatever. They're people who crave power and abuse whatever little bit of it they have.

Especially against those he/she sees as the biggest threats. And a control freak like Powell would logically feel most threatened by those who aren't intimidated by his pseudo-power. It's clear that, under the circumstances, the Moats entourage wasn't intimidated.

And it's not a stretch that the wife of an NFL superstar might exude an entitled, overly-aggressive attitude. Bingo, out come the handcuffs.

Robert Powell may be jealous of anyone with money and glamour. He may be a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Who knows? I certainly do not.

I just think the law of probability favors something we've all personally-experienced backed by logical inference rather than reasonable-though-less-likely alternatives that would cause much more of a firestorm.

Unfortunately, some people like to inject as much incendiary scandal into an episode as possible and exploit mere coincidence to do so. But it's just wrong to assign causal relationships between things on such meager data as a sample set of two.

So, as paradigms of journalistic integrity like ESPN await further "progress" with salivating anticipation, I'm taking everything with a grain of salt because the most likely story is the one that will move the least ink.

Which means it's probably the one that's gonna get the least attention.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Joe Montana Vs. Steve Young—A Public Service Announcement for Peyton Manning Homers

If you've been with Bleacher Report for a month, you're well aware of how damn tiresome the debate over Tom Brady and Peyton Manning has become.

Fools around the country are watching the sands slipping through the hourglass with increasing anxiety, our clocks have already leapt ahead, and you STILL see a flippin' article dissecting the two NFL stars on a weekly basis.

It's been almost two full months since the season ended and Tom Brady played one quarter! Yet they come out like clockwork—you'll probably see another after this is published.

The great majority come from Manning homers because, well, they're the only ones laboring under the misconception the question is close and worthy of incessant badgering.

Clearly, I'm not in Peyton's camp so this won't directly be about the current incarnation of a very old argument. If I allow myself to point out how easily Tom Brady outranks Peyton Manning one more time, even I'm gonna start hating Tom Terrific.

Either that or I'll have to file a restraining order on his behalf myself.

Nope, I'm gonna try to put a stake in the issue once and for all by analogizing to the version of the "debate" that finally sledgehammered enlightenment through my thick skull. After I handle this hot potato, I'll be taking down the Middle East hostilities.

Stay tuned.

The reason Brady versus Manning was a dead horse from blow one is because it's just an old question with new clothes. And the question's been answered. In fact, there's probably a very good chance all of the above applied with equivalent accuracy to my idea of the original argument—Joe Montana versus Steve Young.

I don't have a good sense of football history, but, even in the last decade of the 20th Century, novelty was dead.

I'm sure there were two quarterbacks from National Football League antiquity who played the roles of The Winner and The Stat Guy to some acclaim prior to Joe's and Steve's virtuoso performances.

Although I caught some of Joe Cool's best performances up close and personally, I was there for the entirety of the Stormin' Mormon's stampede through the NFL. From his hostile takeover in SF right until Aeneas Williams' brutality ended his career.

When I was a teenager, Steve had already assumed the mantle of San Francisco 49er starting QB from Joe. In the wake of this momentous, yet figurative upheaval in the Bay Area (a necessary qualifier since we get so many of the literal variety), Montana and Young supporters threatened to divide a once-united republic of Niner faithful.

I was and still am a fervent Steve Young guy. The only difference is, back then, I would go to the mattresses with anyone who argued against him as the superior signal-caller of the two.

He is and will always be my favorite QB of all-time. But these days, I realize he will be inferior to Joe Cool with equal permanency.

And that's because Steve Young was not cool. If he wasn't incredibly blessed with natural athletic ability, he never would've been mistaken as such.

The dude is a nerd and a weirdo, and neither of those things can be explained purely by his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (although that certainly contributes). More pertinent, however, is that his poise couldn't match Montana's when the bright lights powered up.

Young was by no means a choker, but his postseason record was 8-6 in games where he attempted more than 15 passes. He has a Super Bowl ring, a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award, and some of his single-game performances in football's second season defy comprehension (sound familiar?).

Unfortunately for my man Steve, Montana's mark using the same condition is 16-7 with the loss on January 9, 1988 to the Minnesota Vikings counting against both men. Putting further distance between the two all-time greats are Joe's four Super Bowl rings and his incredible ability to find a new level of brilliance apart from his regular season exploits under the heat of the football-watching world's stare (again, sound familiar?).

With the two side-by-side, Steve's body of work gets fugly. All the more so when you look closely at his legacy.

It will always include his amazing day behind center in Super Bowl XXIX among its loudest moments. But just as memorable are the Niners' notorious struggles with the Dallas Cowboys' Triplets and Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers under Young's stewardship.

Is that fair? Absolutely not.

Those 'pokes stand tall in a group of the NFL's best teams of all-time. They featured Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Alvin Harper, Jay Novacek, Daryl Johnston, Nate Newton, Larry Allen, Charles Haley, Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Mark Stepnoski, and Ken Norton Jr. That's off the top of my head.

The Packers weren't quite as loaded, but they had a better QB and a more balanced team with Reggie White anchoring the other side of the ball.

On the other hand, Montana obviously faced some rugged competition and he had less talent around him than Young. Much is made of Jerry Rice only being around for two of Montana's four championships, but other pieces were inferior to Young's as well.

Still, Joe didn't have to face ferocity like the Cowboys of the 90s or the Packers of the same decade with equal regularity (although the Chicago Bears were pretty good based on defense alone).

In truth, none of that really matters because football is the ultimate team game and the quarterback has always been/will always be considered the leader of his team. He is expected to deliver wins—by hook or by crook and against whatever caliber of competition—because they are the only thing that has ever mattered to true football Illuminati.

When his team wins, a QB gets the lion's share of glory. When it loses, he gets the same portion of blame. Such is the nature of being a leader in any capacity—you take responsibility for a unit's ultimate success or failure.

Without qualification. Any effort to do so compromises your ability to lead and your right to do so.

Furthermore, the NFL is not like Major League Baseball where individual success evolves almost independently of the team's due to its discrete nature. Baseball is said to be a team game assembled from distinctly individual confrontations and anyone who has watched or played knows this is an appropriate description.

Nonetheless, the most valuable players on an annual basis usually come from contenders—thus paying lip service to the idea that the most important contributions are those to winners. Even in baseball.

The premium placed on contribution to ultimate team success is infinitely higher in the NFL.

In pro football—any way you slice it, any way you dice it, using any statistical analysis made to date—a win will always be a win and a loss will always be a loss. Nothing else matters except whether it was a playoff or regular season W.

The postseason is where the best of the best are born, then proven via baptism by fire. And Steve Young's teams lost many of those most critical baptisms—that is the reality.

You can try to parse out blame and lay it at the feet of the defense or fumbles by other players or whatever. You can point out how individually sublime Young was, even in defeat. There is some truth to it and I would love to back the theory—it just doesn't work.

Believe me, I spent a good portion of my more idealistic days trying to force the issue. No joy.

Take the time-tested and specious argument about the defense.

There will be exceptions to the rule as there are with every one, but you usually can't point to a defense and say it's better because of those numbers applied from this angle. Again, football doesn't work that way.

How can you definitively prove that Montana's defense was better than Young's without reference to the quarterback?

How can you prove, beyond the doubt created by three extra championships, that Montana wasn't one of the primary reasons his defenses performed better? After all, if I'm getting nice long rests on the sideline while my quarterback chews up time and yardage, I'm going to be a better player when I get back on the field.

I'm not saying this is necessarily the case with Montana and Young (or Brady and Manning by analogy of The Winner vs. The Stat Guy). What I am saying is the complex interplay between all sides of a football team are far too hard to separate and accurately analyze with any of the current metrics.

Maybe ever.

There are literally thousands of variations similar to the link between QBs and the defense.

Homers will always try to exploit them and that is their right afforded by the same complexities. They will invent hypotheticals and shiny statistical approaches tailored to deliver a favorable verdict for their guy—that's precisely what I did for Steve Young.

But football is no more a game of what-ifs than it is one where true value is reflected by individual achievement. In this regard, football is no different than any other sport. Or area of life for that matter.

It doesn't matter what might've or could've happened because what might've or could've happened DID NOT happen.

Ryan Leaf might've been the best NFL QB of all-time if scenario A shook out rather than what did. Bo Jackson might've been the best running back the planet's ever seen if he didn't get injured. Archie Manning might've been the best Manning if he'd taken snaps for a better team.

Steve Young might've beaten the Triplets given Montana's defense or offensive line or Bill Walsh or whatever.

The hypos are interesting and, by all means, keep 'em coming. Be aware, though, their probative value is exactly squat because we don't know that Young plus Walsh would've been enough.

Even if I think it's a safe bet, how can you put high probability next to certainty and choose the safe bet? Montana DID win four Super Bowls, but, because there's a good chance Young would've won just as many with Joe's [blank], he gets the benefit of the doubt?

How insane does that look in print? Good lord.

And that's essentially what Joe Montana versus Steve Young boils down to. Same for Tom Brady against Peyton Manning.

What-if against what did.

What did happen is that Joe Montana and Tom Brady won when it mattered most. Far more frequently than they lost. They have shown a proven ability to use the glare of the spotlight as fuel rather than to shrink from its suffocating presence.

Steve Young never put together enough big wins to change the gap in perception between Joe Cool and him, as much as it pains me to admit.

If Peyton Manning ends his career suffering the same imperfection, his homers will eventually enjoy a similar revelation—that Tom Brady will always be the better quarterback.

And, on that day, they'll be ice-skating on the river Styx.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Through the Wardrobe—A Fantasy Look at the Pitchers

In my previous piece, I said I tend to gloss over outfielders. If that's true (and it is), I flat out ignore pitching. Those of you looking for sturdy analysis of more than just the super-elite starters and closers should look elsewhere because I'm just going to hit the aces of the aces.

In other words, these are not the previews you're looking for (with a wave of my hand).

It should hopefully be a fun read though...


I don't qualify that with 'starters' or 'closers' because I'll be handling both. And it'll still only be about 10-15 guys period. No second tier, no third tier, no fliers.

With the hurlers, the strategy is the important part of my analysis.

Start with the basic assumption that you can't win all the categories through astute drafting if you have 10 categories at a minimum, evenly split between offense and pitching.

You might luck out and hit several jackpots that result in an absolutely dominant team, but there's simply no way to scientifically do so—baseball is too unpredictable and too dependent on intangible, immeasurable forces.

Next, concede that hitters are far easier to predict, partially because you'll have at least twice as many at-bats as you'll have innings pitched on a weekly basis in most leagues. The larger sample size allows for more normalization to expectations when a player is meeting them—a couple bad days usually get erased by a couple good ones if the hitter is good.

Meanwhile, a single bad outing from one of your aces could very well torpedo the entire week's pitching categories. Worse, it might take your guy another start or two to get things righted.

Another reason hitters seem more reliable is because they are. For whatever reason, even the best pitchers will lose a year or two to injury and/or bad performance. That doesn't seem to be the case for the top 10-15 hitters on an annual basis.

I'll acknowledge this point is debatable—what's not debatable is my personal experience and/or luck.

In 2007, I drafted Roy Halladay as my primary starter and he had an off year. In 2004 and 2005, Doc carried a little more than half his usual workload due to injury. And this is arguably the most consistent virtuoso in baseball.

Last year, the first two starters I grabbed were Aaron Harang and Justin Verlander. Harang was so bad I eventually cut ties with him and Verlander was almost worse because I rode that horse right into the burning [expletive] barn.

The story with closers is no different.

Outside of the absolute cream of the crop, it's a crap shoot. Last year, I took the electric arm of Manny Corpas and the reliably high save total of Joe Borowski. Neither held the job beyond May and Corpas was done by April if memory serves me.

Brad Lidge was perfect and Huston Street imploded. Joakim Soria became unhittable while Billy Wagner's arm exploded.

Hence, faced with one set of categories that are more accurately predictable (even if only in theory), it makes sense to concentrate on those areas and pick a couple from the pitching side to address later in the draft where bargains are available.

For me, that usually means wins, saves, and strikeouts.

Why those three? Because owners who love pitchers chase earned run average and WHIP so those guys are gone really early. Way too early for my tastes.

Wins, saves, and Ks are available well down the pitching ladder and always emerge over the course of the season via the wire (much like useful outfielders).

A guy like Chien-Ming Wang is going with the 199th pick in the average Yahoo draft despite being a virtual cinch for 15-20 wins if he makes all his starts. He won't give you much in the way of whiffs and his ERA/WHIP combo won't make anyone stop the presses, but those are dicey metrics for even the best ace (as I alluded to).

With all the turmoil at the back-end of games over the course of a 162-affair season, new closers wait in the wings on draft day and others pop up midseason. Unless you can snare one of the top guys for value, go after a discounted one later and address more pressing needs in the moment.

Sure, Jonathan Papelbon is dynamite. The thing is, you can approximate his save total and strikeouts using two or three mediocre closers that you pick up in your draft's gloaming or off waivers.

If you're punting ERA/WHIP, then why not grab Aramis Ramirez or Jacoby Ellsbury or Geovany Soto? All three are going after Papelbon on average and there are other equally attractive options.

Of course, I'm not the only subscriber to this theory so all those guys may be gone. In that case, I'm pulling the trigger because I'll jump all over a top-flight ace or closer if he's the value pick i.e. all the pieces I want who are ranked around him have been snatched.

*Note: this just happened in my second and last draft—it totally screwed me. Guys I figured would be available much later were going all over the place (Pablo Sandoval went with the 74th pick) so I ended up with two aces (Peavy/Liriano) and two fantastic closers (Rivera/Soria). Meanwhile, I have Ryan Theriot at shortstop. Oh well.

With that in mind, here are the pitchers (both starters and closers) who I keep an eye on because one will eventually fall into a position where he becomes the best option for my strategy:


1. Johan Santana, New York Mets—234.1 IP, 16 Ws, 206 Ks, 2.53 ERA, 1.15 WHIP

As much as I love Tim Lincecum, even I have to admit that Santana makes more sense as the first arm off the board.

Had it not been for the Mets' implosion in the bullpen last year, the Cy Young may very well have landed in Johan's hot left hand. I'm not saying it would've been right because the Freak still kept pace with the New York southpaw while pitching for one of the worst teams in baseball.

But voters overvalue wins and Santana saw quite a few vaporize when handed to the firemen (who were more like arsonists).

Add those Ws onto his record and people would've made more of a fuss out of the similarities in the other peripherals between Johan's '08 campaign and that of the Franchise.

Having grabbed both Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz in he offseason, it looks like we'll see what Santana can do with an effective relief corps. He's already got a far better offense (understatement of the year) than Lincecum so the table seems set of quite a feast.

2. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants—227 IP, 18 Ws, 265 Ks, 2.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

If Lincecum is on 20 of 30 teams in Major League Baseball, he's the No. 1 pitcher taken in almost every draft. He's already going first in a whole bunch despite pitching in front of an offense that will be mediocre if the best-case scenario materializes.

At worst, it could make some minor league assembly of splinters ferocious by comparison. And I'm a die-hard fan of the Orange and Black.

Having said all that, I'd take Lincecum first in a heart beat because he's the big ticket for my favorite franchise and there's is nothing negative to say about the guy. Absolutely zero. And he'll be 25 in June so the best is yet to come.

The funny thing is—because winning the Cy Young has thrust Tiny Tim into the national spotlight—you're beginning to see a bunch of people opining on how it's only a matter of time before Lincecum blows out his arm or breaks down a la Pedro Martinez. They range from clueless to well-informed.

And they're all wrong.

I'm not saying Lincecum will NEVER break down—as I said, almost every pitcher hits the shelf sooner or later. What I'm saying is that, in SF, we've been hearing the awkward delivery song-and-dance ever since the youngster was drafted.

We've also been hearing how he's never iced his arm, never had any sort of discomfort, and how his delivery has been specially designed to minimize the strain on his arm rather than overwork it. Again, there are no guarantees in life—the theory behind the motion could be totally wrong.

But so far so good and, considering how long Lincecum's been using it, perhaps his unique mechanics have earned the benefit of the doubt?

3. Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays—246 IP, 20 Ws, 206 Ks, 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP

I'll say it again—Hallady is arguably the most consistent top-flight guy on the bump in all of MLB. Last season was a masterpiece even by Doc's lofty standards so don't expect a repeat.

But his ERA will always be in the neighborhood of 3.00 and his WHIP will almost always be south of 1.30. Those are insane numbers considering how explosive the American League can be with the designated hitter the AL East in particular.

Halladay will be 32 in May so his age isn't yet a big concern, even more so because his strikeout total jumped by almost 70 from '07 to '08. That's not exactly a reason to worry age is dulling Roy's effective edge.

Obviously, it would indicate quite the contrary.

Since the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox have all cranked it up a notch, I'm a little hesistant putting a pitcher who must face all three on a regular basis this high. Ultimately though, that's been the rub on Halladay for years and it has yet to really hinder his production.

4. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees—253 IP, 17 Ws, 251 Ks, 2.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP

I know, I just said I didn't like sticking an AL East hurler this high. The difference is Sabathia doesn't have to face the best lineup (on paper) because he pitchers in front of it.

Still, facing the Rays and BoSox will be no laughing matter for the hefty lefty.

Fortunately for the Bronx Bombers, I think they've finally scored a free agent who will answer the bell and meet expectations. Sabathia got off to a slow start in 2008 and, if he does that in New York, things could get interesting. Even if that happens, I still think CC has the mental constitution to persevere.

And I don't think that will happen.

Sabathia has never worked with the luxury of a loaded lineup and an impeccable closer like Mariano Rivera. Despite working with sub-standard supporting casts (in some cases), he's posted stellar season after stellar season.

Now, he's sharing a clubhouse with some of the best in baseball as he enters his prime ((29 in July).

The only thing keeping Sabathia this low is the unpredictability of the Big Apple's influence on players and the small red flag raised by an incredible number of innings over three years by modern baseball's standards.

I don't think either will be a serious concern after the first month.

5. Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks—226.2 IP, 22 Ws, 183 Ks, 3.30 ERA. 1.20 WHIP

Here's were the inevitability of injury starts rearing its ugly head. And for no other reason than Webb's consistency—he's taken basically every start since he arrived in 2003. Since then, Brandon's never made less than 33 starts in a year.

In '03, he made 28 starts plus a relief cameo.

The dude is as steady as they come and features a sinkerball, which isn't notorious like a curve ball for destroying elbows/arms. There's really no good reason to expect Webb to miss time.

But the fact remains the human shoulder wasn't designed to throw over the top and Webb's been doing just that like clockwork for six straight years. The landscape of modern baseball is littered with Tommy John surgeries and torn labrums.

I have yet to hear of a pro pitcher who didn't have considerable and permanent damage to his shoulder once his career was over. Shoot, I have fraying of my rotator cuff from my playing days, which ended in high school.

Each individual is different and there would not be rules without exceptions. To boot, Brandon Webb is in his prime, features a pitch that never seems to lose its effectiveness, and toes the slab for a pretty good club.

There are questions at the back of the bullpen since Chad Qualls has never seen serious run as a closer and Webb's defense—critical for a guy who induces as many grass-cutters as Webb—took a hit with the exodus of Orlando Hudson, who is one of the better leathermen in MLB.

But those are minor. If you don't buy the injury bug, draft Webb without pause.

6. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies—227.1 IP, 14 Ws, 196 Ks, 3.09 ERA, 1.08 WHIP

The top of the pitching heap is so tightly clustered that Hamels' arm concerns knocked him from No. 3 to here. Each ace is so good and durable on this list that even the possibility of missing a significant number of starts is toxic.

It's knocked Josh Beckett all the way down to No. 9 and kept Francisco Liriano off altogether.

That said, the bugaboo seems milder by the day and Cole (already 25) is almost as young as Lincecum. There's a good chance he'd bounce back firmly and quickly from even a semi-serious ding, which this doesn't appear to be.

Granted, the southpaw saw a considerable surge in innings from '07 to '08 (over 40) and fanned amost 20 extra hitters as well as walking more, which usually indicates a general inflation in pitches per batter.

With that as the background to the elbow discomfort, the sirens get a little louder.

Nonetheless, Hamels is a scintillating talent with much potential left to harness and time to do it. He takes the pill for one of the scariest offenses in baseball that may be even better with the addition of Raul Ibanez.

You don't want to be too wary in the face of all that upside.

7. Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres—173.2 IP, 10 Ws, 166 Ks, 2.85 ERA, 1.18 WHIP

Peavy represents the flip-side of the inevitable injury coin. Here's one of the most reliable arms in baseball coming off a season hampered by injury.

This is the side I like because, if you think of the injury bug as a pressure valve that must be opened periodically to avoid destruction, Peavy's just let off his steam and should be good to go for a while. Meanwhile, a guy like Webb looks ready to explode at any second.

Additionally, Jake's production looks kinda pedestrian because of the starts he lost so he should be a bargain on draft day as long as your league doesn't feature any Padre supporters.

In the interest of equity, the injury may not be completely behind Peavy so he might struggle with it again this year. But that's not usually the pattern for these guys—I have no statistics to back it up, but the aces seem to have stretches of three or four healthy years before encountering another hiccup.

There's also the matter of a trade. While leaving the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Petco would potentially hurt Jake's ERA, his hit and whiff rates have always reflected a pitcher who excels with great stuff rather than contact finding mitts.

Plus, the trade would presumably send Peavy to a contender and an actual MLB lineup. That's gotta help.

8. Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks—216 IP, 16 Ws, 206 Ks, 3.33 ERA, 1.13 WHIP

I am not a believer in Dan Haren.

For whatever reason, I still remember the kid who came up with St. Louis and never blew up my skirt. That's totally unfair because he's produced four straight years of fantastic work.

What makes my stance on Haren even more ridiculous are the trends. Almost all indicate the 28-year-old is approaching a prime that looks better than anything we've seen yet. All the more so because he's in a division weak on offense and strong on pitchers' parks.

Consider his whiff rate's been steadily on the rise, his walk rate's been on the fade if it's been moving at all, the same can be said of his WHIP, and he's allowing fewers homers each campaign.

Furthermore, his style isn't as defensively dependent so the only concern he shares with his front-end mate Webb is the unproven Qualls in the 'pen. What I didn't say about Qualls earlier is that his stuff is filthy so neither Webb's nor Haren's owners need to lose fantasy-sleep.

And yet I don't like him as a pitcher. Go figure.

9. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox—174.1 IP, 12 Ws, 172 Ks, 4.03 ERA, 1.19 WHIP

As I alluded to above, Beckett falls this far because of health concerns. Like Peavy, Josh is coming off a season that saw his effectiveness limited by injury.

The difference between the two, other than the one year of age Beckett (29 in May) has on Peavy, is that Beckett's history is pockmarked with starts lost to injury. He's one of the exceptions to aces going down to injury once in a while.

Beckett seems to go down regularly and, even when taking starts, always seems to be suffering or recovering from some mallady.

Furthermore, the list of injuries that nagged the BoSox' ace in 2008 features a littany of potentially dire problems, each of which threatens to erode the very core of dominant pitching.

Beckett experience back trouble, soreness in his elbow, and then a torn obligue last season. If something had happened to his legs, Josh would've experienced substantial damage to every key element to the pitching motion.

Of course, I'm not a doctor or a Red Sox fan so I have no idea what the problems were nor how signicant. If they were just run-of-the-mill hot spots, Beckett will be no worse for the wear. If not?

Uh oh. Hard-throwers who lose movement tend to see a lot of pop-ups turn into big flies.

Honorable mention

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins—hasn't quite regained pre-surgery form.

Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros—pitches in a live yard and in a division of live yards.

James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays—will eventually break through, but AL East is rough this year.

Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers—I hate the Bums, but this guy's legit.

1. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox—69.1 IP, 5 Ws, 41 saves, 77 Ks, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP

Papelbon didn't finish 2008 as the top rated closer in Major League Baseball, but he's probably the safest bet to finish there heading into most years. He is a 28-year-old clydesdale who closes games for one of the best teams in baseball, featuring arguably the best rotation and bullpen.

Although his blown save total, ERA, and WHIP jumped a tad last year while his K per inning ratio went down, there isn't much cause to panic. The big fella's innings increased, his walks decreased, his homers allowed decreased, and his save total increased.

And none of the fluctuations were too drastic so just consider '08 a slightly soft year that still qualifies as one of the best in baseball and keeps Papelbon right in line to be his dominating self in '09.

2. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees—70.2 IP, 6 Ws, 39 saves, 77 Ks, 1.40 ERA, 0.67 WHIP

If you're a baseball fan long enough, you see a lot of crazy things.

When Rivera's career is over and we have several years to really contemplate, to digest what he's accomplished, Mo may go down as one of the most profound mysteries in the history of the game.

This bad dude is 39 and coming off possibly the most stellar year of a career filled with years that qualify as some of the best of all-time. He cut his WHIP almost in half from '07 (1.12), reduced his ERA by more than half (3.15), cut his walks in half (from 12 to six), saved nine extra games, and did it all without adding appreciably to his fan total.

The Sandman did this all, as he always has, with basically one pitch: the feared cutter.

This is a pitch that causes some of the best switch-hitters to go up right-handed against the right-handed Rivera because it is so decimating on left-handed swingers. Dennis Eckersley and Trevor Hoffman both recognize Mo as the best ever and trace it to this pitch.

Future Hall-of-Fame hitters openly quiver at the idea of catching it on their hands, calling it the best pitcher ever thrown.

So, yeah, he's still reliable as he closes in on 40.

3. Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins—67.2 IP, 1 W, 39 saves, 74 Ks, 1.33 ERA, 0.90 WHIP

Nathan may very well deserve to be higher on this list, but playing baseball in Minnesota has never been the secret to geting your dues.

The fact remains, however, that Joe Nathan has been every bit the steadying influence that Papelbon and Rivera have been in recent years.

While his strikeout totals have declined, his ERA and WHIP have followed suit. Since Joe still whiffs more than a batter per inning, I think his owners and Twins' fans are more than satisfied with the development.

With a dynamite set-up crew in front of him and some fabulous young arms populating the starting rotation, the Twinkies have the pitching to compete. With Joe Mauer starting the season on the shelf and an already-weakish lineup, they'll have to do so by winning close games.

And that's good news if you can get your hot little hands on Nathan.

4. Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals—67.1 IP, 2 Ws, 42 saves, 66 Ks, 1.60 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

A closer—from KC of all places—gets the last honored spot in this group of dominating, lights-out firemen. The Royals won 75 games in '08 and Soria saved 42 so don't worry about whether the whispers regarding the Crowns being a contender in '09 are realistic or not—it doesn't matter.

Joakim will come in a slam the door on whatever chances he gets and, since KC's pitching/hitting are still developing, most of their wins should provide ample opportunities for Soria to display his considerable wares.

In only his second year on the job (and his first full one), the Royal closer trimmed his ERA and WHIP while walking the same number and striking out fewer batters. That would indicate to me the batters aren't finding a comfort zone with el hombre despite the growing familiarity.

They're finding a way to get the bat on the ball with slightly more frequency, perhaps, but to the detriment of effective contact. Thusly, Soria's able to keep more runners of the bases despite more contact.

And that bodes well for the longevity of his reign of terror over opposing hitters.

Honorable mention

Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox—lost velocity in '08.

Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies—perfection in '08 doesn't totally erase doubts from Houston.

Francisco Rodriguez New York Mets—high save total doesn't obscure rising peripherals.

Matt Capps, Pittsburgh Pirates—hurt in '08, but quietly one of the best and on improving team.

Kerry Wood, Cleveland Indians—only one year on the job, but moves to bigger park.

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs—can Lou Pinella really be serious about going with Kevin Gregg?

So there you go—the overview of my fantasy approach is done.

In conclusion, I'll offer one last bit of advice—I believe that the secret to winning a fantasy championship is very similar to winning the real thing in one key regard: you put together a team to make the playoffs and then hit the prayer circuit once you're there.

By drafting wisely and staying vigilant as you manage your club over the course of the season, you can realistically control whether your club qualifies for the postseason. With so many games, you can create a plan and then address the crises as they come to satisfying results.

But once it comes down to elimination based on a single week, it's up to the baseball gods.

And they are not merciful. Good luck.