Monthly Archives: July 2010

Roy: Part Deux

Well, I had a snappy beginning to this post all set but then Jayson Stark over at ESPN had to go an take my idea.  I should have expected a professional would hit on the Phillies cornering the market on starting pitchers named Roy and gotten this post up faster.  With the addition of Roy Oswalt, who the Phillies got in return for J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar, (an absolute steal in my opinion), the Phillies significantly upgraded their rotation.  They were able to accomplish this without trading their best prospects and GM Ruben Amaro rectified the mistake of trading Cliff Lee to Seattle in the off-season.  While Oswalt doesn’t have the sterling numbers of Lee this season, he’s no slouch.  As Stark reports:

[Oswalt] ranks among the league leaders in quality starts (15 — as many as Ubaldo Jimenez), WHIP (1.11 — better than Chris Carpenter), opponent OPS (.652 — better than Tim Lincecum) and strikeout/walk ratio (3.53 — better than all but a half-dozen pitchers in the league). So that kind of gets your attention.

He’s allowing a lower opponent batting average (.229), on-base percentage (.280) and OPS (.652) than he has in any season in his fabulous career. His strikeout ratio (8.4 per 9 IP) is his best since his rookie year.

And his swing-and-miss percentage (20.7 percent) is almost identical to that of Halladay (20.8), Carpenter (20.6) and Jimenez (21.0), according to our friends at FanGraphs.

The Phillies received Oswalt, a man who since 2001 leads the NL in wins (143, 28 more than the 2nd place guy), strikeouts (1593), is 2nd in innings pitched (1958.2) and 5th in ERA at 3.24, for relatively little.  While Happ was 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting last season, after posting a 12-4 record with a 2.93 ERA, his ceiling is just not that high.  Happ is already 27 years old, so he isn’t as young as many Phillies fans think, and his peripheral stats indicate that Happ could be in for a fall.  His walk rate this season is incredibly high (7.04 BB/9, though to be fair he has only pitched 15.1 innings) and his ground-ball percentage is low (32.7%) for a pitcher that was pitching in a home run friendly park, and his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) was .250 (lower than the .300 average, signifying an increase in ERA, etc. could have been on the way).   The numbers point to Happ being at best a middle of the rotation starter.  Baseball Prospectus predicts that Happ would be at best a .500 pitcher with a decent ERA (between 3.98 and 4.23 over the next several years).  To be the centerpiece of a trade that lands a player like Oswalt, the numbers should be better.  Oswalt, whose numbers at Citizens Bank Park are excellent (4-0, 2.60 ERA, 1 HR allowed in 27 2/3 innings), is clearly an upgrade.

With the addition of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies now have a nasty rotation. Will it be enough?

The two prospects the Phillies traded are both in A ball and while they are showing some promise, are not locks to be productive big league players.  It is difficult to project MLB numbers for prospects as young as Villar and Gose, both 19.  Gose, an outfielder and #6 prospect in the Phillies system according to Baseball America, was hitting .263 for with 4 home runs, 20 RBIs, and 36 stolen bases at Clearwater;  however, he had also been caught stealing 27 times.  Villar, a shortstop and #22 prospect, hit .272 with 2 home runs, 36 RBI and 38 stolen bases for Lakewood.  Defensively, Villar is still a work in progress, committing 42 errors this season.  Both have shown flashes, but are years away from contributing in the bigs. What may be the most important part of the trade is who the Phillies did not trade to get Oswalt.  The Phillies were able to keep Jonathan Singleton, one of their best fielding prospects and did not have to give up any minor league pitching talent.  Singleton, an 18 year-old first baseman for single-A Lakewood, has played 70 games this season and is hitting .312 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs.  The Phillies see him as the heir apparent to Ryan Howard.

As I mentioned above, this move clearly indicates that Amaro realizes the mistake he made in trading Lee.  Many fans would rather see Lee pitching in South Philly, but I think this deal actually makes more sense for the Phillies in the long-term.  Oswalt is under contract for next season, at a “reasonable” price of $16 million and has an option for 2012 for the same amount.  Houston has kicked in $11 million in the trade, which means that the Phillies are only on the hook for $1o million of the $21 million owed to Oswalt for the remainder of this season and next season (Oswalt has a $2 million buyout if the Phillies don’t exercise the 2012 option).  Lee, due to hit free agency at the end of the season, will command a lot more than $16 million next season, and will likely want a long-term deal.  By not keeping Lee and essentially replacing him with Oswalt, the Phillies gain financial flexibility.  The 2011 season is the last year on several current Phillies contracts, including Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez.  Several other contracts come off the books following 2012, including Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino.  The Phillies clearly made this deal knowing that the core of the team will be intact for at most the next 2 seasons.  They did not want to take on any more long-term liabilities (such as a potential 4 or 5 year contract for Lee) that would make it difficult to reshape the roster once the current set of contracts have expired.  While I would have liked to see Lee stay here for this season, and see the Phillies deal for a pitcher over the winter to replace him, replacing him with Oswalt isn’t as bad a deal as it initially appears.

The one negative I see with the Oswalt trade is that the Phillies likely will not want to take on more payroll this season, meaning they are unlikely to add reinforcements to a bullpen that doesn’t inspire much confidence.  The ‘pen currently ranks 17th in the majors with a 4.04 ERA and has 13 blown saves in 34 opportunities (in 2008, the Phillies only had 15 blown saves in 62 opportunities, and last year they had 22 in 66).  Not exactly the type of numbers that inspire confidence, and the worst performance for the Phillies relievers since 2007.

Despite the shaky bullpen, this trade make the Phillies the team to beat in the NL.  With a rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt, a 1-2-3 combination that ranks with the best in the league (for my money it could be the best) and an offense that finally looks like it has remembered how to score, the Phillies will be dangerous.  Watch out Braves.

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Domonic Brown – The Bat the Phillies’ Offense Needs?

Domonic Brown’s RBI double in his first MLB at-bat.

Last night was almost like a holiday for Phillies fans.  Instead of presents, signified by the appearance of the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, Phillies fans were witness to the debut of one of the most hyped prospects to come through the Phillies’ farm system since Ryan HowardDomonic Brown was at once the gift and the nearly mythic being sent to deliver it to the Phillies.  Brown did not disappoint in his first MLB game, going 2-3 with 2 RBI and 2 runs scored.  Is this a sign of things to come from the phenom?  Anyone sporting red and white pinstripes certainly hopes so.

Brown’s presence in the lineup comes at the loss of Shane Victorino to a left abdominal strain.  This injury could be the most helpful injury of the season for the Phillies (if there is such a thing), not because I don’t like Victorino and am glad to see him replaced, but because of what it added both directly and indirectly to the Phillies.  Directly, it brought Brown to the majors and allows the #1 rated prospect (as of June 29, so Stephen Strasburg and Buster Posey are not included, as they were in the majors at that point) in all of baseball, according to Keith Law at ESPN , to show what he can do against major league pitching.  Brown has been killing minor league pitching to the tune of this stat line: 20 HR, 68 RBI, .327 BA, 17 SB in 93 games split between Reading (AA) and Lehigh Valley (AAA).  If you translate his numbers at Lehigh Valley (.346 BA and .951 OPS) using the Minor League Equivalency calculator at Minor League Splits, Brown would have been hitting .308 with an .827 OPS.  Those numbers, as Baer mentions in his post, are enough to make us forget Victorino.  They are also good enough to make us forget Raul Ibanez (who in fairness has been raking since the All-Star break).   (A quick note of thanks to Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley, an excellent Phillies blog, for introducing me to the MLE calculator).

Indirectly, the injury stopped the subtraction of Jayson Werth from the Phillies’ lineup.  Werth had been on the trading block for the last several weeks due to his impending free agent status.  The Phillies originally were looking for prospects to stock the farm system in return for the right-handed slugger, but had backed off this demand and were willing to take a “#4 starter or better” in return for the only potent right-handed bat in the entire lineup.  This is just ridiculous.  If Ruben Amaro wanted to be criticized even more than he already is, he would have traded Jayson Werth for a player like Carlos Silva (remember him?).  Victorino’s injury stopped the Phillies from taking less than fair market value for Werth.  The Phillies are clearly built to win now and Werth helps them achieve that goal.  He is breaking out of his slump, batting .370 with a .500 on-base percentage, and an OPS of 1.087 since the All-Star break.  While he has only hit 1 home run in that time, you cannot argue with his production in other areas.

Is this the man who will help put the Phillies' offensive issues to bed once and for all?

The original plan of trading Werth and replacing him with Brown, a plan clearly looking towards 2011 rather than trying to win this year, was faulty at best.  In a head-to-head comparison (using Brown’s minor league numbers extrapolated to the MLB level), Brown compares favorably to Werth, but I wouldn’t necessarily want him to directly replace Werth if the goal is to win the World Series this season.  Victorino’s injury stopped this from happening and will provide Brown with an extended audition at the major league level, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported today that Charlie Manuel thinks Victorino might not be at full strength for three weeks.  After those three weeks, the big question will be what the Phillies do once Victorino returns.  I think the Phillies might be best served using Brown in a platoon with both Victorino and Ibanez going forward (assuming they keep him in the majors after the Flyin’ Hawaiian is ready to return).  The Phillies are unlikely to do this, unless Brown continues to pound the ball the way he did in the minors and during his debut last night.  They will likely send him back to AAA to get regular at-bats, something that would probably not happen at the major league level unless the Phillies followed my suggestion.  With the International League season ending in early September, and Lehigh Valley out of playoff contention, Brown would likely be recalled in September to help the Phils down the stretch.  I say, why not keep the kid up and let him play?

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Searching For A Winner

In the late 1990s, the WTA Tour was stronger than ever, and frankly as strong as the men’s tour. Women’s tennis had survived the retirements of standard bearers Evert & Navratilova and was prospering with a roster of current and future legends.  Steffi Graf, the Grande Dame, was the indomitable champion still showing flashes of her golden youth.  Monica Seles, the wounded warrior princess, was back and, sterling credentials aside, the sentimental favorite everywhere she played.  Martina Hingis’ tactical brilliance, Lindsay Davenport’s textbook perfect ground game and the awe-inspiring power of the Williams sisters were all in ascendance ensuring the WTA Tour would continue its upward trajectory.

In that golden decade for the WTA, five women, all current or future Hall of Famers, ascended to the No. 1 ranking: Graf, Seles, 4-time major champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Hingis and Davenport.  Since, ten women have held that post including two who have never won a major.  Apparently, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have dominated the ATP tour of late, winning an unprecedented 21 of the last 24 majors; the women have been dominated only by uncertainty.

Serena Williams, the greatest female tennis player of our generation.

Serena Williams is the case-closed best player of our time, a 13-time major champion and frankly an exception to this conversation. One day soon though, Serena isn’t going to walk through that door.  If you’re not a major event, you might even say that day has already come.  What’s the future for the WTA when the 13 time major champion hangs up her racquet for good?

The future was supposed to be in the hands of the Glamazon Maria Sharapova, no really, she’s 6’2.”  Like the fabled Amazons, the Russian has the sex appeal to seduce marketers and casual fans, combined with the fighting spirit to be a dominant force on the court.  A 3-time major champion in her own right, Sharapova’s the kind of player who would still win when she wasn’t at her explosive best, who could intimidate lesser lights into coughing up crucial breaks with little more than a steely glance (read: glare).  Unfortunately, Sharapova’s been betrayed by the body that made her fortune. Her shoulder injury robbed of the physical tools to impose her big serve-oriented game. Over a year into her post-surgery comeback, her championship aura has been all but shattered. Fact is, even playing a level or two removed from her physical peak, Maria is still in the Top 20 and has won two titles this year. Largely, this is because she has something that implausibly, most of the current generation of tour players can’t seem to muster, the will to win.

Graf, Seles, Navratilova, Hingis, Evert, the Williamses, Sharapova, Henin, those women approach(ed) a tennis court like it was the octagon.  Oh, blood may be spilt, alright, but it won’t be theirs.  Graf, at her most devastating, famously thrashed Natasha Zvereva in the ’88 French Open final 6-0, 6-0, I’d like to reiterate, Zvereva won six matches to get to a major final, then Steffi served her a double bagel in 32 minutes.  Hingis reputedly once asked big serving Lindsay Davenport after a coin toss if Davenport wanted to “return or be broken.”  Justine Henin’s distaste for loss was so strong that she pulled out of the Aussie Open final sick to her stomach ostensibly at how she was losing to perennial underachiever Amelie Mauresmo.  Imagine Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, “Sweet” Caroline Wozniacki, Melanie Oudin or Viktoria Azarenka mustering up that sort of spirit.  You can’t, because if the years of tennis we’ve seen from them thus far are any indication, they can’t. Not where it matters anyway.

Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis. Stars for different reasons, but two of the defining players of their generation.

Like kids who grow up watching reality TV, the unfortunate lesson of Kournikova may have been that you only need to be pretty good and pretty (or crazy to keep up the TV metaphor) to be a star. It seems that although I see Kournikova as a serious tennis player who never fulfilled her potential, the kids who grew up watching her have just worked hard enough to become stars. The tennis is just an audition to get them through the gates. The sport, a means to an end rather than the end itself.

To be fair Safina, Jankovic, Wozniacki, and Azarenka have all won singles titles and have been ranked than Kournikova ever was. What I’m questioning is their desire to go a step further.

I’ve never met any of the top players, and I’m sure they would all say they’re working hard and want to be No. 1, but the results seem to speak for themselves. There is a revolving door of top ten players. Yet, the upper echelons of the game are filled with elder stateswomen like the Williamses, Henin, Clijsters, players who actually played against Steffi Graf (who retired back in ’99) and who often beat up on Kournikova. Francesca Schiavone who broke through for the 2010 French Open title is 30, about the age most tennis players start heading for Shady Pines. Hell, Kimiko Date Krumm retired for THIRTEEN YEARS and at age 39 has climbed 61st in the world.

Where is that next generation of women who want to be bigger than stars, say, actual champions? If you’re the WTA tour, you’re still searching. Searching for a winner.

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Can the Red Sox Make a Run?

With less than week before the MLB trade deadline, many Red Sox fans are wondering what chances the Red Sox have at making a run toward the playoffs. Currently, the Sox sit 4.5 games behind the Rays for the AL Wild Card and are 7 behind the Yankees for the AL East crown. Clearly, the Sox need to make some additions if they are to compete for a playoff spot.

The Red Sox have been mentioned in trade talks involving Jayson Werth, Scott Downs and trading Mike Lowell to the Tigers. What do the Red Sox need? I think they need another bat and some relief pitching to make a run at the postseason. They do not need to trade for starting pitching with Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett back from injuries. Beckett was effective on Friday in his first game since May 18. He pitched 5 2/3 innings, giving up 1 earned run and striking out 5. If the Red Sox can get vintage Beckett for the last 2+ months per season that will be a huge boost. Buchholz has been excellent all season, and while he wasn’t sharp in his return his presence in the rotation is also huge boost. A side effect of both Beckett and Buchholz returning is Tim Wakefield moving to the bullpen.  His addition to the pen, strengthens what has been a weakness for the Sox.  The Sox are currently exploring options, with Downs being at the top of the list.  ESPN is reporting that the Blue Jays are valuing Downs much higher than a reliever would normally be valued.  They believe he will be a Type A free agent after the season, meaning they would receive a first or second round pick as compensation if a team signed him after the season.  Ultimately, the Blue Jays will settle for something because keeping Downs does them no good going forward.  The question is whether the Sox will be willing to pay the price to get him.  Other alternatives include Jason Frasor, Kevin Gregg (both of the Blue Jays) and Kyle Farnsworth of the Royals.  If the Sox can get a reliever before the trade deadline, the bullpen should no longer be a weakness.

On the hitting side, the Sox are slowly starting to get healthy. Jeremy Hermida recently returned from injury and Victo Martinez is due back Monday. Getting Martinez back will be huge for the Sox both behind the plate and at the plate. With Jason Varitek injured (he is still several weeks away from beginning a rehab assignment) the Sox have been relying on players that are at best backups and at worst career minor leaguers. Jacoby Ellsbury, out with broken ribs, also appears to be on his way back to the Sox. He will begin his rehab assignment at the Gulf Coast Red Sox on Monday and should hopefully be back with the big club in a few weeks. More good news for the Sox comes in the form of Dustin Pedroia playing catch without the boot. As of right now, the former AL MVP is slated to return for a pivotal series against the Yankees from August 6-9. Even with the impending return of many of their bats, the Red Sox offense has been stagnant the last several weeks. They are 8-11 in July, and are hitting .243 with a .315 on-base percentage and a .735 OPS over that same time period. This after hitting .276 with a .815 OPS before the All-Star Break.

Wouldn't this guy look good in a Red Sox uniform?

If the Red Sox want to navigate their way through a tough schedule, they have 10 more games against the Yankees (August 6-9 and September 24-26 in the Bronx, and October 1-3 at Fenway) and 6 more against the Rays (August 27-29 in Tampa and September 6-8 in Boston), they need to pick up a bat to help bolster their flagging offense. Between covering for injuries (J.D. Drew is bound to get hurt at some point, isn’t he?), filling in for slumping players, and possibly displacing a current starter (J.D., I’m talking to you) there are enough at-bats to accommodate a top-level bat. Adam Dunn, currently with the Nationals, is available and while not the best fit for the Sox would add a lot to the offense. He could play in the outfield and fill in at both first base and DH. His 23 home runs and .934 OPS would look mighty good batting behind Kevin Youkilis in the lineup. The Phillies are shopping Jayson Werth and he would be a great fit with the Sox. He would replace Drew in the starting line up (his numbers are better across the board and he has a monster arm in RF) adding more consistent pop to the line up. The righty would take advantage of the Green Monster and finally appears to be breaking out of a month-long slump. Another possibility would be Ty Wigginton of the Orioles. He can play several position in the infield (he has started games at 1B, 2B and 3B this season and has played SS and the outfield in the past), has good power (16 HR this season) and wouldn’t necessarily be looking for a starting job. Of the three players I’ve mentioned, he would likely be the cheapest addition for the Sox.

If the Sox can make some additions and their current players all return healthy, they are close enough to make a run at the Wild Card and maybe even the division.  While 7 games are a lot to make up before the end of the season, the Sox should look no further than my other team, the Phillies for inspiration.  The Phillies were able to overcome a 7 game deficit with 17 games to play in 2007.  Remember, anything is possible.  Believe!

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East W L PCT GB E# WCGB WCE# L10 STRK vs E vs C vs W INT HOME ROAD vs R vs L XTRA 1-RUN RS RA X W-L LAST GAME NEXT GAME
New York 61 35 .635 - - - - 6-4 L1 22-12 12-8 16-8 11-7 33-16 28-19 39-21 22-14 4-2 9-6 521 399 59-37 7/24 vs KC, L 4-7 7/25 vs KC, 1:05P
Tampa Bay 58 38 .604 3.0 64 - - 6-4 W1 25-13 15-8 11-6 7-11 26-20 32-18 36-27 22-11 6-3 16-15 493 380 59-37 7/24 @ CLE, W 6-3 7/25 @ CLE, 1:05P
Boston 55 43 .561 7.0 59 4.0 62 4-6 L1 20-21 10-9 12-8 13-5 30-20 25-23 36-28 19-15 4-8 17-16 513 453 55-43 7/24 @ SEA, L 1-5 7/25 @ SEA, 4:10P
Toronto 49 48 .505 12.5 54 9.5 57 6-4 W1 17-16 15-13 10-8 7-11 23-20 26-28 41-33 8-15 3-4 13-19 445 430 50-47 7/24 @ DET, W 3-2 7/25 @ DET, 1:05P
Baltimore 31 66 .320 30.5 36 27.5 39 3-7 L1 10-32 5-10 9-13 7-11 18-32 13-34 21-44 10-22 7-3 16-14 350 520 32-65 7/24 vs MIN, L 2-7 7/25 vs MIN, 1:35P
Central W L PCT GB E# WCGB WCE# L10 STRK vs E vs C vs W INT HOME ROAD vs R vs L XTRA 1-RUN RS RA X W-L LAST GAME NEXT GAME
Chicago 53 43 .552 - - - - 5-5 L1 7-11 17-20 14-9 15-3 27-19 26-24 42-33 11-10 2-4 18-12 431 401 51-45 7/24 @ OAK, L 2-10 7/25 @ OAK, 4:05P
Minnesota 52 46 .531 2.0 64 7.0 59 6-4 W1 11-16 24-15 9-5 8-10 30-20 22-26 33-30 19-16 5-3 17-16 459 411 54-44 7/24 @ BAL, W 7-2 7/25 @ BAL, 1:35P
Detroit 50 45 .526 2.5 65 7.5 60 2-8 L1 9-3 16-21 14-14 11-7 34-16 16-29 33-36 17-9 3-3 10-13 426 433 47-48 7/24 vs TOR, L 2-3 7/25 vs TOR, 1:05P
Kansas City 42 55 .433 11.5 55 16.5 50 3-7 W1 10-12 16-19 8-14 8-10 20-25 22-30 33-43 9-12 7-2 14-18 420 497 41-56 7/24 @ NYY, W 7-4 7/25 @ NYY, 1:05P
Cleveland 41 56 .423 12.5 54 17.5 49 7-3 L1 11-15 20-18 5-10 5-13 22-23 19-33 29-38 12-18 4-3 13-12 401 468 42-55 7/24 vs TB, L 3-6 7/25 vs TB, 1:05P
West W L PCT GB E# WCGB WCE# L10 STRK vs E vs C vs W INT HOME ROAD vs R vs L XTRA 1-RUN RS RA X W-L LAST GAME NEXT GAME
Texas 57 41 .582 - - - - 7-3 L1 9-16 18-13 16-8 14-4 33-20 24-21 39-28 18-13 6-5 18-14 497 408 58-40 7/24 vs LAA, L 2-6 7/25 vs LAA, 8:05P
Los Angeles 52 48 .520 6.0 58 8.0 57 5-5 W1 10-11 11-16 20-14 11-7 27-21 25-27 37-30 15-18 4-4 17-13 455 467 49-51 7/24 @ TEX, W 6-2 7/25 @ TEX, 8:05P
Oakland 49 48 .505 7.5 58 9.5 57 8-2 W1 14-17 12-8 15-13 8-10 29-22 20-26 36-35 13-13 4-5 15-10 412 394 50-47 7/24 vs CWS, W 10-2 7/25 vs CWS, 4:05P
Seattle 38 60 .388 19.0 46 21.0 45 3-7 W1 10-14 11-13 8-24 9-9 23-28 15-32

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Gang Green Part II: Eagles Pre Training Camp Preview – Defensive Backs and Special Teams

Last Thursday, I previewed the offense and this past Tuesday, I previewed the defensive line and the linebackers for the Birds.  Today we cover the rest of the defense and the special teams.  As with the rest of the team, there are a number of questions surrounding the secondary entering the season.  Will the Birds finally find a successor to Brian Dawkins at free safety?  Who will start opposite Asante Samuel at cornerback?  And will Nate Allen, rookie and likely starter at free safety make it to training camp on time?

Cornerback: Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, Joselio Hanson, Macho Harris, Geoffrey Pope, Dimitri Patterson, Trevard Lindley, David Pender – Entering the season, the only certainty is that Asante Samuel will be on the field and the focus of the secondary.  Samuel has 13 interceptions during his two season with the Eagles, 9 coming last year.  He should continue to be one the best corners in the league meaning that teams will focus their air attack across the field where the Eagles do not have an entrenched starter.  With Sheldon Brown roaming the defensive backfield in Cleveland, the starting job opposite Asante Samuel is an open competition.  One of the three Hs: Hobbs, Hanson or Harris, will likely win the position.  Hobbs played in only 8 games last year before being put on injured reserve following a neck injury.  He will look to rebound from that  injury and is probably the favorite to win the 2nd CB position.  Hanson, third on the team in interceptions last season with 2, has been with the team for 4 seasons and knows the defense, making him a legitimate competitor for the starting job.  Macho Harris played last season at free safety, starting 8 games.  This season he has been taking most of his reps at corner and cannot be discounted.  I think that Hobbs will win the position to start the season, but he may not be able to hold it for the entire season.

Trevard Lindley, a 4th round pick in 2010, has been impressive during mini-camps and looks likely to make the roster.  Patterson and Pope, both on the roster last season, along with rookie free agent Pender will struggle to make the roster, as the Eagles only carried 5 corners last season.  Given the injury to safety, Marlin Jackson, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that Harris will be moved back to safety, freeing up a corner spot for one of the three Ps.

Will Nate Allen (#5 in green) make it to camp on time, and will he be able to fill the role vacated by Briand Dawkins?

Safety: Quintin Mikell, Quintin Demps, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Ryan Hamilton, Brett Johnson – Last season, the first without Brian Dawkins, produced a lot of uncertainty for the Birds at the free safety position.  The two players who split time at free safety, Sean Jones and Macho Harris are no longer options.  Jones, who started 9 games last season is now with Tampa, and Harris has moved to corner.   The Eagles moved to address this void by drafting Nate Allen out of South Florida.  Allen started 12 games last season for the Bulls and picked off 5 passes.  He is expected to be the starter at free safety, but has yet to sign with the Birds.  If he holds out into training camp there will be more uncertainty surrounding the position.  How quickly will Allen be able to pick up the defense, and if he needs more time who will start in his place?  The Eagles thought they had this answer when they signed Marlin Jackson, but his knee injury will keep him out for the season.  Demps, who was named the successor to Dawkins last season, was unable to grab the job and will have to prove himself if he is to compete for the free safety job this season.

Strong safety is secure, with Quintin Mikell returning after starting 16 games in each of the last two seasons.  He was a 1st time Pro Bowl selection last season and there is no reason to believe he will not continue to play on a high level.  As for the rookies other than Allen, one of them will likely make the roster assuming the Eagles carry 4 safeties the way they did last season.

Special Teams: David Akers, Jon Dorenbos, Sav Rocca, Ken ParrishThis area is one of the few without any questions marks for the Eagles.  The starters from last season all return, with Akers and Dorenbos earning Pro Bowl nods last season.  David Akers is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, and had a great season last year making 32 out of 37 field goals, and 43 out of 45 extra points.  Over the past two seasons, Akers has made 84.4% of his field goal attempts and there is no reason to think he will drop off significantly.  I expect him to post another solid season and be in contention for a Pro Bowl spot at place kicker.  Dorenbos, the team’s long snapper, has been excellent since joining the Eagles in mid-2006.  Having made his first Pro Bowl last season, expect Dorenbos to continue to play at a high level.  The only competition on special teams (other than for kick/punt return duties) will be between Rocca and Ken Parrish.  Before the start of the 2009 season, Parrish, an East Stroudsburg grad and life-long Eagles fan, was brought in to compete with the former Australian Rules Football player.  Rocca ultimately won the position, but after a middle-of-the-pack 2009, Parrish will be given the chance to win the spot.  I would be surprised if Rocca doesn’t win the competition, but stranger things have happened.  The biggest question mark in this area will be who will return kicks?  DeSean Jackson was the primary punter returner last season, and was a true threat to take it to the house every time he touched the ball.  With his role in the offense sure to expand, will D-Jax keep returning punts?  He led the league in punt return average, punt return TDs, and had the longest punt return in the NFL.  The Eagles need to keep him on punt return duty.  D-Jax is, simply, the most dangerous weapon they have.   As for kick return duties, those will likely be split between several players.  The top returner from last season, Ellis Hobbs, returns.  Hobbs holds the record for the longest kick return in NFL history, a 108 yarder in 2007 against the Jets; however, he is in contention for the 2nd starting CB spot and if he wins the position he may be removed from kick return duty.  Quintin Demps had the highest kick return average last season, he could be the answer for the Eagles.

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Football at Fenway

A ticket from the first soccer game at Fenway park in over 40 years.

Fenway Park: hallowed ground for many American sports fans; site of many dramatic baseball events, some good (Fisk’s home run), some bad (Bucky “F-ing” Dent’s home run); soccer pitch?  Wednesday, the historic venue, played host to a sport looking to capture the hearts and minds of Americans the way the Red Sox have captured those in New England.

Gone was the pitcher’s mound, replaced by penalty spots. Gone were line drives into the corner, replaced by corner kicks. Gone was “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, replaced by soccer chants rendered almost unintelligible by the enthusiasm with which they were sung. For non-soccer fans, the game was a novelty. For those who are fans of the beautiful game, this was a chance to see two storied European clubs face off, and it just happened to be taking place in “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark”.

Wednesday marked the first time a soccer ball has touched the Fenway grass since 1968 when the Boston Beacons of the NASL used the field at the corner of Yawkey Way and Brookline Ave.  as their home ground.  The match up between Celtic FC and Sporting Clube de Portugal, while lacking the cache of a Manchester United or Real Madrid, still presented the fan the opportunity to see high level soccer.  Celtic is one of the most storied clubs in Scotland, having won the Scottish League 42 times and the European Cup (the predecessor to the Champions League) in 1967.  Sporting, one of the “Big Three” soccer clubs in Portugal along with FC Porto and Benfica, has won 18 Portuguese League titles and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964.

You have got to admire this woman's fervor. (Picture courtesy of Jon Couture)

The whole experience was a tad surreal.  The Fenway area was nearly as busy as when the Sox play, bared out by the announced attendance of 32,162, with tables at many of the area restaurants hard to com by.  As I was walking toward Fenway to meet my friends for dinner before the game, I was surrounded by a sea of green, horizontal stripes (both Celtic and Sporting use a green and white striped jersey as their main kit) instead of the ubiquitous Red Sox jerseys and “Yankees Suck”  t-shirts.  Replacing the pink hats were women with green wigs (some of them riding power scooters).

Once I entered the park, the entire surreal experience continued as a good portion of the infield and parts of the warning track had freshly laid sod over the dirt.  The pitcher’s mound was gone but it’s specter remained, as you could clearly see the outline of where the mound had been on Sunday.  While the pitch seemed a little smaller than normal, the transformation was astonishing.  The center circle was just past 2nd base in shallow right-center.  One goal was where third base used to be, the other goal in RF.  It was a such a crazy site, one accompanied by fans with Portuguese flags tied around their necks in the right field bleachers and fans with the Scottish lion or St. Andrew’s Cross nestled next to the Green Monster.

The game followed usual protocol, with both teams entering the pitch and lining up while the national anthem was played.  Both teams fielded their B+ teams, some of their usual starting eleven were in the game, but many started on the bench or did not even accompany the team on their North American tours.  One of Sporting’s best players, João Moutinho, was transferred to Porto prior to the tour but, Portuguese internationals,  Pedro Mendes (started) and Liédson (off the bench) both played roles in the game.  Celtic without former starting keeper Artur Boruc, now with Fiorentina, but did start Georgios Samaras and captain Scott Brown .

Once the game got started, the first half was less than beautiful.  The type of soccer played in the first 45 minutes belied the fact that both teams are in preseason, and fed into every stereotype Americans have about soccer.  While there were a couple of half-chances, neither team looked like they were going to score.  The game did pick up in the second half, with both teams attacking more, but still not looking comfortable on the makeshift pitch.  Several corner kicks, mostly by Sporting, were sent flying over the 18 yard box, much to the consternation of the Sporting fan sitting next to me.  Liédson, introduced at the beginning of the second half, looked dangerous and provided a near goal with a well placed header.

Celtic prepare to take a corner kick.

Celtic drew first blood in the 71st minute thanks to a penalty kick by Samaras.  Samaras created the chance when he was taken down in the box on what looked to be a bit of a flop, but by the rules of the game, it was a penalty and the ref made the right call.  Samaras fooled the keeper, Rui Patrício, sending the ball to the Patricio’s right as he dove left.  The goal drew a hardy roar from the Celtic fans and prompted chanting from both sides.  Sporting was able to level 10 minutes later when Hélder Postiga, who had been subbed on just minutes prior, nodded home a rebound off the crossbar.  Following the goal, the Sporting fans had Fenway rocking with intense cheers and flag waving.  There were several other good chances, but the game ended regulation in a 1-1 draw.  Since the Fenway Football Challenge Trophy was at stake, there had to be a winner.  Rather than playing the usual 30 minutes of extra time, the game went straight to the penalty shootout, much to the delight of the crowd.  While soccer purests may dislike the shootout, you cannot deny the intensity it creates.

Hélder Postiga scoring the first PK of the shootout.

The entire stadium was on its feet as Hélder Postiga stepped to the spot to takethe first PK, which he was able to put past keeper Łukasz Załuska despite Załuska getting a hand on it.  The clubs alternated scoring until Liédson stepped to the spot for the 6th PK.  As he stepped to the spot, I turned to one of my friends and mentioned how Liédson was probably the best player on the pitch and that he should easily make the spot kick.  Apparently, I jinxed him, as he sent his shot high over the bar and into the bleachers.  Paul McGowan, then stepped to the spot and won the game for Celtic 6-5 on penalties.  The mostly pro-Celtic crowd erupted as the team celebrated on the field. As “Dirty Water’ blared in the background, I consoled my pro-Sporting neighbor and left the park hoping that Football at Fenway would become a yearly tradition.

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The Summer of Rafa II, The Reckoning

Rafael Nadal

I grew up a tennis fan in the ’80s and ’90s in a house without cable. In the noband (pre-internet) era, that meant generally the first image of professional tennis I’d see in a given year was from the Martian-esque red clay of Roland Garros (aka The French Open). While the fine print boxscores in the daily newspaper told a different story entirely, for this fan, the real tennis season effectively commenced at Roland Garros and ended with the US Open.

The whole truth is, the real season included, the ATP tour runs from January until Thanksgiving, from Adelaide to Zagreb on hardcourts, fast and slow, red clay, grass and indoors. The 2010 campaign only halfway in the record books, Rafael Nadal has played in Qatar, Australia, Palm Springs, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, Paris and twice in London. He spends his downtime in Mallorca (just try getting a direct flight to Manacor) and he’s expected in Toronto week after next.

The frank reality is that for all the globe-trotting, the tennis season hinges on a relatively short European jaunt stretching from mid-April to mid-July from Monte Carlo to Southwest London.

Rankings for the ATP Tour are based on a 52 week rolling point system with different events offering different points roughly matched to the depth of the fields. Where we stand in late July, the current rankings reflect a player’s performance from this time last year to today, but again, that only tells a part of the story.

Try these figures on for size: 7,045… 6,905…6,885

These are point totals belonging to the top 3 players in the world, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The difference is that Djokovic and Federer earned those figures over the entirety of the last 52 weeks. The Spaniard collected 7,045 (of his total 10,745) between Monte Carlo and Wimbledon alone.

Somewhere between the uncharacteristically “early” exits of Federer in Paris and London (as much as quarterfinal losses can be considered early), the Neverending Story III, a.k.a. the Isner-Mahut spectacle and the match Serena lost against the glass in that as-yet-unnamed restaurant, Rafael Nadal earned a season’s worth of points somewhat under the radar.

Yes, the knees are still wonky.

Yes, Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner, guys only the most intense of tennis fans (and their respective families) had heard of, both stretched him to five sets in the early rounds of Wimbledon.

Yes, he’s still only won half as many majors as Roger Federer. (For the record, Rafa’s eight ties him with Agassi, Connors and Lendl, and puts him ahead of McEnroe, Wilander, Becker, et al)

Put all that aside. The man from Manacor is putting on a virtuoso performance that only a Federer fan could deny.

Nadal enters the homestretch of the summer, the real season, with one real goal, and it’s eight weeks from here, a US Open title. Two years ago, during the original Summer of Rafa, he was in a similar place. World No. 1, French Open and Wimbledon champion, even bagging the US Open Series crown. That year, the US Open Series was blithely interrupted by a weird little competition known as the Olympics, half a world away in Beijing. Oh yeah, Nadal won that too. Nadal would arrive at the US Open in ’08 with a head full of steam, two arms full of accolades and little to no gas in the tank. He’d fall to Andy Murray in a listless semifinal.

A lot of fans seemed to lose the plot, they returned to the old narrative “Oh, Nadal, that rapscallion, it’s too bad about his hardcourt problem.” The blatant ridiculousness of that statement underscored by his wins at the Rogers Cup and Olympics played on the same DecoTurf hardcourt surface as the US Open just weeks prior.

Never mind Rafa’s bad knees, abdominal tear or parents’ divorce last year. His saison interruptus again allowed people to revisit that other anti-Rafaelite story, that Federer was merely a superior player. After all, the Mighty Fed reclaimed his Wimbledon crown and for good measure, swiped the French Open trophy that Nadal had owned in 2009.

2010 started off with some nerves, some dispiriting losses and some more knee issues for Nadal. Then the summer hit and he hit back. Nadal never faced a top dog in Monte Carlo, but his form was devastating in dispatching his countrymen Ferrero, Ferrer and Verdasco to win his unprecedented sixth consecutive title in Monaco. He looked more mortal in Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros, but passed each test, leaving with a mouth full of trophy. 5,000 points and over $3 million in the bag, Nadal struggled a touch on the grass, but ended up in the winner’s circle where it counts at Wimbledon.

Now comes the run to the US Open. The knees are undergoing treatment, the bid for a fourth Davis Cup has been sacrificed and the Olympics are two years away. 5-time US Open champ Roger Federer seems far from his best form; Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are in year-long fogs. Last year’s champ Juan Martin Del Potro is questionable and if he somehow does play, it’ll be a rehab start, his first event since the Australian Open in January. There are obviously other guys who can make a run, Andy Roddick, Robin Soderling, the surging Tomas Berdych, etc., but as Rafa told John McEnroe in an interview moments after he won his fifth French Open, “See you in New York.”

That’s where the real season ends, and that’s the direction in which Rafa and the rest of the tennis world are pointed.

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New Contributors

While I might have an opinion on everything (sports related and not sports related), I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on everything.  Bowing to my lack of true knowledge, I’ve brought along some of my friends for the ride.  The following post in one of what I hope will be many contributions by my friends.  So, I say thank you to those who have now joined the Rally Cap team.  I hope you enjoy the new insights.

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Gang Green – Eagles Pre Training Camp Preview – Defensive Line and Linebackers

My wife knows a few things about sports; she has picked them up via osmosis over our 9+ years as a couple.  One of those things is “defense wins championships.”  She likes to throw this out whenever we discuss sports. In this case I believe it to be true.  If the Eagles want to win a championship, things will have to start with their defense.  In addition, the Eagles need to cut down on their penalties this season.  Last year, they gave the opposition 35 first downs via penalties, the second highest in the league 1 behind the Packers.  It doesn’t do the team any good to have a team that performs well defensively only to allow the opposition extra chances to score.

Trent Cole will lead an Eagles defensive line looking to pressure the quarterback and create turnovers.

Defensive Line:  Trent Cole, Juqua Parker, Brodrick Bunkley, Mike Patterson, Trevor Laws, Antonio Dixon, Victor Abiamiri, Darryl Tapp, Brandon Graham, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, Ricky Sapp, Eric Moncur, Boo Robinson and Jeff Owens - The 2009 d-line crew was solid, if not spectacular.  The Eagles finished 9th in the league in rushing yards surrendered, and but were in the bottom half in terms of yards per carry.  On the passing side, the Eagles sacked the opposing quarterbacks 44 times last season, good enough to finish tied for third in the league.  It was obvious from the Eagles’ draft strategy that they were looking to continue to pressure the quarterback this season.  The Birds traded up in the first round to draft Brandon Graham out of the University of Michigan.  Graham played linebacker in college, but the Eagles see him as a left-sided Trent Cole clone.  The Eagles could do much worse than finding a clone of Trent Cole.  Last season, Cole had 12.5 sacks and was selected to his second Pro-Bowl.  Graham, who as of writing was still unsigned, needs to get into camp in order to make in impact.  Observers believe that Graham will be an impact player for the Birds this year, with ESPN blogger Matt Mosley considering Graham as his preseason defensive rookie of the year.  Graham will likely split time with Juqua Parker who had 8 sacks last season.  Beyond Graham, the Birds also drafted Ricky Sapp out of Clemson and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim out of Washington to bolster the current crop of defensive ends.

In the middle of the line, the Birds are set with Bunkley and Patterson.  While neither has lived up to the hype that surrounded them when they were drafted, both are solid and are locks to be in the starting lineup.  Returning players Trevor Laws and Antonio Dixon will likely be their backups.  In a further effort to strengthen the d-line, the Eagles traded for Darryl Tapp from Seattle.  Tapp had fallen out of favor in Seattle, but should fit in nicely with the Birds.  Given the Eagles’ strategy of rotating their d-linemen, I suspect Tapp (who can play at defensive tackle on passing downs) will play a big part in the Eagles’ defense.

With 14 players in training camp for no more than 11 spots (based on last year’s roster), at least 3 of the players listed will be cut.  Locks to make the roster: Cole, Parker, Bunkley, Patterson, Abiamiri, Tapp, Graham.  That leaves 4 sports up for grabs based on my projections.  I suspect that Laws and Dixon will make the squad based on their familiarity with the Eagles defense.  As for the rookies, expect Sapp and Te’o-Nesheim (who can play defensive tackle) to fill out the roster.

Can Stewart Bradley rebound from a torn ACL? His presence will be important for the Birds.

Linebacker: Stewart Bradley, Ernie Sims, Omar Gaither, Akeem Jordan, Alex Hall, Moise Fokou, Joe Mays, Simoni Lawrence, Jamar Chaney and Keenan ClaytonThe linebacker position was in a constant state of flux last season.  The Eagles lost their starting middle linebacker, Stewart Bradley, before the season even started and then lost his replacement (Gaither) during the season.  The Eagles saw 7 different players start a game at linebacker.  Going into 2010, the Eagles are looking for more stability and production from their linebacking corps.  The Birds traded a 5th round pick to the Lions for Ernie Sims in an effort to solidify the weak-side.  Sims, a former first round pick, had a productive first three seasons, averaging 124 tackles per season.  Last year, Sims started only 8 games and fell out of favor with Lions’ management.  Still just 25, Sims has not lived up to his potential as a dynamic defensive weapon.  If the Birds can get a 100 tackle season out of him they’ll be happy.  In the middle, Stewart Bradley is due to come back from his ACL injury and, if healthy, should provide the Eagles with a great quarterback for the defense.  Bradley was very good in 2008, racking up 108 tackles.  A return to that form would provide the Eagles with two solid backers.  On the strong-side, the early favorite to start is Moise Fokou.  Fokou, a 7th round pick in 2009, started 4 games last season and racked up 28 tackles.  It remains to be seen whether Fokou is ready to start an entire season at linebacker, but he showed promise in his cameo last season.  Gaither will provide cover for Bradley and Sims, while Akeem Jordan will provide cover at both outside positions.  Alex Hall, added via trade with the Cleveland Browns, will also be in the rotation at linebacker and can play defensive end as well.  Last season, the Eagles carried 8 linebackers, so expect 2 of the players listed above to not make the cut.   Joe Mays will likely make the roster, as he started one game last season and appeared in 11.  He knows the defensive system and is just 25.  As for the rookies, my guess is that 4th round pick Keenan Clayton will make the roster.

Just as with the offense, there are several questions marks about the Eagles’ defense.  How will the linebackers fair after an injury filled 2009?  Who will make the final cut?  What kind of impact will Brandon Graham have?  The final part of my pre training camp preview will be posted later in the week.

Tomorrow look for a post on Football at Fenway, as Celtic FC takes on Sporting Clube de Portugal in the first soccer game at Fenway Park since 1968.

You might also be interested in: Are You Ready for Some Football? – Eagles Pre-Training Camp Preview – Offense

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Cape Cod League Baseball

A Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox player warms up while another is at the plate.

After a couple of days off, mostly due to computer malfunctions and a getaway to celebrate my 5th anniversary, The Rally Cap is back and should have posts regularly for the near future.

The starting lineup for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.

During the getaway to Cape Cod, my wife and I took in a Cape Cod Baseball League game. This has become something of a tradition for us when we visit the Cape during the summer. This past weekend we went to see the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox play the Chatham Anglers.

The first thing I noticed when I went to the game was that Chatham’s team name had been changed.  I remembered them being the A’s (like Oakland’s team).  Turns out that in 2008 MLB enforced its trademarks on team names.  Prior to 2008, there were teams named the Cardinals (Orleans, now the Firebirds), Mets (Hyannis, now the Harbor Hawks), A’s (Chatham), Red Sox (Yarmouth-Dennis), Bourne (Braves), and Harwich (Mariners).  Half of the teams with names associated with Major League clubs chose to change their names due to the constrictive policy MLB was enforcing.  This action by MLB is ridiculous.  The Cape league, as cited in the article link above, has an operating budget of $300,000 per year.  It’s not like it is big business making a ton of money off of trademarks owned by MLB.  My guess is that most of the revenue from merchandise sales goes back into running the Cape League.  It is shocking to me is that MLB, which provides financial support to the league, would deliver an ultimatum to the Cape League teams forcing them to do things MLB’s way or break tradition and change names. As one of the few wooden bat leagues in the country, the Cape League, which has been around since 1885, allows top college players to compete in situations that are similar to what they will face in the minors and in the big leagues.  The league is seen as one of the proving grounds for the best college players and gives teams a chance to scout players when they aren’t hitting with or pitching against an aluminum bat.  Evidence of the league’s success is that in 2009 there were 217 alumni in the majors, including Tim Lincecum, Evan Longoria, Chase Utley and Kevin Youkilis.   The league is an important part of baseball’s set up and MLB should be trying to help the league rather than hurt it.

The starting lineup for the Chatham Anglers.

Rant aside, I love Cape League games.  The Cape League is a little slice of Americana.  College baseball players staying with local residents while they play the nation’s pastime on high school fields.  Can’t get more American than that.  The Cape League players are the definition of the Boys of Summer.  Going to the games is fun because the players become part of the community, and the communities on the Cape embrace their local teams.  Some of the games are so well attended that they might rival Marlins games.  I can’t think of a better way to spend a lazy summer day on the Cape than going to the beach and then heading to the ball field to see what is the equivalent of Single A minor league baseball.  I enjoy watching potential stars play against other top flight competition.  I also find the chance to speak with scouts from MLB teams interesting.  Though most wouldn’t tell me what teams they worked for, it was still exciting.

Tommy Toledo delivers a pitch during the 5th inning.

The game itself was a pitchers’ duel.  Yarmouth-Dennis’ Tommy Toledo, a righty from the University of Florida,  had his second good start of the season, giving up just 2 runs.  Chatham’s starter, Derek Self out of the University of Louisville, also gave up just 2 runs.  The Sox had the better of the offense throughout the night, racking up 12 hits to the Anglers’ 6 and were able to get at the Anglers’ bullpen to score 2 more runs and secure the 4-2 victory.

The experience was thoroughly enjoyable and I look forward to seeing more games in the future.  It will be interesting to revisit this post in a few years to see if any of the players have made a mark in the majors.

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MLS Needs to Allow Landon Donovan to Go to Europe

MLS announced that it would not field offers for Landon Donovan. Too bad we won't be seeing Donovan don Everton's kit permanently.

Yesterday evening, the Associated Press ran a story where MLS commissioner, Don Garber, basically said that MLS will not field offers for U.S. World Cup star, Landon Donovan.  Garber stated, “Landon is in my view the greatest player of our generation and an incredibly valuable part of our history but also of our future. He proved in England last year on loan and he proved in South Africa that he’s a world-class player and he’s also proved that he loves our league and really has accepted the mantle of really being one of the leaders of the sport. It is my hope and my expectation that we have him for the rest of his career because I think the contributions that he makes are invaluable to our future success.”

While not accepting offers for Donovan makes perfect sense for the league, why get rid of the most recognizable U.S. soccer player, it doesn’t make sense for U.S. soccer.  U.S. soccer needs its best players to play abroad where the competition level is higher and where they will become familiar with the players and teams they will face in international competitions.  MLS needs to allow the best players to leave to go to better leagues.  Period!  By not allowing those players that prove themselves internationally to play in Europe, MLS will never get better as a league.  This might sound counter intuitive, as keeping the best players should mean the level of competition would get better; however, US players will simply not sign with MLS if they know that the league is going to block a potential more to the more lucrative and more competitive European leagues.  Smaller European nations don’t keep all their best talent at home (see Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Serbia) and countries in other parts of the world keep virtually none of their best talent in domestic leagues (Australia, most African countries).  Many of these countries’ best players play in one of the Big 5 leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Italy, German, France).  It should be the same with the US.

Some might argue that it would be better to keep talent at home than have them sit on the bench in Europe (see Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and others).  While I would agree in principle, I think many U.S. players go about their entry into Europe in the wrong way.  I believe that players should follow the path that Michael Bradley has taken in moving from MLS.  He first moved to a more competitive league in one of Europe’s smaller countries (in his case the Netherlands) and then on to a team in one of the Big 5 leagues (he now plays for Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany).  Following his standout performance at the World Cup, there are rumors that Bradley could be moving the EPL, the league for many that represents the pinnacle of soccer competition.  Under this model, MLS would have players in their early career, helping to develop the skills needed to compete.  Fans would get to see the next generation of USMNT stars and would develop rooting interests in them.  After a bit of seasoning in MLS, the players most ready to move to Europe should move to leagues in countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, or Greece.  Hopefully, at clubs in these countries American players would develop further as players, learning a more technical style to go along with the unmatched fitness that is the hallmark of the USMNT.  After proving their worth in these smaller leagues, players could then move to a bigger league where the competition level would be even higher and where skills could be further sharpened.  If U.S. players followed this formula, I believe that we would produce far more top-level soccer talent and that both MLS and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) would benefit.

The simple fact is that U.S. players need to compete on the highest level to truly give the USMNT a chance to compete internationally.  MLS needs to get on board or get out of the way.

UPDATE (7/21/2010): Manchester City’s boss, Roberto Mancini, has stated that he is interested in adding Donovan.  I’m not a huge fan of a potential move to the Eastlands for Donovan, as Man City already has a ton of wing/midfield options.  I’m not sure that he will get the playing time he needs.  I still think a move back to Everton would be the best option.  More on the rumor here: http://www.mirrorfootball.co.uk/news/Manchester-City-transfer-news-Landon-Donovan-interesting-Eastlands-article502305.html

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Are You Ready for Some Football? – Eagles Pre-Training Camp Preview – Offense

Do you trust this man to lead the Eagles?

With NFL training camp set to start at the end of the month, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at how the Eagles stack up at each position on offense (the defense will be previewed soon).  Obviously, this will change as we get closer to the season and players get cut, injured, or make names for themselves.  But here’s the EARLY look at the Eagles offense.

Quarterback: Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick, Mike Kafka -Love him or hate him, Donovan McNabb provided a measure of stability at this position for his 11 seasons in Philadelphia.  While he missed major parts of three season since he was drafted in 1999, McNabb was a rock in the backfield.  His interception percentage is impeccable, and he ranks 18th all-time in passer rating, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.  While he never delivered the Big One for the Birds, he kept them competitive for most of the decade.

As the Birds enter the 2010 season, the QB position is likely one of their biggest question marks.  Kevin Kolb enters the season as the #1 QB on the depth chart.  Many people will say that Kevin Kolb looked good in the two games he started last year.  In those two games, he completed 64.6% of his passes, threw 4 TD and 3 interceptions, and passed for 741 yards.  Not bad stats for a guy who had only thrown 34 passes prior to last season.  The problem with just looking at the stats is that Kolb put these numbers up in a game that had already been lost (the Saints game) and a game against one of the worst teams in the league (the Chiefs).  This is what makes him the logical #1 for the Eagles?  I don’t see it.  Obviously, the coaching staff sees him in practice and has faith that he can deliver.  However, based on his play last season, I’m not sure that  he is ready for prime time.

As for the other two QBs on the roster, I think the Eagles are in trouble.  With Vick facing questions surrounding his involvement in a shooting that took place at his 30th birthday party in Virgina Beach, I’m not sure that he can or should be counted on as the backup.  I was willing to give Vick a pass when he came out of prison.  He had served his time and I hoped that he was a changed man.  Clearly this is not the case, as he continues to surround himself with thugs and low-lifes.  He continues to make bad decisions, and I think the Eagles need to part ways with the talented, but wayward passer.  If the Eagles choose to cut Vick, they would be left with Mike Kafka as the only other QB on the roster.  Kafka is a rookie out of Northwestern who spent only 1 season as the starter.  While he was the MVP of the East-West Shrine Game, Kafka is clearly not going to be ready to step in should Kolb go down with an injury.  The only thing fans can hope is that veteran QBs get cut in camp and the Eagles can pick up a solid backup to replace Vick and allow Kafka time to mature.

Can LeSean McCoy replace Brian Westbrook?

Running Back: LeSean McCoy, Mike Bell, Charles Scott, Eldra Buckley, Martell Mallett- This is another spot where the Eagles have had a measure of stability for the better part of last decade.  Prior to last season, Brian Westbrook had started 12 or more games every season since 2003 (and that year he was part of a three-headed monster with Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley).  Last season was Westbrook’s worst since his rookie year.  A good portion of the RB duties were taken over by LeSean McCoy.  McCoy had a strong first season, posting nearly 1000 yards from scrimmage, scoring 4 TDs, and proving to be a good receiver out of the backfield.  As with Kolb, the question is whether McCoy is ready to be the full-time starter.

With McCoy as the primary back, the Eagles signed Mike Bell away from the New Orleans Saints to serve as the backup/change-of-pace.  Bell played an important role with the Saints, spelling Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush and filling in as a starter for 3 games.  Bell ran for 654 yards and 5 TDs.  The Bell signing makes some sense to me, as he is more of a power runner than McCoy.  Perhaps Bell will help end the Eagles’ poor performances in short yardage situations, something that has been an Achilles’ Heel for the Birds in recent seasons.

Beyond McCoy and Bell, there are no locks to make the Eagles’ roster.  While, Eldra Buckley was with the team last year, he didn’t make a major impact.  Buckley has been in the league for three seasons, spending two of them on the San Diego Chargers’ practice squad.  Buckley made the Eagles’ roster last year ahead of Lorenzo Booker.  Charles Scott is a 6th round draft pick out of LSU.  He had a great junior season before tailing off as a senior.  He is a big, bruising back who could provide the Eagles with an even better short-yardage option than Bell.  Mallett is in his first year in the NFL, having played last season in the CFL with the BC Lions, and played his college football at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.  He was voted the CFL Rookie of the Year, after finishing 4th in rushing.

I can’t see the Birds carrying five running backs on the active roster.  It is likely two players out of this group will not make the cut.  If I had to guess, I would put money on Buckley making the roster because he knows the offense.  Perhaps Scott could stick as a backup to Leonard Weaver at FB or he might be added to the practice squad.  I wouldn’t mind seeing Mallet get a shot, as his stats in the CFL were impressive, but he could be destined for the practice squad.

Fullback: Leonard Weaver, Dwayne WrightFullback is the first position where the Birds seem to be set.  Weaver was awesome last season, rushing for 323 yards on 70 carries for a 4.6 yards per carry average.  He also caught 15 passes out of the backfield and is a good lead blocker.  Some of the ball carrying responsibilities will fall to Weaver, as I expect him to get more playing time than the Eagles’ third RB, whomever that may be. Weaver will be important to the offense for his pass catching ability and blocking, as both will be essential to Kolb as his enters his first season as the starter.  Weaver will also help in short yardage situations and as a sub to give both Bell and McCoy some rest.  I believe he will build on last season’s success and should be an integral part of the offense.

Wright was originally drafted by the Bills in the 4th round of the 2007 draft.  He played his college football at Fresno State and was on the Giants’ roster last season but didn’t make the final cut out of training camp.  The Birds signed him to a two-year contract and will move him from running back to fullback.  Given the lack of past success in converting players from a different position to fullback (see Dan Klecko), I am skeptical that this experiment will work.  Wright could be bound for the practice squad or could be part of the cuts.

Wide Receiver: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Hank Baskett, Riley Cooper, Dobson Collins, Blue Cooper, Chad Hall, Kevin Jurovich, Jordan Norwood – While there are question marks about the man throwing the ball, there certainly aren’t any about who will be catching it.  Going into the season, we all know who the starters are.  DeSean Jackson has become one of the best young wideouts in the league.  What can you say about DJax?  He provides the Birds with a legitimate weapon at WR, something they haven’t had since the ill-fated Terrell Owens experiment.  He finished last season with 1156 yards on 62 catches and was dangerous in the return game.  His receiving total last season ranks 8th all-time on the Eagles’ list and was just the 3rd season since 1997 that and Eagles receiver had a total of more than 1000 yards.  If Jackson can post another season of over 1000 yards, he would be the first receiver since Irving Fryar (1996 and 1997) to post back-to-back thousand yard seasons. The second starter, Jeremy Maclin, was impressive in his rookie season, posting 773 receiving yards on 53 catches.  Maclin was so good last season that he made Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis expendable.   Maclin will look to build on his solid rookie season and should become even more of a threat as he gets a firmer grasp of the offense and develops  chemistry with Kolb.  This is the best combination of top two receivers the Eagles have had that I can remember in my 28 years.

Hank Baskett and Jason Avant look like likes to make the roster.  Both have played for the Birds for several seasons with Avant really coming into his own last season.  Avant posted 587 receiving yards (a career high) and came through in several clutch situations.  Baskett knows the offense and returns to the Birds after one season with the Indianapolis Colts. Of the remaining 6 wideouts, I expect 1 to make the active roster with 1 or 2 making it to the practice squad.  Collins and Norwood both were on the practice squad last season, while Riley Cooper was selected in the 5th round of the 2010 draft.  Blue Cooper, Chad Hall and Kevin Jurovich would all be lucky to even make the practice squad.

Tight End: Brent Celek, Cornelius Ingram, Martin Rucker, Clay HarborThe Eagles found a diamond in the rough when they drafted Brent Celek out of the University of

Brent Celek was 2nd in the NFL, among TE, in yards per catch last season (12.8 ypc).

Cincinnati in 2007.  After playing sparingly his first season and stepping up to the #2 TE spot in his second season, Celek burst onto the scene last year when he posted the second highest receiving total (971 yards) for a TE in Eagles’ history (Pete Retzlaff posted 1190 yards in 1965).   Celek is a versatile receiver who is fast enough to stretch the field and tough enough to bruise on the goal line.  Arguably, he is the best TE in the NFC and is certainly in the top 5 league-wide.  His yards per catch last season (12.8) was the second highest, behind only Antonio Gates.

The battle for the 2nd TE position should be a good one.  Martin Rucker, originally drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 4th round of the 2008 draft, was with the team last season on both the practice squad and active roster, though he didn’t have a reception.  Rucker is extremely talented, having been selected as the first-team All-American tight end in 2007 during his senior season at the University of Missouri.  Ingram was selected by the Birds in the 5th round of the 2009 draft.  He was a starter for the University of Florida in 2007, but missed his senior season due to knee ligament damage.  Just as Ingram was recovering, he tore his ACL during training camp with the Birds.  He has yet to play a game in the green and silver, but certainly has the talent to make and impact.  Harbor is a 2010 draft pick, out of Missouri State, who rocketed to prominence at the Scouting Combine.  The Eagles selected him in the 4th round and expect good things from the three-time Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) All-American.  One TE out of this group will not make the active roster.  Rucker and Ingram are better pass catchers than blockers meaning Harbor will likely get a spot due to his blocking ability (it was initially announced that he would be playing FB).  Whether it is Rucker or Ingram who gets the final spot probably depends on Ingram’s health.

Offensive Line: The Eagles currently have 17 players listed as offensive linemen on their roster.  Base on last season, the Birds carried 9 linemen, roughly half of these players will not make the roster.  The starters will likely be: LT – Jason Peters, LG – Todd Herremens, C – Nick Cole, RG – Stacy Andrews/Max Jean-Gilles, RT – Winston Justice.  Of the remaining OL listed on the training camp roster, Mike McGlynn, King Dunlap and Dallas Reynolds were all on the roster at the end of the season last year.  This doesn’t mean that they are assured of a roster spot, as the Birds have Fenuki Tupou returning from injury and several rookies competing for spots.  Center Jamaal Jackson is still recovering from the ACL injury he suffered against the Broncos in week 16 last season.  Jackson is expected to be out until at least the middle of the season.

Justice emerged last season as a legitimate RT and I expect him to continue to get better.  Peters, much maligned though he is, is still one of the better LTs in the game.  Herremens has been nothing but solid since he arrived with the Birds.  The question marks are at center and right guard.  Cole did not end the season well, as he was thrust into the starting role after Jackson’s injury.  Hopefully, an offseason of learning the role of center will make Cole more confident at the position.  He will need to be, as the center will be extremely important to Kolb doing well in his first season as a starter.  Who will be the started at RG?  It’s a toss-up.  Jean-Gilles had lap band surgery over the offseason to help control his weight and Andrews was injured for much of last season.  Which player will bounce back the quickest and seize the starting spot?  That battle will be played out during training camp and will be crucial to the Eagles success.  The Birds need a good run blocker in that position to open holes for McCoy, Bell and Weaver.  I think we see Jean-Gilles take control of this spot with Andrews, who can play both tackle and guard acting as the first OL off the bench when the Birds need to rest somebody/cover an injury.

Who do you think will step forward for the Eagles on offense?  Will Kolb be able to replace McNabb?  Will McCoy make us forget about Westbrook?  Who wins the roster battles at WR, TE and OL?  A preview of the defense will be coming soon, (not sure when, probably Monday, as my home computer is currently on the fritz).

You might also be interested in:

Gang Green – Eagles Pre Training Camp Preview – Defensive Line and Linebackers

Gang Green Part II: Eagles Pre Training Camp Preview – Defensive Backs and Special Teams

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Gang Green Part II: Eagles Pre Training Camp Preview – Defensive Backs and Special Teams