Saturday, April 4, 2009

Final Four

Final Four Predictions:

Here are my quick thoughts on today's Final Four match-ups.

I think Connecticut will outlast the home town Michigan State Spartans. Though I think the Spartans do have an advantage with the crowd likely in their favor I just don't think they match-up well with the Huskies. The Huskies point guard A.J. Price I think is primed for a big game. He often gets overlooked but I think he will be tough for Michigan State to guard. Center Hasheem Thabeet presents a big problem for the Spartans as well. Michigan State doesn't have the size inside to compete with him and will need to get him in foul trouble to have any hope of winning the battle in the paint.

As for the late game I think while Villanova has had a great tournament run, their bubble will burst at the hands of North Carolina. The Tar Heels are just too deep and strong for the Wildcats. Villanova will need more magic from point guard Scottie Reynolds to beat the Tar Heels. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, UNC has an answer for Reynolds in their own point guard Ty Lawson. To me Lawson has been the key to North Carolina's success all tournament. I think he is so talented and always raises his game to the level of his competition. I'd look for him to have a big game to overcome Villanova.

Hope everyone enjoys the tournament tonight, it should be a couple of quality basketball games.

AL East Preview: Boston Red Sox

Prediction: Boston Red Sox: 1st place finish

Strengths: Boston may have the deepest pitching staff in all of baseball. Both their starting rotation and their bullpen are loaded with talented young arms. Starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daiskuke Matsuzaka form a dominate top of the rotation. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has three straight years of 35 or more saves. The talent in Boston's staff is almost equaled by the quality of their lineup. Reigning AL MVP Dustin Pedroia sets the tempo for Boston's lineup. Behind Pedroia sits the meat of the Red Sox order, designated hitter David Ortiz, first baseman Kevin Youkilis, left fielder Jason Bay and right fielder J.D. Drew. All four players are high OPS (on base+ slugging percentage) guys with 20-30 home run power.

Weaknesses: Despite having a great overall lineup the Red Sox are getting below league average production from their catcher and shortstop positions. Jason Varitek has been an integral part of the Red Sox organisation for over 10 years now, but should no longer be considered an everyday catcher. This is a position that Boston will likely look to upgrade during the season. Shortstop is another problem spot for Boston. Last year Julio Lugo and rookie Jed Lowrie split time at the position and combined for a subpar performance. Lowrie showed promise though and will need to continue to improve as the Red Sox look to reclaim the AL East. Injuries are another area of concern for the Red Sox. Ortiz, Drew, and third baseman Mike Lowell all missed significant time last season due to injury. Boston will need a healthier lineup as they battle through their tough AL East schedule.

Farm Aid: While no longer considered rookies young players such as Lowrie, and pitchers Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson figure to play a big role for Boston in 2009. Lowrie will be the starting shortstop and will hopefully bring much needed production to the position. Masterson will be Papelbon's setup man and should give Boston the best 8th-9th inning combination in the AL. Buchholz has the talent to join Boston's rotation and will be the first arm called upon when an injury occurs. The biggest advantage of Boston's talented minor league system is their ability to make a trade to improve the team for a stretch run.

Outlook: Given the Red Sox depth and talent they should be looking at a division title and are the early favorite to win the World Series.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Giants Release Burress

The New York Giants cut ties today with their star receiver Plaxico Burress. Burress was New York's prize free agent signing back in 2005 and caught the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII. Burress missed the last six games of the 2008 shooting due to being injured in a self-inflicted shooting accident. As a result of the incident Burress faces possible jail time on illegal gun charges and a likely suspension by the league. Given the uncertain status of their receiver it makes sense for the Giants to cut him. The Giants need to move past the negative media attention that has surrounded the case and focus on players they know will be available to them next season. The problem for the team is how do they replace Burress on the field.

Burress is a rare combination of size and speed, that creates match-up problems for opposing defenses. His absence during the end of the regular season and playoffs was noticeable. The Giants were 10-1 before Burress incident (Burress did miss one of the games due to injury) but just 2-4 without him, including a 23-11 home playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. New York will need to find a way to replace Burress. With free agency over a month old the Giants won't find that replacement on the open market. Big name receivers like T.J. Houshmanzadeh, Terrell Owens and Laveranues Coles have already signed with other teams. The Giants also may struggle to find a replacement in the draft. The Giants pick 29th overall and many of the big tall receivers, such as Micheal Crabtree, Hakeem Nicks and Darrius Heyward-Bey, will likely be long gone by the time New York is on the clock. My guess is the Giants will fill their need for a big play maker through a trade. Three names to watch Braylon Edwards (Browns), Anquan Boldin (Cardinals), and Chad Johnson (Bengals) all would fit the Giants need and to some degree are available. Any one of those players will cost at the very least the Giants first round pick (or at least that value range) with Boldin requiring the biggest package. At the same time Boldin makes the most sense for New York. No one questions Boldin's on the field abilities unlike some do with Edwards. Also while questions remain about Boldin's attitude they are minor and wouldn't be near the distraction that Johnson can be. All three come with question marks and high price tags but will give Eli Manning the big target that he sorely needs. I wouldn't necessarily expect a move to be made right away but look for a trade to happen in the days leading up to the draft.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Trade Center: NFL

The Deal: The Denver Broncos send quarterback Jay Cutler and a 5th round pick to the Chicago Bears for quarterback Kyle Orton, the 18th overall pick in April's draft, a third round pick and Chicago's first round pick in 2010.

Broncos: Even with Cutler trying to force his way out of Denver, the Broncos were able to get a kings ransom for their young Pro Bowl quarterback. Denver had no choice but to move Cutler and end the media circus that has followed the team since the potential 3-way trade involving Matt Cassel became public last month. In return the Broncos received a serviceable quarterback in Kyle Orton. Though he'll never be a star and doesn't have the arm or ceiling of Cutler, Orton should be a capable replacement. Orton never had the quality receivers that Cutler had in Denver and was always part of a run-oriented offense. In Orton the Broncos have a solid starter that could have a breakout similar to Cassel's under coach Josh McDaniels. In addition to Orton the Broncos received 3 quality draft picks and will now have plenty of ammunition to trade up in the draft to select one of the top quarterbacks if they desire. If not they will be able to add three top players over the next two years to help in the Broncos playoff pursuit. The two first round picks are great value for Cutler and will allow Denver to get impact players.

Bears: Chicago last season finished 21st in the league in passing and needed to upgrade their offense. Cutler should immediately help the Bears passing attack and gives their team a player they can build their offense around. Quarterback has been a bit of a revolving door for the Bears for years, they haven't had one quarterback lead the team in passing for three or more consecutive years since, Jim Harbaugh did it in the early 90's. While Cutler will end that trend the Bears paid a hefty price to do so. Two first round picks and a third are a high price to pay to upgrade from Orton to Cutler. The Bears might be a playoff contender in the weak NFC North but will likely miss those draft picks down the road. Chicago doesn't have the talented receiving corps that Cutler had in Denver so they might not see their passing attack improve that much.

Winner: I think the Broncos are a big winner here. Yes Cutler is a very good quarterback but I think he's far from the "franchise quarterback" that everyone makes him out to be. There are 8-10 quarterbacks in the league that I'd rather have leading my team than Jay Cutler. Yes he's been to a Pro Bowl, but he hasn't led his team to the playoffs yet, even in the woeful AFC West. The Bears gave up too much for Cutler, who needs to show he's more than just a big arm quarterback. I think the Broncos with the additional picks can add the talent to surround Orton for a playoff run this season.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NL East Preview: Washington Nationals

Prediction: Washington Nationals: 5th place finish

Strengths: The Nationals have the potential to have a pretty good line-up. First baseman Nick Johnson, and outfielders Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham are all middle of the order hitters that have power and on-base ability. These veteran players are supplemented by the Nationals talented young core, led by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. Zimmerman, already one of the best defensive third baseman in the league, has the ability to be an offensive force as well and should hit between 25-30 home runs with a high average. Washington also has a number of talented young arms with a lot of upside.

Weaknesses: The Nationals biggest weakness is their inability to stay healthy. Johnson should be their best offensive player but since he has missed a year and a half of the last two seasons isn't being counted on as a big run producer. Last season every starter but shortstop Christian Guzman spent time on the disabled list, and Guzman still missed 24 games throughout the season. Another area of concern is the fact that the Nationals have four starting caliber outfielders for only three positions. This could lead to unrest in the locker room and could necessitate a trade. Defense was a major problem for the Nationals last season as only Zimmerman and Johnson are considered good defensively. Though the Nats have a number of talented young arms in the rotation, none of them are proven as a sure thing. Washington's bullpen is a major red flag even after the free agent addition of Joe Biemel.

Farm Aid: Two of the Nationals young starters will be a pair of 22 year old rookies, right handers Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann is top young pitcher and could in all likelihood be the Nationals ace this season. Martis doesn't have as big an upside as Zimmermann but can still be a very solid starter. Unfortunately beyond those two starters the Nationals don't have much else in the way of help from the farm.

Outlook: Given the deficiencies on defense and in the bullpen, along with the injury concerns and an unproven rotation the Nationals will likely spend another year in the cellar of the NL East.

NL East Preview: Atlanta Braves

Prediction: Atlanta Braves: 4th place finish

Strengths: Atlanta rebuilt their rotation in the off season with free agent signings Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami (Japan) and a trade for Javier Vasquez. These additions combined with rookie sensation Jair Jurrjens should give the Braves one of the better rotations in the National League. Third baseman Chipper Jones and catcher Brian McCann are a formidable pair in the middle of the Braves batting order.

Weaknesses: While the Braves have a solid starting line-up they lack the offensive firepower of the rest of the NL East. Outside of Jones and McCann, there aren't any true offensive weapons. The Braves outfield production is especially bad, their three projected starters combined for just 19 home runs last season. The Braves sorely need more lumber in their line-up.

Farm Aid: The Braves have a very good minor league system and have the pieces to acquire another bat or two during the season. Atlanta will also likely have two rookies make a significant impact this season. Starting pitcher Tommy Hanson is one of the best pitchers in the minors and should be in the Braves rotation by mid-season. Center fielder Jordan Schafer will also likely make the jump to the big leagues early in the season. His bat should provide a much needed boost to the Braves anemic outfield production.

Outlook: Even with an improved rotation the Braves will struggle to finish better than 4th in the East without improving their offense.

NL East Preview: Florida Marlins

Prediction: Florida Marlins: 3rd place finish

Strengths: The three returning starters of the Marlins infield, first baseman Jorge Cantu, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and second baseman Dan Uggla, combined for 94 home runs last season. They represent the core of a very talented line-up top to bottom. Ramirez is the face fo the franchise and is among baseball's elite hitters. While the Marlins lack a true "Ace" their rotation is loaded with talented young arms. Florida's farm system may be their biggest strength. Their minor league teams are stacked with top prospects at every position.

Weaknesses: While the Marlins offense is first rate their defense leaves much to be desired. Given their young rotation their defensive woes are even more pronounced and is a problem that Florida needs to address. The Marlins biggest weakness is their ownership's unwillingness to spend money to improve their team. Florida has had the lowest payroll in baseball over the last three season and has been a complete non-factor in free agency. If the Marlins would add just 2-3 solid players they would be a serious contender in the NL.

Farm Aid: The Marlins have a lot of help on the way from the minors, but their brightest star may be center fielder Cameron Maybin. Maybin, who is just 22 years old, should patrol center field for years to come for the Fish and be a big part of Florida's offense. Emilio Bonifacio, who was acquired in a trade with the Washington Nationals this offseason, won the starting job at third base in spring training. Though a second baseman by nature, Bonifacio should add another stolen base threat to the Marlins athletic line-up.

Outlook: The Marlins have a lot of talent but probably lack the experience to compete with the Mets and Phillies for the NL East title. Given their depth in the minors don't be surprised to see the Marlins trade off some of their young starters for additional prospects.

NL East Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

Prediction: Philadelphia Phillies: 2nd place finish

Strengths: The Phillies line-up may be the best in the National League. They are led by a pair of former MVP winners, first baseman Ryan Howard and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Second baseman Chase Utley is a perennial all-star and probably the best second baseman in the league. Though not as heralded as the three big stars, left fielder Raul Ibanez and center fielder Shane Victorino are top offensive producers as well. The top four starters in the Phillies rotation are all pretty good, with 25 year old Cole Hamels the ace of the group. The 8th and 9th innings are pretty set for the Phillies as well, with Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge being lights out in close situations.

Weaknesses: Philadelphia is set up the middle defensively with Rollins, Utley and Victorino but is pretty below average across the rest of the diamond. The Phillies also need consistent offensive production out of their third base and catcher positions in their line-up. The 5th starter spot is another weak area for the Phillies and will likely need to be upgraded during the season.

Farm Aid: The Phillies farm system is pretty talented top to bottom and should offer some reinforcements to the big league club throughout the season. Shortstop Jason Donald, could slide over and be the Phillies answer at third base or could headline a trade package. Catcher Lou Marson should be an offensive upgrade at the position and will likely take over as a starter at some point this season. The answer to the Phillies 5th starter might be in the minors as well, in right hander Carlos Carrasco. Though he will start the year in the minors Carrasco should be in the majors by mid-season.

Outlook: The World Series champs should be in a tough fight with the Mets for the Division title. Look for Philadelphia to come up just short but to return to the playoffs with a Wild Card berth.

NL East Preview: New York Mets

Prediction: New York Mets: 1st place finish

Strengths: Shortstop Jose Reyes, third baseman David Wright and center fielder Carlos Beltran are among the best young players in the league and represent the core of the Mets line-up. Starting pitcher Johan Santana, has the stuff to be the most dominate pitcher in the majors and anchors a solid front of the Mets rotation. The Mets bullpen was a weakness going into the off season but with the additions of a pair of closers, J.J Putz and Francisco Rodriguez, should now turn into a strength of the team.

Weaknesses: While New York has a playoff caliber team, they do have some holes on their roster. Second baseman Luis Castillo and catcher Brian Schneider are below average offensively. The back of the Mets rotation is unsettled as well. Oliver Perez has struggled in Spring Training and the 5th spot is up for grabs.

Farm Aid: The Mets don't have much in terms of immediate help in their minor league system. New York does have the depth in their lower minors to make a trade or two if they need a player for a playoff run. A pair of pitchers are the best bet to help out the Mets this season. Left-hander Jonathon Niese may become their 5th starter before the year is out. Righty Bobby Parnell is likely to make the roster as a middle reliever and could be a bridge to the 8th and 9th inning guys.

Outlook: The Mets are opening a new ballpark in 2009 and should christen it with an NL East division title.