Monthly Archives: February 2011

Top 5: Pitching Rotations

These are heady days for baseball fans.  Every team is undefeated, and hope springs eternal.  With the first games of Spring Training set for Friday, it seemed like it was time to start blogging about baseball again.

A question that seems to be on every baseball fan’s mind is  – who has the best starting pitching staff in baseball?  Below is my humble attempt at answering that question.  Let me know if you agree/disagree.

The Phillies boast a rotation that would make any team jealous. (photo from the4aces.net)

1. Philadelphia Phillies – While this might seem like a homer call, the Phillies have to be considered the best collection of starting pitching in the league.  After pulling off one of the major surprises of the off-season by signing Cliff Lee, the Phillies have four legit #1 starters.  The Phillies (on paper) have the best pitching rotation since the Braves of the early 1990s (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Steve Avery).  This is my initial reaction to the pitching staff – taken from my post Merry Cliffmas and Happy Halladays!:

Think about this, Lee, who won the Cy Young in the AL in 2008 joins a staff that includes: reigning Cy Young winner Roy Halladay; 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels; and 3-time All-Star Roy Oswalt. What other team can match that pitching depth?  The answer – NONE!

Just look at their numbers from last season:

I know that Lee, Hamels and Oswalt did not have great records, look at the other stats! Ridiculous. Also keep in mind that when Oswalt was with the Phillies he was 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. The Phillies now have the best pitching staff in the league.

It doesn’t matter who takes the fifth starter spot (though I think it will be Joe Blanton), the Phillies have the most formidable starting rotation in baseball.

Tim Lincecum anchors the rotation for the defending World Series champions.

2. San Francisco Giants – As seen in last year’s NLCS, the Giants’ pitching staff can hang with the Phillies.  Tim Lincecum, who struggled at times last season, found his form in the playoffs. Matt Cain made the Phillies’ offense look pedestrian. Jonathan Sanchez looks like he is ready to take the next step toward becoming an elite lefty. Madison Bumgarner developed over the course of the season and looks set for a big year.  The only question mark is Barry Zito as the fifth starter, but if he even has an average year (10-14, 4.45 ERA in his time with the Giants) he will be a pretty decent 5th starter.

If Beckett and Lackey can bounce back, the Sox will be tough. (Image from CBS local/Credit: Dan Roche/CBS)

3. Boston Red Sox – Some might question the Red Sox being ranked this highly, especially after the poor performance last season of Josh Beckett, John Lackey and the enigma that is Daisuke Matsuzaka, but I believe that at least one of the aforementioned pitchers will rebound this year.  If more than one can return to the form all have previously exhibited, the Red Sox will have a formidable rotation.  Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 ERA), two guys I thought deserved more Cy Young consideration last season, anchor the rotation.  Even if Beckett and Lackey turn in career average years – 15-10, 3.96 ERA for Becket & 15-10, 3.89 ERA for Lackey – the rotation should be good enough to win the AL East.  Any positive contribution Dice-K can give will be an added bonus.

Trevor Cahill and the Athletics could unseat the Rangers in the AL West. The A's certainly have the pitching.

4. Oakland Athletics – This selection might surprise some, as the Athletics toil in obscurity in Oakland, but the A’s have a legit rotation.  I think this excerpt from a post on pitching rotations sums up the A’s:

Check out these stats and compare them with any pitching staff in MLB: Brett Anderson 7-6 2.80 ERA  75 K’s, Trevor Cahill 18-8  2.97 ERA  118 K’s, Gio Gonzalez 15-9 3.23 ERA  171 K’s, Dallas Braden 11-14  3.50 ERA 113 K’s and a perfect game. Average age…25!!  Oakland led the AL with a 3.56 era, 17 shutouts and held opponents to a .245 batting average.  Question mark is 5th starter but they have many young guys to choose from in the minors and they also signed Rich Harden. If they can get any hitting they could be a team no one would like to play come October.

Clayton Kershaw is my early dark horse for the NL Cy Young. This kid is for real.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers – Four of the Dodgers’ starters finished last season with ERAs under 3.60.  Not too shabby.  Clayton Kershaw led the way with a 13-10 record and an ERA of 2.91 and will be just 23 at the start of the season.  Forming the rest of the rotation behind Kershaw are Hiroki Kuroda (11-13, 3.39 ERA), Chad Billingsley (12-11, 3.57 ERA), Ted Lilly (7-4, 3.52 ERA w/ the Dodgers), and Jon Garland (14-12, 3.47 ERA w/ the San Diego Padres).

In making this list, several teams just missed the number 5 spot (I feel like the top 4 are pretty set).  The St. Louis Cardinals would likely have made the top 5, but with concerns about the health of Adam Wainwright‘s elbow, the rotation is weakened.  Some have been touting the Milwaukee Brewers with Zack Greinke joining Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo at Miller Park.  I think the Brewers have the beginnings of a very good rotation, but it remains to be seen how Greinke will adjust to the NL and whether Marcum is for real.  A third team that many have in their top 5 are the Padres.  Mat Latos and Clayton Richard are two studs at the top of the rotation but after the top 2 there are more questions than answers.  Also, could Latos be in for a sophomore slump? Lastly, the Atlanta Braves are in the discussion as well, especially if Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens can rebound from subpar 2010 seasons.  Looks like I could have found one more team and written a top 10.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Top Ten – English Transfer Window Signings

 

Fernando Torres looks to help the Blues push for the Premier League title.

The dust has settled on what was a crazy January transfer window.  One of the biggest names in world football switched teams, and several up-and-coming players will be plying their trade in new locales.  Obviously, much attention has been focused on the move of Fernando Torres to Chelsea, but there was a lot more action.  What were the ten best signings in the English Premier League during the transfer window?

1o. Curtis Davies – Davies moves across the city from Aston Villa to Birmingham City.  He brings the Blues a strong replacement for the injured Scott Dann, who had become a rock in central defense.  Davies, who missed time last season due to a shoulder injury, fell out of favor with Gérard Houllier and couldn’t crack the 4-deep center back rotation at Villa.  I don’t really understand why Davies wasn’t given the opportunity given Villa’s poor performance early in the season.  Villa’s loss, both in terms of the player and the nearly £8 million difference between investment and sale, is City’s gain.

9. Andy Carroll – Newcastle born and raised, the young forward left his hometown club to move to Liverpool.  While it seems clear that Carroll didn’t want to leave St. James Park, Newcastle United had no choice but to take the ludicrous £35 million offer the Reds threw their way.  Carroll would be higher on this list if he had more Premier League experience and if he weren’t out with a thigh injury.  While Carroll has shown a lot of promise, he has only played in 33 EPL games, though he has scored 14 goals.  It seems to me that Liverpool pair a premium for Carroll simply because he is English.  How else do you explain the fact that Carrol cost £12 million more than Luis Suárez (who will make an appearance further up this list). If Carroll continues to develop he could be an even better signing, but I find the price Liverpool paid a bit tough to justify.

8. Jean Makoun/Michael Bradley – I know that this is a bit of a cop-out, combining two players as one signing, but Aston Villa did a lot to strengthen the center of their midfield with the £6 million capture of the Cameroonian midfielder from Olympique Lyonnais and the loan of the American midfielder from Borussia Monchengladbach. Makoun brings composure on the ball, good visions, and the knack for scoring timely goals.

Watch this video of his goal against Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League.

Like Makoun, Bradley is an energetic box-to-box midfielder.  Bradley was a goal scoring machine in his time with SC Heerenveen, and has shown a touch for scoring with ‘Gladbach. He was one of the stars of the U.S. team at the 2010 World Cup and should provide Villa with an excellent partner to Makoun.

7. Sully Muntari/Stéphane Sessègnon – Another combination, but Sunderland strengthened their attack and strength in midfield with these two signings.  Muntari, moving on loan from Inter Milan, will bring steel to the midfield.  He will provide both good vision (as shown by his ball over the top to fellow Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan against Stoke City)  and energy in the center of the park.

Sessègnon, who had fallen out of favor at Paris Saint-Germain, with provide the Black Cats with some creativity out of the midfield or in a withdrawn forward position.  The Benin international played well against Stoke and should help Gyan keep the attack going while Danny Wellbeck and Fraizer Campbell recover from injury.

6. David Bentley – The supremely talented, though somewhat enigmatic winger moves on loan from Tottenham to Birmingham in a bid to find regular playing time.  Bentley, who started his career with Arsenal, but made his biggest impact with Blackburn, has loads of talent but can’t seem to find the pitch on a regular basis. In his first match, he won man-of-the-match for his work against Aston Villa. He scored his first goal for the Blues against Coventry City in the FA Cup. If Bentley can keep up this form, he will certainly help the Blues keep their place in the EPL.

5. Edin Džeko – On talent alone, the Bosnian striker would be higher on this list, but questions remain on how he will fit into the squad on the pitch.  He has been one of the most sought after players in world soccer over the last several years.  He was the engine that drove the attack for VfL Wolfsburg in his time in Germany.  The reason he lands at #5 is due to questions on how he will fit into the mercenary side at Manchester City.  With Carlos Tévez an ever-present in the lineup, and  Manchester City and Roberto Mancini preferring a 4-3-3 formation where does Džeko fit? Tévez prefers playing in the center of the park, and Džeko does as well.  Neither seems a natural fit on the wing.  Will City change their lineup? They could shift to a 4-4-1-1 with David Silva sliding back to a left-sided midfield spot, with Tévez in a withdrawn forward role and Džeko up top.  If City find a way to truly incorporate Džeko he would have to move up this list. Plus, not to knock Andy Carroll, he was nearly £8 million cheaper.

4. Fernando Torres – El Niño lands at #4 due to similar concerns expressed in my critique of the Edin Džeko move.  Torres is undoubtedly talented, and brings an amazing goal scoring record in the Premier League to Stamford Bridge (65 goals in 102 games).  However, where does the Spaniard fit into a Chelsea side with so much (volatile) attacking talent?  Nicolas Anelka will not stand for being dropped from the first XI, nor will Didier Drogba. While Ankelka has slotted in well on the wing, neither Drogba nor Torres are a natural fit on the wing.  Perhaps a 4-3-1-2 formation with one of the forward occupying a withdrawn role would work the best, but it remains to be seen if Carlo Ancelotti will alter his system.

3. David Luiz – The Blues make a second appearance on the list, this time for signing the dynamic Brazilian defender for up to £26.5 million from Benfica.  With Chelsea clearly in need of defensive help, Luiz was an excellent signing.  He was a huge part of a rock-solid defense as Benfica conceded just 20 goals on their way to the Portuguese title last season.  He is versatile (he can play left back or center back) and is strong in the air.  At just 23, Luiz has time to grow into an even better player and will a rock in Chelsea’s defense for years. Plus, how could you not like this guy, he has some of the best hair in English soccer!

2. Luis Suárez – Suárez is probably best known in America for his handball against Ghana during the 2010 World Cup.  The handball, which looked stupid at the time, saved La Celeste from defeat at the hands of the Black Stars.  However, people would be remiss if they aren’t aware of the young strikers immense talent.  The Uruguay international has a history of scoring goals (111 goals in 159 appearances for Ajax), something Liverpool will need after the departure of Torres.  He made a positive debut for the Reds, getting credit for what was certainly an own goal for Andy Wilkinson of Stoke.  Costing less than Andy Carroll and with a much stronger track record, Suárez is the best signing of the transfer window for Liverpool.

1. Darren Bent – Darren Bent is a goal scorer.  Plain and simple.  Aston Villa needed a player up top who could put the ball in the back of the net, and they got that when they signed Bent from Sunderland for £18 million.  Bent, who scored 24 Premier League goals just two season ago, provides Villa with proven finisher.  Many thought Villa paid too much for Bent, but Bent proved his worth scoring the game winner against Manchester City (his debut for Villa).  When you consider the cost of the other forwards on this list, Bent certainly looks like he could be a bargain.  Villa is fighting to move into the top half of the table, and stay away from the relegation zone,  and Bent and their midfield signings will help Villa realize that goal.

Other signings that merit mention are Robbie Keane‘s move to West Ham, a team that sorely needs a goal scorer, and Blackpool‘s signings of Andy Reid and James Beattie – two players who should help the Seasiders keep their place in the Premier League.

Agree with my selections, disagree, leave a comment.

Australian, Closed (Men’s Wrap-Up)

Rod Laver Arena

For the first time in my life, I was privileged enough to attend the Australian Open this year.  There was talk of a tourney preview between the Rally Cap’s headmaster and I that never materialized since I was finally able to sleep on a plane like a big boy.

Two weeks of blistering tennis, sightseeing across eastern Australia  and laughing at my snowbound friends now past, we take a look back to see what the last two weeks really mean for the big players in the tennis world.

The last six years have been so thoroughly dominated by the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal narrative, that it feels equally appropriate and necessary to start there.  Obviously, neither man made (positive) history in Melbourne.  Federer didn’t bag his 17th major, nor did Nadal wrap up a quasi grand slam by winning his 4th in a row.  After spoiling fans with the consistency of their greatness, this Australian Open marked the 8th consecutive major the two titans have not met in a decider.

Only the staunchest fan could deny that Federer hasn’t grown increasingly inconsistent against top tier opponents.  The shanks dogged him throughout 2010 and this 2011 Australian Open would be no different.  Berdych, Soderling and Djokovic (twice) have taken Don Federer out on the sport’s biggest stages. To the objective observer, this decline in Federer’s game is no news.  In 2008, Rafael Nadal reached a level of consistency and excellence where he could beat Federer even on his favorite court, Wimbledon’s Centre.  Rafa’s run of form would continue until the 2009 French when the Spaniard found himself injured.  With Nadal sidelined and hobbled through the rest of 2009, Federer seemed to some, once again in the ascendancy.  But frankly, nothing changed for the Swiss legend until late 2009.  Until then, it was still just one man who could beat Federer regularly, and that one man was injured.  The loss to Del Potro at the ’09 US open signaled a true, though gradual, changing of the guard.  Federer will continue to win, as he did in Melbourne in 2010; but he’s coming back to the pack.  It isn’t just Nadal anymore.  Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray, Soderling and Berdych had all joined Rafa in being able to topple King Federer in key moments. The locker room aura of invincibility has been shattered. Players aren’t walking onto the court down a break in their own minds anymore. That makes those close matches even tougher to win.

With this Australian in the rear view mirror, the end of 2010 looks more a smokescreen than ever.  Federer went 26-2 after the US Open, winning matches across the Asian and Euro-indoor fall circuits and in Doha just before the Australian.  These far flung, off-the-radar events were once the province of the Nalbandians and Davydenkos of the world. Last year though, Federer used them to stockpile confidence and (to a cynic like myself) ranking points against lesser competition so that an “early” loss in Australia, would not touch the ranking, further denting the aura.  Winning Stockholm, Basel and the World Tour Finals is 2,000 points, the same as winning the Australian (he also made the semis of the Shanghai Masters which he skipped in 2009).  Given the current gap of less than 100 points, it’s only winning the if Stockholm Open that has kept Federer as World No. 2.  

As long as he remains No. 2 behind Rafa, Federer can justify his results.  He can still say, there’s just that one guy, El Rafa!  Were he to have slipped to 3, 4 or 5 after Melbourne, there is question as to how Fed would’ve handled it.  Why?  Simply because we’ve never seen another player with such uninterrupted dominance as to have a case study.

Yes, Sampras won 14 majors, but half were at Wimbledon and he would flip flop rankings with Courier, Agassi, Rafter and others during his six year run as year end No. 1.  Federer won nearly everything in sight for 4 years and had an uninterrupted run at No. 1 for 237 weeks.  Sampras ruled an ATP democracy, if you will; others were heard, seized some power, revolted, but he remained presidential.  Federer was untouchably kinglike in his reign, guarding the ramparts and repelling lightweight attacks on his throne with a flick of the backhand.  Federer floated above the hoi polloi with only Nadal able to truly mount a serious challenge to his dominance.  Federer has 16 majors, but he’ll no longer be able to beat the other top contenders with his B game, and he’ll no longer have his A game every week.  Federer will always be a favorite, but he’s no longer alone.

Nadal

Rafael Nadal at the 2010 Australian Open

With Nadal, we are seeing a familiar narrative re-emerge.  He is simply not able to play at the highest level for a full season, his body will not allow it.  Nadal’s biggest threat on the court is his own body.  The last 4 majors he didn’t win he either didn’t play or was felled with injury during them.

Nadal is at a crossroads.  He will never match Federer’s level of day-in/day-out dominance, his body is too fragile.  This means he needs to focus on winning when and where it matters.  It means that any amount of overplaying, whether for a sentimental home crowd in Barcelona, for some far flung cash grabs in Bangkok or whistlestop charity tours, must be met with a firm “no.” No?

Nadal’s bodily boom and bust provides a potential chink in the noted competitor’s armor: motivation.  I know, it sounds laughable to question Nadal of all people in the motivation department, but hear me out.  Nadal has one of the most decorated records in the sport’s history, he’s won each of the majors, attained the No. 1 year end ranking twice, won Olympic Gold and Davis Cup for Spain.  Some will note he hasn’t won the tour championships, fair point, but that’s not even the most important tournament in England.   As much as Nadal relishes playing, competing, as any athlete will tell you rehab is a grind.

A player who gets injured as much as Nadal spends as much time on the trainer’s table as on the court.  That’s not competition, it’s not the physical and mental chess game that Nadal seems to have such a lust for, it’s a means to an end.  The emerging question is, what is the end.  What more does Nadal have or want to accomplish in his career?  Chase down Federer’s 16 majors, maybe.  Get that tour championships win, maybe.  Become the 3rd man to win the calendar slam?  All worthy goals, but are they Rafa’s?  Grabbing the US Open ended the last absolutely necessary test of Rafa’s greatness.  Will Rafa grow tired of the boom/bust, the injury and rehab cycle that has defined his career or does he still thirst for more? I ask because when Rafa grows tired of the putting in the hard yards off the court, his results will fall off. This is a question the supremely healthy Federer has never had to answer. You can’t make 23 consecutive Grand Slam semis if you can’t make the starting line. Again, the yin and yang of the two beloved champions.

The losing finalist Andy Murray did almost everything he wanted to this fortnight.  He played well enough to emerge from Rafa’s half of the draw, defended his points from last year and managed to shrug off the weight of expectation.  Because after his meek, passive display about Djokovic, I don’t think I, for one, will ever pick him to win a major again.

Sports Illustrated‘s esteemed Jon Wertheim pointed out that in the Open era, only three men lost their first three major finals: Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Lendl, all fine company.  Frankly, the Scot would cut a virtually tragic figure if he never won one given his resume to date.

The thing is, Murray doesn’t seize the moment, he waits for his opponents to trip up.  You almost expect him to drop his racquet, stomp and start shouting “It’s not fair, it’s my turn, MY TURN!!!”

If Murray’s facing a top player with experience in pressure matches, the collapse he’s waiting for is just not going to happen.  The most telling statistic to me is that Murray’s played 9 sets in major finals, he is 0-9.  Now, he did play those matches against Federer and Djokovic, but if you’re capable of making the final Sunday, you should be able to win a set–in three tries. 

Sure, If the draw breaks right, he can have his Ivanisevic moment, maybe even at Wimbledon.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.  Ever.

Djokovic vs. Murray

The Final Two In Australia

So what then of the champion, Serbian national hero, Novak Djokovic.  To say he’s on a roll would be an understatement, US Open final, Davis Cup champion, Australian Open champion.  That’s a pretty nice run. Hell, that would be a nice career even for a lot of players in the Top 10. It’s the last four months for the consensus hottest player on tour at the moment.  With the ATP sticking to hardcourts for the next couple of months, I would not be surprised to see his run continue.

That he’s finished World No. 3 four consecutive years tells you a lot about his consistency and high level of play, but also about the nearly static world order of men’s tennis as of late.  In most eras, a player of Djokovic’s calibre would’ve already bagged a few weeks at No. 1 and might be a major or two ahead of his current pace.  He just happens to have born into the era of two of the greatest players in history, and he still already has borderline Hall of Fame credentials.

The biggest change for Djokovic in the last few months seems to be his attitude, self-belief, not searching for the rip cord.  He no longer fears Federer, he knows he can play with Nadal.  He made a fine account of himself in last year’s US Open final and I give him an incomplete for his illness-marred results on the dirt last year based on how well he acquitted himself on clay in prior seasons.  He’s a legitimate threat to win at 3 of the 4 majors and his Wimbledon results haven’t exactly disappointed either.  The question for Djokovic is where’s the needle on his emotional gas tank?  Djokovic is a player whose own psyche can boost or destruct him.  He’s way too good to be considered a headcase, mind you.  But managing his emotions are a major part of him playing his best ball.

Logic dictates that Federer/Nadal era was bound to come to an end, but when? Will either of the two still be at the top of the game when we end 2011?  I’ll say both will finish in the Top 5, but Djokovic is looking dangerously close to crashing the six year strangehold on the Top 2.  Andy Murray, on the other hand, well, I want him to prove me wrong.