Balls and Strikes

A few thoughts as we gear up for the start of the 2015 MLB season.

The Boston Red Sox have had a somewhat bizarre offseason. They have seemingly loaded up on offense, could have the best 1-6 hitters in baseball if things fall right, but have no #1 or possibly #2 starter, have a 40-year-old closer Koji Uehara, who looked tired and ineffective the final months of last season and a bullpen that has some undefined roles and potentially a lot of mediocrity. I have always been a huge fan of compiling assets, but those assets seem to represent redundancy while leaving too many holes. The Red Sox have the best young prospects in baseball and have trade chips aplenty but here are the things I question most heading into the season:

1. The Red Sox declined to resign Jon Lester because of his age and potential decline. Yet, they opted to resign Uehara for 2 years and 18 million instead of resigning Andrew Miller for four years and 36 million despite the fact that Miller is a lefty, is in the prime of his career and is clearly trending upward. Miller went to the Yankees and this decision will be one the Sox sorely regret.

2. The Sox signed Rusney Castillo to a seven year-72 million contract last season. Who signs a player to an average salary of 10 million plus and then can’t find a place in the starting lineup for him? Shane Victorino was named the starter but not on merit and solely based on his past success and the likelihood that he will be a clubhouse problem and become petulant if he is coming off the bench.

3. Xander Bogaerts. I am a big fan and believer, but if he stumbles and he will get a huge leash, the Red Sox have a big hole at SS offensively and defensively. If the rumblings start midway through the season of moving Hanley Ramirez back to SS, that will create a whole new set of problems.

It will be interesting to see how former Red Sox player Will Middlebrooks does in San Diego considering it is not a good hitter’s park. If Middlebrooks does well, he hit .333 in spring training, and it proves out that the Red Sox panicked and gave up too quick, then the 95 million dollars spent on Pablo Sandoval will look bad. However, in light of the Sox losing Christian Vazquez, acquiring Ryan Hanigan for Middlebrooks could help save some face.

Speaking of the Padres, they are one of the most intriguing teams to watch heading into the season. Justin Upton and Matt Kemp have a chance to rebound for big years. Wil Myers and Will Middlebrooks get out from under the pressure of their previous teams and if either or both can perform effectively, the Padres could be a force to be reckoned with. San Diego also acquired all-star catcher Derek Norris, ace pitcher James Shields who should thrive in San Diego and they took minor risks on Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson.

The Kris Bryant – Chicago Cubs saga is getting all too repetitive. So the Cubs sent him down to the minors so they could secure an extra year of service time and delay him going to free agency and having to deal with uber-agent Scott Boras. All Bryant did in spring training was hit nine home runs, knock in 15 runs and hit .425 in 40 at bats.  Those are Stephen Drew’s power numbers over the last two season coupled with a batting average approximately 300 points less. The players association agreed to this rule and every time a team exploits it, there is an uproar. Next time the collective bargaining agreement comes due, surely this issue will be addressed. However, the Cubs have a potentially contending team for the first time in God knows how long and more importantly, their fans can say the word playoffs without breaking out in laughter. If at the end of the season, the Cubs miss the playoffs by one to three games, everyone will be asking if Kris Bryant could have made the difference and for a team that hasn’t won since… well let’s just say the last time they won: a loaf of bread was five cents, a gallon of milk was 32 cents and a gallon of gas was 11 cents, having another year of service time might not be worth losing a playoff spot.

And how could I finish baseball without discussing the Bronx Bombers. Anytime you go into the season thinking this could be our year if Mark Teixeira bounces back and stays healthy, Alex Rodriguez stays healthy and doesn’t implode, Carlos Beltran stays healthy and bounces back, Tanaka’s elbow holds up, Sabathia’s arm doesn’t fall off from overuse or from holding up his belly and Michael Pineda can stay healthy and fulfill his previous vast potential, you can’t feel good. The only lock on this team offensively might be Jacoby Ellsbury and let’s face it, he is so overdue to get hurt.

Too bad the New York Mets lost Zack Wheeler for the year because it would have been great to see Matt Harvey and Wheeler as a 1-2 punch.

As MLB gears up, the NBA and NHL regular seasons wind down.

As usual the Western Conference holds all the intrigue and excitement. Not thinking too many people are breathlessly awaiting how far the Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors go in the playoffs. The Western Conference should ultimately come down to the Warriors and Clippers. LA has the talent, athleticism and coaching to stay with Golden State, but I am not sure the IQ is there and I truly believe Golden State could be a team of destiny this season as they have virtually no weakness. Everybody still has to get by San Antonio of course but seeing Stephen Curry and the young gun Warriors in the Finals would be refreshing to say the least. By the way, six of the top seven teams in the NBA are in the Western Conference.

Congrats to Phil Jackson on a brilliant first season with the Knicks guiding them to the worst season in franchise history as they are currently 14-61. I wonder if it was a big deal in losing out on getting Steve Kerr to coach the team and settling for Derek Fisher?

I pointed out in my last blog how much more successful the Celtics have performed post-Rondo and how much less successful the Mavs have performed. What seems to be the hidden gem from that trade though is Jae Crowder. He is a jack of all trades and a player Danny Ainge insisted on. Crowder can rebound, pass, shoot from the outside and defend any of the frontcourt positions despite being only 6’6’’.

With all the struggles Kevin Love continues to have in Cleveland and the steady improvement Andrew Wiggins is having in Minnesota, perhaps Cleveland wishes they could rethink that trade. But if Love leaves after this season or doesn’t live up to his potential come playoff time than that failed trade is on LeBron because Cleveland doesn’t pull the trigger on that without LeBron cajoling management.

I am about 50% over losing Darelle Revis and have two other thoughts. First, I thought it was telling last week that Revis felt the need to point out that the Patriots offer wasn’t in the ballpark. This was heavily reported after he decided to resign with the Jets anyway so this was hardly news. What Revis intentionally chose not to address was whether he would have resigned with the Patriots if the offer was in the ballpark. I maintain the Patriots didn’t make a competitive offer because they felt his heart was with the Jets all along and they didnt want to be embarrassed and match the Jets and still lose the player. On the flip side, if the Pats could have resigned him, but they were thinking towards next season when they will have to address the contracts of Donta Hightower, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, then shame on them. Jones has been injury prone and inconsistent, Hightower is overrated and Collins looks very promising, but why not keep the proven commodity at a position that is virtually impossible to find a stud.

Can’t wait until MLB umpires start issuing delay of game warnings.

World Series prediction:

Washington Nationals win it all and beat the Baltimore Orioles in the Beltway Series.


“Revis”ionist History

So Darelle Revis is a New York Jet again. Is it really a surprise? Revis has never really disguised who he was and that was never more evident than before he signed with the Patriots last season.

Revis received credit for taking a discount affording him a chance to win a Superbowl, but the truth is, even last season he wanted the most money, to go to the city and home he loved most and to become a member of the Jets.  The first thing he did when he became a free agent was to have his agents reach out to…guess who… the New York Jets. Revis even commented last year prior to signing with the Patriots that he had a hard time envisioning playing for the Patriots after previously playing for the Jets. The Jets foolishly rebuffed his advances in an Idina Menzel – John Travolta kind of way and so Revis was left with Plan B. At that point, why not bet on yourself (two years removed from major surgery) and go to a Superbowl contender and build up your market value while proving you are the best or one of the best again. Both the Patriots and Revis used each other.

Revis could have received more money this year if he was willing to entertain offers from the Raiders or other downtrodden teams, but ultimately, the fully guaranteed money, his ego and the new challenge dictated the decision. This was about the Jets commitment to fully guaranteeing 39 million where apparently the Pats wouldn’t do the full guarantee or match the  money according to a Boston Globe report. It was about going back to New York and being the face of the franchise, the savior and avail himself to the loads of endorsement opportunites to boot.

And lastly, I believe it was about the challenge of dethroning the big fish or champion. Many athletes want to join a team that is on the verge of a championship but for some, it is very enticing to knock the king off the mountain. Revis now has the opportunity to be an icon in New York and dethrone the very team that gave him his only Superbowl ring even if it conceivably will take a few years to accomplish. As much as I don’t like to give LeBron James credit, when he opted to return to Cleveland, he accepted the challenge in a city that hasn’t won a championship since 1964 and really had the option to go anywhere.

As for the Patriots and the fan base, I am baffled by the blind faith and loyalty to Bill Belichick and “The Patriots Way”. This notion that regardless of what decision the Patriots make, it has to be right because Belichick knows best is naïve and troubling. By the way, I happen to like Belichick, feel fortunate that he is the coach for the team I root for, and think he might be the best of all time. With that said, any great leader makes mistakes and bad decisions at times and Belichick frankly has a laundry list of them especially on the GM side of his job. But those bad decisions are always discounted because the Patriots are always in the hunt for a Superbowl.

Here are some things to consider when evaluating the Patriots and their decision:

A questionable personnel decision last season. How about signing Darelle Revis last year instead of Aqib Talib? Talib was signed for six years but only three years and 27 million not fully guaranteed. Byron Maxwell, a decent cornerback from Seattle was just signed for six years but three years and 25 million not fully guaranteed. Talib was tremendous for Denver this past year and stayed healthy. Do the Patriots not win a Superbowl if they had Talib over Revis this past season? More important, how would the Patriots be sitting the next two years with Talib on the roster and owed 15 million and being an elite corner versus Kyle Arrington being your number one corner right now? Is Revis seven million per year in cap space and 12 million more in guaranteed money better than Talib? Not quite sure about that. Would you trade Revis for Talib and a player that earns seven million annually in the NFL? I think you would. The Pats knew the risk and what they were getting into when they signed a guy like Revis and the second year of the contract he signed last year shouted that.

All four Superbowls the Patriots have won, they have had a great secondary with Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Rodney Harrison and Revis anchoring those teams. Without dominant secondary play, zero Superbowls.

There are certain positions/people that can be irreplaceable in sports. In baseball, ace pitchers and leadoff hitters are difficult to come by (see Jon Lester) and (see Jacoby Ellsbury) although I agree with both decisions to not re-sign them. In football, you have quarterback and cornerback. In basketball, you have point guard and more likely the center position. In hockey, you have goalie or a six foot nine defenseman named Zdeno Chara.

When juggling salary caps and personnel decisions, the cost of replacement, available alternatives and intangible team value just can’t be ignored. Revis for example impacted the whole defense by covering up shortcomings in certain areas. How much is that worth to a football team? I would say significantly more than market value. In this case, the Pats look to have no available alternatives, didn’t effectively evaluate the cost of replacement all to stick with a rigid and stubborn approach to negotiating contracts and stubborn management. Part of me thinks that the reason the Patriots didn’t fully guarantee the money or go above 35 million is out of ego and pride because they feel that to have the “privilege” of playing for the Patriots, one should have to take a discount. I get not setting precedents and how it impacts the rest of your roster, but Revis was a rare breed. 

When I evaluate elite level players and coaches, I often envision them in different situations or environments and predict how successful they would be. For example, when comparing Brady and Peyton Manning  over the years, I ask myself if they switched teams, how would each have fared? If Brady was the quarterback of the Colts and Broncos and had Manning’s  weapons at his disposal, there is no doubt he would have won more than one Superbowl and Manning never would have won four with the Pats. I look at Pat Riley who has proven to be a championship coach with the Lakers and then recreated his success as an executive with the Miami Heat. Lastly, I look at Phil Jackson who had the ridiculously good fortune to work with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers. Eleven championships are hard to debate, however, he has had the two most dominant tandems to coach in this generation. Now Jackson is an executive for the New York Knicks and it has only been one year, but I think we can all attest to how that’s going so far. By the way, isn’t it great how far I can stretch in a blog to put down the Knicks.

That leaves us with Belichick. When we look back at Belichick’s legacy, how much of it is due to having Tom Brady at his disposal? Could Belichick’s personnel moves and coaching strategy succeed anywhere? He wasn’t successful in Cleveland and he will probably finish his coaching career in New England so I don’t think we will ever see a third opportunity for him.

One thing is for certain however with Revis gone, the Pats are now on an island by themselves.