Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Cincinnati Reds' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

If you told a Cincinnati Red fan after the 2007 season that the team's 2009 fate rested on the right arm of Aaron Harang, the fan would've probably welcomed the news with a sincerely confident smile. Flash forward to Spring Training 2009 and the smile is nowhere to be seen. Harang's 2008 campaign is yet another bit of proof that fortunes in Major League Baseball can change very quickly and just as drastically.

The guy was coming off back-to-back 16 win seasons in which he posted earned run averages around 3.70 and strikeout totals over 215. Last year, the wheels came off the Harang wagon to the tune of a 6-17 record, a 4.79 ERA, and only 153 Ks.

The reality of those numbers was much uglier. So the the news that Aaron Harang holds the key to the Cincinnati Reds' fortunes in the forthcoming year should be granted with some concern.

Then again, Harang had been nothing if not consistent until 2008 and he had seen three straight years of 200+ innings so maybe all he need was an off year to regain his full strength. We'll see.

Here's how the rest of the club should shape up:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Ramon Hernandez
First base—Joey Votto
Second base—Brandon Phillips
Third base—Edwin Encarnacion
Shortstop—Jerry Hairston, Jr.
Left field—Chris Dickerson
Center field—Willy Taveras
Right field—Jay Bruce

The National League Central is outside my official jurisdiction so I don't know how the position battles are shaping up, but I do know that Norris Hopper (corner outfield spots), Alex Gonzalez (SS), and Jeff Keppinger (SS) all should get a fair shake at a starting job. But judging from youth and performance, I'd go with the lineup you see above. Hairston's proven to be a bit fragile so Gonzalez and/or Keppinger should see the field regardless.

Oh yeah—Jonny Gomes, Daryle Ward, and Jacque Jones appear to be on the roster at the moment.

Starting rotation

Ace—Edinson Volquez (R)
Second spot—Bronson Arroyo (R)
Third spot—Aaron Harang (R)
Fourth spot—Johnny Cueto (R)
Fifth spot—Ramon Ramirez (R)/Homer Bailey (R)/Micah Owings (R)

You can see why Harang is so important. If he rebounds the only glaring weakness in the rotation is that fifth spot. Ramirez appears to have the inside track on the gig since his recent performance has been the strongest. However, he's got only four starts. Still, both Bailey and Owings had abysmal showings in 2008. Homer's pitching future may still be bright; he's only gonna be 23 in May. Micah, though, might be better off opting for the Rick Ankiel route.


Closer—Francisco Cordero (R)
Set-up—Arthur Rhodes (L)
Set-up—David Weathers (R)
Set-up—Bill Bray (L)

As is the truth for most teams in the National League Central, offense should not be a problem for the Redlegs.

Brandon Phillips is one of the elite second sackers in MLB—his 2008 season resulted in only a .261 average, but he packaged that with 24 doubles, 21 home runs, 80 runs scored, 78 runs batted in, 23 stolen bases, a .312 on-base percentage, and a .754 OPS. And he'll start the season at the age of 27 so there's still room to grow.

Joey Votto is even younger at 25, but he's already shown signs of delivering on some of the hype that his rise through the lower levels generated. His 2008 campaign (his first full year in the Show) saw a .297 average, 32 doubles, 24 bombs, 69 runs scored, 84 RBI, a .368 OBP, and an .874 OPS. Just a repeat of that would be great new for Cinci and Votto's history of progression through experience indicates 2009 should be even better.

Even a guy like Edwin Encarnacion—a guy who people seem to think has plateaued—still has some significant potential for making a leap. The dude is only 26 and already has 3 1/2 years in the pros. His defense may always be a bit rough, but 2008 saw him hit .251 with 29 doubles, 26 HRs, 75 runs, 68 RBI, a .340 OBP, and an .807 OPS. Most clubs would take that from third base.

The real wild card in the batter's box is Jay Bruce. Here is a 22-year-old kid who spent pretty much his entire first year of legal drinking eligibility playing Major League Baseball in 2008. And his final marks were pretty impressive—.254, 17 doubles, 21 taters, 63 runs, 52 RBI, .314 OBP, and .767 OPS. Still, there's allegedly a lot more where in those talent reservoirs.

Bruce was supposed to be a terror on the base paths and we didn't see that too much. But that isn't too surprising considering the youngster probably had enough to think about out there. Regardless, 2009 could be a break-out moment for Bruce or he could enter a sophomore slump.

The former would be fantastic news for the Reds and bad news for the rest of the Senior Circuit. The latter would be just as significant in the other direction for both groups.

The rest of the lineup is fragile and unproven.

Jerry Hairston Jr. threw up a gaudy .326 average and 15 steals when healthy, but only managed 261 at-bats. Jeff Keppinger had stretches of white hot production, but needs to prolong them in order to see regular playing time. Chris Dickerson looks like he might be the real deal, but it's a bit early to proclaim him the bona fide answer after only 102 ABs. Willy Taveras is like a water-strider whenever he can get on base, but that doesn't happen frequently enough considering his lack of other attributes.

Still, if I'm a Red fan, I'm far more concerned about the rotation and arms in the 'pen.

Edinson Volquez was brutal on the opposition last year, but the performance came outta nowhere. There's no guarantee he's the same guy in 2009 (although I think he'll be just fine). Bronson Arroyo probably will never jostle for a Cy Young, but he'll keep a good offense in most games and takes the ball almost every time his turn comes up.

Johnny Cueto showed signs of life at times in 2008 and he's only 23 so Cincinnati will probably—and rightly—be pretty patient with that talented young arm. The fifth spot is a free-for-all, but that's pretty much true for most clubs.

Francisco Cordero is a legit stud at the back end, even if he makes you sweat the last frame out more often than anyone would like. Bill Bray, David Weathers, and Arthur Rhodes could all be great or each could be worse than the previous stiff. Again, true of most middle relievers and set-up men across the Big League landscape.

And that's why it all boils down to Aaron Harang.

If he can recapture the form of a 16-game winner with a mid-3.00 ERA with 200+ whiffs? That would give Cincinnati three genuine top-of-the-rotation arms (Volquez/Harang/Arroyo) with another possibly due to arrive in the very near future (Cueto) and a beast to shut the door (Cordero).

That would give the Reds a sincere chance in the NL Central, even against the Chicago Cubs. It'd probably even insert them into the thick of the Wild Card race.

If Harang continues to decompose right before our very eyes?

That offense is gonna have to be even better than it looks on paper for Cinci to even keep the Cubbies in sight.

The Chicago Cubs' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

There is no heavier burden than great potential.—Charlie Brown

Charles Schultz might revise that statement in the face of this year's Chicago Cubs team. The 2009 Cubbies will be laboring under that heavy burden Charlie Brown bemoaned as well as decades and decades...and decades and decades of futility. Having said that, they are still one of three gorillas in the National League.

Along with the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies and the always-good-for-a-laugh-in-September New York Mets, the Cubs figure to be one of the favorites to represent the Senior Circuit in the World Series this year. And that's not without reason.

Chicago had a formidable roster by the time the 2008 postseason rolled around and it got a stronger.

Milton Bradley and Kevin Gregg now call Wrigley Field home, plus the Cubs stand to benefit from another year of maturity on Sean Marshall and better years from Derek Lee and/or Aramis Ramirez. With that preface in mind, take a look at how the club should shape up:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Geovany Soto
First base—Derek Lee
Second base—Aaron Miles/Mike Fontenot
Third base—Aramis Ramirez
Shortstop—Ryan Theriot
Left field—Alfanso Soriano
Center field—Reed Johnson
Right field—Milton Bradley/Kosuke Fukudome

Bradley's already dinged up—or so he says, remember that veterans aren't above dogging it a bit in Spring Training. Regardless, Chicago isn't going to get 162 starts from him in right. Like it or not, Fukudome is gonna figure in the mix unless Joey Gathright can somehow jump him. Micah Hoffpauir might actually be the best bet, but his sample size is still a tad small.

Starting rotation

Ace—Carlos Zambrano (R)
Second spot—Ryan Dempster (R)
Third spot—Ted Lilly (L)
Fourth spot—Rich Harden (R)
Fifth spot—Sean Marshall (L)

I know, I know—Harden is the second best arm in this rotation when healthy (arguably the best). The key there is "when healthy." In order to keep him off the shelf and shake up the righty-lefty order, I'd move him down in the rotation so I could skip a couple starts over the course of the year. Plus, can you imagine matching up most team's fourth starter against Harden? Niiiice.


Closer—Carlos Marmol (R)
Set-up—Kevin Gregg (R)
Set-up—Jeff Samardzija (R)
Set-up—Neal Cotts (L)
Set-up—Aaron Heilman (R)

On paper, that club should waltz it's way to at least the National League Championship Series. Of course, you could've probably said the same thing about 2008's version and we all know how that ended. This year, though, the Cubbies have made several improvements.

The order is more formidable and that's saying something because it was pretty potent last year.

I never understood why everyone was so convinced Kosuke Fukudome was gonna be a star, even after his hot start. His role's reduced, having been supplanted by Milton Bradley. Bradley's an offensive stud when he's healthy and figures to produce well from one of the outfield corners.

Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez both had down years. Their numbers look pretty good—a .291 average, 41 doubles, 20 homeruns, 93 runs scored, 90 runs batted in, a .361 on-base percentage, and an .823 OPS for Lee with a .289 average, 44 doubles, 27 HRs, 97 runs scored, 111 RBI, a. 380 OBP, and an .898 OPS for Ramirez. But the supporting case was better than in recent years so the numbers are misleading. Aramis was whiffing far more than usual and Lee couldn't keep the ball of the ground at times.

Even if both continue a slow decline, they shouldn't be much worse and a rebound from either or both wouldn't be shocking considering Lee's only 33 and Ramirez is three years younger.

Geovany Soto quickly established himself as one of the best offensive backstops in the game last year while posting a .285 average with 35 doubles, 23 bombs, 66 runs scored, 86 RBI, a .364 OBP, and an .868 OPS. Those are great numbers from any position, from catcher? Whoa.

It's true that losing Mark DeRosa and Jim Edmonds might sting a bit. But Aaron Miles is serviceable and I personally like what Mike Fontenot's shown thus far. Over the last couple of years, Fontenot has seen 479 at-bats—about a full year's worth. He's tallied a .290 average with 34 doubles, 12 homers, 78 runs scored, 69 RBI, a .369 OBP, and an .826 OPS.

That'll do in a pinch and he might have room to grow considering he's only 28 and has yet to see full-time duty in the Bigs.

As for Edmonds' alleged replacement, Reed Johnson won't hit for the power that Jimmy did, but he won't strikeout as much and will hit for much better average. Chicago's power production shouldn't be a problem so that looks like a good swap to me.

When it takes this long to get to a player the caliber of Alfonso Soriano, that's saying something about your offense.

Meanwhile, the pitching is just as pretty a picture...on paper.

Carlos Zambrano is a horse with that edge that an ace needs to survive. Ryan Dempster—though not worth the contract he got—is a damn fine number two or three. Rich Harden could be even better than Big Z if he could make 30 starts and Ted Lilly is a nice three or four. While Sean Marshall isn't as consistent as the departed Jason Marquis, he's got a higher upside if he can realize the raw potential in his 26-year-old, 6'7" frame.

In the bullpen, losing Bobby Howry and Kerry Wood will hurt. But adding Kevin Gregg, putting another year of experience on the nasty Carlos Marmol, and getting a full year from a wiser Jeff Samardzija should be a nice little balm for that sore spot. Those are three quality arms and weakest (Gregg) is the wiliest.

It says here the Chicago Cubs are clearly the class of the NL Central. Nobody has the guns or the bats on paper to compete with them in baseball's biggest division. The Cincinnati Reds might be able to run with the Cubbies for while if Aaron Harang can bounce back, Johnny Cueto progresses, and Edinson Volquez doesn't regress. But they'd still need some lucky breaks from their young guys on offense.

Therein lies part of the problem from the lovable losers from the North Side.

Nothing short of the postseason will be considered a success. Even another first round kick to the seat will be received with groans and hostility. And these are the Chicago Cubs we're talking about—a franchise that's not exactly robust in their resolve against adversity according to recent history.

That doesn't bode particularly well.

Neither does relying on the insane fragility of Milton Bradley, Rich Harden, and Alfonso Soriano. Those three guys WILL go down at some point. You can also bet another key player will spend some time on the Disabled List because that's just the nature of the game.

So the path to Major League Baseball's second season isn't as sunny and safe as it might look.

If the Chicago Cubs can deal with the expectations and the constant questions about their historic futility and the injuries that are sure to come, they should be a sight to behold.

If not?

They'll still be worth watching. But for an entirely different reason.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Pittsburgh Pirates' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

Every year, some team completely jumps the entire Major League Baseball world. Last year it was arguably the Tampa Bay Rays or the Milwaukee Brewers. Some people will say the Rays had so much young talent that their magical run to the World Series wasn't such a surprise. That's find and good except show me one person who expected all that young talent to arrive so early and explosively.

I'd wager he or she will be tough to find (and homers don't count if any exist for Tampa).

Even so, the Brew Crew reversed—or at least gave a momentary reprieve—to Lord knows how many years of futility by trading for C.C. Sabathia and riding his left arm to the postseason.

Regardless of who your preferred stunner is, the point is there almost always is one. That's why I've been wanting to write about the Pittsburgh Pirates for a while. Not necessarily because they will play good baseball, but because there is reason to think they may be the team that shocks the baseball world.

Let's keep this in perspective.

For the Pirates, shocking would be a winning season. Obviously, the Buccos are subject to the same immutable rules of the baseball gods so they—like anyone else—could find their lucky stride and breeze deep into the postseason. But if there's a fan out there who sincerely believes that will happen, I'd request he/she be kept in restraints.

No, I'm talking there's reason to think these guys might be pretty good, even keep their collective head above water.

And that's gotta put a smile on the face of most Buc fans—the franchise is under the crushing weight of a 16-YEAR losing streak. As in, Pittsburgh hasn't played .500 ball for an entire season since 1992 (a year that saw the club win 96 games). Plus, they're a small market team in a down economy that labors in a division with one of MLB's big spenders—the Chicago Cubs.

Even with all the right breaks, it's gonna be tough for the Pirates to compete with the leviathan that figures to rule the division from the get-go. Still, check out the roster and there's a lot to like:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Ryan Doumit
First base—Adam LaRoche
Second base—Freddy Sanchez
Third base—Andy LaRoche/Eric Hinske
Shortstop—Jack Wilson
Left field—Nyjer Morgan/Eric Hinske
Center field—Nate McLouth
Right field—Brandon Moss/Eric Hinske

Craig Monroe is also floating around Spring Training on a minor league contract, but I think this is pretty much the way the Buccos will hit the field on Opening Day. The only legitimate question is whether Hinske will be starting at one of those three positions or whether he'll be handling each in a back-up capacity.

Starting rotation

Ace—Paul Maholm (L)
Second spot—Ian Snell (R)
Third spot—Zach Duke (L)
Fourth spot—Jeff Karstens (R)
Fifth spot—Tom Gorzelanny (L)

Again, I'm fond of alternating sides to mess with the opposing team. These guys are professional hitters, but hitting is still an ability where failing 70 percent of the time makes you one of the best in the business. Anything that makes it more difficult helps and it's gotta be easier settling into a groove when you see righty-righty-lefty-lefty-lefty. Phil Dumatrait is working his way back from injury and, depending on his progress (slow at the moment), he may figure in the picture—that might not be a good thing.


Closer—Matt Capps (R)
Set-up—John Grabow (L)
Set-up—Tyler Yates (R)
Set-up—Craig Hansen (R)

Alright, that's obviously not a juggernaut. Even if everyone plays above expectation.

I still say there's a lot to like, particularly on offense. Ryan Doumit can flat-out rake and that's a huge plus considering his contributes from the weakest position for offense on the field excluding the pitcher. Name another team that got a .318 average, 34 doubles, 15 homeruns, 69 runs batted in, 71 runs scored, a .357 on-base percentage, and an OPS of .858 in 431 at-bats from the guy donning the Tools of Ignorance.

The only catchers who consistently rate out above Doumit are names like Geovany Soto, Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, and Bengie Molina i.e. the best in the biz.

There's no need to delve too deeply into Nate McLouth other than to say his 2008 line—.276 average, 46 doubles, 26 taters, 94 RBI, 113 runs scored, 23 stolen bases, .356 OBP, and an .853 OPS in 597 ABs—was legit. Nate was probably the first Pirate All-Star in recent memory to earn his way onto the team rather than sneak in through the "Every Team Must Be Represented" side door.

And we were born on the same day (different years) so he's gotta be the real deal.

The rest of the lineup isn't too shabby either. Freddy Sanchez is a career .300 hitter (with no pop whatsoever) who won the batting title in 2006. Jack Wilson isn't gonna set the world afire, but he's a solid contributor from short. Both are slick leathermen up the middle.

Adam LaRoche typically starts slowly, but he's a pretty reliable bet for about a .270 average, 30+ doubles, 25 HRs, and a healthy run at 100 RBI. His brother has heretofore stunk the joint up—that's presumably why the Bucs grabbed Eric Hinske—but he was once a highly touted prospect in the Los Angeles Dodger system.

Ditto Brandon Moss except he was in the Boston Red Sox system.

Nyjer Morgan has only 267 big league ABs, but that's more than enough to form a relevant sample size since it probably takes at most 50 plate appearances (and he's obviously got more than 267 of those) for scouts in the Show to get a book on a guy. In those 267+ appearances, Morgan's registered a .296 average with 16 doubles, 41 runs scored, 16 SBs, and an OBP of .351.

However, that's the good. The bad is the pitching and that's the problem because you only go as far as your hurlers can take you. On the hill, the glimmer of hope is flickering a little less brightly.

Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zack Duke, and Tom Gorzelanny have all shown flashes of brilliance in their young careers. Unfortunately for them, the flashes have been more the exception than the general rule. Still, that means they have the talent to do the job on a nightly basis; the trick is actually doing it. With that much obvious ability and a considerable amount of it coming from the south side, I'd be cautiously optimistic if I were a Pittsburgh fan.

Consistency is the last thing to come for pitchers and it often comes unexpectedly.

The bullpen's absolute back end is actually pretty stout if form holds. Matt Capps is a beast and John Grabow filled in serviceably when Capps went down with injury. Tyler Yates wasn't too bad either in a couple save spots and can bring it from the left side (see a common theme here?). The rest of the picture is murky though and you need more than three arms to get through 162 games.

Craig Hansen hasn't exactly been overwhelming to date. And the rest of the guys don't have much of a track record of which to speak.

Here's the real rub though: Sanchez is 31 years old, Yates 31, Hinske 31, Wilson 31, Grabow 30, Adam LaRoche 29, Morgan 28, Doumit 28, Snell 28, McLouth 27, Maholm 27, Duke 26, Karstens 26, Gorzelanny 26, Capps 25, Andy LaRoche 25, and Moss 25.

Almost every significant piece is inside a pretty nice window where performance can leap forward a la Nate McLouth. That kind of youth can work for you as Tampa Bay proved last year (the Rays leap was more surprising because their parts are even younger). The starting pitching is in a particularly nice window with nobody older than Snell's 28 years nor younger than 26.

Obviously, not every pro progresses through his entire career. But there is a lot of talent in that group; the Bucs have a lot of chances for a player to break through and tap his full potential.

As I said from the start, the Cubbies are obviously the class of the National League Central and I'm sure some frequenters of Wrigley would tell you the entire Senior Circuit. But the rest of the division is in shambles to be kind.

Milwaukee is down both Sabathia and Ben Shields. The St. Louis Cardinals pitching is a rather large question mark, such that the loss of Braden Looper could actually be shades of devastating. The Houston Astros have been reduced to relying on another miracle year from Lance Berkman and (GULP) Mike Hampton's physical integrity.

There's a reasonable chance that the Pirates could be duking it out with the Cincinnati Reds for second place in a relatively watered down division—don't get me wrong, it's still a gauntlet of ferocity compared to the NL West.

If that happens, the Pittsburgh Pirates would probably be winning more often than they'd be losing. To any serious fan of baseball for the last 15 years, that'd be every bit as shocking as Tampa Bay in World Series.

Or the key guys could all prove to be destined for mediocrity and the Pirates could flirt with 100 losses yet again. But who wants to see that?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Revelation of Demian Maia and Other Musings from UFC 95

There's no reason to write an article dissecting UFC 95—it was a monument to all that disgusts people about Dana White and the vice-grip his organization holds over mixed martial arts. How in the name of all that's holy does Joe "Big Daddy" Stevenson keep showing up in the main event?

No doubt—Stevenson is tough as nails and bleeds like he's got the skin of a grape.

Of course, he never beats anybody of note either so we don't know anything more about Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez than we knew going in. Great, a unanimous decision over a gatekeeper at a new weight. I guess Diego's not a stiff.

Hadn't he already proved that? Oh well.

There were two far more interesting/important observations to be taken from Saturday's card. Obviously, one is Damien Maia and I'll get to him very shortly. But I'm gonna deal with the other first since it won't take as long.

That is the irritating propensity for MMA fighters to refuse to accept when they have been knocked the f*** out. If you saw that beanpole Stefan Struve get rocked by Junior Dos Santos, you know what I'm talking about.

You understand me even better if you saw Josh Koscheck's behavior after an over-matched Paulo Thiago put the blond blubberer to sleep.

Struve was bad enough. He looked like he was really sincerely trying to convince Dos Santos that the ref stopped the fight too early. In other words, that Junior's win was cheap and undeserved. But I'm sure Struve meant no disrespect.

However, at least there's a chance Stefan was really saying, "yep, you got me—my mouth was open on that one." I hope so because Dos Santos crumpled that tall drink o' water twice before the ref had seen enough. Like I said, there's a chance.

Josh Koscheck? Not so much.

He was stamping around the ring and looked to be refusing to even go near the ref. I'm sure Josh was disappointed because he was dominating that fight up until the knockout. Plus, he did recover quickly after the ref saved his rear. The operative word, of course, being 'saved.'

As Joe Rogan pointed out, Koscheck was in La La Land after that upper-cut and trailing left hook. Josh's hands dropped immediately after the first shot and then he took another substantial blow to his head as he was falling. That dude was O-U-T.

He couldn't even muster a defense as Thiago slowly sauntered towards his prone and defenseless body.

Yet Josh Koscheck kept hammering the ref for the early stoppage and then wouldn't even let the ref touch him, as seems to be customary when raising the hand of the winner.

Forget the crowd—it's groupthink and most of them wouldn't really mind seeing a fighter seriously injured. That was an excellent stoppage (just like Rogan said) and Koscheck acted like a petulant little punk.

Now, I'm sorry I went to bat for him with regards to him having proved himself worthy of a permanent place on the main cards.

Enough though. Them's small potatoes compared to the incomparable Demian Maia.

That guy is a stud and a force to be reckoned with. Not because he beat Chael Sonnen—yet another gatekeeper. But because of the way he did it and what he said afterwards.

The fight itself was a thing to behold. Sonnen knew exactly what Maia was doing, as do all his opponents from this point forward. Even more impressive, it didn't look like Demian was particularly interested in hiding the fact that he had no interest in striking. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist wanted the fight on the ground, somehow, anyhow.

And he did it. With relative ease.

After messing around to tenderize Sonnen for a bit, Maia tossed him to the ground and then rolled him right into a triangle. Game, set, match. That might not sound so easy, but beating a world-class fighter (and that's what most UFC fighters are) in 150 seconds, using the very attack that was expected, qualifies.

Then, after the fight, Maia said he wanted a title shot, wanted the belt, and wanted to prove that you could be the best in the world at a combat sport without hurting anyone (in not so many words).

Yep, Demian Maia is now up there in my pantheon of favorite fighters.

I'm sure he already knows Anderson Silva so I'll let the Spider introduce him to Fedor Emelianenko. It's about time the Last Emperor and Silva had some company because the room was getting a little awkward.

I'm not saying Maia is as good or as special as those other two...yet. It's true he has yet to face some seriously brutal competition. In fact, since he has the misfortune of toiling in the same weight class as the Spider, I'll explicitly say that he's not even ready for a shot at the champ (as he desires).

Maia must certainly pay a couple more dues before moving into the top contender's spot. Maybe fight a couple guys who currently have a claim to that spot. Nate Marquardt seems logical since he won on the UFC 95 card as well, but doesn't deserve another shot at Silva (having been dispatched so easily once already).

Or what about "Dangerous" Dan Henderson? Fresh off a less-than-glittering win over Rich "Ace" Franklin, Henderson seems like a good choice, too.

Thales Leitas would be my final suggestion.

Forget about Yushin "Thunder" Okami. Although I'm sure Dana is angling for that story arc since Okami is the last guy to hang an L on Silva. Whatever. It was by DQ for an illegal kick and the guy's lost to Jake Shields and Franklin since then without beating anyone of sincere threat.

Nah, the real "challengers" at the moment are guys like the other three.

After one or two of those, then I think Demian Maia's resume would more accurately reflect his talent and the combination would genuinely demand a foray into the Spider's web.

For me, that fight would be right up there with Brock Lesnar against Fedor (or Frank Mir if he proves the first submission was not merely the product of Lesnar's inexperience).

Regardless of how quidkly his title shot comes, Demian Maia did all he could to save a card that was otherwise conspicuous only for the posturing/whining of its vanquished fighters. I'm not sure that he succeeded.

But I sure appreciated the effort.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Los Angeles Dodgers Slightly Premature 2009 Preview

This might be the last article I write for a while so I figured I'd pick a good subject. Having already written a 2009 preview for my San Francisco Giants, that option was off the table especially since nothing has changed (and I've already written a subsequent Spring Training update). So there was only one obvious choice left.

With all due disrespect to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, those of us who truly bleed Orange and Black turn our loathing eyes to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And those Bums in brilliant blue have been busy if not active in the winter so there's plenty to discuss.

The most obvious is Manny Ramirez.

I recently wrote that the prospect of an early retirement might not be altogether unpleasant to Man-Ram. Contrary to the interpretation of some, it was just an idea. Like the rest of the baseball world, I think Manny will be in a Dodger uni for 2009. Whether it's for all 162 games or not.

So I'm considering him already signed (again, like most people). With the news that the Bums have signed Orlando Hudson and the inevitability of Manny signing, I figure Los Angeles is done as far as significant roster moves. That means the Dodgers are also a perfect subject for a 2009 preview.

And here we go:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Russell Martin
First base—James Loney
Second base—Orlando Hudson
Third base—Casey Blake
Shortstop—Rafael Furcal
Left field—Manny Ramirez
Center field—Matt Kemp
Right field—Andre Ethier

I don't know if LA manager Joe Torre considers any of these spots open for competition, but I think he's crazy if he does. Maybe someone has a ridiculous spring or the Dodgers add an unexpected piece. If not, this is how the field should look.

Starting rotation

Ace—Chad Billingsley (R)
Second spot—Randy Wolf (L)
Third spot—Hiroki Kuroda (R)
Fourth spot—Clayton Kershaw (L)
Fifth spot—Jason Schmidt (R)/Claudio Vargas (R)/Eric Stults (L)/Jeff Weaver (R) i.e. who knows?

I'm a sucker for alternating the rotation according to which side the hurler attacks from, but that's not necessarily the best way to go about it. Still, I think the above also happens to reflect current ability. Kershaw could make the leap this year like Tim Lincecum did for SF in 2008 (not to a Cy Young like the Franchise, but to elite status), but he doesn't warrant a higher spot yet.

That group "competing" for that fifth spot is GRIM. If I were a Bum fan, I'd be hoping Vargas can emerge because the rest are...flawed.


Closer—Jonathan Broxton (R)
Set-up—Hong-Chih Kuo (L)
Set-up—Cory Wade (R)
Set-up—James McDonald (R)
Set-up—Yhency Brazoban (R)
Set-up—Guillermo Mota (R)

Back away from that picture and several things jump off the page.

One is that the Dodgers are the antithesis of the Giants. Whereas San Francisco will try to compete on almost only pitching, Los Angeles will rely almost as heavily on its hitting.

That is a pretty fearsome lineup. For anyone unfamiliar with Loney/Kemp/Ethier (shouldn't be too many after 2008's postseason), those three kids are about to become monsters. Kemp is the most terrifying of the three, but Loney and Ethier both offer advantages in particular areas over Kemp.

Most notably, Matt Kemp acts like a punk and the other two do not.

Add to that trio the presumed services of Manny Ramirez, the guaranteed addition of Hudson, the steady if unspectacular Blake, and the paper-mache Furcal—now that is a rugged batting order from any angle.

Yet the real engine to the machine is Russell Martin.

The backstop might not be the most statistically significant piece in LA, but I'd be one happy camper if Martin suddenly disappeared from the Dodgers employ. Every team has a guy that holds the center when anarchy is loosed on the clubhouse. I'd wager Russell's that guy for LA.

If Martin was the guy absent from camp instead of Manny, I'd be giddy instead of indifferent.

So, yeah, the prospects of navigating that thorny patch of ash/maple would make me nauseous. Plus Los Angeles has Mark Loretta, Juan Pierre, Blake DeWitt, and Brad Ausmus in reserve. Out here in the National League West, that's offense for miles and miles.

The pitching, on the other hand, should induce nausea in a different group. Namely, Dodger fans.

Billingsley is the real deal. He is a legit ace and should be even better with another year under his very necessary belt. Kershaw has that potential and would greatly help the situation if he makes the leap. Wolf? Kuroda? Not so much.

They're not bad. But if you're selling me on either pitcher being anything more than average, I'm not buying.

Even if I'm underselling those two, the gaping hole in the fifth spot more than compensates. Seriously, I know the NL West is weak and getting weaker by the minute (bye Jeff Francis), but how can the plan in late-February be to let that detritus duke it out for a starting gig?

Best of luck with all that.

The bullpen is not in much better shape. I know, I know Broxton's a beast and he's huge and he throws gas and this and that and the other. So what. So is Armando Benitez. Broxton showed chinks in his armor several times last year so we'll see how he likes working without a net.

Joe Beimel is still unsigned so maybe LA brings him back, but he's no closer. If Broxton falters, who's next? Kuo is the seventh and eighth. Wade is vicious, but he's coming off his first full year so who knows how reliable he'll prove to be.

Mota? Brazoban? I think we've been there before. Hey, somebody should've told Ned Colletti that Eric Gagne was available for a song until recently. McDonald looked good at times and I've heard nice things about him, but...

Still, remember that macroscopic picture?

Just like San Francisco's, LA's include the opposition in the Senior Circuit's western division.

That means the Colorado Rockies—their 2009 season stock might as well be on Wall Street having lost Matt Holliday, Brian Fuentes, Willy Taveras, and now Francis. That means the San Diego Padres, who are even worse on paper than the Rox.

That means the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have lost two considerable pieces (Hudson and Randy Johnson) to division rivals. That compounds the loss because it helps the immediate competitions. They've also lost Adam Dunn, Brandon Lyon, and still haven't moved on the toxic Juan Cruz contract situation.

Again, just like my San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers have to like their chances.

Should be fun to watch SF try to suffocate its way to the playoffs while LA tries to batter the opposition to death. Especially when the oil-and-water approaches meet as they figure to be the favorites heading into the year.

Even the possibility of Giant-Dodger games that mean something again has me smiling. Almost as much as that fifth spot in the Bum rotation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

San Francisco Giants Spring Training—Trimming the Fat

Every spring breaks down pretty much the same way for most teams. Pitchers and catchers report first, the rest of the guys show up several days later, and the team spends a few days knocking off the rust. Routine is established, fundamentals are polished, new wrinkles are introduced, the moving parts are fine-tuned, and then it's Opening Day.

Along the way, we're all told the same thing—player X looks great, player Y spent all off-season working on this, player Z re-dedicated himself, and everyone agrees this is the year it comes together.

The San Francisco Giants have never been excluded from this general trend and 2009 looks to be no different. However, with the bitter disappointments of the last several years (read: entire SF history) fresh in mind, I've grown skeptical.

I don't know who's fooling whom—whether the players fool themselves, whether the agents fool the team, whether the team fools the media, whether the players use the media to fool everyone—I just know that somebody's not playing straight. At least if history is any indication.

So I'm taking a look at the early news filtering out of camp sans the Kool-Aid this year:

1. Jonathan Sanchez has added a changeup to his arsenal.

In all sincerity, this is great news—diabetes-inducing drink or not. It's obviously good news because a good changeup would make Sanchez devastating since he throws the rest of his stuff hard. But it's great news that just an average change would vastly improve the young gun.

As long as he can mask its delivery, just the fact that the velocity would be so different will make it effective enough to use. That will make the chances of improvement from Jonathan Sanchez go up.

Oh, and a changeup is one of the easier pitches to learn plus Sanchez would've known all winter that Noah Lowry would be gunning for that fifth spot in the rotation come spring.

Yeah, this is the genuine article: a reason to hope.

2. Randy Johnson feels great and looks even better.

Yawn. This one smells just a little stale. Maybe it's because the last several years have all featured the same bit of news coming out of the Giants' spring about a newly-acquired, aging veteran. It's always the same song and dance because I'm sure these guys do sincerely feel great.

But it's February—I'm still betting on a good season from the Big Unit, just not because of this little nugget. It does nothing for me.

3. Edgar Renteria learned his lesson in 2008 and showed up in shape.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Partially because it's another tried-and-true line of spring baseball. Every year features a player or two who coming off a sub-par year that most "experts" attributed to extra tonnage. That player shows up in camp and everyone starts heralding an immediate return to form.

Sometimes it happens, other times not.

But there are supplemental markers to support Edgar. He's a former five-time All-Star who has always played better in the National League. He played much better post-break in 2008, after he had clearly played himself into better shape.

I'll go one foot in, one foot out on this development.

4. Noah Lowry's shoulder is throwing up red flags.

This one actually could help the Gents either way. If Noah needs to be shutdown for a bit, then SF can turn to Sanchez from the get-go. If not, then Lowry continues to push Sanchez for the spot and hopefully the competition will bring out a better pitcher in both.

Regardless, injury reports tend to be pretty reliable so no reason to doubt Lowry's status.

5. Brian Wilson is working as hard as ever to build on his 2008 accolades.

This is good news, but only because it means that Wilson isn't a moron. The closer's job has to be one of the most tenuous spots in Major League Baseball. These guys come out of nowhere without warning and disappear into the cornfields just as mysteriously and suddenly.

So if Brian Wilson thought he was just gonna coast on one good year, it woulda been bad. Really, really bad.

That might look like a cynical interpretation to the casual observer. And it might just be that.

In my defense, however, I do think the new addition to Jonathan Sanchez' repertoire is the real deal and one bit of genuinely good news like that this early in the process ain't too shabby. Plus I'm a semi-believer in Edgar Renteria's sleeker physique.

Furthermore, have you seen the San Francisco Giants in the last three years? I think I've earned my cynicism.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Frank Thomas vs. Alex Rodriguez: The Big Hurt v. The Big Fraud

Before I get to the heart of this, I've gotta preemptively clear my conscience because Alex Rodriguez shouldn't even be in this position. The fact that he had to hold a press conference to address all the nitty-gritty details of his performance-enhancing drug use is ridiculous. I don't know how anyone in that room can consider himself or herself anything more than a moral fiber or two above the paparazzi who shamelessly hound celebrities.

Don't give me that catharsis, we-need-to-know-to-move-forward horse droppings.

What we need to know to move forward is how prevalent the problem was, how endemic it still is, and whether steps are in place to eliminate PED use since that seems to be the consensus as to the direction Major League Baseball should go.

We do NOT need to know that A-Rod's cousin hooked him up or that he injected however often or where he got it. That information needs to be shared, but the general public doesn't need it.

Want? Oh yeah. But need? Nope.

That's why nobody's clamoring for the same to be shared about Jason Grimsley or David Segui or Neifi Perez or any of the other cups of coffee who juiced.

So it's absolute nonsense that Rodriguez had to deliver his public confession/mea culpa. This is just another instance of the vaunted media—the same people who promised to be vigilant as the voice/ethos of the average fan—getting its fangs into a revenue-driving story and holding on for dear life.

It's much easier to torment a caged animal than go out and hunt another. Why waste all that energy when you've already got one right here?

Unfortunately, Alex Rodriguez volunteered for the gig. Actually, he demanded it, so my sympathy is fleeting. Especially in the face of that equally nonsensical and horribly contrived monologue.

C'mon, does the guy really think the general public is gonna be as compliant as most of the media?

None of us missed that—when the subject of PEDs came up—Alex yanked his cousin under the bus with him and did everything he could to spread the blame around. My cousin introduced me to it, it was his understanding the effects, we decided it was a good idea, he injected me, we did this, we did that, baseball is bigger than me, blah, blah, blah.

My personal favorites are these little gems:

1. "I had been among the players from which people might conclude that I tested positive...there were a number of players on that list who might not have actually tested positive."

2. "My style is not to challenge anything."

Well played sir, well played.

In the face of all that personal deflection, forgive me if the rest of his contrition seems a little false. And all his claims to be clean now? Lo siento pero creo que no (I think not). First, if he'd actually stopped taking PEDs, then he wouldn't have tried to sell it so hard by linking it to some supposedly life-threatening injury. To MLB's highest paid player. That flew under the radar.

Do you remember hearing anything about that? Because I don't.

As for his claims to have passed all of MLB's tests since the new policy was instituted, great. I think we've pretty much proven that means squat. And the blood tests for the World Baseball Classic? Notice A-Rod stupidly said he would take it next week.

If you know when it's coming, that kinda defeats the purpose because human growth hormone flushes pretty quickly as I understand it. You know, since your body produces it naturally.

So, yeah, Alex Rodriguez has further (and unfairly) revealed himself as one of MLB's biggest frauds. Right up there with Bud Selig and Donald Fehr. For the record, I mean fraud because of his off-field antics—I couldn't care less about his PED use nor do I think that makes his numbers fraudulent since most of baseball was doping.

Except Frank Thomas.

You wanna know what a player who is above suspicion looks like? It's the Big Hurt.

Not because he's one of the best players before the Steroid Era dawned in earnest. Not because he fell back to the pack during its peak. Not because he's huge. All those things help, but what sells me on his "innocence" is the following:

"As early as 1995, he advocated steroid testing for major-league players. He was the only active player who volunteered to be interviewed for the Mitchell Report."

In all honesty, that actually doesn't put him above suspicion. But it does mean that, if Frank Thomas was juicing, it was against his will—out of necessity to compete with the rising and enhanced tide.

I remember hearing about how Frank Thomas was a cancer in the Chicago White Sox dugout. About how the Oakland Athletics got him for a song because he was such a malcontent and a duplicitous one at that. About how Kenny Williams was so glad to be rid of the Big Hurt.

I also remember Alex Rodriguez was generally liked and respected by Major League Baseball's insiders. By his teammates and the other players around the Show.

And now I think I'll forget all of it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What If Manny Ramirez Doesn't Mind Retiring?

Something occurred to me the other day when I was considering just how monumentally stupid and/or greedy Manny Ramirez and his faithful man servant are. There was a place and time when I actually thought Manny being Manny was just an act to diffuse the considerable pressures that can destroy an athlete's performance. Especially considering he was a star on a the Boston Red Sox.

Not really a low-profile gig.

Back then, I thought Manny was a genius because he had figured a way to take all the scrutiny off his normal play and that of his teammates. No wonder they loved him. Of course, he dogged his way of those same Sawks and my suspicious were confirmed.

Manny was just another spoiled diva who demanded he get his way at all times and part of his way was doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. No matter how ridiculous or the consequences.

But look at the totality of his circumstances.

The Los Angeles Dodgers made that initial offer of two years at $20 million per year back in November. That was before the bottom really fell out of the long-term economy. Or at least before everyone caught on, including Major League Baseball. It was still an outrageous rejection considering the man's age (a perilous 37 years old).

But maybe not. I'll get to that.

The second and most recent offer Manny rejected (one year at $25 million) came in February after the economic parasite had gotten its maw into MLB. That move was just too insane to defend. There is simply no way to imagine a sucker willing to pay more than $25 mil per.

Nor one willing to offer a lengthy contract that averages even close to that figure. And that's what Manny continues to demand. If Ramirez doesn't budge, he might find himself out of a job this year. And what if that turns into another year?

I was in the process of thinking Manny Ramirez might be forced into retirement by his own greed and stubbornness, when an astoundingly obvious idea occurred to me: what if he doesn't care?

That little caveat changes everything drastically. We'd have to re-open the genius discussion. Consider:

1. Man-Ram is 37—that's getting up there even at the height of the Steroid Era. I'm not naive enough to believe performance-enhancing drugs are completely gone from baseball. I'm not even sure the level of use has dropped rather than switched from anabolic steroids to human growth hormone. Regardless, it is undeniable the scrutiny has been cranked up a notch so the days of dominating 40-year-olds are over.

Being generous, Ramirez has about three or four really good years left.

2. Speaking of that increased scrutiny, it's only a matter of time before it rolls around to Manny. What if he's a juicer? There's no reason to believe otherwise since the guy has been one of the best hitters of this "tainted" generation and forgive me if I'm skeptical about his work ethic. Whatever anecdotal evidence may exist to the contrary.

3. Ramirez (and most other MLB insiders) would know the true level of PED use in MLB. As such, he would have to know other stars were using and that eventually more names would leak. If he is/was juicing, he'd have to be a little concerned by those implications.

4. Manny's place in the Hall of Fame is as secure as anyone's from this era i.e. either all the greats are going in or none are. So he has no real reason to linger around the game—he's got two World Series rings, a bunch of personal accolades, and presumably a ton of money.

5. No additional achievement will allow Manny to go down as the best ever. Even if he were to hang around and set a bunch of records, he'd merely be a place holder for someone like Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez, etc.

Furthermore, his antics in Boston preclude even the notion. Too many influential people in baseball have eyes for the Red Sox to allow that to happen.

6. It's tough to argue that a guy who quits on his team the day its blood rival comes to town for a big series is playing for the love of the game.

With all that in mind, reconsider the situation.

If some sucker does bite, like a really desperate Bum front office, swell. Manny's got his big dollar, long-term contract and Scott Boras comes out smelling about as well as a decomposing corpse of humanity can smell.

If not, Manny gets to retire a couple years early. To a beach and (I'm guessing) beautiful women.

Plus, Man-Ram would most likely duck any of the personal scrutiny. There'd be a lot of sexier witches to hunt since an active star is always a juicer (ugh) story than a retired one. That's not a small part of the reason Mark McGwire has been able to dodge the PED bullets for so long.

Manny's place in baseball history—already at its maximum capacity—would be secure. In fact, retiring might be the one thing that could substantially enhance Manny's place in baseball. If a bunch of other guys above him start falling prey to the hypocritical PED smear campaign, that could only help his rep.

From that angle, Manny Ramirez looks pretty freakin' astute.

He would've opted out to take a shot at getting an even fatter contract, which would make sticking around and operating under the increased PED scrutiny worthwhile. There would've been no risk to him because he would be perfectly willing to retire if no bigger contract proved forthcoming.

Considering the restraints seem to have been taken off the witch hunt, maybe Manny would even prefer that option.

In any event, the chances of that eventuality would be reduced by his ability to play chicken without actually playing—his part in the contest would be sincere.

Nothing can change the fact that Manny Ramirez is a punk and a dog for his exit from Boston. But there might just be some method to his madness after all.

The NBA Goes WWE...Again

Somebody tell the National Basketball Association that sports fans don't want preordained story lines. We don't want to know the fix is in even when it is. That's why there is professional wrestling—so that fans can be guaranteed entertainment by incredible athletes while sacrificing genuine unpredictability. An element that can only be found where Mother Nature and the gods of sport have unfettered reign.

So, if you're gonna sell us a bill of sales, at least spruce it up so it looks like something we'd want. At the very least, try to be a little less transparent when you're ripping us off.

I know, I know—it was only the All-Star game. So what. It was only batting practice when Sammy Sosa's bat exploded into corked shards.

Fraud by another name damages credibility just as sweetly.

And that's what it was when "they" made Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant co-Most Valuable Players of the NBA All-Star game. Fraud.

Before I get into it, let me say I don't understand why anyone gives an MVP trophy in all-star games to begin with. Talk about an empty award—wonderful, you are the best player from a group that was probably more concerned with resting or goofing off than performing.

Congratulations, put it on your Hall of Fame resume so your homers have something to point to and don't let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya.

An all-star MVP means absolutely bupkus except that player was probably trying harder than the rest in an exhibition game. Want proof? Go look at Peyton Manning's Pro Bowl stats. Proof-positive that all-star game performances and MVP awards don't mean jack.

Until you fix one and the fix was in Sunday.

All week leading up to yesterday's game, pro basketball fans heard ad nauseam about the forthcoming reunion of Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson. Kobe was voted in, Shaq was selected as a reserve, and Phil would coach since the Los Angeles Lakers had the best record in the Western Conference. Nothing shady about that in the least.

All concerned were sincerely deserving participants.

Another little tidbit that probably flew under your radar—these were the three main antagonists who destroyed what could've been the next great NBA dynasty. Needless to say, the general media was atwitter will all the juicy storylines literally falling from the sky.

Shaq versus Kobe II? Was the initial beef sincere or was it marketing hype as Shaq now claims? Would there be a Zen yoga session to cleanse everyone's aura? Namaste.

Then came gameday, the best part of which was Shaq's dancing demonstration. That was a rather large robot, but the Diesel was doing just fine. Scratch that—he was tearing it up. Blew the game away easily.

The exhibition itself was a gently amusing afterthought that doesn't really need dissecting. Kobe put up 27 points, four assists, four rebounds, four steals, and orchestrated the West team. Shaq put up 17 points, five rebounds, three assists, took only nine shots, and played only 11 minutes. Those are impressive lines.

So what am I complaining about?

Take Kobe—his stats are great, but the points are the only thing that really jump off the page. Well, the dude took 23 shots in the All-Star Game. That's more than double the output of every other player who stepped on the hardwood except LeBron James (19), Chris Paul (14), and Dwyane Wade (13).

Quick digression—why is the 'y' before the 'a' in Wade's first name? How is that a homophone for Duane? Or Dwayne? Weird. That's like Favre. I also can't believe I've never noticed it before. Anywhoo..

Back to the game and Kobe. Along with being the biggest chucker on the court, Bryant also logged 29 minutes—most of anyone other than Brandon Roy. I don't have a problem with the attempts or the minutes (the man's rep and resume earn him that much), but both go a long way towards explaining why his are the preeminent numbers.

And then there's the Big Aristotle.

Again, O'Neal's numbers are dominant considering nobody got less run. Of course, he put up 11 points in six minutes during which Rashard Lewis—all 6'10" and 230 pounds of him—was thrown to (defending) the wolves. To be totally accurate, it was only one wolf...that was 7'1" and 325 pounds. I'm guessing several of those rebounds came during that span as well.

So, sure, you can say that both Kobe and Shaq earned the award. And it is only the NBA All-Star Game MVP Trophy. When all is said and done, who really cares?

But that works against the situation as well because why fix an award that doesn't matter? Why create a story with hype, beat the story to death so that everyone knows about it, orchestrate the event such that the arc comes to fruition, and then compound the entire thing by naming co-MVPs? It looks so premeditated.

And it's so unnecessary that—from a certain perspective—it makes the stench of the situation worse.

But, hey, at least no referees were involved...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thabeet Goes On and On—Basketball's Got Somethin' Brewing

In the last couple of weeks, we've seen Kobe Bryant put 62 points on the New York Knickerbockers. In the process, he broke Michael Jordan's single-game scoring record for the sacred building, the famed Double Nickel. Word of mouth spread fast.

Word of cyberspace spread even faster.

Sensing a shot had been fired across his bow, LeBron James waltzed into the arena several nights later and did something even more impressive. King James chalked up the ever-so-rare, disappearing triple-double—52 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds.

And then it was nine rebounds. Whatever.

The point is that Kobe and LBJ used one of the most historic buildings in the National Basketball Association as their personal canvases. They did whatever, whenever because they wanted to (and the Knicks are not so good).

Jump ahead to yesterday.

If you haven't been paying attention to college basketball, now's a pretty good time to start. Not only has the calendar hit mid-February, which means March Madness is looming on the horizon, there is a junior varsity version of one-upmanship brewing in the college ranks.

Blake Griffin of the second-ranked Oklahoma Sooners terrorized the Texas Tech Red Raiders to the melody of 40 points, 23 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a block against five turnovers plus three fouls . On any other day, we would marvel at Griffin's magnificence.

Unfortunately for Blake, Saturday's round of the developing mano-a-mano for the right to be called college basketball's best player went to Hasheem Thabeet.

I promise you, this is not a typo. This was Thabeet's actual line: 25 points, 20 rebounds, nine blocked shots, and an assist against only a single turnover. The most amazing thing is the man-child blocked nine shots while registering one—ONE—foul.

If I'm a Seton Hall Pirate today, I'm thoroughly embarrassed. The dude blocked nine shots and you couldn't even scratch him for a second foul? Ooof.

Of course, if you've seen either Thabeet or Griffin, you can kinda understand how days like yesterday might happen.

Much like Kobe and LeBron in the NBA, catch either college player on the right night against the wrong team and you stand a good chance of seeing something special. Hasheem and Blake both have the propensity to look like men playing against children.

Not necessarily because of their size (although they both have a good bit of an advantage in that department), but more because of their athleticism and maturity (again, not necessarily physical). For whatever reason, both kids seem to have a firm grip on what they can do—a lot—and what they cannot do—not a ton.

A friend of mine once said that a man's got to know his limitations. Thabeet and Griffin apparently have a good idea of theirs—of course, it helps when the list isn't too long.

And, remember, this is college basketball.

We've already seen this happen at the next level. Guys like LeBron, Dwight Howard, Ama're Stoudemire, and even Dirk Nowitzki have proven that a new day is dawning in basketball. A day where the sun may eventually be eclipsed by behemoths who possess all the tools of the little water-striders.

Consider LBJ's handles, vision, and sheer athleticism from a 6'9", 250 pound body. Or Howard's leaping ability, dexterity, and coordination from a 6'11", 265 pound kid. Ditto for Ama're, who goes 6'10" and listed at 249.

And lest we forget Dirk's feathery touch and finesse from a seven-footer.

Even more ridiculous is that, arguably, only Dirk has peaked (he'll be 31 in June). Ama're will only be 27 in November. LBJ will be 25 and Howard will be 24 in December.

In case, you're wondering—Griffin will soon turn 20 and Thabeet hits 22 tomorrow.

So, with the possible exception of Nowitzki, the best days have yet to come for all of these guys barring the unforeseen. Even if we lose a couple to injury or the weight of expectations, we can be sure more of these genetic mutants—I mean that as a compliment—are in the pipeline.

I don't know who's making 'em and I don't know where they're coming from, but the future of basketball is theirs.

Charles Darwin would be proud.

Barry Lamar Bonds—The Noose Tightens

In the United States of America, you're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The court of public opinion is obviously much different and follows no such egalitarian credo. If it looks like a chicken and sounds like a chicken, it's a chicken until it's proven to be a duck.

I don't have a huge problem with that so long as we wait until it's reasonable to jump to those social conclusions.

Which brings me to Barry Lamar Bonds.

With regard to Bonds, I'm a fan. I have to be because he carried the San Francisco Giants for over a decade. Today, the public has tattooed juicer all over his massive forehead and I've no problem with that. Nor would I even disagree.

I said I was a fan, not delusional.

But the United States Department of "Justice" is not the masses. Consequently, it should not be allowed to subscribe and apply the public's standard of circumstantially guilty until proven innocent. Yet that is exactly what its District Office in San Francisco is doing.

And it is outrageous.

Consider its latest filing, in which in names the following key witnesses:

1. Kimberly Bell—Barry's former mistress; she'll testify that Barry told her he started juicing prior to 2000.

2. Bobby Estalella—one of Barry's former teammates; he'll testify that Barry told him, on several occasions, the slugger was using performance-enhancing drugs.

3. Steve Hoskins—Bond's former childhood friend; he'll testify that Barry told him of Barry's PED use over the course of several discussions. Hoskins also has a recording of a conversation with Greg Anderson in which the former was trying to get the latter on tape saying Barry was juicing. The childhood buddy was so concerned for his friend that he wanted proof to show Bobby Bonds, Barry's father.

4. Kathy Hoskins—Bond's former personal shopper and sister to Steve; she'll testify that she saw Anderson injecting Bonds. Apparently, she didn't know if the syringe contained PEDs—that doesn't matter too much since Bonds is on record saying only his doctor shot him up with anything. More about her later.

The DOJ has also hinted it may bring in a whole host of ex-ballplayers of varied notoriety, most about the same caliber as Estalella.

Those first three witnesses are ridiculous.

Forget the credibility issues of a jilted lover; a burnout, never-was ex-juicer; and an ex-friend against whom Bonds has filed embezzlement charges. Forget the idea of Barry Lamar Bonds confiding in anyone seems laughable, let alone these three jokers.

I mean, this is a man who is notorious for being aloof, condescending, and inaccessible.

Forget all that because any law student can tell you that all three pieces of testimony, as offered, are textbook examples of hearsay. As such, they are inadmissible.

Hearsay is an out-of-court-statement made by a declarant being offered at trial to prove the truth of the matter asserted. It does NOT matter if the declarant is now in court i.e. that Bonds is sitting at the defendant's table. It wouldn't even matter if the same declarant were testifying to the statement i.e. if witness A said, "I told him/her this," it would be tossed if the original statement were made out of court.

The point is that the party adversely affected by the statement must have a chance to challenge its validity, sincerity, whatever at the time it was made.

So we can chuck Bell, Estalella, and Hoskins. Summarily.

The outrageous part is the government CANNOT pretend it doesn't know those three pieces of "evidence" are bad. Rotten.

An accusation proven by the fact it's trying to get around the hearsay problem with regard to Anderson. There, the government is arguing that Greg was Bonds' agent. The federal rules exempt such statements from hearsay consideration, but I won't get into that.

The technicalities are irrelevant because the very fact the government is trying to make the argument proves it recognizes hearsay. So they must recognize it in the statements made by Bell, Estalella, and Steve Hoskins.

But let me get back to Kathy Hoskins. She's the only new name on that list.

Not surprisingly, she's also offering the only non-hearsay bit of evidence. She saw the injection—nobody told her about it. Hmmm, that's convenient.

This nonsense has been going on for years now and each piece of evidence the government wants to use is fatally flawed by hearsay. Then, all of a sudden, a new piece pops up that doesn't rely on hearsay. It also just happens that it's offered by a woman who is related to another witness/defendant in a collateral suit by Barry Bonds (the defendant in this trial).


Where's she been for the last five years? She saw Barry receiving injections from Greg Anderson and it's taken her this long to come forward? While her brother is getting sued by Bonds? Riiiiiiight.

There are even more problematic tactics that I won't get into—partly because it gets tedious, partly because it requires legal knowledge over my head. Suffice it to say, though, that the repeated incarceration of Greg Anderson (already over 13 months), the collateral tax investigation of Anderson's wife/mother-in-law, and other desperate actions by the prosecution smell fishy.

Not only is it abhorrent behavior by the US Department of "Justice," but it's pathetically transparent. The only reason there hasn't been cacophonous outcry is because Barry Bonds is about as pleasant as a fractured testicle.

That's why ESPN is able to trot out that paradigm of responsible investigative journalism, Mark Fainaru-Wada, to tell everyone that the above evidence is NOT hearsay. He even explains why it's NOT hearsay—and his explanation is priceless.

Oh, it's actual people talking about actual conversations so it's not hearsay. It's only hearsay if they're lying. I see.

Wait...I thought we already dealt with false testimony by calling it perjury. I think there might even be a ballplayer on trial for it.

So it's not just the government.

ESPN and Fainaru-Wada can't even be trouble themselves to get the primary facts right in their haste to add fuel to the fire. They know they don't have to because it's Barry Bonds—nobody likes Barry so nobody will even notice when new rules are made just for him.

And that's unfortunate because popularity is a fleeting thing.

Justice shouldn't be.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The San Francisco Giants' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

The San Francisco Giants are at the very top of the roller coaster. Pitchers and catchers are in the front car looking down that first precipitous drop as they get ready to report in less than 24 hours. The rest of the guys are soon to follow.

A couple significant bodies might hop on at the last minute (rumor has it there's an offer on the Joe Crede's table), but the Orange and Black roster is pretty much set.

A quick look around the Major Leagues shows that the same can be said about the overall picture. Most teams have circled the wagons for the official start of spring baseball. Others are adding the last piece or two—the Los Angeles Angels grabbed Bobby Abreu, the Washington Nationals nabbed Adam Dunn, and that means Manny Ramirez is even more certain to default to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The pitching situation is no different.

The Milwaukee Brewers just signed Braden Looper and Ben Sheets' elbow surgery promises he'll be down for at least the first half of 2009. An injury history like his suggests his shelf life will be even longer.

That means the juiciest prizes on the open market are now complimentary players like the Orlandos (Hudson and Cabrera), Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, Garret Anderson, and Moises Alou.

Fine ballplayers, but none is going to shift the balance of power. Not even in the increasingly watered-down National League West.

So it's a perfect time to take stock of the Giants' 2009 outlook:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Bengie Molina
First base—Travis Ishikawa
Second base—Emmanuel Burriss
Third base—Pablo Sandoval
Shortstop—Edgar Renteria
Left field—Freddie Lewis
Center field—Aaron Rowand
Right field—Randy Winn

If Crede signs he'd slot in at the hot corner and Sandoval shifts to first. Even if Crede doesn't jump aboard, Richie Aurilia's set to take reps at third if Pablo can't handle the defensive load. Regardless, Sandoval's in the lineup.

There's also a bit of unrest (apparently) at second with Burriss and Kevin Frandsen duking it out for the starting job. I'm putting my money on the fleet feet of Emmanuel to pull through in spring training.

Starting rotation

Ace—Tim Lincecum (R)
Second spot—Randy Johnson (L)
Third spot—Matt Cain (R)
Fourth spot—Barry Zito (L)
Fifth spot—Jonathan Sanchez (L)

Here again, spring training will decide the final order of the rotation. The Franchise and defending NL Cy Young gets the ball on Opening Day, but the other spots are subject to change. I'd go with the above since it alternates either righty/lefty or hard stuff/soft dookie, but I'm not Bruce Bochy.

Noah Lowry (L) also plans to have a say in who gets that fifth spot in the rotation. I like Sanchez' arsenal and health over Noah's experience.


Closer—Brian Wilson (R)
Set-up—Jeremy Affeldt (L)
Set-up—Bobby Howry (R)
Set-up—Jack Taschner (L)
Set-up—Sergio Romo (R)
Set-up—Alex Hinshaw (L)

Nothing much needs to be said here in terms of qualifiers. The firemen are set and primed for a strong year.

Put it all together and the outlook is pretty rosy in the absolute sense.

The offense isn't going to blow anyone's doors off the hinges, even if Crede signs and experiences a rejuvenation. However, it should have a lot of speed and some guys who can handle the bat well enough to generate more runs than last year.

That's not saying much, but at least it's progress.

Same goes for the rotation. It's tough to imagine Lincecum getting better, but he's so young that improvement should be forthcoming. The Big Unit has a lot of miles on his left arm, but he's still an upgrade over the warm body SF trotted out every fifth day in 2008. Zito has been improving at a glacial rate and the Sanchez/Lowry survivor should be more consistent.

And then there's Matt Cain.

To the casual observer, the Kid is a bit of a trainwreck. His numbers are ugly with a capital 'U;' don't believe it—with a little extra run support and the accompanying confidence boost, he could take the Leap. Cain's a stud whose youth makes him susceptible to the big inning, especially when he thinks he's gotta be perfect to keep his team in the game. If that offense can simply muster another two or three runs in Cain's starts, the Giants could be looking at a one-two punch to rival anyone in baseball.

That's the absolute sense. The relative one is even rosier because the NL West—a harmless kitten last year—has gotten even cuter.

The Bums, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Colorado Rockies should all see improvement from seriously talented youngsters. However, most of those youngsters figure to do their damage with ash or maple, not with the rosin bag. Additionally, those teams have all lost hugely significant piece.

Arizona's seen Dunn, the Big Unit, and Brandon Lyon walk. Hudson and Juan Cruz seem destined for the door as well. Colorado traded away Matt Holliday and let Brian Fuentes take the walk. I guess they let Willy Taveras run.

Last year's division champ, the Bums, will likely retain the services of Manny—what those will be remain are an increasingly large question mark. Even if he returns the Good Manny, the boys in blue have still seen Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Jason Johnson, and Scott Proctor hit the road. Nomar Garciaparra and Joe Beimel also have their thumbs out.

That's a ton of talent creating a vacuum that endures. And nothing on the open market is gonna fill it.

As a die-hard San Francisco Giant fan, I like the absolute picture very much. I love the relative one because it's all about making the playoffs. If you can scratch and claw your way into the second season, anything can happen.

An injury here, a hot streak there, and you're wearing a World Series crown. It almost happened for SF in 2002 and it did happen for the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies.

The weakness of the NL West and the progress (on paper) of the Giants make 2009 one of the most promising baseball seasons for the Bay Area in several years. The playoffs are a legitimate possibility and, for the first time since 2004, that's not the Kool-Aid talking.

It'll take a bit of luck, but that's always the case. And the San Francisco Giants are due for a bit of luck.

In less than 24 hours, the ifs start dropping away and the roller coaster officially starts. For the first time in a long time, San Francisco may be able to enjoy the ride.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bud Selig Should Die of Gonorrhea and Rot In Hell...Cookie?

As I look around crater-pocked landscape of the Major League Baseball world, I can't help but wonder what the hell is going on. It's like the revelation that a urine sample from 2003 tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and that it belonged to Alex Rodriguez was a nuclear bomb that destroyed common sense and accountability.

First, there was apoplectic outrage over the "news" that another one of MLB's brightest stars of the Steroid Era pissed hot.

Then, there is all this posturing from the media about how the aforementioned era has officially and eternally tainted what was once a pure game.

Now, this little gem from Bud Selig:

"What Alex did was wrong and he will have to live with the damage he has done to his name and reputation. While Alex deserves credit for publicly confronting the issue, there is no valid excuse for using such substances, and those who use them have shamed the game."

Three things jump out at me from Selig's words incredibly hypocritical words:

1. The only part that wasn't the pot calling the kettle black was the bit about damage done to name/reputation. Selig has no goodwill associate with either anymore so he really can do no further damage to his own name/reputation.

2. It's pretty arrogant and stupid for the Commissioner of Major League Baseball do call out one of his players for shaming the game via use of PEDs considering he was at the helm during its creation, rise, and explosion.

Bud Selig has been acting commissioner since 1992. The title has officially been his since 1998. In other words, he's had the keys since just after the Bash Brothers opened Pandora's Box and been riding solo since the year that many observers feel marks the beginning of the Steroid Era calendar.

The principal power and duty is to act in and protect the best interest of baseball.

Now, I've heard some people saying that PEDs actually were in MLB's best interest—the Great Homerun Race of 1998 brought fans back, Barry Lamar Bonds kept them around, the offensive explosion helped MLB stay afloat after the National Football League threatened to turtle the Show, etc. Whether or not you're receptive to that argument is irrelevant.

Because this is about Stinky Selig and he said all the juicers have shamed the game of baseball. That assertion is a direct contradiction to the above argument.

So, how can the man criticize his players for shaming baseball when it was his responsibility to protect the best interests of baseball during the gestation, maturation, and spread of the PED problem?

That's rhetorical, more or less, because we already know Bud Selig is a spineless parasite. But it leads me to...

3. Where is the media that promised not to sleep on the job a second time around? HOW can they let this man slide on such a statement? The minute those words slimed from his maw, someone with a press credential should have been hammering him.


I'm no fan of A-Rod—I think he's as phony as phony can be off the field. Any man-child who leaves his wife and kids to take up with someone else has some serious explaining to do. When he does it to shack up with an ancient and married mother/pop-star, there is no longer any explanation necessary.

Not to mention every one of his public statements/interactions is about as genuine as his apology for juicing. But Rodriguez' failings are not the point.

The point is that Bud Selig was the man responsible for Major League Baseball during almost the entirety of the intersection between baseball and performance-enhancing drugs. And he's sitting atop his throne handing out blame as if his hands weren't drenched in blood.

That man is as guilty and as sleazy as they come. And he's who the owners have entrusted with protecting the best interests of baseball for the last 15+ years.

You know what?

Now that scorched earth makes a lot more sense.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Elgin Baylor Sues the NBA for Discrimination—Finally! A Definition of Irony We All Can Understand

Sometimes it is better to remain silent and be though a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.—Abraham Lincoln

Until today, the worst thing I could say about Elgin Baylor was that the Los Angeles Clippers didn't do very well during his tenure as the Vice President and General Manager of Basketball Operations. As of this moment, you can add not too bright to the list.

Because Elgin Baylor is suing the Clip-Show—or more accurately owner Donald Sterling plus another executive— and the National Basketball Association for...employment discrimination!

That's priceless.

Many observers feel Baylor has a secure place in the NBA's history books as one of the worst triggermen to ever control a franchise's personnel.

He presided as a jester in the king's thrown over many a draft-day misadventure—Michael Olowokandi (first overall), Danny Ferry (second overall and he went to Italy rather than play for LA), Darius Miles (third overall), Shaun Livingston (fourth overall), Lorenzen Wright (seventh overall), Bo Kimble (eighth overall), Joe Wolf (13th overall), and Randy Woods (16th overall).

In 1995, the Clippers took Antonio McDyess with the second overall pick. They left Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, and Michael Finley on the board. Even better, Los Angeles shipped Antonio—by no means a slouch—out the door to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Rodney Rogers and Brent Barry.

The next year (1996), the Clip-Show grabbed Wright with the seventh overall pick while guys like Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic, Steve Nash, Jermaine O'Neal, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas remained on the big board.

In his final masterpiece, Elgin oversaw the 2004 draft where Los Angeles took Livingston over a roster of talent including Devin Harris, Josh Childress, Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, Andris Biedrins, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, and Jameer Nelson.

Along the way, Baylor had an uncanny ability to avoid the lottery when genuine saviors were available. And I do mean uncanny because check out the Clippers' record during Elgin's 22-year-long reign of terror:

Year W L
86-87 12 70
87-88 17 65
88-89 21 61
89-90 30 52
90-91 31 51
91-92 45 37
92-93 41 41
93-94 27 55
94-95 17 65
95-96 29 53
96-97 36 46
97-98 17 65
98-99 9 41
99-00 15 67
00-01 31 51
01-02 39 43
02-03 27 55
03-04 28 54
04-05 37 45
05-06 47 35
06-07 40 42
07-08 23 59

There are a lot of lottery chances tucked in that ugliness.

During Elgin Baylor's 22 years, the Los Angeles Clippers amassed a 619-1153 record for staggering winning percentage of .349. The squad made the playoffs four times and won a single opening round series.

In 22 years.

The icing on the cake?

Elgin Baylor was hired for the position of VP/GM of basketball operations in 1986 after amassing an incredible record of 86-135 as head coach of the New Orleans Jazz. He then held the position for 20 years of unparalleled futility.

I repeat, he KEPT his job through repeated instances of conduct after being hired for basically no reason.

The planets aligned in 2006 and the Clippers finally won a playoff series. Baylor received Executive of the Year for his accomplishments (remember, he's suing the NBA as well for employment discrimination).

Then Elgin retires/is fired in October of 2008, waits several months, and files suit. His complaint alleges he was "discriminated against and unceremoniously released from his position with the team on account of his age and his race."

With one foot already in his mouth, Baylor manages to squeeze the other in: the complaint states that he was "grossly underpaid during his tenure with the Clippers, never earning more than $350,000 per year."

Oh, poor, poor Elgin. How my heart is rent with sorrow.

I understand he's saying that, relative to other NBA executives, his pay was under scale. Unfortunately, there are quite a few problems for ol' Elgin:

A. Elgin Baylor probably should have been fired. Many times. He should be grateful for "only" making six figures for as long as he did. It's tough to argue you're undercompensated for incompetence.

B. Elgin Baylor is African American. That obviously doesn't preclude a finding of racial discrimination in a league dominated by African American players, but it's gonna be a tough sell. Donald Sterling is a lot of things and many are not badges of honor; I've never heard him accused of being racist and the charge doesn't pass the smell test considering how long Sterling kept him aboard despite good reason to dump him.

C. Elgin Baylor is 74—that's true. But he was also the longest tenured individual at a similar-type position in the NBA. And did I mention he was bad? Really bad? Again, tough sell.

D. Anyone who has opened a newspaper or turned on a television in the last six weeks knows that it's probably not a wise time to be mashing 'grossly underpaid' and 'earning $350,000 per year' together in the same sentence. All the more so when that sentence concerns compensation for working in an NBA front office.

I'm sure that's a rough job, don't get me wrong. I'm also sure there are thousands of people who'd be willing to do it for a fraction of what Elgin considers "gross" undercompensation.

The really sad thing is that the Clippers would probably be a better team for it today.

Here's a guy who was hired for ostensibly no cause, employed for 22 years in an industry that sees turnover like none other despite gross and endemic incompetence, and rewarded for his "efforts" with more money than most average Americans see in a lifetime.

Then Elgin Baylor turns around and sues the very man and organization that employed him lo those many years. For employment discrimination.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of irony. Not rain on your wedding day or a stop sign when you're already late—that's just bad luck.

Nope. Irony, thy name is Elgin Baylor.