Archive for May, 2014

The Countdown: #16-13

Posted: 05/27/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

We’re now in the top half of the ranking of all 32 World Cup teams, and from this point forward I expect all but two teams, one from group B and one from group D, to qualify for the last 16. Here again are the rankings from #32 to #17: Australia, Iran, Cameroon, Ecuador, Algeria, Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Bosnia, Mexico, Croatia, Russia, Japan, United States. After the Landon Donovan news, I’ve rethought my ranking of the US. It’s not that I hate that Jurgen Klinsmann (it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but I don’t hate it) left perhaps America’s best player ever off the 23 man roster, it’s that I now believe that Klinsmann is building this program with the intention of being full strength for the 2018 World Cup. I’d move them a bunch down, possibly to between South Korea and Bosnia. But I’ll do a quick revised ranking in the days leading up to the beginning of the tournament when we know whether guys like Radamel Falcao and Luis Suarez will be at all close to full strength for the World Cup.
Reminder: I value both the quality of a team and the chance I see them having of advancing past their group and beyond.

#16 Switzerland: I really don’t know what to make of this Switzerland team. On the one hand, you have their tremendous qualifying campaign. Switzerland didn’t lose a game, going 7-0-3, although the 4-4 tie against Iceland after blowing a huge lead seems more like a loss. It’s true that there was no other great team in the group, but the fact that they were able to amass a +11 goal differential (17 scored, six allowed) against quality teams like Norway, Cyprus, and Iceland is very impressive. It’s especially impressive when you consider the youth this team has. Their stars, Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Josip Drmic, are all 21 or 22 years old, and central defender Fabian Schaer, top scorer in qualifying, is also 22. That isn’t to say the Swiss don’t have talent, because they do. Shaqiri plays for Bayern Munich and could be a part of the full-time starting lineup as soon as next season. Xhaka, who also plays in the Bundesliga (that’s a theme when it comes to this Switzerland team), was a regular starter for Borussia Mönchengladbach at just 21 years old. And Drmic, who has emerged as the frontrunner to start up top for the Swiss, scored 17 goals in 33 Bundesliga appearances for struggling Nuremburg. The perception when it comes to Switzerland is that they are very organized defensively but can only score from set-pieces. Basically, people think they are bland. That used to be the case, but I think the Swiss are finally developing some legitimately good offensive creators, from Shaqiri to the all-Napoli central midfield of Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami (heck, at 29 years old those guys are basically ancient compared to the Shaqiri/Xhaka/Drmic trio). I think we can be sure that the four goals allowed against Iceland in qualifying was a fluke and that this team also defends extremely well. In the end, this is a team a lot like Belgium, with a progressing soccer program but a team that still needs time. I like Belgium better simply because they have more high-end talent, but I see Switzerland playing pretty well in the World Cup and making it difficult to win three points against them. The last friendly they played, a 2-2 tie against Croatia, was one that was encouraging because Drmic was able to score two goals and the Swiss thoroughly outplayed their opponents, with eight shots on target to Croatia’s one. I don’t think they are quite ready for a deep run in the World Cup, but in a soft group I think qualification for the last 16 is likely.

#15 Nigeria: You can make a very strong argument that Nigeria is the best team from Africa. They did, after all, win the African Nations Cup last year, beating Ivory Coast, the one African team I have above them (just one spot, but still) along the way. So why do I have Nigeria ranked below Ivory Coast? Well, part of it has to do with the dysfunction of Nigerian soccer. The Nigerian FA is known for discarding coaches (20 in 20 years) and as a result, current coach Stephen Keshi (one of two African coaches in the World Cup), who has been quite good, has threatened to quit the team and seemed on his way out before the African Nations Cup win. There is still tension there, which is not good for the team. Also not good for the team is its group. Unlike Group C, which features Ivory Coast, Group F has a clear alpha dog in Nigeria. I’d be shocked if the African team were to get any sort of positive result from the Argentina game, which leaves their chance to advance to the round of 16 up in the air. I do think they’ll get through over Bosnia, though, which is why I think the #15 rank is perfect. I think this team on paper and based on their results is very good. They didn’t lose a game in qualifying, eventually beating Ethiopia 4-1 in a two-game playoff. In their last game, a friendly against Mexico that was basically a road game (it was played in Atlanta), Nigeria tied the North Americans 0-0, and neither team was clearly superior. This team is very fun to watch with great speed and skilled strikers, and they have some great individual talent. It all starts from the back. Victor Enyeama, the goalie, is the team’s most important player, and he played very well this season for Lille, with just 26 goals conceded in 38 starts. The team’s best non-goalie is likely Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel, who has played much better for his country than he has for his team. That is evidenced by how he played against Ivory Coast in the African Nations Cup. By all accounts, the Chelsea player simply outplayed Yaya Toure, one of the best and most imposing soccer players in the world. By no coincidence, they won that game 4-1, so Mikel is also pivotal to Nigeria’s success. Nigeria also has players like Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa, and Ogenyi Onazi, who have played at a high level in England, Russia, and Italy respectively. Pretty impressive. I think Nigeria will beat Bosnia head-to-head en route to the round of 16, where they’ll likely play France. Could they advance to the quarterfinals? With the way France plays sometimes, it’s possible, but I expect the more talented team to win that game.

#14 Ivory Coast: And here’s Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire), my top-ranked African team. This team is a confusing one. Although they probably have the most talent of any African country, they couldn’t escape the group stage in either 2006 or 2010 (their first two trips to the World Cup), when they were at the height of their powers. To be fair, they were in the so-called “Group of Death” in both tournaments, as they’ve had to play Brazil, Argentina, Netherlands, and Portugal in their six World Cup games to this point. On the bright side, they won their other two games in previous World Cups, and this year they have a much more forgiving group. Even the presumptive favorite, Colombia, has suffered recently with the devastating knee injury to star striker Radamel Falcao, who may miss the World Cup but will certainly not be full strength. Ivory Coast now has the shot to not only get out of their group but finish on top and have a winnable game against one of Italy, England, or Uruguay in the round of 16 (what a mess that group is. You’ve noticed that all three of those teams are in the top 13. That is also the case in Group B). I think they’ll finish behind Colombia, but they should be able to get through the group. Unfortunately, their recent play hasn’t been great. They’ve won just four of their past 11 games in a stretch that spans the last calendar year, and that includes embarrassing 4-1 losses to Mexico and Nigeria. I’m not panicking, though, because Ivory Coast has played just one game in the last six months and change, and that was a respectable 2-2 tie against Belgium in which they bounced back after falling behind 2-0 and dominated the run of play, holding 60% of possession and being fouled 21 times. The fact that they played well against a team I’ll have in my top eight alleviates my concerns and brings my focus to the actual roster, which happens to be very good. The headliner is, of course, Yaya Toure. Toure absolutely dominated the Premier League this season and was the best player on a title-winning team. By definition, you can’t say that about a lot of players. He has a lot of strength, and should dominate Japan and Greece, if not Colombia. And Toure isn’t alone. Gervinho, a former Arsenal player, was terrific for Roma, starting nearly every game and gaining valuable confidence. Salomon Kalou, the former Chelsea and current Lille player, scored 16 goals and started every Ligue 1 game. He’s going to be a big asset. So still is Didier Drogba, who is now 36 years old and will be participating in what is likely to be his last World Cup. Drogba was once one of the best strikers in the world. He’s no longer that, but he still is a productive player who played in the Champions League for Galatasaray. With Toure, Gervinho, Kalou, and Drogba (not to mention a tremendous backup to Drogba in Swansea City’s Wilfred Bony), Ivory Coast has the potential to be deadly on the attack. The defense is a different story, having given up 13 goals in six games against fellow World Cup teams in the past calendar year (Mexico, Nigeria, Ghana, Belgium). It’ll be an all hands on deck approach at the back, but  if Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora can play well, Ivory Coast has a legitimate chance to advance to the quarterfinals.

#13 England: Here is the cutoff. I had a really tough time picking the #13 team, and at one point had Uruguay, Chile, and Colombia all penciled in to the #13 spot. Speaking of those three countries, what do all have in common? That’s right: they are all located in South America. And where is the World Cup? Oh that’s right. It’s in Brazil, which also happens to be in South America. Where, may I ask, is England? Not only is it not in South America, but it’s in a part of the world that has a much different climate than Brazil and South America. That is really the reason that I have Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay ahead of England. I think that England is a very solid team. Although they sorely lack a top player, Wayne Rooney (who, it must be noted, has had no success in the World Cup) is good and England have a bunch of solid young players. I think that, although they have the talent to get through to the round of 16, the fact that they’ve been drawn into a group with Italy and Uruguay might doom them in the end. Could 2018 be a more realistic time for England to go far in the tournament? While they were undefeated in qualifying, they weren’t all that impressive. They ran up the score against pushovers San Marino and Moldova, but struggled against tougher competition, going just 2-0-4 against Poland, Ukraine, and Montenegro and sometimes struggling to score goals in that time. Expectations of an England team have rarely been this good, and rightfully so. They have some speed and youth in Raheem Sterling (19 years old), Ross Barkley (20) and Daniel Sturridge (24), but their defense is shallow and goalie Joe Hart has been shaky. I could see England making a run to the quarterfinals, but I think they are more likely to look like the inexperienced team they are, make some mistakes, and miss out on the round of 16. That’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world, because this looks like a team that will be at its best in four years.

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Who is the best team in baseball?

Posted: 05/25/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

In many ways, the theme of this 2014 season has been a word that is normally so overused in sports: parity. Only four teams, one of whom is amazingly the Boston Red Sox (who have been terrible since my post about them), have won fewer than 44% of their games. On the flip side, just four teams have a winning percentage higher than .563, including the surprising Brewers who have slumped of late. With that being said, I’m not sure there is a clear “best team in baseball” right now, as there has been in years past. Neither the Yankees or Red Sox are dominant. Neither are perennial powerhouses St. Louis and Atlanta. So who are the candidates for “Best Team in Baseball”? And who is the best team?
I think there are three legitimate candidates for best team in baseball, and the three are basically even: Detroit, Oakland, and San Francisco. Let’s look at the argument for each team.
*These stats do not include today’s games.

Detroit: The Tigers have a legitimate claim to the best all-around team and the team with the most talent in baseball. Even before Prince Fielder went down with a season-ending injury (even a guy who has been the mostdurable player in baseball over the past decade can get hurt. Baseball is weird), the Tigers’ trade of Fielder for Ian Kinsler had been a clear win. Kinsler, who has slotted in at the leadoff spot and already racked up 2.1 Fangraphs WAR, is hitting .333 and has been the perfect addition to an offense that had been rather top heavy. Along with Chase Utley, he’s been one of the top two second baseman in baseball. The Tigers also have the best 3-4 hitting combination in baseball in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Those three players, each of whom has played every game, have been the key to a good offense. And the offense also has clear room for improvement. Cabrera has been great, but he’ll get even better. Third baseman Nick Castellanos has struggled in his first year of starting, but he’s a good hitter who should bounce back.
The Tigers also have a heck of a rotation. Although Justin Verlander has had some worrying starts, that’s been hardly noticeable given the talent he has around him in the rotation. Max Scherzer has a legitimate shot at back-to-back Cy Young awards, Anibal Sanchez is the best #3 starter in baseball when healthy, while Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello have made the step up and are now above average starters. There are just no holes in the rotation, and it’s probably the best in baseball.
Based on just offense and the rotation, the Tigers are the best team in baseball. The bullpen, however, has some big holes. Their bullpen has a 4.31 ERA, fifth worst in all of baseball. Joe Nathan, the expensive closer they signed in free agency, has an ERA of 4.08 and has blown the same number of saves (3) as he did all of last season.
In the end, when a team’s biggest concern is its slightly below-average and under-performing bullpen, the team is doing pretty will. Even the fielding, which was terrible last year, has improved with the move of Cabrera from third to first. The Tigers probably have the biggest hole of any team in this discussion: shortstop. Tiger shortstops have been terrible, and although that hasn’t been fatal for the offense yet, it will be if they don’t find a suitable shortstop. Stephen Drew is gone now, so the solution might have to be internal or come from a trade. For now, the Tigers are good enough to be considered one of the best teams in baseball. I think it’s fair to say that, because of their offense and the fact that they have some clear fixes, they have the most upside in baseball.

Oakland: The Athletics are the prototypical regular season team in that year after year they have put up great win totals but have failed to produce in the playoffs. This year, they have the best run differential in baseball, and it isn’t even close. Their +92 is 43 runs better than any other team, and the Athletics have the second most runs scored (behind the Colorado Rockies) and second fewest runs allowed (behind the Braves). They are again led by a bunch of misfits: Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, and the amazing catcher combination of John Jaso (.373 OBP) and Derek Norris (.430) that has been the best in baseball. The pitching has been even more incredible. Despite being saddled with the Tommy John surgeries of projected starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, the Athletics’ starting pitchers have the best ERA in the MLB. Sonny Gray has a sub-2 ERA, and it appears as though they have found another diamond in the rough in former Rockies’ prospect Drew Pomeranz. Of 17 pitchers who have made an appearance for Oakland, only two have an ERA above four. With the exception of Jim Johnson, this bullpen has been lights out. Sean Doolittle, Fernando Abad, Luke Gregerson, and Dan Otero have been the four most used relievers (96 innings total) and have a cumulative 2.63 ERA. The money spent on Johnson appears to have been spent poorly, but the message is clear: the Athletics have found another competitive advantage by valuing their bullpen. That’s where they have the biggest edge over the Tigers, and that’s why I think they are slightly better than Detroit at the moment. They still don’t have the big-name pitchers to compete with Detroit, but if they keep playing this way they will be a nightmare for opposing teams, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.

San Francisco: In 2010, the Giants won the World Series. After slumping in 2011, they won it again two seasons ago before finishing 76-86 last season. Now it’s another even year, so the Giants are good again. Makes sense! I don’t know how they do it, but the Giants have actually followed this silly and lazy analysis put forward by many baseball analysts. They have the best record in baseball right now at 31-18, but this isn’t the same team that won in 2010 and 2012. While those teams were built around pitching, this is built around hitting and specifically the homer. It doesn’t make sense, because in AT&T Park the Giants play in one of the most spacious parks in the National League. It hasn’t mattered this season; the Giants have hit 58 homers, third most in baseball behind just the Blue Jays and altitude-aided Rockies. They also haven’t been led by the usual suspects. Pablo Sandoval has had a very poor year, while Buster Posey has also been well below average. The leaders offensively have been none other than Michael Morse, who was signed to a small one-year deal before this season and now has 10 homers, and Angel Pagan, who missed half of last season. The result has been an offense that has been good but not great, and one that also has a lot of potential. Meanwhile, the pitching has also been good, albeit without much help from former aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Free agent signing Tim Hudson has been magnificent, and Ryan Vogelsong has bounced back from an injury-plagued year. Sound familiar? It should, because the offense has had basically the same success stories. I really don’t know how this team is 31-18, and they’ve probably been a bit lucky. But that’s probably a good thing, and they also could become a dominant team when Sandoval, Posey, Lincecum, and Cain, the stars of the team in 2010 and 2012, improve. Will they win another World Series? The odds are obviously against it, but at this point, I really wouldn’t be surprised.

Verdict: In the end, this isn’t a simple answer. The Athletics have been the best team so far, while I’d bet on the Tigers to end the season with the best record in baseball. Meanwhile, the Giants have somehow gotten past the quarter point of the season with the best record in baseball despite not performing anywhere near their potential. So the answer, for now, is the Athletics, but they could be third in the pecking order very soon. That’s how close this is.

Here are the other teams I considered for best team in baseball. In the end, these teams were two one-dimensional (either pitching heavy or hitting heavy) to compete with these three strong all-around teams:
Toronto Blue Jays
Los Angeles Angels
Atlanta Braves
Colorado Rockies

The Countdown: #20-17

Posted: 05/21/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

It’s time for teams #20 to #17 on the eight post rundown of each team in the World Cup, from worst (Australia) to best (you’ll see). As a reminder, here are the rankings of the bottom 12 teams, from #32 Australia to #21 Mexico: Australia, Iran, Cameroon, Ecuador, Algeria, Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Bosnia, Mexico. That’s one team from groups B, C, G, and D and two from A, E, F, and H.
Remember, this is based both off of chance I think these teams have of progressing and general quality of the team. That means that I won’t necessarily have two teams from each group in the top 16 (I might well have a team I see eliminated early in the top half of these rankings).

#20 Croatia: I really think Brazil is going to have a great shot to sweep their group. With the back-to-back placings of Mexico and Croatia, there’s going to be a large difference between the host nation and the rest of the group. The real battle will be for the second qualification spot. Right now I’ve given Croatia the slight edge because I think they have more star power, but it’s a coin-flip. Croatia performed poorly during qualification considering the amount of talent that they have, going 4-3-3 and failing to win against Belgium, the only other World Cup team in their qualification group. Worse yet than their failure to beat the Belgians was Croatia’s disappointing results against the poorer teams in the group. They were listless against Scotland (Scotland!) not once but twice, losing both games and failing to score a goal. In the end, Croatia had to play Iceland head-to-head for a spot in the World Cup after finishing second behind Belgium in their qualifying group. And although they progressed, Croatia wasn’t all that impressive even against Iceland, beating them just 2-0 over their two games even though they had the vast majority of the ball and the shots on goal. What I’m trying to get at is that in qualifying Croatia looked more like a fringe-World Cup team than one that could progress into the last 16. Why do I have them going through? Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m not a big fan of Cameroon or Mexico, and I think on paper Croatia has the best team of the bunch. Second of all, while it seems like they got a bad draw by having to play Brazil first, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It’s not as if Croatia was going to beat Brazil anyway, and instead of being forced to sit out a game against challengers Cameroon or Mexico, star striker Mario Mandzukic, who is suspended for one game for being shown a red card in the final qualifier against Iceland, misses the game against Brazil. Croatia will have Bayern Munich’s top striker in their two really important games, which is a huge plus. And it’s not as if Mandzukic is alone. Croatia has a lot of top-end talent, from Real Madrid’s Luka Modric (a possible Champions League winner) to Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic (a Europa League winner), to Southampton’s breakout central defender Dejan Lovren. Simply put, Croatia have some really good players. The problem is that, like Bosnia a few spots below them in the rankings, there is a lack of depth. Outside of Lovren and long-time starter Darijo Srna, the defense is very spotty. So to are the wings, and I don’t think they are going to get enough width and speed up the lines to spread out really well-organized defensive teams. They could well get shut out by Brazil, but, luckily for them, Cameroon and Mexico aren’t the best defensive teams. I expect some tense moments, especially after an opening-game loss against Brazil, but in the end, Croatia’s superior talent should win out. They are too inconsistent and haven’t shown enough for me to rank them in the top half, though.

#19 Russia: Russia marks the second, and last, team I have qualifying for the second round while being outside the top 16 of my power rankings. Group H is not a strong group, but it is an interesting one. While I see Belgium finishing at the top of the group, the race for second is almost as interesting as the Croatia-Mexico one. Will it be Russia or South Korea qualifying? Or can Algeria make a push and surprise me and others? I think it’ll be Russia, because I think they have the strongest defense. They also were terrific in qualification, as they topped a group that also included Portugal. Russia allowed just five goals in their 10 games while scoring 20, and they matched up against Portugal fairly well. They aren’t an exciting team, and they certainly don’t have a lot of play-makers, but this is the type of solid team that just ekes through the group stage into the second round. Once there, they will likely be beaten handily by the winner of Group G, likely either Portugal or Germany.

#18 Japan: Although I don’t have them qualifying for the round of 16, I really like this team. In fact, I think Group C is incredibly underrated. Most people’s first reaction to a group featuring Columbia, Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan thought “meh”, but I think this is the most well-rounded group there is. While it’s likely that none of these four teams will be semifinalists, none will embarrass themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two teams I have missing out (Japan and Greece) qualify for the next round over the teams I am backing (Columbia and Ivory Coast). I can’t say that about any other group. And unlike other teams in this #24 to #17 area of these rankings, Japan has both high end talent (Manchester United play-maker Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda come to mind) and lots of depth. They haven’t even played a meaningful game since July, when they beat Australia and Korea en route to an East Asia Cup championship. This team is a fun one to watch. They are creative, fast, explosive, and incredibly well coached. Albert Zaccheroni, the coach, has had success for a long time, and I expect him to have success again in the World Cup. This has all been positive for a reason: Again, I think this is a really good team. But I don’t have them qualifying, so there must be some concerns. And there are. The attacking options are less than appetizing, and I think physical teams like Columbia and Ivory Coast are going to have a huge height and strength advantage. Yaya Toure might have a field day against Japan, because they have really struggled to defend free kicks and corner kicks. In the end, I think Japan has more variance than nearly any other team. On the one hand, they could win their group and advance as far as the final four. But if things go wrong, they could easily finish with zero points and at the bottom of their group. Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m going to go the safe route and predict a third place finish (four points sounds about right).

#17 United States: In a more forgiving group, I think the United States could have a shot at advancing to the second round and quite possibly going even further. That’s how good I think this team is. The problem is that I have to weigh both quality of squads and chance of getting through groups. And I don’t think the US is going to get out of Group G, which features Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, the team that has knocked America out of two straight World Cup’s and the team that is quite probably the best worst team in any group, if that makes any sense. That’s not to say that they have no chance. If I thought that, I wouldn’t have ranked them in the top 20, let alone at 17. I think they absolutely have a shot at progressing, because although they don’t have the talent that Germany and Portugal have, they have a good mentality, good chemistry, and a good coach. They were tremendous in qualification, going 7-1-1 in their last nine games, including a 3-1-1 record against fellow World Cup teams. And it’s not as if this gritty team is bereft of talent. Say what you want about Jozy Altidore, but he is a Premier League player and he thrives when playing for his country. At one point, Altidore scored a goal in five consecutive games for America, including a hat trick against Bosnia. Michael Bradley is a former AS Roma starter, Landon Donovan is the all-time leading scorer, goalie Tim Howard is one of the best in the Premier League, and Clint Dempsey has had success in England. Add in stars like Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski from a league- MLS- that is blossoming and a Bayern Munich starlet (Julian Green) and you have a well-rounded and talented team. Unfortunately, the whole team combined probably has less talent than Cristiano Ronaldo, which means that the defense is going to have to play the game of their lives against Ronaldo. Unfortunately, one thing this team is lacking is a star central defender. Ronaldo could score a couple of goals against the US. So too could a free-flowing Germany team. I think America is going to impress people and finally beat Ghana in the first game, while staying in games against Portugal and Germany. Three points is the likely result, but don’t count out four or six. Qualification is unlikely, but still possible.

To recap, I’ve now taken two teams from groups C, E, F, and G, three from A and H, and one from B and D.

NBA Round Two Review, Round Three Preview

Posted: 05/18/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

How amazing is it that, after all the panic about the Pacers and after both the Spurs and Thunder were nearly eliminated in a first round series, the final four is exactly what we thought it would be before the season? It’s a reminder that in the end, the better team usually wins an NBA best of seven series. That’s among the major differences between it and the NHL, where “parity”- an overused word in sports- is greater and any given team can lose any given series. I think there are a few reasons for the difference between the NBA playoffs and NHL playoffs. The first is that, in hockey, for all a team’s talent, the most important player in every single game is the goalie. Period. That makes is a lot easier for an underdog with a hot goalie to upset a favorite. Secondly, basketball’s stars simply play a lot more often than hockey’s stars. Kevin Durant, for example, is averaging 44.5 minutes per game, or close to 90% of all available minutes when factoring in overtime games. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, the best player in hockey, was at 21:19 of ice time per game in his two series’. When factoring in overtime, that’s just 34% of available minutes. Hockey’s simply the more tiring sport, so the stars have to sit longer, which means the more talented teams are without their best players more often. Just imagine the Thunder playing Kevin Durant a third of the time rather than nine tenths. Would the Thunder be in this position? Definitely not. Same goes for any number of star players, from LeBron James to Paul George to Russell Westbrook and so on. It’s simply harder to pull off an upset in basketball than it is in hockey. Anyway, we get the two series we were expecting and hoping for as the season kicked off. The problem is that what has led to these two matchups have really dampened my, and other people’s for that matter, expectations. In the East, Miami has been very good, if not the same caliber that they were last year. The problem is that the rest of the East, Pacers included, is much weaker than it was last season. We’re at the point where the only team we can compare the Heat to is previous Heat teams. That’s a problem. Whereas up until the all-star break the Pacers seemed likely to challenge the Heat, since then they have imploded. The fact that they have made it this far says less about them and more about the teams they have faced and the overall quality of the East. Would the Pacers have made it out of the first round in the Western Conference? I doubt it. I think they’d have lost to any of the top nine teams in the West, which includes lottery-bound Phoenix. Instead, the Pacers struggled to the Eastern Conference final, where they now have a chance to do what they wanted to do all along. They don’t deserve the shot at the Heat, but the conference’s are unfair that way.
Meanwhile, in the West the Spurs are the ones who are now humming along, much like they did last season. After being taken to seven games against the Mavericks in the first round, I jumped off the bandwagon, as I’ve done way too many times when it has come to the Spurs. They promptly dismantled the Trailblazers, sending them home after five short games. And the other series in the West, between the Clippers and Thunder, which I thought had the potential to be the most exciting series in the playoffs, disappointed. It went six generally close games, but there was a lot of sloppy play and some mistakes, a lot of which probably had to do with what was happening off the court in the Donald Sterling fiasco. It’s a shame that the Sterling thing ended up affecting the actual play, but I think that’s exactly what it did. And then, just as the Thunder were wrapping up a run in the fourth quarter of game six to put the Clippers away and looking ahead to the Spurs, we learned that Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s clear-cut third best player, would miss the rest of the playoffs. It’s a huge blow, and one that greatly lessens OKC’s chance at beating the Spurs.
What we’re left with are two series’ with clear favorites. If everything goes according to plan, we will see a repeat of last season’s NBA finals. That would probably be great, and many people want it to happen, but I’d rather see some fresh blood competing for the championship. Even after the Thunder’s loss of Ibaka and the Pacers’ recent poor play, can either of the favorites be upset in the Conference finals?

Indiana Pacers vs Miami Heat: You can see it happening, can’t you. I know I can. “Pacers Band Together, Cool Heat” or other unimaginative headlines in that vain could be appearing across the nation in a week or two. It makes sense.. kind of. The team rolls through the first half of the season, loses focus, struggles through the rest of the season and first two rounds of the playoffs before banding together. This is the team they’ve wanted another shot at beating all season, after all. This is the team they were meant to match up well against and eventually topple. And, believe it or not, the Pacers actually have home court advantage. Had they been gifted that last season as they were this year (Miami seemed to be avoiding the #1 seed by design), they might have gotten over the proverbial hump last season. Then again, maybe not. Miami’s not scared of playing on the road. Anyway, back to the Pacers fairytale story. Roy Hibbert regains his confidence and destroys Chris Bosh and the Heat, who have no answer for Hibbert’s height, on the boards. Paul George plays his heart out and nearly matches LeBron. Lance Stephenson tears a hobbled Dwyane Wade to shreds on the fast break. And David West has seven straight field days against suspect interior and mid range defending. The Pacers, 5-0 after a loss so far in the playoffs, send the mighty Heat, who don’t have the depth they had last year, packing in game seven in their own packed arena.

That would all be great. I just don’t think it’s likely to happen. I don’t believe that a team can be so mediocre- and let’s face it, that’s a kind word to bestow upon the Pacers after their 20-18 run since the beginning of March- through two playoff series and just turn it on in their third. After going an NBA-leading 35-6 at home in the regular season, they’ve struggled to a 3-4 home record in the playoffs, including that 102-79 embarrassment in game five against the Wizards, who outrebounded Hibbert and the Pacers by a resounding 62-23. Never have I seen a margin so large in a playoff game. The Pacers just don’t have going what they need to have going to beat the Heat. Hibbert, their main matchup advantage, is discouraged and doesn’t believe in himself. He’s averaging 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds this postseason. The offensive rebounding, which was so key in forcing last year’s Heat powerhouse to seven games, was mediocre in the regular season and worse in the playoffs.

On the other side, the Miami Heat are not flawless. Again, this team is worse than it was last year. Ray Allen and Shane Battier in particular were huge assets deep into last year’s postseason but have looked way over the hill for most of this season. Mike Miller is gone. Dwyane Wade is probably good for one explosion a series, as opposed to two or three last year. LeBron James has had to take more and more of the scoring responsibility, and for the first time in perhaps his entire career, he has looked tired on many occasions. The Heat are coming off back-to-back championships, but do you really think we’d be saying that if Derrick Rose had been healthy the past two years? This isn’t a dominant Heat team, and I don’t want anyone to think otherwise.

In the end, the Miami Heat have LeBron James, and the Indiana Pacers do not. Can the Pacers, who are just 8-5 this postseason against mediocre opposition, turn it around and shock Miami? It’s possible, but I doubt it. I like the Heat in 6.

San Antonio Spurs vs Oklahoma City Thunder: Why do I resent the Spurs? That’s a viable question, because this is the most well run and classiest organization around. It’s the NBA’s outlier: every other team has their upswings (well, maybe not some teams) and definitely their downswings. Except for the Spurs, who are great every single year. In the end, that’s probably why I resent the Spurs. They just win too much. Many signs point to them winning again here: the main one is that Ibaka is out, which should both enable Tim Duncan to get his patented shot off much more easily and allow Tony Parker to drive to the rim without as much hindrance. Ibaka has been a nightmare for the Spurs to defend, with his potent mid range shot and newly developed ability to hit a three point shot. That stretches Duncan and Tiago Splitter in a way that they are not accustomed to being stretched. Luckily for the Spurs’ big men, they won’t have to deal with Ibaka this time around.

I wouldn’t count the Thunder out, though. They have been a notoriously bad matchup for the Spurs, sweeping them this year and winning 10 of their last 12 meetings dating back to the 2012 playoffs. Some of that is negated by Ibaka’s injury, but the Thunder do still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the Spurs still have no answer for those two.

That, however, is basically all the defense I can find in picking the Thunder. For me, it’s enough, but I’ll get to that later. The Spurs simply have the next eight best players after OKC’s big two. That’s a problem. Also a problem is the fact that the Thunder are down to three big men, one of whom is named Kendrick Perkins. The other two are Nick Collison and Steven Adams. I like Nick Collison and Steven Adams, but the problem with those three is that they provide no offensive threat. The other problem is that those three, with Perkins included in this, nearly always get into foul trouble. On a team with Serge Ibaka, that’s not a huge problem. On a team without Serge Ibaka, that means Hasheem Thabeet might get some playing time. In the playoffs. That’s a huge problem. The Thunder’s best bet might be going small against Duncan and Splitter and rolling with a lineup of Reggie Jackson, Westbrook, Caron Butler, Durant, and Adams. You have your slashers, shooters, and big time enforcer (Adams) in that lineup. Of course, Scott Brooks loves playing Kendrick Perkins, so that kind of starting five will never happen, but I think it would be OKC’s best bet.

I’m picking the upset. I know I’ll probably be wrong, but I just can’t help it. Westbrook and Durant need to be amazing, and I think they will be. I also think someone who’s not getting a lot of recognition right now will step up. Whether that’s HASHEEM or Jeremy Lamb or Adams or Collison or someone else, I don’t know. It’s going to be someone though. I think the Thunder continue their dominance over San Antonio and shock the Spurs in game 7 in San Antonio. Yup, that’s the second straight time I’ve picked the Spurs to lose game seven on their home court. It didn’t work well the first time, and it probably won’t this time around, but oh well.

NHL Round Two Review, Round Three Preview

Posted: 05/17/2014 by levcohen in Hockey

What a refreshing round that was. At least in the Eastern Conference. The only thing I didn’t want to see in the Conference finals were the four teams we have seen again and again and again: Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Boston. And in the East, we got two upsets. The Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers, both in game seven on the road, defeated the Bruins and Penguins, respectively. It’s really interesting that while it would make sense that home teams would have the edge in game seven, and that’s what has happened in basketball, the opposite has been true in these NHL playoffs. Five of 12 series over the first and second round have now gone seven games, and the road team has won four of those five, including all three in round two. That’s something to look out for as we get closer to crowning the next champion. In the end, goalkeeping is usually the difference. It definitely was in the New York-Pittsburgh series. After the Penguins took a three games to one lead, Henrik Lundqvist shut the door over the last three games, allowing just three goals on 105 total shots. Meanwhile, while Marc Andre-Fleury played well in goal, the Pittsburgh defense did not, and neither did their third and fourth lines. In the end, the lack of depth and defense has been caused by some questionable decisions in free agency and the draft, which has eventually led to the demise of general manager Ray Shero, who has generally been considered one of the best GMs in the NHL. He should get another job soon, but he wasn’t doing a good job surrounding Sidney Crosby, who scored just one goal in the playoffs and generally struggled, with quality players. That’s why the Rangers won. In Boston, just too many of the star players that made this team the best bet to win the Stanley Cup disappeared. Carl Soderberg, a 16 goal scorer in the regular season, scored one goal in 12 playoff games. Brad Marchand, a 25 goal scorer, didn’t even score a goal. Neither did former playoff hero David Krejci. And Carey Price, Montreal’s goalie, just flat-out outplayed Tuukka Rask, especially from when the Canadiens went down 3-2 and seemed on the way out. He allowed just one goal on 56 shots in the last two games, while Rask allowed seven on 46 shots. Refreshingly, the final two teams in the East aren’t Boston and Pittsburgh but Montreal and New York.
Over in the West, though, the favorites did end up making it through. Chicago’s series against the Minnesota Wild was never in doubt, although Ilya Bryzgalov played surprisingly well and the Wild won two games at home. Chicago was always going to win that series, though (cough cough Jonathan Toews Patrick Kane cough cough). Meanwhile, Los Angeles did LA Kings things again, especially in game seven. After going down 3-2, they won back to back games, and in doing so improved to 6-0 this postseason in elimination games. That’s incredible. And Jonathan Quick has saved nearly 97% of the shots that have come his way in those six games. Wow. The Kings are simply a big game team, and have scored 11 goals in their two game sevens. Players like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Justin Williams are simply big game players. Williams now has six goals and six assists in six career game sevens. On the other side, the Anaheim Ducks tried to surprise everyone, and nearly did. It was a spirited effort, but in the end it wasn’t enough against the Kings. On to the Conference finals.

Montreal Canadiens vs New York Rangers: In a match between two evenly matched teams, it’s going to be the goalies who decide it. Who’s going to play better: Carey Price or Henrik Lundqvist? It’s tough, because they are probably the two best goalies in hockey. In terms of non-goalie play, Montreal has been very good on the power play, with a 26% success rate. Meanwhile, New York has not. They’ve converted just six of a playoff-high 55 power play opportunities, which falls a little under 11%. Usually, a good power play goes a long way toward determining the winner of a playoff series, but the Rangers have proven that it’s not always the case. Mainly because of Henrik Lundqvist. I could go on and talk about P.K. Subban (a great player) or others, but there’s no need. I can say that Montreal looks like the better team on paper, but it all comes down to the goalie play. I think this could go seven, and I would generally take the team with home ice in a game seven, but again, that has been a bad strategy this postseason. Who is the better goalie? Which team is more calm in close games? Can the Rangers get it going on the power play? Those are the three essential questions in this series. In the end, I just trust Lundqvist and his previous playoff success slightly more than Price. I like the Rangers in seven.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Los Angeles Kings: I don’t really want to talk about this series, simply because it’s the carbon copy of last year. The Blackhawks won that one in five games, but I think this one will be a lot closer. It’s simply a coin flip. Jonathan Quick is probably the better goalie, but Corey Crawford has been playing as well as any netminder this postseason, with a .931 save percentage that is equaled by only Lundqvist of remaining goalies. Los Angeles has the slight edge on the powerplay, but the Blackhawks have been much better on the penalty kill. The Chicago Blackhawks have killed 91.3% of their penalties!! The next highest of remaining teams is the Kings… at 83.9%. The Blackhawks are simply the better team, just as they were last season. But then again, the Kings have come back twice in a row and have Jonathan Quick and that “team of destiny” look. I’m waffling here, so I’d better just make a pick here. If it goes seven, I can’t pick against the Kings, but let’s go with the Blackhawks closing it in six.

Ranking the World Cup teams: 24-21

Posted: 05/15/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

The next four teams on the third of eight posts on this countdown. As a reminder, here are the eight squads who have already been knocked off (from worst to 25th): Australia, Iran, Cameroon, Ecuador, Algeria, Costa Rica, Honduras, Greece. That’s one team from groups A, B, C, D, F, and H, two from E, and none yet from the so-called “Group of Death”. Remember, this is based both off of chance I think these teams have of progressing and general quality of the team. That means that I won’t necessarily have two teams from each group in the top 16 (I might well have a team I see eliminated early in the top half of these rankings).

#24 Ghana: This is where it starts getting tough. It’s not that I think Ghana is a bad soccer team, because I actually think the opposite. It’s not that I don’t think Ghana is “ready” for the big stage, because they clearly are, having qualified for at least the last 16 (quarterfinals in 2010) in each of the last two World Cup’s, knocking out the United States in each of those two competitions. There are two big reasons I have Ghana at #24. First is their group, which includes Germany, Portugal, and USA. That’s tough. Second and more importantly is the lack of a solid defense. The goalie situation is not settled, and neither is their back four or back three or however many defenders they plan on using. And that’s a problem, because this group includes the vaunted Germany attack, Cristiano Ronaldo, and, um, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Altidore the Great. So yeah, Ghana is in trouble. With all that being said, this is still a team with a great midfield and one that showed a lot in qualifying. First, the great midfield. Even as Michael Essien ages and declines, it’s probably still one of the premier midfields in the world. The Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre, both of whom star at Marseille, could both start… or one or both might not. Kwadwo Asamoah, probably the team’s best all-around player, is an excellent player for Juventus. Kevin Prince-Boateng is a regular for Germany’s Schalke and Sulley Muntari is the same for Inter Milan. Christian Atsu, a 22 year old Chelsea player on loan, is added depth. And the qualification was also impressive, featuring three wins by at least four goals, including the first leg of a two-leg matchup against an Egypt team that should have been a tough matchup for Ghana. The first game ended 6-1, all but ensuring Ghana’s World Cup spot. If Ghana is at their best, they can score a lot of goals. However, they’re in a tough group with a spotty defense, which I think will lead to a fourth place finish. They should still score their fair share of goals, though.

#23 South Korea: In case you don’t remember, South Korea did pretty well in the 2010 World Cup. In a group with Argentina, Greece, and Nigeria, the East Asians weren’t supposed to progress out of their group. Despite a 4-1 loss against the Argentines, they did progress with an impressive win over Greece and a 2-2 tie against Nigeria. They ended up losing 2-1 to eventual semifinalist Uruguay in the round of 16, but it was definitely a good result. I don’t think they’ll be able to make it out of a group that is frankly not very scary. Belgium look like they are the clear favorites, but beyond that, this group is full of question marks. That’s why I think South Korea has a solid chance of progressing. In the end, though, Russia should prove to be the stronger team. This is probably the youngest team in the World Cup, as this team could probably start an all 25 or under team. They are also very fast and fluid, although they lack much individual talent. Ki Sung-Yeung, who has been impressive for Sunderland, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung Min are the key players, but this is another team that relies more on organization and cohesion than on individual talent. In the end, that might prove costly. South Korea has had trouble defending at times, and are again very inexperienced. They weren’t very impressive in qualifying, either. It’s generally a cakewalk for the South Koreans, but this go-around, it wasn’t. Despite generally solid results, they lost twice to Iran, the only other team from their qualifying group in the World Cup, and once to Lebanon. They have, however, kind of redeemed themselves in six friendlies- all against World Cup teams- since November. Wins over Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Greece were impressive, although the 4-0 loss to Mexico and 2-0 defeat at the hands of the United States weren’t. Interestingly, one of those friendlies were against Russia, South Korea’s main competition for a spot in the last 16. In the end, Russia won that game 2-1, and I think that’s a preview of what will happen in the World Cup. They won’t be embarrassed, but I think South Korea will have trouble getting out of their group.

#22 Bosnia & Herzegovina: I think it would be a really cool story if Bosnia were to progress past the first round in their first ever World Cup, but I think Nigeria will edge through over them. This is a team with a few stars, but unfortunately also a lot of holes. First, the stars. The star player is Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko. The 28 year old scored 28 goals in 51 appearances for the English champions, and was especially vital in the final stretch. Dzeko is joined by Vedad Ibisevic, who scored 10 goals in the Bundesliga for Stuttgart, Roma’s Miralem Planc, who makes everything happen in the midfield, and Lazio’s Senad Lulic. But that’s about it. Oh, besides their terrific goalie, Asmir Begovic, who led Stoke City to an impressive season in the Premier League. Begovic is a good goalie. Unfortunately, there are a lot of questions defensively, and this isn’t a team that heaps on defensive pressure. When they lose possession, they might not get it back for a while, which is a problem in a group with, uh, Lionel Messi. In a way, after their tremendous play in qualification, the last two games have been wakeup calls. The 2-0 loss to Argentina probably proves that Bosnia doesn’t have much of a chance against the Argentinians, and the 2-0 loss to Egypt was much worse. We’ll learn a lot more in their final friendly against the Ivory Coast, a team I really like (Yaya Toure), but for now I don’t think they have the defensive tenacity or balance to get through the group stage. They should finish third in the group and cause Nigeria problems, but in the end I see Nigeria, and not Edin Dzeko’s Bosnia, as the second best team in Group F.

#21 Mexico: Yeah, they’ll probably end up progressing to the second round again. They always seem to find a way to get that far. But this is a team that was a mess in qualifying, and one that looked like it should be a bottom-four team rather than a one that is favored to progress. That’s why I’ve decided to put Mexico in a fairly safe position: third in their group, ahead of Cameroon but behind Brazil and Croatia. Yes, they have the talent to progress, and yes, they’ve been better recently, but let’s just look at the disaster that was their qualifying, culminating in a 9-3 two game playoff victory over New Zealand. With this type of talent, they shouldn’t have had to qualify via playoff in such a weak qualifying group. In their last 10 games of qualifying, they were a disaster, scoring just seven goals. In that time, they went 2-5-3, with the win that granted them a chance at playing New Zealand coming over Panama, who had another shot to knock them out but blew it against a USA team that wasn’t playing for anything. So Mexico shouldn’t even be here. With that being said, there have been signs that this team is turning it around. Since they hit rock bottom on October 16th with a 2-1 loss to Costa Rica, Mexico is 3-2-0, with those two aforementioned blowout wins over New Zealand and a more impressive 4-0 blowout of South Korea (which is the reason I have Mexico over South Korea). After that, they tied Nigeria and United States, who are both ranked better by me, so while those weren’t great results, they weren’t terrible. Now enough of the “Mexico is a disaster” talk and on to their actual players. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez should be Mexico’s best player. He is definitely the most talented. But he has struggled at Manchester United and internationally alike. He remains a mystery. Juan Carlos Medina, Villarreal striker Giovani dos Santos, and striker Oribe Peralta, who is one of the most underrated strikers in the world simply because he doesn’t play in Europe, should key the attack. The defense was good in qualifying, but the attack wasn’t. In the end, this is a team with pedigree and talent, but they have too many question marks for me to put them in the next round.

Are the Boston Red Sox Any Good?

Posted: 05/13/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Look at the question posed in the title. Now look at it again. The obvious answer would be: “yes”. This is a team who has won three of the last 10 World Series’, more than even the mighty Yankees, including last season. This is a team who has the fourth highest payroll in baseball according to Deadspin, at close to $163 million. This is also the team that was predicted to win the AL Central by some and make the playoffs by many. And yet, the Boston Red Sox are a team who, at a time where the sample size is getting dangerously close to relevant, have a 19-18 record and a -4 run differential. That is not the profile of a top-five payroll team or a World Series winning team. But is it indicative of their true talent? Or will the Red Sox bounce back from this less than impressive start and make the playoffs again?

In order to fairly evaluate this team, the first thing you need to know is that last year’s season was probably not repeatable. Someone (I forget who) wrote an article at the beginning of the year about teams who have a huge swing from bad to good over the course of two seasons. Basically, the point being made is that teams who are really bad one year and good the next are probably not going to continue that trend going into the third year. In fact, these teams usually have large regression in the third year. Sure enough, this year’s examples are the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cleveland Indians, and the Red Sox. The Red Sox have the most resources and are the most talented of the three teams, but check this out:

 2013 Win %  2014 Win %
 Pittsburgh Pirates  .580 .432
 Cleveland Indians  .568 .474
 Boston Red Sox  .599 .514

Looks like there is something there, which means that the Red Sox probably shouldn’t expect to be any more than, say, an 89 win team.

The personnel on this year’s team is similar to last season’s, but the Red Sox have lost some key players. Jacoby Ellsbury in particular stands out. Not only was Ellsbury a good hitter, but he was a tremendous base stealer and runner. The Red Sox have replaced him in center with Jackie Bradley Jr., a top prospect who so far has been a terrible hitter and a below average baserunner. And that’s a problem, obviously. It’s even more of a problem because the Red Sox, the fifth best baserunning team in baseball last season, are dead last this year. That goes a long way towards explaining the regression.

The Red Sox are also missing Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew, two other key parts of the lineup this year. Instead of having Salty at catcher and Drew at short, thus moving Xander Bogaerts to third, A.J. Pierzynsky is behind the plate and Will Middlebrooks is at catcher. Even though Drew remains unsigned, the Salty-Drew combo has already been worth half a win more than Middlebrooks-A.J., thanks fully to Salty’s great start to the season for the Marlins. Given that Drew will likely sign eventually, this could end up being a three win or so loss.

Of course, some bad luck is involved. From stars like Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz to young starters like Bogaerts, Bradley Jr., and Middlebrooks, this team has underperformed. Pedroia and Ortiz are definitely going to get better, while the three youngsters are definitely not this bad. You can count on at least one or two of them to bounce back. Expect the hitting to improve as Ortiz and Pedroia in particular start hitting more. And then there is Grady Sizemore. We are all really rooting for Grady Sizemore. Once “Mike Trout before Mike Trout”, Sizemore’s career was derailed by injuries. He made a heroic return, and we all hoped that he would conjure up at least some of his lost talent this season en route to becoming a solid player with the Red Sox. It hasn’t happened that way. He has one homer since the opener, and the guy we thought would go 40-40 has lost much of his speed. Sizemore’s hit just .227/.296/.361 with 79 wRC+, and when you add his now-poor defense to that, you get a player with a -.3 WAR. It might be time to pull the plug on Sizemore and go back to Daniel Nava, who was horrid in April before being sent down but was a great hitter last season.

As for pitching, the rotation is unchanged from the end of last season, when Felix Doubront replaced a now-retired Ryan Dempster in the rotation. And the pitching, for the most part, has been good. Jon Lester, in a contract year, has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. John Lackey and Jake Peavy, both established veterans, have also largely been good. Clay Buchholtz, who was terrific last year, has been terrible this year. His ERA is nearly four times worse than it was last year. In the end, I think Buchholtz is not the pitcher he was last year but also way better than he’s pitching now. Improvement should come. Doubront is probably not going to hold a rotation spot for long, because the Red Sox have a bunch of prospects pitching in the high minors who seem close to a debut or a second chance. Allen Webster could be the first one up, but Henry Owens, currently in AA, looks like a good long term prospect. Doubront is just a placeholder. The bullpen, led again by the amazing Koji Uehara (just how unbelievable is he? Just check his numbers), has been worth 2.5 WAR, tops in baseball, and have the seventh best ERA and second best FIP in baseball. So yeah, the bullpen isn’t the problem.

In the end, the team as currently constructed looks like, say, an 86 win team. That probably wouldn’t be enough to make the playoffs, although in this year’s wide-open AL East, you never know. But I don’t think this is going to be a squad that Red Sox ownership is going to be comfortable with rolling with into September. I think it’s safe to expect some trades as we get closer to the deadline, as this is a win-now team who have some prospects to move. A rental starter is a need, and the Sox could also use a corner outfielder. Depending on how Middlebrooks and Bradley Jr. play, third base and center field could also be needs. This is a solid team right now, but one that should be better come August. So the bottom line is that yes, they are kind of good, but they are nowhere near as good as they were last season. The loss of Jacoby Ellsbury and two other productive starters, to go along with the rapid decrease in baserunning proficiency and the general laws of regression to the mean, probably mean that the Red Sox won’t sniff 97 wins again. With some moves, 90 is possible, although I’d predict an 88-74 win season. That might just be enough to win the AL East, even though it would be a nine win decrease from last season.