Monday, November 23, 2015

Questions, Anyone?

The New York Mets, in a heart-breaking 4-1 defeat in the World Series, had two of their major off-season questions answered.  Unfortunately, those answers just lead to more questions ahead.

Throughout the month of August and into September, as Yoenis Cespedes tore through the National League and the NL East standings, sports-talk radio was consumed with talk of 2016.  Callers seemed evenly divided between "There's no way the cheapskate Mets are going to bring back Cespedes" and "Let's pay whatever it takes to bring back Cespedes".  Fair points, both, and hotly debated all around.

Cespedes' titanic run carried the Mets to the playoffs.  But his almost equally astounding playoff slump left a big hole in the Mets' offense.  Cespedes may very well be in line for a big payday as long as teams consider his huge production during the pennant race.  But for the Mets, the question of whether to make a long-term, big-dollar investment was all but answered during Cespedes' postseason swoon.

On the flip side, no player looked better during the first two rounds of the playoffs than Daniel Murphy.  A long-time Mets' second-baseman, perhaps no one improved his off-season stock more than the suddenly powerful Murphy.  But he, too, went mostly quietly during the World Series, reverting to the Daniel Murphy -- nice hit, no glove -- that had performed steadily throughout his career.  And much like with Cespedes, the chatter on talk radio went from "How can we live without Murphy?" to "How much will it cost to bring him back?"

The Mets took the first obvious step, handing Murphy a qualifying offer.  Murphy, in turn, did the next obvious thing: he turned it down.  As a player traded in mid-season, no such offer could be made to the unrestricted free agent Cespedes.  And with that, a Mets organization that had experienced a remarkable late-season and post-season run, begins what could be their most important off-season.

With a staff of aces that any team would envy, the Mets are poised to contend for years to come.  However, it's important to note that in spite of their spectacular pitching, for much of the season the Mets were victims of their anemic offense.  It was only when fortified by bench players Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, and ultimately, Cespedes, that the Mets went from squeaking out the 1-0 win to bludgeoning teams from both the mound and at the plate.

Should the Mets opt not to bring back either Murphy or Cespedes, and there are solid arguments to make those cases, they need to be sure that the holes in the offense are addressed.  Whether that comes from a full season of the improving Michael Conforto or the promotion of Dilson Herrera, or an additional free-agent bat or two, it's paramount that someone does.  Sandy Alderson pulled all the right levers in late July.  He'll need an equally good December and January if the Mets expect to capitalize on their 2015 success.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fill 'Er Up

It's mid-September, and the Yankees trail Toronto by three games in the AL East.  They still have 17 games left to play -- plenty of baseball, considering they still have 3 games left with the Blue Jays.  But while the Yankees won't admit to chasing the Wild Card, most fans are looking.

That said, I'm still decidedly undecided when it comes to this team and this season.  For me, there are two ways of looking at the "glass" that might well be the 2015 Yankees:

Half-full: the Yankees, a team not widely expected to even contend this season, make the post-season as the first Wild Card
Half-empty: the Yankees blow a 7-game lead to the Blue Jays and lose the division

Half-full: the Yankees could beat the Rangers in the Wild Card playoffs
Half-empty: the Yanks could get swept by the Royals in the ALDS

Half-full: the Yankees held onto their elite prospects at the trade deadline and didn't mortgage the future for short-term gains
Half-empty: the Yanks stood idly by at the trade deadline while their rivals improved and the Yanks subsequently fell into free-fall

Half-full: the Yankees have gotten an injection of youth and their future stars -- Bird, Severino, Betances -- have made an impact today
Half-empty: the Yanks were led most of the season by a 37-year old first-baseman and a 40-year old DH, neither of whom can be counted on in 2016

So how do you see the Yankees?  I don't think we'll really know until October.  And even then, how full will that glass be?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Are we winning yet?

"Um, I dunno..."
First and foremost, let me state that I hate Brian Cashman, the most overrated front office man in sports.  As most Cashman detractors will say, "If I had an unlimited budget and could simply eat my mistakes, I'd have a pretty good team, too."  Yet he is somehow inoculated from the bad moves while he's simultaneously lauded for the good ones.

But this is a different column.  Sort of.  I don't have a solid opinion, at least, not yet.  So I'll pose these questions:

  • If the Yankees lose the AL East -- a likely scenario as of today -- but qualify for the Wild Card, was it a good season?  
  • If the Yankees stumble and only manage to win the second Wild Card, was it a good season?
  • If the Yankees go on the road and lose the Wild Card game and spend one day in the post-season in the last 3 years, does Brian Cashman get credit for getting the Yankees back to October?
  • Or did he fail to upgrade a mediocre team at the deadline and watch his team fade down the stretch?
As for that opinion of mine, I'm decidedly torn.

On the one hand, the Yankees, on paper, weren't expected to contend this year.  The fact that they have played themselves into contention is remarkable.  As a bonus, young players that represent the future of the organization -- Betances, Bird, Severino -- have been able to contribute and excel.  Even if the Yanks make a quick exit from the playoffs, they will have laid a solid foundation for 2016.  

Or have they?  The 2015 Yankees' offense has been led primarily by Alex Rodriguez, a 40-year old DH, and Mark Teixeira, a 35-year old who hasn't played a full season in 5 years.  A-Rod is currently in a slump and Teixeira won't be back on the field for another two weeks. It's unlikely that either A-Rod or Teixeira can turn back time on another season.  Who, in 2016, is going to provide that power?  Will Greg Bird or Aaron Judge?  How much does Brian McCann or Carlos Beltran have left?

Only time will tell...

Thursday, August 20, 2015


What's the difference between the NFL and the WWE?

One is entertainment thinly disguised as sport, populated with steroid-addled goons with cartoon-like personae, acting out preposterous story-lines that create heroes to be adored and villains to be hissed, all marching towards inevitable conclusions while being lorded over by a power-drunk commissioner seemingly incapable of consistent leadership.

The other is professional wrestling.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Instant Gratification

Although the MLB trade deadline was less than two weeks ago, the Toronto Blue Jays are getting all A's for their flurry of deadline deals. Since shortly after the trades were made, the Jays have won 9 games in a row and cut the deficit in the AL East from 6-1/2 games to a half a game. 

A General Manager wants to give his team the chance to win.  Alex Anthopoulos has done just that. Regardless of where the Blue Jays finish, these trades -- obtaining David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, Ben Revere and Mark Lowe -- have pumped life into this franchise right now.  A franchise that is set to play their most important games in recent memory -- a sold-out weekend series against the Yankees with no less than first place on the line.

On the flip-side, the Yankees are in free-fall.  After standing pat at the deadline -- Brian Cashman's only acquisition, utility man Dustin Ackley, promptly landed on the DL -- the Yanks were swept by Toronto and saw their lead nearly vanish.  

But while you can already call the moves the Jays made a success, it's still too early to say whether Cashman's gambit was a failure.  If the Yankees hold on and win their division, it would be hard to argue with Cashman's strategy.  They were a first place team with a solid lead and didn't need to make a deal.  Or at least they didn't appear to need one at the time.

Fast forward a couple of weeks: Michael Pineda, one of the Yanks' few dependable starters, went on the Disabled List the day before the Jays landed Price.  The Yankees once-formidable offense all but disappeared, going 31 straight innings without scoring a run.  Even when that string was broken last night, and clutch Yankee hitters gave the team the lead in the 10th inning, previously unhittable closer Andrew Miller blew his first save.  Yet the Yankees finished the night still in first place.  

But questions remain: Can Mark Teixeria, who hasn't played a full season since 2011, continue his resurgence?  Can Alex Rodriguez, already 40 years old and having played twice as many games as he's played in the last two years, keep hitting, too?  How will 21-year old Luis Severino respond in the heat of a pennant race?  

So kudos to Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays for taking a shot and seeing it pay off in the short term.  By October, we'll know who was right.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

The 2015 Yankees will not be a good team.  Certainly not "good" by typical Yankee standards.  Much of that is due to some odd acquisitions this winter and a sudden fiscal responsibility.  One choice the frugal Yankees made this off-season was to let incumbent closer David Robertson depart for the White Sox rather than attempt to resign him.  Though it left a Mo-sized hole at the back of the bullpen, the Yankees are prepared to fill that hole with a very big body. 

Newly-acquired reliever Andrew Miller, a 6'7" lefty, join's last year's 6'8" set-up man, the right-hander Dellin Betances, to form the last line of defense for New York.  How those two will be deployed is one of spring training's early story lines.  I would advocate moving away from the traditional (and some would say silly) model of having one guy designated as the closer and one as the 8th-inning set-up man.  I'm not the only one with this idea, and Joe Girardi has even been asked whether he'd consider a closer tandem:
It would not be my first choice, but it’s something you can definitely think about.
Okay, Joe, let's think about it.  For one, both Betances and Miller present the same interesting fact: neither one is appreciably better (or worse) against lefties or righties, making the two of them virtually interchangable:


You can still play lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty, figuring that even perceptibly hitters are less comfortable facing a guy throwing from the same side.  Then it's up to Girardi: who's coming up in the 8th?  Is Robinson Cano slated to bat second?  Let Miller start the 8th.  (The lefty Cano is 1-for-12 against Miller.)  Won't see Miguel Cabrera until the 9th?  Save Betances for the end, as Cabrera has come away with 3 strikeouts in 3 trips against him.

Another benefit of an interchangeable 1-2 punch: gone are the days of the too-tired closer.  Some nights, even the infallible Rivera was unavailable if he'd pitched in three straight games.  With a pair of arms to choose from on any given night, there should always be a powerful (and fresh) arm to close out a game.  It also makes the lives of opposing managers more difficult.  If you can't guarantee who's pitching in the 8th or the 9th, you can't effectively line up your late-game pinch-hitters. 

There's also something to be said for sharing the burden.  Neither Betances nor Miller has been a full-time closer before, and certainly neither has done so in the pressure cooker of Yankee Stadium.  Knowing that the whole world isn't riding on your shoulders has to be a relief.  If an anointed Betances blows a couple of April saves, how would that affect his confidence moving forward?  How would it affect him if Miller got the next save opportunity?

But if each pitcher knew that the manager was going to use each pitcher to the best of his abilities, dictated by the situation, each would know that his role was safe.  A blown save on Tuesday and an 8th-inning role on Wednesday wouldn't portend anything for Thursday.  That's not to say that one player won't excel in the closer role and make him the de facto choice.  But why force the issue before we really know?

It's an interesting "problem" to have, and I wonder how it will work out.  With a team that's likely to struggle for runs again, protecting a late-game lead becomes even more important.  The Yankees would seem to have the weapons.  How those weapons are to be deployed is the real question.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Shut It Down!

In what came as less a surprise than an unfortunate (but perhaps necessary) inevitability, Carmelo Anthony indicated that the NBA All-Star game would probably be his last game of the season.  Like Liz Lemon used to say, "SHUT IT DOWN." 

Citing a sore left knee that has kept him out of action at times this season, Anthony told ESPN Radio it's "very likely" he won't be back on the court after Sunday's game.  In fact, Anthony may only make a token appearance, wave to the fans (well, to the laughably small contingent of fans in attendance) and shuffle off the court.  Like most Knicks' fans, Anthony has had enough.

Without Anthony, a Knicks' team that already has the worst record in the NBA will be, somehow, even worse.  But for Knicks' fans who had already given up on the season, that's okay.  Because the light at the end of the (Lincoln) tunnel is the Draft Lottery.  The biggest dreamers among us will remember that first draft lottery.  Much has changed since 1985 -- now we have ping pong balls, weighted odds, and a lot more teams.  But seeing Dave DeBusschere nearly topple over with glee when David Stern revealed the Knicks to be the winner of the Patrick Ewing sweepstakes is the sort of thing that makes losing, if not palatable, then a means to an end.  The Melo-less Knicks would certainly have the inside track to that 25% chance at the #1 pick.

Speaking of wihch, many early mock drafts have Duke's Jahlil Okafor as the top pick.  With Jason Smith and Cole Aldrich sharing time in the middle, the Duke center would look mighty fine in orange and blue.  Even if the Knicks don't land that top pick, PG Emmanuel Mudiay, SG D'Angelo Russell or another top prospect will be on the board when the Knicks make their selection.

It's safe to say that Phil Jackson will get a rehabilitated Anthony some help when the (post-surgery?) forward takes the floor next October.  Add a star free agent to the mix -- the Knicks could have some $30 million in cap space -- and all this losing may not seem so bad after all.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Playoff Win

Chalk one up for the inaugural College Football Playoff championship.  Even before Ohio State dispatched Oregon for the title, the playoffs were a success.  Highly-anticipated match-ups brought record-breaking ratings and great football to the semi-finals, setting up last night's championship game.  But until this season, it could never have happened.

In past years, we would likely have seen #1-ranked Alabama face off against undefeated (but not highly acclaimed) Florida State.  By some chance, if the BCS voters and computers thought better of Oregon, we might have seen the Ducks jump over the Seminoles to face the Crimson Tide.  The most unlikely scenario, though, would have been for the Buckeyes, a one-loss team in a downtrodden conference playing with a 3rd-string quarterback, to get a shot at the title. 

Thanks to the new (and, naturally, controversial) Selection Committee rankings, FOUR teams were chosen to play in the first playoffs in major college football history.  No longer would it be settled on paper ballots -- the champion would be decided on the field.  And a team that last season would have been on the outside looking in has busted through.  While a 10-1 team hardly fits the bill as an underdog, #4 Ohio State was not expected to beat Alabama, and certainly not in the way they pounded the Tide into submission.  Even then, the Buckeyes weren't the favorites against the high-flying Ducks, either. 

But there they were, Ezekiel Elliott breaking off huge chunks of yardage, Cardale Jones finding open receivers downfield.  The Buckeyes defense causing fits for Marcus Mariota and the Oregon receiving corps.  And even though I didn't personally care for the outcome, I could certainly appreciate the ride.