Pre season predictions 4

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Buck Showalter introduced as Orioles Manager in July 2010; courtesy Fox Sports

Pat

Here we go with the AL spring training picks for the 2014 season. I am not really sure who the strongest division in the American League is, so I will just go ahead and start with the AL East. In the past, this division was always considered the strongest in the AL, with the Yankees and Red Sox spending lots of money and everybody else chasing them. This year, the West looks pretty strong. I can’t see the Red Sox repeating this year and the Yankees will  probably play better than they look although I can’t see them really contending for the division. The Rays have contended the past several years with a tiny payroll, a testament to Joe Madden.

But this year I see the division going to the Orioles. I think they finally have the confidence under Buck Showalter to seal the deal in the AL East. I know this crazy, but despite a terrible home stadium and bad fan support, I have the Tampa Bay Rays taking second place and contending for a wild card spot. Third is the Red Sox, a game or two back of Tampa Bay still possibly contending for the second wild card. Then comes the Yankees in fourth, a couple of games behind Boston. I see only three or four games between first and fourth in the AL East.  Then of course bringing up the rear is Toronto a few games back of the Yankees, improving some but not enough to contend.

I see the Red Sox falling due to age and injury. I can’t see the pitching holding up without major injuries and the offense is aging and their youth not quite ready to take the reins. The Yankees’ pitching can’t hold up and without A-Rod they have a couple of very good players and a bunch of journeymen, not enough to contend in this division.

Masha

OK, I have to say it – there is no way the Orioles take the division, not if history tells us anything. Let’s take a look at Buck Showalter’s history as a manager. With the Yankees, he fell apart in the third year – and they won the World Series the next year; with the Diamondbacks, he fell apart in the third year – and they won the World Series the next year; with the Rangers, he fell apart in the fourth year, (sorry Texas, no World Series). Yes, he wins the Manager of the Year awards; he’s a good short-term manager. But he was hired by the Orioles as manager in July  2010, and I’m thinking this is the year his curse sets in. So, I don’t agree with Pat; the Orioles don’t win the AL East. I believe the Red Sox and the Rays are going to fight it out, with the Rays coming in second. Then Orioles third, Yankees fourth, and, Oh Canada, Toronto last.

Pondering the American League

Rockies vs. Cardinals, Coors Field

Pat

So I’ve finished picking my favorites in the National League for the upcoming 2014 season. Now it’s time to pick the American League. As I study the depth charts for AL teams, I find that I don’t know these players as well as I know the NL players. Why is this? Well, I am a national league guy. I live in a national league city with the Colorado Rockies. I was raised in St. Louis and am still a huge Cardinal fan. But come on, I have the MLB package on Direct TV and I can watch any game I want and in fact every game if I want to. But I don’t watch much of the American League. Why is that, really?

I’ll tell you why. It’s not as good as national league baseball. There are fewer close games, and it’s way less strategic than an NL game, so it’s just less compelling to watch and follow. Why is that? The designated hitter. You know it’s cheating, right? They use ten players in a game instead of nine. I still can’t believe major league baseball allowed the American League change the rules just for their league. Can you imagine the AFC conference in the NFL wanting a more offensive conference by changing the rules to allow twelve players on offense just for the AFC? The NFL would never allow it. I still wonder what baseball was thinking when they allowed this happen. I read an article recently about how the NL should just go ahead and institute the DH. Man, I hope that never happens.

When my wife and I are at a Rockies game or watching a game on TV, we discuss strategy all the time. So you think they will bunt in this situation? How about a suicide squeeze to take the lead here or should they go for the big inning? With a change to break the game open, should they pinch hit for the pitcher or keep him in the game since he’s still pitching well? These are all decisions the AL manager does not have to think about. They are important managerial decisions that can change the game in the NL, making the NL game a lot more fun to watch.

I snuck onto my soap box, and here I go again. I don’t think the AL will ever get rid of the DH, but it is my sincere hope that the NL never adopts this rule. The DH makes baseball a worse game in my humble opinion. I will never watch as many AL games as I do the NL because it’s just not as compelling to me. But, next blog I will go ahead and make my AL picks for the 2014 season.  I just won’t care quite as much.

Masha

I too was raised a National League fan. I too hate the DH, but for slightly different reasons than Pat, or maybe additional reasons. My problem with the DH, and the reason that many of my friends love the DH is because it reduces baseball to hitting. Only hitting. Big home runs, big hitters, big bats. You score more than the other team and you win. Yes, that’s the basis for baseball, but not the only compelling thing about it. And hitting the white ball is not the only thing going on in a major league baseball game, or shouldn’t be.

I love a pitcher’s duel. There is greatness in the crafty left-hander fooling a big hitter. Some of the best baseball games I’ve ever attended have been 1-0 games, with two amazing pitchers on the mound doing a great job. The games also went quickly (one of the arguments for the DH I’ve heard), and no one threw over 100 pitches. But in the NL, the pitcher has to be more than just the guy throwing the ball. He has to be able to make contact, even if it’s just a bunt. The teams that do well in the NL have great hitting pitchers. Hang on here, *sigh*, this is just going to feed into Pat’s baseball ego, but the Cardinals are one of those teams and their record shows it. If your pitcher can hit reasonably well in addition to pitching a great game, the game takes on an additional layer of strategy. Do I leave this guy in because he’s batting .278, better than the pinch-hitter I might slot in for him, even though he’s got 98 pitches?

Fans of the DH will argue that it’s the very rare pitcher who can hit well and that a pitcher is usually a guaranteed out. As a baseball fan, I’ve seen pitchers surprise everyone, including himself, by getting a seeing-eye single when the team needed it most. And that moment of surprise is worth more than 3 homeruns to me.

So take your big hitters, American League, and leave me to my hitting pitchers. I prefer strategizing whether I should bunt here, or wondering why my manager is leaving this pitcher in, to watching a small white ball sail over a fence. It’s just more interesting to me.

Rashard Mendenhall – A Fond Farewell

Masha

Rashard Mendenhall announced his retirement yesterday. Among the free agents that would have been very popular in today’s free agency, Rashard has made an impact for both the Steelers and the Cardinals. He has a Super Bowl ring from Super Bowl XLIII. His college career was stellar. And now he’s retiring at 26 yeas old.

ESPN’s football experts have expressed shock that a 26-year-old would retire. Twitter went crazy. And I’m blogging about it. And I think I’m one of the few that admires Rashard’s decision. I’ve linked his announcement so you can read for yourselves, but I think Rashard is retiring for all the right reasons.

He’s accomplished everything anyone could dream of in football, including the difficult-to-attain Super Bowl ring. He’s a talented writer who has filled his life with other interests, along with football. He’s now following a dream of his to become a writer. Good for him, he’s following the advice of every business person on the speaker’s tour – do what you love and you’ll love what you do. He doesn’t love football anymore, he likes it. It sounds like he’s always “liked” football. But he loves writing. He’s going to write.

So bravo to Rashard for deciding to follow his heart. May we all be so lucky.

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” — Confucius

Rashard Mendenhall retirement announcement

Pre-season predictions 3

Pat

And finally, we have the NL East. This one is a tough pick. The Braves took the division without any challenge at all last year. I don’t think that will happen this year. In fact, I am going to pick the Washington Nationals to win this division. Injuries killed the Nats last year and just looking at the depth chart, I feel they have a better starting pitching rotation and the bull pens about even. I also think that the Nats’ offense is stronger than the Braves this year. So I do think that the Braves will take second and contend for a wild card birth. That puts Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta challenging for 2 wild card slots.

I think the Phillies will play a little bit better than they did last year, but only good enough for third place in the East. They need to stay healthy and pitch way better than they did last year. That puts the Mets in fourth place in the division although I do see improvements with them. Not quite ready to contend, but they seem to be heading in the right direction.  Obviously the Marlins are bringing up the rear, as they were last year. I can’t quite see what direction the Marlins are going; we’ll have to see how well their young players perform this year.

So to recap the National League. I have the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Nationals winning the divisions. The Pirates, Diamondbacks and Braves will contend for the two wild card spots.  It’s always fun to see how many I get right. It’s hard to pick this early, but it’s also a fun exercise.

Win one for the Gipper – Happy Birthday Knute Rockne

Knute Rockne, photo courtesy of the University of Notre Dame.

Knute Rockne, photo courtesy of the University of Notre Dame.

Happy Birthday Knute Rockne. Born in 1888, Rockne played and coached for the University of Notre Dame, popularizing the forward pass and creating a football powerhouse in the process.

He was known for his inspirational locker room speeches, including a speech in 1928 quoting the 1920 death-bed words of one of his players, George “Gipper” Gipp:  “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” The “Fighting Irish” team was losing to Army, 6-0, at the end of the half, Rockne gave this speech at half time. It inspired the team, who then outscored Army in the second half and won the game, 12-6.

The fragile golf swing

Pat

I’ve always said that the golf swing does not come natural to me. I played baseball as a kid and into high school and college. I blamed the baseball swing on my lack of skills with my golf swing. The other day I mentioned to my club pro how fragile my golf swing was. He said everybody’s gold swing is fragile, just watch the PGA Tour. I figured he was just humoring me to make me feel better. But I do watch the PGA and after watching Rory Mcilroy melt down on Sunday at the Honda Classic, I have finally come to the conclusion that golf is the most difficult game we humans play. Masha and I watch a lot of golf together and when a pro doesn’t get out of a sand trap or hits one into the water or misses a fairway by 50 yards, we say that makes us feel a lot better about our game. As mean as that sounds, it’s really true.

If a professional golfer making a good living playing golf, practicing most every day and repeating his golf swing hundreds of times a day can hit a terrible shot at anytime, we hackers playing once a week haven’t got a chance. So when I go out a hit some really good shots along with my really bad shots, I am going feel better about my game and enjoy being out on a beautiful golf course instead of complaining about a very fragile golf swing.

Masha

I laughed when I saw the title of today’s blog. Pat is a natural athlete and was used to many sports coming to him easily, so when golf didn’t fall in line with baseball, archery, basketball, softball, tennis, swimming, and football, it was a shock. We play a lot of golf (I’ll play more after knee replacement surgery but that’s another blog for another day…), and are always amazed at how quickly the golf swing can break down. I curse the Scots each and every round for coming up with a swing that is uncomfortable, unnatural, and ungainly, and that’s when you’re doing it  correctly – imagine what it’s like when it’s off just a bit, also known as my swing.

So we laugh in the “misery loves company” chortle that all golfers share when the guys who make money doing this sport miss a shot. Or two. Or even three. And we nod our heads sagely when the 24-year-old breaks under the stress of Sunday’s final round. Even when Rory McIlroy is 86 years old, he’ll play a better, more consistent ball than I do. But as supple as his 24-year-old body is, his swing is still fragile, the balls still go in the water and skate by the holes. Golf is just a difficult sport. As Pat says frequently – “And that’s why they call it golf, f@#$ was already taken.”

Congratulations to Russell Henley for hanging in there on a Sunday when everyone’s swing was fragile.

Happy Birthday Mario Andretti

Mario Andretti at the Circuit of the Americas Hospitality Party 2012

Masha

When I was 15, my Dad decided to let me learn to drive a bit early. We would go out to Great Salt Lake and drive around on the dirt roads, him gently giving me direction on speed, control, and life lessons in general. Once I got my license, the control and life lesson stayed, but the speed advice faded. He started calling my by two names – A.J. and Mario. Now, I’m sure the monikers were meant to get me to slow down, but of course they had the opposite effect. I thought A.J. Foyt was one of the most amazing Indy car drivers I had ever seen, and who didn’t think Mario Andretti was a handsome man, no matter what he did. The addition of being a race car driver just made him all the more attractive.

And look at this guy – today is his 74th birthday and he looks dynamite. As a friend of mine would say, he’s a stone fox. Sigh…

So ask Pat, I still haven’t slowed down, as my many speeding tickets can attest, but I still like to be called Mario every once in a while, as long as it’s not Super Mario!

NFL Draft philosophy and the Combine

Pat

With the NFL Combine finishing this week, can we help but talk about the upcoming draft in April? I do love watching the NFL draft to see how each team goes about it. Each team’s draft philosophy. The oldest and most prominent question here is do you draft the best player available, or the best player at the position you need the most? It’s the ‘what came first the chicken or the egg’ question of the NFL draft and has been discussed before every draft I have ever seen. And for both questions, there is no correct answer. But draft philosophy is where the good organizations make their teams better and bad ones make their teams worse.

Let’s face it. Every draft pick is a crap shoot. Some “can’t miss” picks end up dying on the vine. The great pick never makes it in the NFL and you end up paying them big money for a few years to find that out. Then there are the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round guys that end up being Joe Montana and Tom Brady and take you to the promise land. But it’s not all luck. If you have a solid plan going into the draft and stick with it, you will be a leg up on many teams right off the bat.

I do believe that every team does have to take a look at their weaknesses and make a list of what positions they need to address those weaknesses. Whether it is offensive line or defensive backfield, quarterback or wide receiver, I don’t think you can win with blaring weaknesses. The time between now and Draft day can be very important. Right now is when you can take a close look at the free agents out there and maybe fill a big need before draft day even gets here.

Then I think whatever obvious needs you still have, you address with the first two rounds and then from there on, you draft the best player available at the time. Punters and kickers, if needed, can be taken in the 3rd through 7th rounds. It’s always fun to see how each team goes about it and how their team does the next year. Just before the draft, I will do a blog on who I think did well in free agency and who blew it. Yet another crap shoot.

Masha

The Combine is always interesting to me. It’s a chance for the media to make decisions about the futures of players based on physical performance standards and mental testing. The Combine is a series of physical tests, like bench press, long jump, 40-yard dash, an intelligence test called the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability test, and interviews. But there is a real question, in my mind and many sports writers, whether this whole weekend is an actual predictor of future performance.

As a former human resource professional, I have used the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability test as a pre-employment assessment tool. The Wonderlic is useful because of the huge database of results it can draw from. The test has been in existence since 1936, so a massive number of individuals have taken the test and because it’s an “old” test, work performance can be compared to test results. It is a timed test that steps the candidate through problems that become increasingly more difficult. The problems are word problems, geometry, arithmetic, logic, and following directions. The score of 20 is supposed to determine an “average” intelligence level. Tom Landry first used the Wonderlic as a part of a barrage of tests his future players took.

So does the Combine testing work? Does it predict great players for the NFL? Let’s look at some results: Justin Ernst established the record for the bench press in 1999. The bench press is supposed to evaluate strength and stamina. You remember Justin Ernst, don’t you? No? That’s because he went undrafted in 1999 and only made the Saints offseason and practice squad. And some Wonderlic scores? Dan Marino scored a 13 (remember, you’re looking for something around a 20…), and things turned out OK for him, I’d say. Ryan Leaf got a 27 (one point behind Peyton Manning and Drew Brees…), and as a bitter San Diego Charger fan, I recall he doesn’t have the same type of career as Manning and Brees.

So the Combine is a nice filler in February. We get to see the invited guys run, jump from a standing start, and smile pretty for the camera. But I don’t think it should determine a position in the draft – I’m one for watching how the guy actually played the game in college… prior past performance is a great indicator for future success, or so they say in the HR biz.

Sports Seasons

Masha

I was raised in a city that experiences four seasons. As a result, my sports life also followed four seasons of play. Each season had a main sport with several others that were in playoffs and tracking toward an end. We had baseball and tennis in the summer (I hadn’t been bitten by the golf bug yet), then football in autumn with a splash of World Series, then in winter before my knees turned to mush, we had skiing, which led into spring training and baseball. It was a great yearly cycle. Those were the years when the Australian Open was around Christmastime and the Super Bowl was in January. Yes, I date myself. The sports desert that I was whinging about in an earlier post was instead full of Utah powder (and that’s never a bad thing.) It was a wonderful transition from sport to sport, and by the time one sport was ending, I was ready to say farewell because I had already moved on to the next sport in the cycle.

So when talk starts up about a new football league to “enhance” the NFL with the games held in spring, my mind starts to churn. Do I want football in the spring? In fact, one of our sportscasters said “Which would you rather do, watch Cuddy (Michael Cuddyer with the Colorado Rockies) play in April or watch football?” Umm, I’d love to watch both, I think, but I’d rather watch Cuddy in April. Sorry, I know that’s not the answer he was fishing for, but it’s just the cycle I grew up with. When the NFL draft is over, I’m ready to watch me some baseball. Well, a lot of baseball.

And I’m good with that. I’m not missing football yet, probably won’t start missing it until June. I’ll listen to the trades, how guys are recovering from their ACL surgery, and whatever odd stupid thing the Browns are doing, but I’ll be full fledged into baseball and golf and tennis and the spring/summer sports cycle I’ve lived with all my life. I’m not looking to add an additional sport in the spring. Not sure anyone else is either…

Pat

Many times when my wife is perhaps checking out cycling or FIFA soccer or America’s Cup Yacht racing, I make the joke that the last thing we need is more sports to watch and follow. But it isn’t really a joke. I think of that week-end in September when we have the first game of the NFL season, the MLB races are heating up, the US Open Tennis is going, and the PGA Fedex cup tournament is going on. It’s a wonderful time for sports and I love that weekend but it’s all but impossible to see every game and event you want to see. We don’t need another sport to follow, really. We do not need spring football. They have tried before and you can’t compete with the history and quality of the NFL. A new league is full of the people who couldn’t make the NFL. So you get an inferior product. It just won’t fly. March madness is around the corner, the only basketball we watch. We just don’t like Pro Basketball, but maybe we will continue to try to warm up to hockey. We enjoyed the Olympic Hockey a lot. So if we’re going to add another sport, we may add hockey rather than spring football.