Archive for March, 2007

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Kerry Wood is on the disabled list and Mark Prior is in Iowa on a rehab assignment, which means that the baseball season can finally begin.  Baseball is back with a game on Sunday night and then in full force around the country on Monday.  (Annual Rant: I’ll once again enter my annual plea to Bud Selig to move all Opening Day games to the first Sunday in April.  There’s no reason why Opening Day for most of baseball should be (a) the same day as the National Championship Game in college basketball and (b) on a weekday where those fans with jobs (i.e. anyone that isn’t a Cubs fan) aren’t able to partake in the festivities.  With the Final Four having a Saturday/Monday schedule, it would seem to me that Major League Baseball would benefit greatly from filling in the gap with a full slate of games on Sunday.  Logic doesn’t seem to work well with this commissioner, though. /Annual Rant)  The Chicago baseball world has seen a number of changes on both sides of town, with the White Sox upending their pitching staff and the Cubs dropping Benjamins like drunken frat boys in, well, Wrigleyville.  Let’s take a look at the City of Chi along with the rest of baseball.  (Note: For much more in-depth baseball coverage along with around-the-clock analysis of MLB’s decision to move Extra Innings exclusively to DirecTV – for the record, this is no skin off my back since I’m a DirecTV subscriber that lives in the home market of my favorite team – be sure to check out Siberian Baseball penned by the brilliant Minneapolis Red Sox.)

(1) Hesitant About the White Sox Moves – I’m not quite sure what to expect from the White Sox this season.  Kenny Williams decided to trade workhorse Freddy Garcia and supposed future ace Brandon McCarthy for a bunch of prospects.  While this might out well in the long-term, I’m concerned that the window for the Sox to contend in the upper echelon of the American League with its current lineup isn’t going to last much longer than this season.  The 3-4-5-6 punch of Jime Thome, Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, and Joe Crede (Ozzie Guillen has indicated that he might switch around the middle of the  order) is as strong as any in baseball, but it still remains to be seen whether we can really expect Dye to replicate his MVP-type numbers from last year.  We also see former Angel Darin Erstad dug up from the grave, who would have been a fine spot player off of the bench, yet instead is plugged in as our starter in centerfield as well as taking the #2 spot in the order.

Still, the hitting doesn’t concern nearly as much as locking down the fifth starter role, which was a curse for the Sox prior to 2005.  It looks like it’s going to be newcomer John Danks, who came over from the Rangers in the McCarthy trade.  Also, with Garcia gone, there is a ripple effect where Javier Vasquez and Jon Garland each move up a spot in the starting rotation, and with how Vasquez has been particularly shaky after the pretty much the fifth inning of every game, that’s not a prospect that warms my heart.  The bullpen should be in decent shape with Mike MacDougal in a setup role, but Bobby Jenks needs to get back to the form that he showed in the second half and postseason of 2005.

All of that being said, the White Sox are still a pretty good team overall.  If Danks is able to step in and at least eat innings in the fifth starter spot and Jenks is consistent enough at closer, I think the Sox will make it to the postseason.  In the rest of the American League Central Division, I believe that the Detroit Tigers are headed for a significant drop-off this season with another year tolled on you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em Kenny Rogers and the ever-expanding waistline of Todd Jones.  However, the Cleveland Indians seriously scare me.  Assuming that they avoid further injuries to their starting rotation, I think they’ll recover from last season’s setback and be the biggest challenge once again.  I always seem to discount the Minnesota Twins every year and then they subsequently find some way to get to the playoffs again (where they are promptly tossed aside in the division series), but I don’t see it happening for them this year with Francisco Liriano’s injury and Brad Radke’s retirement setting the team’s pitching staff back.  Granted, Johan Santana is a pitching genius, yet just having an ace is not going to be enough.  Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals are finally going to make their move to the Pacific Coast League this season.  So, all in all, I believe the AL Central in 2007 is going to end up looking like the AL Central in 2005.

(2) Lou and the Fonz – I’m extremely excited to see Ozzie Guillen go head-to-head with Lou Piniella when the Sox and Cubs meet up this summer.  If it wasn’t for the stoic presence of Lovie Smith, Chicago would be considered the center of combustible sports coaches with the presence of Ozzie, Lou, and Scott Skiles.  Piniella, however, can only do so much for the Cubs.  More interesting was the spending spree by the club highlighted by the signing of Alfonso Soriano to a two-decade contract worth just under a billion dollars.  Seriously, though, the top of the Cubs’ batting order will be a monster with Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez in the mix.  Whether any of their outfielders will be able to catch any routine fly balls, however, is an entirely different matter.  Plus, for all of the money that the Cubs have blown this offseason, their pitching staff still pretty much sucks save for Carlos Zambrano.  Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly?  Really?

The only saving grace for the North Siders is that it’s entirely conceivable that they can bash in enough runs to win in a severely depleted National League Central Division.  Last season’s World Series championship by the Cardinals was an exercise in a team getting hot at exactly the right moment for three weeks in October as opposed to having the apparatus in place to have multiple seasons of success.  When a team is lamenting the loss of Jeff Weaver, of all people, you know that the situation is fragile, particularly on the pitching front.  The Houston Astros still have Roy Oswalt and a solid bullpen, but without Andy Pettitte and presumably Roger Clemens (I hope that ESPN spares us the wall-to-wall coverage of his minor league tuneups in June this year), this is a shell of the club that made it to the World Series only two tears ago.  Chicago’s beer guzzling and sausage race loving neighbors to the north in Milwaukee are an intriguing team to me.  With Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, and Jeff Suppan in the starting rotation along with Prince Fielder and my personal fantasy baseball favorite Bill Hall (35 HR/85 RBI last year for a player who qualifies at 2B, SS, 3B, and OF – I love that guy) , the Brewers might actually be the most balanced team in the division.  The Cincinnati Reds could surprise some people with Aaron Harang as the ace and Adam Dunn doing his best impression of a mid-90s Sammy Sosa by either blasting a home run or striking out swinging at balls in the dirt, with absolutely nothing in between.  (Steve Phillips actually used his meathead to pull up a fascinating stat this week: Dunn has had a grand total of 12 sacrifice flies in 5 full seasons, while the Twins’ Justin Morneau had 11 sac flies just last year)  Finally, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be joining the Royals in the Pacific Coast League.

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(3) Predictions – So, here are my predictions for the upcoming baseball season (I’d advise you to promptly throw these in the trash):

AL East: (1) Boston Red Sox (Dice-K is the real deal), (2) New York Yankees (finally too old and too slow), (3) Toronto Blue Jays (America Jr. comes up just short again), (4) Tampa Bay Devil Rays (healthy Scott Kazmir = out of the cellar), (5) Baltimore Orioles (just sad)

AL Central: (1) Chicago White Sox, (2) Cleveland Indians, (3) Minnesota Twins, (4) Detroit Tigers, (5) Kansas City Royals

AL West: (1) Oakland A’s (Moneyball wins the division and fails in the playoffs again), (2) Los Angeles Angels of an Orange County Town Not Too Far From Laguna Beach (see note on the Yankees above), (3) Texas Rangers (the Chicago Tribune needs to stop printing stories about Sammy Sosa – no one here cares anymore), (4) Seattle Mariners (if Felix Hernandez comes out of his funk, we might have to move Seattle to the top of this division)

NL East: (1) New York Mets (they continue to seem like paper tigers to me, but they’re the best of a subpar lot), (2) Philadelphia Phillies (Ryan Howard rules), (3) Atlanta Braves (John Smoltz is still kicking), (4) Florida Marlins (Joe Girardi won the NL Manager of the Year award and was promptly fired – you stay classy, Marlins organization), (5) Washington Nationals (just waiting for their new ballpark)

NL Central: (1) Milwaukee Brewers, (2) Cincinnati Reds, (3) Chicago Cubs, (4) St. Louis Cardinals, (5) Houston Astros, (6) Pittsburgh Pirates

NL West: (1) Los Angeles Dodgers (the final resting place for late-90s/early-00s members of the Red Sox organization), (2) San Francisco Giants (there’s absolutely no potential news story here regarding some type of home run record – really, there’s nothing to see here, Mr. Pedro Gomez), (3) San Diego Padres (Jake Peavy – your 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner), (4) Colorado Rockies (Todd Helton is still alive), (5) Arizona Diamondbacks (the return of Randy Johnson’s mullet to Phoenix, which is the world’s second greatest mullet after that guy in the UPS commercials that draws on the whiteboard)

AL Division Series: Chicago White Sox over Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox over Cleveland Indians

NL Division Series: New York Mets over Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies over Los Angeles Dodgers

AL Championship Series: Boston Red Sox over Chicago White Sox

NL Championship Series: New York Mets over Philadelphia Phillies

World Series: Boston Red Sox over New York Mets

So, as much as I’d like to see the White Sox get back to the pinnacle of the baseball world, the Red Sox have got the best overall team going into the season.

(Images from Triumph BooksThe World of Grant)

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Some long overdue links:

(1) Nothing Fluky About This Power Final Four (ESPN.com) - As I alluded to in Sunday’s post, the upshot of having few upsets so far in the NCAA Tournament is that the Final Four is set up to be one of the most competitive ever.  Saturday’s games are going to be extremely compelling, with the Florida-UCLA rematch of last year’s championship game and Roy Hibbert of Georgetown being one of the few people (if not the only person) in the country that has the size to at least put some type of containment on Ohio State’s Greg Oden that doesn’t involve simply getting the Buckeye prodigy into foul trouble.  The college sports world has been anticipating the thought of Florida-Ohio State matchups for national championships in both football and basketball and with the way the two teams have used their size advantages, I’ll put the Gators and Buckeyes in the championship game.  I’ve liked Ohio State to win it all from the get-go with the Oden-Mike Conley, Jr. combination and with the way that senior guard Ron Lewis has torched everyone over the last three games, I’m staying with my Big Ten brethren to go all the way.  This should be a classic weekend of college basketball.

(2) Donovan Has Yet to Rule Out a Job Change (Kentucky.com) – I know that I might be in the minority in not believing that the Kentucky job is the papacy of college basketball and can’t be turned down, but Billy Donovan would be nuts to leave Gainesville for Lexington.  I’ve heard the arguments that Florida will always be a football school first and foremost while hoops is religion in Kentucky, so Donovan ought to move to one of the nation’s marquee programs.  However, with the way that college sports have trended since the creation of the BCS, there are actually few things better for a basketball program than to have a strong football program to leverage itself off of.  Look at the teams that have risen to power in basketball over the past few years in addition to Florida: Ohio State, Texas, Texas A&M, Wisconsin – all schools that used football money to upgrade their basketball facilities that have attracted top recruits.  Add on how USC made it to the Sweet Sixteen this season and will be enrolling O.J. Mayo next year, the nation’s top basketball recruit, and we have yet another football power getting some love on the basketball front.  Plus, let’s face it, you can get top recruits to come from anywhere and visit Florida.  Just as Donovan’s football counterpart Urban Meyer knew that the tradition and rabid fan base at Notre Dame couldn’t make up for the combination of support and sunshine in Gainesville, the similar tradition and rabid fan base at Kentucky is fool’s gold in this situation.

(3) Darwin’s God (New York Times) – This is a lengthy article but I highly recommend taking some time to read it.  Essentially, scientists have been studying whether (a) humans are naturally predisposed to believing in God or a higher power and (b) that predisposition is a result of evolution.  Absolutely a fascinating subject.

(4) The Best TV Show… You’re Not Watching (Chicago Tribune) – If my plea for you to watch ‘Friday Night Lights’ from October didn’t convince you to watch this fantastic show, maybe this in-depth write-up from the Tribune’s television critic will get you to take some action.  C’mon people – restore my faith in the taste of the American public.

And finally…

(5) Yakov Smirnoff (Wikipedia) – Don’t ask me how I ended up on the biography of Yakov Smirnoff while performing “research” on Wikipedia, but finding out who his roommate used to be might be one of the top ten random facts that I’ve ever encountered.  In Soviet Russia, Wikipedia researches you!

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All of you probably thought that I had retreated to some remote cave after Illinois had a horrific second half of the second half meltdown to blow a game that they should have won against Virginia Tech last week.  Believe me, I had a nasty post all ready to go in the wake of the game that would have made Ron Guenther’s exuberance seem mild (note ttha Gregg Doyel, a columnist I like overall, really hammered Illini Nation in that link), but as soon as I got home from watching the Illini debacle, I received a phone call from my mother telling me that one of my close relatives had just passed away.  That quickly put everything in life into perspective and is partly to explain for my relatively long absence from blogging, as well as having to adjust to a new job and waiting for a new laptop to get delivered from some remote location in China.

Today’s post is being written as I watch Florida dispense of a spirited Oregon team, which goes to show you how fine of line there is between being a genius in the tourney (as I picked the Ducks to make the Final Four) and an idiot (how it always seems to go for me).  The one thing that I did when I approached my brackets this year was to avoid too much chalk, particularly in the wake of how last year’s NCAA Tournament played out so unpredictably.  Of course, after employing this personal strategy, we ended up having the most chalk-heavy tourney in recent memory.  This has led to the predictable complaints from the national media that there haven’t been any big upsets and that the NCAA screwed over midmajor schools in favor of the power BCS conferences.  The way I see it, however, is that the NCAA actually did a great job of putting together the tournament field for once.  If the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee picks and seeds the teams correctly, there should be few, if any, true upsets.  For instance, Southern Illinois was given a 4-seed when in the past it probably would have received a double-digit seed just because it’s a directional school in the Missouri Valley Conference.  What that means is that the NCAA really did a great job of which teams were truly deserving of its seeds, which means that it has borne out that there haven’t been too many surprises in this tournament.  While this might put sportswriters at a disadvantage in that there isn’t a George Mason-type underdog to fawn over, the NCAA should really be commended for obviously knowing how well each of the teams would do this year a whole lot better than the average observer.

If anything, the quality of play during this tournament’s second weekend was as high as ever and we ought to have a fantastic Final Four.  That’s honestly more compelling to me as a college basketball fan (despite the absence of Illinois) than a couple of upsets in the first round.

(Image from Journal Gazette/Times-Courier)

The bubble watch is over and the field for the NCAA Tournament has been set, so here are some of my initial thoughts:

(1) Illinois Homer Analysis – The Illini have been on the edge of the bubble for essentially the entire season, so it wasn’t surprising to see them end up being one of the last 4 at-large invitees to the NCAA Tourney as a #12-seed in the West Region.  However, I feel pretty good about the draw with getting placed in the heart of Big Ten country in Columbus against a solid, but certainly not unbeatable, Virginia Tech team.  In fact, this is the first time I’m going to be able to pencil in my own team for the annual 12-over-5 upset – we haven’t been pretty, yet any Big Ten team as a 12-seed is going to be a bit dangerous (especially considering that our twin brother Purdue drew a 9-seed).  Also, it looks as if though the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has a sense of humor putting Kansas, Illinois, and Southern Illinois in the same bracket considering that Bill Self’s move to Lawrence spurred the Illini to hire Bruce Weber from the Salukis.  (Similar situations are in the bottom half of the West bracket with Ben Howland/UCLA/Pitt and the South with Thad Matta/Ohio State/Xavier)  Anyway, I’ve felt as negative about Illinois on the court as anyone lately, but a Sweet Sixteen isn’t out of the question as a result of the potential matchups in the first two rounds.  Unfortunately, there’s no way that we can get past a team as talented as Kansas, as much as it pains me to say.

(2) Is Georgetown Really That Awesome? – The analysts from across the country seem to be convinced that Georgetown has the easiest road to the regional final round out of anyone.  I can see from where they’re coming from – Vanderbilt is way overrated as a 6-seed, while Washington State, Boston College, and Texas Tech all have heavy flaws.  That being said, I always feel some bad chi with any team that everyone believes is a lock to advance, particularly since the Hoyas in particular have lost to Ol’ Dirty, er, Old Dominion University (a 12-seed this year) and NIT-bound Syracuse.  Maybe Washington State comes out from the bottom half of East bracket?  You never know.

(3) UNC Kind of Got Screwed – North Carolina’s “reward” for grabbing a #1 seed was to get placed in a bracket with Texas as a 4-seed.  It’s been said everywhere a million times but I’ll need to say it again: Kevin Durant is a monster and there’s no way I’d want to face the Longhorns in the tournament.  With the way that Texas has hung in with Kansas, possibly the most loaded team in the country, over the past couple of weeks, a Carmelo Anthony-in-2003-type run for Durant isn’t out of the question.

(4) Ohio State is in Good Shape – The Buckeyes have been clicking straight through to Big Ten regular season and tournament championships, so they got a good draw in the South region.  Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. have a great inside-outside combo while the entire team plays fantastic defense.  As long as they don’t end up playing Texas A&M in the regional final (which is being held in Aggie-friendly San Antonio), Ohio State is the team that I’m most confident in making it to the Final Four.

(5) Praising Arizona???!!! – If you recall (which I hope you don’t), I picked Arizona to win it all back in November.  That led the Wildcats to essentially mail it in for the majority of the Pac-10 season to put them at the 8-seed position to set them up with a potential second round date with defending champ and #1 overall seed Florida.  What are the chances of Arizona knocking off Florida to turn me into the sage of the century?  Pretty slim, but I will say that Arizona might be the most talented 8-seed that I can ever remember (which is another way of saying that they were massive underachievers this year).

(6) BCS Championship Rematch?  Odds Say No, So the Final Four Will Be… - Notwithstanding my misplaced thinking on Arizona above, the obvious pick would be an Ohio State-Florida final, which would create the unprecedented scenario of having the same two schools in the championship games for both football and basketball.  However, the odds over the years show that two 1-seeds meeting in the final doesn’t happen very often.  So, my 2007 NCAA Tournament prediction is a Final Four of Oregon, Kansas, Texas, and Ohio State (maybe I’m wishing too much for a Durant vs. Oden matchup), with Ohio State beating Kansas for the national championship.

Regardless of what happens, I’m pumped up for the best sporting event of the year.  Enjoy filling out your brackets!

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Illinois managed to muck up another critical road game at Iowa on Saturday, which means that the Illini blew an opportunity to solidify its NCAA Tournament profile and put themselves on the tenuous bubble that’s occupied by Big Ten counterparts Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, and the aforementioned Hawkeyes.  Michigan State really ought to be in the NCAA Tourney with its wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin, but they also only managed one Big Ten road win this year, so they aren’t necessarily completely secure.  One win in the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center this week (an event which, in a conference move that I heavily criticized last year, will be moved to Indianapolis until at least 2012) ought to remove any doubts on the Spartans.  On the other end, Michigan and Iowa are going to probably need to at least get to the Big Ten championship game to be able to get an invite to the dance, if not outright win the conference’s automatic bid.

That leaves Illinois and Purdue who have virtually identical NCAA profiles in terms of RPI and schedule strength along with matching Big Ten conference records.   As of today, it’s tough not to put the Boilermakers slightly ahead in a head-to-head with the way that they slashed the Illini in West Lafayette back in January.  At same time, the Illinois meltdown at Iowa on Saturday forces the Illini to have to play a Thursday first round game against Penn State in the Big Ten Tourney as opposed to taking advantage of a bye that’s now going to Purdue.  The upshot here is that even if Illinois beats Penn State, they’re also going to have to get past Indiana on Friday for a second win to really get into decent position on Selection Sunday.  Purdue, on the other hand, only needs one win versus Iowa on Friday in order to feel pretty good in terms of an NCAA bid.

Honestly, with everything that has happened to the Illinois program this season, we’re lucky to be even in a position to make the NCAA Tournament right now.  What’s keeping us alive right now is more of what we have avoided (any bad losses to sub-50 RPI teams), than what we have achieved (the best wins this year have been against Indiana and Michigan State, which aren’t exactly marquee victories).  Still, it was incredibly frustrating to watch the Illini just not execute in such a critical game on Saturday.  Instead of giving Illini Nation a breather this week by taking care of business against the Hawkeyes, the Illinois basketball team has put us on edge once again.

(Image from FightingIllini.com)