Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April Fools: Dissecting the Highs and Lows of the First Month of the 2015 MLB Season

By Sports Enthusiast and Guru Ryan Mitchell, Contributing Blogger

As we near the end of April, much will be made about each team’s early season performance, both positive and negative, by fans and media alike, as is the case every year. Unfortunately, what gets lost in this instant reaction and evaluation frenzy is the context that there are roughly 150 more games to be played on the schedule for each team. The 12-game sample size that April has given us simply isn’t enough to make more than surface level observations and critiques, barring significant injuries or roster overhaul. Thus let’s get to 3 of the more common overreactions floating out there and either debunk or justify their validity.

Overreaction #1:  The Boston Red Sox are about to pull off another worst to first finish!

Whoa. With that rotation? In that Division?

It’s fair to say the Sox have looked good early on, despite not getting full production from their heavily invested offense. Offseason acquisition LF Hanley Ramirez has provided much needed power, though not much else, while 2B Dustin Pedroia looks back to 2013 form after a down year last season. The offense will score far more runs than the paltry 634 it put up a year ago, simply because of talent on the roster and the relative ease of hitting at Fenway or nearly any other AL East ballpark for that matter. This should afford them the chance to finish in the top 3 in the AL East.

The pitching and defense is where we must temper expectations in 2015, barring a significant addition or unforeseen breakout season. The rotation, consisting of Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly, is something out of a bad horror movie. Buchholz is the only one who has performed at a high level for more than a single season, yet has never done it in consecutive seasons (a trend he will not be starting this season). The defense has been subpar with 9 errors to their name already. The bullpen is solid when Koji Uehara is healthy, and is anchored by the reliable Edward Mujica, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa.

Overall, it’s safe to say the Red Sox will be competitive as long as their rotation allows them to be. They’ll score enough to remain in the upper echelon of the ultra-competitive AL East, yet will struggle to contain teams like the Orioles and Blue Jays to the point where winning the division is no guarantee. However, I believe that the Red Sox will head into the final week of the season with a chance to complete the worst to first cycle again, simply because they have the means to upgrade as the season progresses and that division is a mess.

Overreaction #2:  The Chicago Cubs are for real and will qualify for the Playoffs!
Never say never, but the Cubs? This isn’t a drunken phone call from a night out in Wrigleyville is it?

As farfetched as it sounds, this overreaction does have some legs in that this is the best outfit the Cubs have trotted out since Lou Piniella’s forgettable, but solid 2009 squad. Coincidentally, they’ve been unable to break the 700-run threshold since that season, which is something that should change in 2015. Second year RF Jorge Soler has provided the offensive spark to makes that a possibility with his pop. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and SS Starlin Castro have also been highly effective early on. The call-ups of prospects, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, should only further push their ability to put up crooked number innings. For the first time in a long while, the offense is suddenly not the detriment of this team.

On the pitching side, the Cubs seem to have struck gold with former starter outcasts Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood. These guys have spent time towing the line with the Cubs in recent down years, and it seems to finally be paying off. Big fish offseason signing Jon Lester has been terrible in his 3 starts thus far, which exemplifies a case where two things are likely equally true. First off, Lester was vastly overpaid for his skill level after taking advantage of a career season in 2014, and expectations are too high. Secondly, despite his price tag, he will more than likely bounce back and help balance out this rotation as the season progresses. The rest of the rotation will need it, as Jason Hammel has been terrible since July of last season and Kyle Hendricks is a young project. The bullpen here is decent but sort of non-descript, aside from the ever-improving Pedro Strop. Look for the pitching to flash brilliance at times, while coming back to reality against the elite offensive teams on the schedule.

Ultimately, the fate of the 2015 Cubs will come down to pedigree, experience and talent, which is something rival St. Louis Cardinals has more of in all facets of the game. Expect the Cardinals to win the NL Central, which will force the Cubs to have to focus on procuring one of the Wild Card spots. They’ll be in the mix along with the Braves, Padres, Reds, Pirates and Mets. but likely will be on the outside looking in come October because of their inexperience and lack of depth.

Overreaction #3:  The Milwaukee Brewers are the worst team in baseball!

Excuse me, what happened?

From being the second best team going into the All-Star Break in 2014 to holding the worst record in all of baseball, the slip has been astonishingly bad for the Brewers. The offense, which is not completely devoid of talent and once looked explosive, has been totally lifeless thus far. In short, they’re overpaying that PED hack RF Ryan Braun way too much money to not produce and relying far too much on elderly 3B Aramis Ramirez. They don’t get hits, they don’t get walks and they’re incapable of stealing bases, none of which gives much hope of an ability to score something they’ll need to make up for their inferior rotation and fielding. The silver lining again, though, is that there is talent and it’s early. Eventually, some of the bats will heat up, but will it be enough?

 Their rotation just isn’t very good, unfortunately. First off, they traded their best SP Yovani Gallardo to Texas for prospects and did nothing to attempt to replace his production or consistency. The combination of Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta just isn’t inspiring, despite Nelson’s hot start. The fielding has been equally frustrating and the source of a lot of unnecessary runs allowed. That will be a theme for the Brewers in the early innings this season, as their starters are mostly all high ERA guys. On a positive note, the bullpen is one of the most consistent in baseball and a source of strength. Closer Francisco Rodriguez has put up some of his best numbers in Milwaukee, and relievers Jeremy Jeffress and Tyler Thornburg are solid. The paradoxical composition and performance of the Brewers pitching staff in 2015 will be something to watch, and then immediately after, scratch one’s head.

In spite of all of the well-documented negatives surrounding this team, from the struggling offense to the lack of quality starting pitching, the Brewers do have what it takes to bounce back from this horrendous start. There’s simply too much offensive talent and bullpen strength to believe that his team will lose 100 games. Thus, they cannot and will not be the worst team in all of baseball by the time this season is over, despite the early failures. Look for the Brewers to struggle most of the season and still finish in last place in the NL Central, but at least make it interesting at times.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Juicy Story Lines Abound in NBA Playoffs

We are just three days into the postseason, but it already feels like the first round won't be quite the classic we saw last year. Nevertheless, I'm here to tell you that the story lines far exceed those from last year!

Take, for instance, the predictability factor. I know hindsight is 20/20, but a lot of people saw a Spurs-Heat collision course, and that's exactly what we got. This year, the jury is still out, and I see a handful of teams with a reasonable chance to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy and etch their name in basketball immortality. 

Here is a breakdown of story lines and contenders:

The Top Seeds

Who would have thought Golden State and Atlanta would be the top seeds? How about that for unpredictability?

Let's start with the team that is so easy to root for. Golden State went from a 51-win six seed to a 67-win juggernaut, topping the entire league. And, they did so through a coaching change. Seriously, who does that? But, while Steve Kerr has been just what the doctor ordered, credit must be given to his two top assistants, Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams. They are the unsung heroes of the staff, and maybe, the team. 

That said, many of the players could also make the same claim. The Warriors are truly one of the deepest and most talented young teams I've seen in some time. They're led by the "splash brothers" duo of Curry and Thompson. Heck, remember in the offseason when some NBA fans thought they should deal Thompson for Kevin Love in a multi-player deal. I admit, I was one of them! But, boy was I wrong, as evidenced by Thompson's record-breaking 37-point quarter earlier this season, and his 26-point performance last night. Then, there's Draymond Green, who took over David Lee's starting spot due to injury, and hasn't looked back. Almost matching Green's versatility is big man Andrew Bogut, one of the best passing and defending big men in the game. Throw in a bench full of speed, shotmaking and size, and it's no wonder they are a fan favorite.

Then, there's Atlanta, who went from an under .500 8-seed a year ago to a 60-win one seed in the East. You may still not know the name of their coach, but you should. Mike Budenholzer just won coach of the year, and rightfully so. He served 17 years under the brilliant basketball mind of Gregg Popovich, and it seems to have paid off. Much like the Pacers of last season, the Hawks are a blue collar team that exceeds their talent through hard work and unselfishness. Time will tell if veteran big men Millsap and Horford can anchor them to the promised land, but it's definitely an intriguing story line.

The Spurs: Dynasty or Debilitation?

As the Spurs embark on their title defense and go for their first back-to-back championships in the Duncan era, the question keeps coming up as to when this team will be over the hill. While Duncan and Ginobili don't have many years left, it's been the disappearance of Parker's game that has held this team back. If they are going to keep the dynasty talk rolling, he will have to find his elite form, and find it fast! Or else their chase for a championship banner may be replaced with a retirement banner for Duncan. 

Can CP3 Finally Do It?

There is no doubt that Chris Paul has been one of the elite points guards in the league for some time. But, his legacy remains empty without a championship ring. And, while the task is daunting in the West, if Paul and co. can beat the Spurs, they just may have the battle wounds needed to navigate through the conference and into the record books. 

Can the Grizz Actually Win It All?

That's a good question! This team looked like an early co-favorite with Golden State to win the West. Since, they've taken a nosedive from the 2 seed to the 5. Yet, they still have the bigs and the defense to make a run. They also have their most offensive firepower since Rudy Gay left. It would be a remarkable feat for arguably the most blue collar team in basketball. 

Can LeBron Bring It Home?

For some reason, there hasn't been too much hype lately surrounding LeBron bringing title to the desperate Ohio faithful. But, I have a feeling that if they make the finals, it will be all we hear about. They are definitely the favorite in the east, and it's a story line that will never get old. 

Can the Bulls Finally Win One Without MJ?

As the greatness of MJ and all the rings keeps fading away, Bulls fans are left to wonder if they'll ever win it all again. Well, this just might be their best team since MJ's glory days. The addition of Pau Gasol, the meteoric rise of Jimmy Butler and the return of Derrick Rose has Chicago buzzing again. Can they pull it off? Time will tell, but to me, they're the only ones that can stop LeBron from reaching his 5th straight finals.


So, this first round may not be as scintillating as we had hoped, but the story lines are still out there. I expect to see some classic games next round, and as the playoffs move on. Enjoy the hoops folks!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

NBA Playoff Predictions

Another season is in the books and another pursuit for the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy begins! Without further ado, here are my playoff predictions:

Round 1


Many people wanted to see Westbrook and the Thunder in this matchup, but I was not one of them. The man has been almost superhuman this year and is a joy to watch, but it's simply a 1 on 5 show. Need proof? The man scored 54 points against Indiana, a team that missed the playoffs, and the Thunder still lost!

Insert the Pelicans, who bring in one of the game's very best players in Anthony Davis. The unibrow may not get the credit he deserves, with his team only getting two national TV games all season. Now is his time to let the world know of his immense talents!

Unfortunately, those talents won't be enough. Not even close. The Warriors are on a mission, and the Pelicans aren't in the same league.

Prediction: Warriors in 4


I've heard from some that my hometown Mavs would be better off facing the Spurs, matchup-wise. You can debate that all day, but I believe one thing we can all agree on is that this is the most fun matchup the Dallas fan base could have hoped for.

Between the tirade of Morey and Cuban, Chandler Parsons taking on his old team, and the possibility of an inner-state rivalry brewing, the storylines are very intriguing. The real question is if the actual play on the court will catch up with them.

I think it will come close! I know Houston is a top 10 defensive team this year, but I still see this series being a high scoring affair. I think Carlisle can keep this series close, and outcoach McHale. However, the talent of the Rockets should overcome that. Combine that with the health concerns of Parsons and Devin Harris, Dirk being such a liability on defense, and the team's lack of depth, and I think it's just too much.

Prediction: Rockets in 6


This series could be a classic! Can CP3 carry the clips? Or, will the Spurs continue to defy father time and cement their legacy yet again?

The Clips have battled through injuries to Griffin and Crawford to land the 3 seed. Meanwhile, the Spurs made a late charge for home court, winning 11 straight. Ultimately, their loss to the Pelicans in the season finale sent them from the 2 seed to the 6.

With home court and Griffin and Crawford back, the Clips may be the safe pick. But, I cannot pick against the Spurs this early. Until they go down, I won't believe they're too old. That has fooled me before. Pop and the crew gets it done.

Prediction: Spurs in 6


This series will be a real grind, and truly is a tossup. The loss of Wesley Matthews is brutal, and the addition of Arron Afflalo doesn't make up for it. But, Lillard and Aldridge are great, and that home court advantage in Portland is no joke. Then, there's Memphis, who seemed like an early co-favorite with Golden State, only to have a rough stretch and go from the 2 seed to the 5.

Ultimately, I think Memphis gets it done. It really could go either way, but I think they excel far more in the half court than Portland, and their experience and bigs will get it done.

Prediction: Memphis in 6


On paper, the Nets are just as talented. Off paper, they continue to be one of the most underachieving teams in the league. Mike Budenholzer has been a Godsend in Atlanta, providing a tremendous turnaround. He's my personal pick for Coach of the Year, and it's no coincidence that he was an assistant coach under Pop for 17 years. He seems to have picked up every little detail it takes to excel in coaching.

The Nets are talented enough to win the series, but reality says otherwise. They are a major letdown, and I have to side with Paul Pierce's recent comments on Deron Williams. He has not been the same player since they moved to Brooklyn and played under the Russian Billionaire's checkbook.

Prediction: Hawks in 5


Hats off to Brad Stevens. The man doesn't have one all-star, and got his squad in the playoffs. But, that talent disparity will be a major problem against Cleveland. Somehow, it seems the Cavs have flown under the radar. After a rocky start to the season, Cleveland has been phenomenal down the stretch. The trade for Smith and Shumpert was huge, giving LeBron a strong supporting cast.

Prediction: Cavs in 4


I, for one, will admit that I scoffed at Kidd as a coach. There's no doubt that he knows the game, but I had an issue with how quickly he received a head coaching job. Nevertheless, the joke is on me. He has taken a team with little veteran talent or leadership into the playoffs. On the other side, the Bulls have battled injuries to snag the three seed.

I believe the games can stay close, but there's no way I'm picking against the Bulls here. Gasol has been a rock, holding together a team plagued by injuries. However, the team seems to have gotten healthy at just the right time. I'm not sold that Rose can be enough of a difference maker for them to make a deep run, but give me the Bulls in a short series.

Prediction: Bulls in 5


This is a tough series to call. Lowry has shined in the spotlight in recent playoffs, but I think this is Wall's year to do so.

Wall is one of the best guards in the league, but is often overshadowed by others. It's a close series, but I believe Wall will breakthrough, and Pierce has enough big shots left in him to close out close games.

Prediction: Wizards in 7

Conference Semis


This kicks off what should be a fantastic 2nd round of games. This will be a very interesting series to watch, with a real contrast of styles. While the Warriors are run and gun, the Griz want to slow it down and let their bigs go to work.

The Griz will make Golden State earn it, but I can't go against the Warriors. They are on a mission, and the Griz just haven't been the same team during the 2nd half of the season.

Prediction: Warriors in 7


Will Harden finally have his breakout playoff moment? Was Duncan's block of Harden in the final seconds a sign? I believe it was. The Spurs are back, and it's all about matchups. I believe the Clips are a tougher matchup.

The winner of Clips/Spurs takes out Houston. Houston has fought through injuries, and Harden has been amazing. But, the playoffs are another animal, and Harden has yet to prove that he is a superstar there. Also, I'm not convinced Howard will ever be a winner. McHale will get outcoached too. Give me the Spurs one more time.

Prediction: Spurs in 6


The Hawks have had a phenomenal season, but the buck stops here. I know I'm going out on a limb here, but I really believe in Wall and co.

I see a bunch of close games, with Washington breaking the hearts of the Hawks faithful. That said, I realize it is a tossup or worse just to get by Toronto. But, I have a feeling here!

Prediction: Wizards in 6


This should be the conference finals matchup. The two teams have the most talent in the East. To me, this series comes down to if Jimmy Butler can become the Kawhi Leonard of the 2014 playoffs.

I think Butler is on a similar path, but after his injuries, I'm not convinced he will have his playoff moment. Preseason, I thought the Bulls were the better team. But, after the Cavs trade and how they've looked, I think they get the job done with home court.

Prediction: Cavs in 7

Conference Finals


This would be a doozy! Preseason, I had the Spurs winning it all again. But, I think dropping to the 6 seed will be too much to overcome. Asking a team to win 3 series on the road in the vaunted Western Conference is too tall of a task, even for the Spurs.

It's the Warriors' time. The team of destiny breaks through to reach the NBA finals.

Prediction: Warriors in 6


These teams had some great battles in LeBron's first tenure in Cleveland. I see this series as less of a clash.

The Wizards will run out of gas, and the Cavs are simply too good here.

Prediction: Cavs in 5

NBA Finals:


What an amazing finals this would be! How will the moment affect both teams? Two of the most passionate and desperate fan bases get to find out.

I think the shotmaking of Golden State will take it in the end. LeBron puts up a valiant effort, but I believe the pressure will get to him. And, it's not really his fault. Golden State is a great team.

Prediction: Golden State in 6