Skip to content

Archive for

MLB Preview 2008

The defending champs in Tokyo. Miguel Cabrera in Detroit. Johan in New York. Joe Torre in LA. Just a minor shakeup from a year ago, no? So how’s it all going down in 2008? Here are the thoughts of one scribe…

On the Outside Looking In

Arizona Diamondbacks (87-75) It’s tough to make the playoffs two years in a row, particularly when you can’t score runs. Last year the Diamondbacks scored 712 runs, fifth-fewest in MLB. They also surrendered 20 more than they scored, making them (by far) the only playoff team with a negative run differential. Good pitching and a pesky lineup one through eight got Arizona to the NLCS in ’07. Adding a second ace in Dan Haren to complement Brandon Webb would indicate the D-Backs are set to be even better in 2008, except there’s one major caveat. Jose Valverde and his 47 saves are now in Houston. The Diamondbacks won 90 games last year, but many of them were thanks to Valverde protecting one-run leads. Webb was a stud from mid-summer on last season, but Valverde was the MVP of the team. Without him, Arizona has uncertainty at the back end of their bullpen. No team wants to adopt a closer by committee. Especially one that needs to constantly protect tenuous leads late in ballgames.

Cleveland Indians (91-71) The following statement is going to make the city of Cleveland cringe (again): The Indians had their shot last year, and blew it. The optimistic outlook is the Indians have a solid and young core and will be competing for the foreseeable future. The pessimistic forecast has reigning-Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia bolting town for a mega-deal after 2008 (he rejected a four-year, $68 million contract extension and unilaterally suspended talks until after this season). Fans of the Tribe know it was there for the taking last October. Those feelings of regret have been compounded by concern about the future. Which leaves the present. More bad news: The 2008 Detroit Tigers might boast the greatest offense of all-time. Cleveland will be good, just not good enough to return to October.

Into October…But Out

Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72/NL West Champions) The NL West will be the deepest division in the league. In the age of the unbalanced schedule, a stacked division means upwards of sixty games against quality opponents–not including interleague and interdivision play. That puts a premium on overall team balance. When good teams play one another over and over again, the team with the best balance will prevail. The Dodgers have consistent starting pitching (Brad Penny and Derek Lowe), good middle relief (Scott Proctor and Jonathan Broxton), and the best closer in the National League (Takashi Saito). With speed at the top of their lineup (Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal) and power in the middle (an emerging-James Loney and Russell Martin), LA will avoid the scoring droughts that plagued them last year. Joe Torre’s cool and calm demeanor is also ideally suited for Southern California. The new skipper will lead the Dodgers back to the postseason, but not through it.

Atlanta Braves (91-71/NL Wild Card) Two consecutive seasons without playoff baseball at Turner Field? Are the Braves really still the third-best team in the NL East? On paper they are. But luckily they are looking up at a city and team that deal with high expectations about as well as Isiah Thomas deals with basketball contracts. The Phillies staged an impressive run last year to steal the division from the Mets, but let’s get something straight: the Mets CUH-LAPSED. The city of Philadelphia was still rubbing its eyes while the Rockies were in the process of sweeping away the Phillies in the NLDS. This is the pick I’m most ambivalent about. Both teams have good pitching, powerful lineups and closers who are suspect. I guess I’m going with the Braves because they’re still the Braves (and the Phillies are still the Phillies…)

New York Yankees (93-69/AL Wild Card) I hate sounding like a broken record but I simply refuse to pick against the Yankees in the regular season so long as Derek Jeter is taking the field everyday. Keeping an already established Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen is a wise move, because the Yankees biggest weakness will be their starting pitching. One man who hasn’t started at the big league level isn’t going to change a whole rotation. However, the one-two punch of Joba and Mariano Rivera will protect late inning leads for the Yanks when they have them. More importantly, they will help account for the inconsistencies of the New York starters. This team could find itself down big early in ballgames, but with its loaded and unrelenting offense and a couple stoppers at the end of the game, no deficit will be insurmountable for the Bombers (except the 0-2 one they’ll face against Detroit in the playoffs).

Los Angeles Angels (94-68/AL West Champions) An interesting pattern has developed the last six years. The Angels, Yankees and Red Sox have been the three most consistent franchises in the American League. Since 2002, all three have made at least four postseason appearances and averaged better than 91 wins per year. The Angels have had continued success by playing aggressive baseball; they steal bases, hit and run, squeeze. John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar are rocks at the top of their rotation; Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez have been as good as they come at the end of games. In October, however, that all changes. The Angels pitching staff cannot deal with the Red Sox offense, particularly David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. The Yankees, meanwhile, can barely touch the Angels hurlers. Twice the Yankees have lost to Los Angeles in the playoffs (2002 and 2005), and twice the Angels have been defeated by Boston (2004 and 2007). What am I getting at? The Angels have established themselves as the class of the American League, right there with the Red Sox and Yankees. Seattle will push them hard, but LA will be back in October, albeit briefly.

Playing for a Pennant

Chicago Cubs (89-73/NL Central Champions) The Cubs dealt with their fair share of turmoil to begin the Lou Piniella era. Alfonso Soriano started the year in a prolonged slump and Carlos Zambrano was awful until he punched out his catcher. Once they got rid of Michael Barrett, Chicago started playing like most had expected going into the season. Still, they never seemed to click on all cylinders, and were blitzed by Arizona in the NLDS. This year, there will be stability in the clubhouse–or at least as much as there can plausibly be with Sweet Lou and Zambrano still prone to the occasional outburst.

No matter what, the Cubs won’t have to expend nearly as much energy and emotion in order to win a very bad division. If Kerry Wood can succeed as the closer, this team is built to make some noise in October. They have three horses at the top of their rotation (Zambrano, Rich Hill, Ted Lilly) and a lights-out setup man in Carlos Marmol. If they weren’t inevitably running into a team on a blood mission, I’d say the Cubbies were about to be closing in on their first pennant since 1945. Instead, 2008 will go down as another tantalizing, but ultimately unfulfilling campaign in Wrigleyville.

Detroit Tigers (101-61/AL Central Champions) Admit it. If you’re a fan of any team in the American League, you are dreading the first time your team and this team meet. The 2007 Tigers won 88 games and scored 887 runs. Then they went and added Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria–who scored a combined 178 runs last year. So how many times will Tigers cross the plate in ’08? 950? 1000? More? Apologies in advance to pitching staffs in the AL Central, which will have no choice but to get abused by this sure-to-be historic offense up to 19 times a piece over the next six months. Detroit will be raking from April through September, and into October.

Why then are they not going to be representing the AL in the Fall Classic? Pitching. Specifically, their bullpen. It’s looking like Joel Zumaya will never be the pitcher he was, at least not this year. Fernando Rodney is mediocre, and he too is battling shoulder issues. That leaves the man who will be entrusted to get the final three outs, Todd Jones. His best days are far behind him. His recent past has been spotty at best (average of six blown saves and 4.10 ERA the last two seasons), and he hasn’t been able to get anybody out this spring (seven appearances, 15 hits, 11 earned runs, 14.84 ERA). Even backed by a legendary offense, that’s simply not going to cut it in a seven-game series against a team with a lockdown bullpen.

The Runner-Up

Boston Red Sox (96-66/AL East Champions) The Red Sox are in Tokyo as this column goes to publication. The trip, which will span 18 days and three countries, is great for the Red Sox brand and even better for the game itself. Theo Epstein and the Sox brass lured Dice-K and Hideki Okajima from Japan last year. They transformed the Boston Red Sox into a global enterprise. Then they won a second title for the first time in a century. As much as Hank Steinbrenner would like to deny it, Red Sox Nation is now multinational, multilingual, and carrying the torch into the next era of the sport of baseball. Assuming an ambassadorial role for MLB won’t come without consequences, however.

By the time the Red Sox finally return to Fenway–via the west coast and Toronto–on April 8, the entire organization is going to be gassed. Players have been forced to alter their diets (“lots of sushi” says a reinvigorated Manny Ramirez), sleep habits, and general routines. Terry Francona and his staff have basically assumed responsibilities of foreign dignitaries in addition to their daily duties as managers and coaches. And then there’s the simple fact of being on the road for an extended period of time to kick off the season. It’s not easy. The defending champs will be buoyed by the sustained reception they receive upon their return home, but it’s just not reasonable to expect them to come flying out of the gates in April like their calling card would indicate.

They will win the AL East, because they are better than the Yankees, but if anyone thinks they’re going wire to wire, think again. It will take time to shake off the Tokyo-jet lag, and come October, after the Sox have played the most grueling 162 games imaginable, in addition to another run through the American League playoffs, it will all catch up. The Sox won’t repeat as champions, but they will come damn close.

The Pick

New York Mets (98-64/NL East Champions) I thought that with a healthy Pedro Martinez in 2008, the Mets would be good enough to get back to where they were last year: on the brink of the NL East title and home-field throughout the playoffs. Frankly, though, I wasn’t convinced that even Pedro’s elephant-sized ego would be sufficient enough to pull the team out of the total malaise it was stuck in since early September. Then Omar Minaya saved the day, the season, and quite possibly the franchise, by working a deal for Johan Santana. So in comes the best pitcher of today, joining the best hurler of yesterday.

For those who have little faith in Pedro, chew on this: when the walls were crashing down around the Mets last September, Pedro, with all 88 miles per hour of his fastball, started five games, went 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA, and struck out 32 in 28 innings. After the collapse was complete, with the Mets dreadfully looking ahead to 2008, Pedro was the beacon of light at the end of a long and otherwise pitch black tunnel. Trust me, the guy was prepared to lift that big blue toilet bowl also known as Shea Stadium–along with his team and what was left of its fan base–onto his modest shoulders, and start chugging.

Petey was ready to assume the entire burden of (another) hopeless franchise. And you know something? I would have bought in. I believe he could have done it — until his right arm detached itself from the rest of his body, that is. Well now he won’t have to take that risk. The Mets, and their fans, have been reborn. Johan has, in a word, simplified things. Willie Randolph’s boys will be the undisputed best in the league, Johan will win the NL Cy Young, Pedro will prove all the haters wrong, and the New York Mets will become your 2008 world champions.

NCAA Tournament Preview

The NCAA tournament field begins with 65 teams, and in the span of four days, is whittled down to 16. Transpiring more like a continuous strike of lightning than 48 separate basketball games, the first two rounds of the Big Dance make it impossible to do anything else for the better part of 80 hours. Once the first ball goes up on Thursday at noon, you won’t see a blink throughout college basketball until Sunday evening.

By then, the real picture will have started to come into focus.

A few teams whose lower seeds indicate they should have fallen but remain standing will be given the Cinderella treatment, but chances are they won’t fit into the slipper. In reality, only a handful of schools each year have a viable shot at the whole shebang, and no champion has ever been called Cinderella. To win six consecutive elimination games requires lots of talent, a considerable amount of depth, and outstanding coaching.

Plus, of course, more than a little luck.

Following is a region by region breakdown of key games, possible sleepers, and the schools that will find their way to San Antonio.

East Region

Game to watch (5) Notre Dame vs. (12) George Mason– It was two years ago that George Mason turned the college hoops universe inside out, winning a regional final against a UConn team stacked with future NBA players. The Patriots instantly became the most improbable Final Four team (an 11th seed) in tournament history. After missing the Dance last year, Mason is back, and so is the mystique associated with the name. Notre Dame, on the other hand, is looking to settle some unfinished business after getting upset by Winthrop in last year’s tournament. The Irish have the inside/outside combo with Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney, but the Patriots won’t back down.

Possible sleeper (7) Butler– The Bulldogs have the resume of a top-five seed: 28 wins–Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Florida State among them–and only three losses (by an average of four points). They are led by a great point guard (Mike Green) and a cold-blooded shooter (A.J. Graves). Graves was the catalyst of their run to the Sweet 16 last year. And like it did against Florida last March, Butler has the ability to slow down a high-flying offense like Tennessee, the team it will be facing in the second round.

Advances to San Antonio (1) North Carolina– The Tobacco Road to the Alamo is paved for the Tar Heels. The number one overall seed in the tournament is always rewarded with the most favorable travel schedule. Two games in Raleigh followed by a regional in Charlotte (where the Heels just won the ACC tournament championship) should make up for what could be a few roadblocks (Notre Dame/Louisville/Tennessee). Tar Heel faithful are about as faithful as they come, and with UNC primed to make another run at the title, it’s just not possible to envision them getting bumped in their home state. And don’t forget about that Tyler Hansbrough character…

Midwest Region

Game to watch (6) USC vs. (11) Kansas State– Is there really any debate? Is it really a coincidence that the two most iconic freshmen in the country (O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley) find themselves matched up against one another on college basketball’s grandest stage? I think not. While Beasley is pretty much the consensus number one pick in next years draft, as Kevin Durant was at this time last season, can Beasley pen a different conclusion to his brief collegiate career? Many thought Durant was going to replicate Carmelo Anthony’s performance of a few years before but that journey never even began as Texas was manhandled in the second round by…you guessed it, USC! Once again, in this matchup I don’t see a coincidence. I do see a heck of a basketball game though.

Possible sleeper (6) USC– The Trojans are toeing that line between sleeper and under-the-radar favorite. Most teams would prefer the former. Let’s put it this way: if USC can get past Kansas State, with Mayo and Taj Gibson representing a formidable and confident inside/outside presence, I see them running through Wisconsin and Georgetown en route to the Midwest Regional Final. They’re that scary.

Advances to San Antonio (1) Kansas– I won’t mince words. The Jayhawks, while maintaining a consistently elite recruiting class since the departure of Roy Williams, have drastically underperformed in March since Bill Self took over. That said, this is undoubtedly the most versatile Kansas team since the likes of Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden had them in three out of four regional finals. Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins are probably the best guard-trio in the country, and as anyone who follows the madness knows, guard play wins in March. This is the year Kansas gets back to the Final Four.

South Region

Game to watch (6) Marquette vs. (11) Kentucky– Big programs with experienced leaders traditionally make for entertaining tournament games. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an opening round matchup boasting two bigger powerhouses. As for tenured-leaders, look no further than Dominic James of Marquette and Kentucky’s Joe Crawford. With a combined seven years between them, both have played in a lot of important games. Add to that the rivalry that began when the Golden Eagles, carried by a phenom (one Dwyane Wade), stunned the top-seeded Wildcats in a 2003 regional final, and you have a recipe for a first round heart-pounder.

Possible sleeper (12) Temple– Under legendary coach Jon Chaney, no one really took note of how Temple got into the tournament when it did. All that mattered to opposing coaches and teams was the fact that the Owls were always a dark horse to make a deep run. Since Chaney’s departure, Temple has taken a few steps back, but the parallels between the 2008 Owls and past Temple teams are quickly becoming apparent: slow start, strong finish, unlikely Atlantic 10 tournament champion. The blueprint is there.

Advances to San Antonio (2) Texas– I think Memphis is the meanest, toughest and best overall team in the country. The problem is, they can’t shoot free throws! It doesn’t matter how good you are, because any team that has plans of winning it all will have to finish multiple games at the free throw line. The Tigers barely shoot 60% as a team, and their best free throw shooter, Derrick Rose, is a shade under 70%. That’s not going to cut it against a team like Texas. D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams are arguably the top guard-tandem in the country, and both are better than 79% shooters at the charity stripe. The Longhorns will advance because their guards can close out games.

West Region

Game to watch (7) West Virginia vs. (10) Arizona– There is always one team that has something to prove after gaining what many believe to be a bogus tourney bid. Last year it was Stanford. This year it’s Arizona. The Wildcats lost twice to Arizona State and finished with a worse conference record than their in-state rival, which had much of the college basketball world up in arms about ASU’s snub. The only way to justify its 24th straight tournament berth (the nation’s longest active streak) would be for the Wildcats to beat a traditionally solid tournament team in the Mountaineers.

Possible sleeper (5) Drake– It’s tough to deem a fifth seed a “sleeper” but Drake is certainly not a household name. They just finished annihilating the Missouri Valley Conference–which has shed the “mid-major” label with its quality and depth the last few years–and sport a 28-4 record overall. It looks like they’ll be meeting a suddenly-stumbling Connecticut team in the second round. A Sweet 16 appearance looks increasingly likely for the Bulldogs.

Advances to San Antonio (1) UCLA– Of all the top seeds, the Bruins have the fewest obstacles standing between them and another Final Four, as the West is the only region without multiple title contenders. The nucleus of this team–Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata–has been sniffing a national title the last two years, only to be thwarted by Florida both times (first in the National Championship, and last year in a National Semifinal). The Gator dynasty has been dismantled and Kevin Love is on the scene, which bode well for UCLA. This should be their easiest passage to the Final Four. The real question is will they be able to finish the job they began in 2006?

Celtics’ Eyes on the Prize

When you think about it, the Celtics have been engaged in an interminable period of adjustment since Danny Ainge began wheeling and dealing the day after the draft last summer.

Once Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were introduced in green, the Celtics had to adjust from life as a bottom feeder to an existence as a veritable contender. Then, after starting 29-3, they had to make the delicate transition from contender to early front-runner. Most recently, when KG had to sit out nine games prior to the All-Star break with an abdominal strain, they were forced to preserve an identity without their centerpiece.

Now, with Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown on board, fortifying one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league, the Celtics have one last phase of adjustment to tackle: bringing it all together for a run at title number 17.

With 21 regular season games remaining, Doc Rivers has about six weeks to integrate Cassell and Brown (and consequently reduce the roles of other players). If their current track record of adjustment holds up, odds are the Celtics will keep moving forward.

That seems to have become the M.O. of this team.

As obstacles–some real, others media contrived–have presented themselves, Danny and Doc’s boys have continued to work, continued to evolve. They haven’t allowed the many highs to be too high; the few lows to be too low. They have kept things on an even keel, which is what championship teams do.

The general manager and the coach deserve their fair share of the credit.

That Ainge and Rivers showed no haste in getting Garnett back on the court was both a reflection of the faith they had in the chemistry of the team as well as a recognition of the bigger picture. Ainge has made it no secret that there will be no talk of a possible restoration of the league’s most storied franchise or even of “The Big Three” until that seventeenth banner gets hung over the parquet. He said as much when he stood between Ray and KG at their unveiling, and has reiterated it over the course of the season.

The players wholeheartedly endorse the words of the man who assembled them, particularly the title-starved trio of stars who have led the team. Take, for instance, Allen’s comments prior to unquestionably the biggest game of the season against Detroit on March 5. “What is this game 59 for us? It’s business as usual.”

Maybe a bit trite, but given that he said it before a game in which the Celtics locked down the Pistons in the fourth quarter with a decisive 21-9 run, gained the head-to-head tiebreaker with their only close competitor, and reaffirmed their place at the top of the East, at the very least he was being candid. Allen only shot 1-for-9 that night, but he put in a blue-collar days work in defense of Richard Hamilton, which only served to validate his pregame assertion.

It’s business.

These days, skeptics argue that the Celtics won’t have the necessary gears to win a championship, won’t be able to turn it up when hardware is on the line against teams that have already been to the promised land. Time was, skeptics contended the Celtics couldn’t improve on their amazing start, couldn’t deal with the ramifications of tumbling back to the stark reality of a loaded-NBA.

21-9 since 29-3 has silenced that line of thinking. So too has the Green’s ability to stay tops in the league in opponents field goal percentage (42 percent) and opponents points per game (90.3). No passing lane is safe against this team either, as the Celtics continue to rank among the best at creating steals (8.7 per game, fourth overall).

It’s due to a cumulative commitment and relentless effort on the defensive end that have Boston positioned where not a whole lot thought it would be: locked and loaded for the stretch run having not yet peaked.

And here comes Cassell.

It’s hard to fathom a 38-year old point guard making or breaking a championship team, but this one will. He won rings his first two years in the NBA, which furnished him with a set of stones that have been the topic of many a water cooler. His ego is accordingly robust. He could conceivably be a problem for the incumbent and up-and-comer at his position, Rajon Rondo. Just don’t count on it.

Cassell spent considerable time with Allen in Milwaukee and Garnett in Minnesota. He knows he’s coming onto this team to take a backseat to Rondo, mentor the young man, and when called upon, assume control of the rock in crunch time. Just as KG, Ray and Paul assured everyone they would spread the wealth for the good of the team, so too has Cassell expressed his readiness to do what’s necessary to win.

“I don’t have to take 15-20 shots to make the Boston Celtics a championship team,” he said. As for Rondo? “I don’t want his job. I’m just here to make the team better.”

Cassell has talked the talk throughout his entire career. He’s done the walkin’ too. Now he becomes the final piece on a team that has been under reconstruction for the last nine months. One last adjustment before the real games begin.

“From what I’ve heard, there’s nothing like getting a championship in Boston,” said Cassell.

You heard right, Sam.