Archive for July, 2014

With less than three days until the Thursday, July 31st 4:00 trade deadline, talks are heating up. While for the first few months we were guessing, we now know for the most part which teams are buying and which are selling. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot of names thrown around. And some of these guys reportedly on the block aren’t just useful pieces like A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon, who are also available, but bonafide stars. Every year, though, most of the names on the block aren’t traded for a variety of reasons. The asking price is too high, or the team never actually intended on trading their ace, the teams that want him don’t have enough pieces to trade for him, or the ace’s salary is too high for the teams that want him. With that in mind, I’m going to rank the four aces supposedly available by likelihood that they’ll get traded.

Jon Lester, 65%: As things stand right now, Jon Lester is the ace most likely to be traded by the July 31st trade deadline. Lester’s a weird case, because he’s set to be a free agent after this season. That means that any team who wants the services of Lester, and there are definitely many teams who wouldn’t mind Jon Lester, has to come to terms with the likelihood that Lester will leave after the season, making him a two month rental. Another weird part about the Lester rumors is that the Red Sox hope to trade him, get a top prospect in return, and then re-sign their ace after the season. And if they really think they can re-sign their longtime ace, then they can’t lose by trading him. They don’t really need Lester for the rest of this season, because it becomes clearer by the day that the Sox won’t be in the playoff race. They’re 48-57, and lost five out of their last seven against division rivals Toronto and Tampa Bay. Instead of Lester throwing two months of meaningless innings, the Red Sox can get a high level prospect and also get the chance to promote one of their pitching prospects. It’s a win-win for Boston, assuming that they believe that their chances of retaining Lester won’t take a hit with a trade.

With all of that said, there are going to be a lot of contending teams who are willing to give a lot up for Lester, even as a two month rental. Why? Because he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. He’s second among pitches in Fangraphs WAR this year at 4.5, has pitched the ninth most innings in baseball, and has a 2.52 ERA. Lester, who’s now 30 years old, has long been an above-average starting pitcher in a hitter-friendly park and a scary-for-pitchers AL East, but this is his best season. He’s striking out more than a batter per inning, has a career-low walk rate, and has allowed just nine homers in 143 innings. The bottom line is that he’s been a stud this year, and would slot nicely into a contender’s rotation as a #1 or #2 starter (the exception, of course, being the Dodgers, where Lester would be the #3 starter behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke). The fact that he’s likely a two month rental will depress his value, but a return of one top level prospect or an established big league regular will likely be enough for the Red Sox to pull the trigger.

Possible trade fits: Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays

David Price, 25%: A month and a half ago, when the Rays were 24-42, I probably would have put this percentage at more than three times where it is now. That’s how sure I was that the Rays were going to be big-time sellers at the trade deadline, with Price, Ben Zobrist, and others likely on the move. Since then, though, they have been one of the, if not the, hottest team in baseball. They are 27-12 in their last 39 games, which is an over-.690 winning percentage. They’re now 51-54, and are within 7.5 games of first place and 4.5 out of the second wildcard spot. And, contrary to popular belief, the Rays aren’t usually big sellers in July. They do most of their selling in the winter, so there isn’t much precedent to a huge July fire sale.

If the Rays do decide to trade Price, they’re going to get huge offers. Unlike Lester, Price is under team control for another year, so this isn’t a two month rental. Price also has to be considered a better pitcher than Lester, even though he has worse numbers this season. A former Cy Young award winner, Price has a career 3.18 ERA, while Lester’s is nearly half a run higher. Price’s peripheral numbers also spell future success. He’s second in baseball in K-BB% behind Clayton Kershaw at 24.6 (he has a 27.8 K% and a 3.2 BB%), and has also gotten unlucky in terms of home runs allowed. His homerun to flyball rate is 11.6%, much higher than his career 9.4%, so expect him to allow fewer homers going forward. Price is simply one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, and still has another year of team control. I think that the Rays will likely wait until after the season to deal their ace, particularly after their red hot July. A one in four chance of a trade seems about right.

Possible trade fits: Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers

Cole Hamels, 20%: The Phillies probably won’t trade Cole Hamels, but there are a bunch of reasons that they should. The first is simple: they need desperately to gain prospects and prepare for the future. They aren’t going to recoup top prospects in a trade of Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd, or even Cliff Lee, but they can for Hamels. The second is that Hamels is pitching really well right now, and I don’t know if his value will ever be higher than it is now. He has a 1.74 ERA since the beginning of June, and has put the arm injury that limited him to two April starts behind him. The third is that any trade of Hamels would open up a lot of cap space, because Hamels is rightfully making a lot of money.

Those are some of the reasons that the Phillies should trade Hamels, and they have reportedly made him available, but I doubt that a trade will happen. This front office has been delusional for three years now, holding onto an aging core even when it became clear that there wouldn’t be another playoff run. Even now, when the front office is finally open to trades, it’s asking for way too much. Apparently, they want a team’s top three or four prospects in a trade and are willing to eat only about $10 million of the $90+ million left on Hamels’ deal. Oh, and Hamels also has a no-trade clause that covers 20 teams. Of the nine teams he can’t block a trade to, only the Dodgers, Yankees, and possibly the Cardinals make any sense as fits. It doesn’t seem likely that Hamels will be traded, but it’s possible. Hamels is worse than Price but probably better than Lester, and he has the advantage of being under team control for years to come, albeit at a steep price. What are the chances that the Phillies’ front office surprises anyone with a trade of the 2008 World Series MVP? One in five.

Possible trade fits: Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees

Cliff Lee, 5%: Hamels’ teammate, Cliff Lee, is almost definitely not going to be traded before the July 31st deadline. The main reason for that is he’s coming off an injury and has been largely ineffective in his first two post-injury starts. There’s also the issue of money, in that Lee is being paid a lot of it. The Phillies want a team to both take most of Lee’s contract and give quality prospects in return, and that’s just not going to happen. What could happen is an August trade, because players who clear waivers (Lee almost certainly would because of his huge contract) can be traded until August 31st. That makes the July 31st deadline meaningless in the case of a high-salary player like Lee, who also has a limited no-trade clause. The addition of Lee to this list was just a formality: he’s not going to be traded before the July “deadline” because he doesn’t look healthy, has a huge and long contract, and because the Phillies are asking for too much in return. It’s more likely that he’ll be traded before August 31st, though.

As a review, I think Lester is likely to get traded, and I wouldn’t be shocked if either Price or Hamels were traded before the Thursday deadline. Lee will likely have to wait a few more weeks until his future is determined, and it’s entirely possible that none of these four “aces” (Lee isn’t really an ace right now, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt) gets traded.

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A week before the trade deadline, the Seattle Mariners made a trade, their first of what could be multiple. In return for relief pitcher Stephen Pryor, who is a 25-year old with good stuff and strikeout ability, the Mariners received Kendrys Morales, a designated hitter. Seattle is very familiar with Morales, as he was a member of the Mariners last season before leaving after he declined a qualifying offer. In what is thought to be a very pitcher-friendly park, he hit 12 homers in 301 home at bats and had a .811 OPS. He actually posted stronger numbers at home than on the road en route to a productive if not amazing season in which he posted a 118 wRC+, 23 homers, and a .785 OPS in 657 plate appearances. So the Mariners knew that Morales could hit in their spacious ballpark, and thus were willing to give up Pryor, a promising young RP, for a 31 year old who will (or at least should) play exclusively at DH. This trade gives us a chance to look more closely at the Mariners, who are currently sitting at 53-49, 10.5 games behind the Athletics in the AL West but just .5 games out of the second wild card spot. Are they worse, as good as, or better than their record? Can they make the playoffs?

The Mariners have been one of the worst offensive teams in baseball for years. Most people remember 2010, when the offense was historically bad (they scored just 513 runs, barely over three per game), but they’ve been at or close to the bottom of MLB in runs scored since 2007, which stings even more when considering the fact that they have the benefit of the DH, something that the NL doesn’t have. So even with a competent hitter in the everyday lineup instead of a pitcher, the Mariners have failed to outscore most NL teams in the past six years. It’s no coincidence, of course, that they’ve had just one winning season in the six years since 2007. But they are over .500 this year, so you would think that the offense was succeeding. It’s been better than the terrible 2010-11 offenses, but the 3.88 runs per game they are scoring is pretty much in line with last year (3.85) and 2012 (3.82). The difference this year is obviously that the pitching has been great, but the Mariners still need to get a lot more production out of their offense, which ranked 23rd in runs and 28th in OPS.

Morales will replace Corey Hart, another player who used to be really good, at DH. The Mariners have basically admitted that the addition of Hart this offseason was a mistake; he’ll now have to platoon with Logan Morrison at 1B. Morales doesn’t have to be the player he was last season to serve as an upgrade over Hart, who was hitting .214 with a sub-.300 on base percentage in close to 200 at bats. But the Mariners are counting on the DH to be at least somewhat productive, and his play this year (.584 OPS, 57 wRC+) has been very disappointing.

Let’s assume that Morales isn’t quite the player that he was last season for the Mariners, but is at least a league average player, which seems fair. That’s a huge improvement over what Hart and Justin Smoak (who was playing first before being rightly demoted to AAA), but is it enough? The short answer is probably not. After the injury to Michael Saunders, they have above-average hitters at only second and third base. Not surprisingly, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager have hit in the heart of the order and lead the team in all important stats. But, with the exception of Seager and catcher Mike Zunino (who has his own problems, not the least of which is a .252 OBP), no Mariner player has hit more than eight homers. Compounding the issue is a lack of hitters who can get on base, as outside Seager and Cano, centerfielder James Jones has the highest OBP among hitters with at least 200 at bats.. at .303. Which positions should they look to upgrade? I think the Mariners should be happy with the production from Jones, who adds speed to the equation, and Zunino, who is a good defensive catcher. Chris Taylor, a shortstop who was hitting very well in AAA, has been promoted and should be given a shot as the starter. That leaves first base and both corner outfield spots. It’s unreasonable to expect the Mariners to fill all three through trade, but they need to pick up at least one impact bat if they want to be considered legitimate contenders for the wild card spot. One option could be outfielder Marlon Byrd, who should be fairly cheap because he’s 36 years old. Byrd has 19 homers and a near-.800 OPS, and can be slotted nicely behind Seager in the lineup. If the Mariners are more interested in improving their on-base percentage, Casey McGehee could be another nice cheap option. McGehee has a surprising .380 OBP and could play first base. And those two are the cheap options. If the Mariners really wanted to make a splash, they could target talented outfielders like LA’s Matt Kemp or Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte. A realistic August first lineup could look like this and be exponentially better than it is now:

CF James Jones
1B Casey McGehee
2B Robinson Cano
3B Kyle Seager
RF Marlon Byrd
DH Kendrys Morales
LF Dustin Ackley
C Mike Zunino
SS Chris Taylor

That’s only a few changes, but they’re changes that would impact the lineup immensely.

No matter what minor moves the Mariners make, though, pitching is the strength of this team, so it’ll be up to the pitchers to carry them to the wildcard play in game. I’m confident that Felix Hernandez, who in my opinion has been the best pitcher in baseball this year (he’s gotten less press than Clayton Kershaw, but people forget that Kershaw missed a month with an injury and Hernandez pitches in the tougher league for pitchers), while Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young have both also been reliable and are posting ERAs just a shade over 3. The back of the rotation, though, is a question mark, as Roenis Elias isn’t all that great and the Mariners currently are without a #5 starter after the demotion of top prospect Taijuan Walker. In the end, I think the pitching, led by Hernandez and a good bullpen, will be fine. It’ll be up for the current offense, along with a few possible additions, to do enough to lead the Mariners to their first playoff appearance since their amazing 116 win team in 2001. There’s no Edgar Martinez or Ichiro on this team, but Felix Hernandez and company could be headed to the playoffs if the offense can add some pieces and produce. I’d put their chances at 30% at best, though, simply because there are so many teams with playoff aspirations who are within striking distance.

Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe

Posted: 07/23/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

After LeBron James went back to Cleveland, shocking the nation (I’ll do a LeBron post at some point, I promise), the free agency floodgates opened. Carmelo Anthony announced that he was staying in New York, and all the major (along with most of the minor) unrestricted free agents signed in the following days. Even Jameer Nelson appears to have found a new team, as he’s reported to have signed a one year deal with the Dallas Mavericks. Houston lost both Chandler Parsons and top target Chris Bosh, but rebounded to an extent by signing Trevor Ariza to take Parsons’ place. Miami had its heart broken by LeBron, but stopped the bleeding by re-signing Dwyane Wade and Bosh and signing Luol Deng. Sacramento did its normal thing, and by that I mean they made some puzzling moves. Choosing Darren Collison over Isaiah Thomas?? Really? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that free agency is basically over. So why can’t I hand out grades and move on? Well, I was planning on doing that, and then I saw two names staring at me, still unsigned. Those names, of course, are Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe, both restricted free agents. These are two cases with some similarities and some differences. Both players are 24 years old and just completed the last year of their rookie contracts. Both are good players, and it’s a little puzzling that neither has been signed to an offer sheet by a team looking to either actually sign one of them or just make things difficult for the player’s team to match the offer. There’s a clear comparison to the Bledsoe and Monroe situations, from just last year: Nikola Pekovic, a similar value to Bledsoe and Monroe. Pekovic was unsigned through the end of July, and ended up re-signing with the Minnesota Timberwolves for five years and 60 million dollars. What’s going to happen with this year’s prized (I think) RFA’s?

I think Bledsoe is almost certainly going to return to the Phoenix Suns. For one thing, there just aren’t that many teams that can pay for him. Only the Philadelphia 76ers can sign Bledsoe to the max offer sheet without needing to send some cash elsewhere, and we know that the Sixers aren’t going to be bidding on competent NBA veterans any time soon. For another thing, I’m pretty sure that the Suns will match any offer for their young point guard. I say pretty sure, because I thought they’d have signed him by now. They haven’t though, and instead have added the aforementioned Thomas, a 25 year old point guard who makes up for his lack of height (he’s listed at 5’9″) with scoring ability (he averaged 20 a game last year with the Kings). I don’t really think the Suns thought they’d actually get Thomas. They signed him to a four year, 27 million dollar contract, which was entirely reasonable. Most people, and the Suns have to be included here, thought that the Kings would match the offer. They didn’t, though, and Thomas was a Phoenix Sun. I don’t think this is in any way an indictment of Bledsoe, though. Depth is always a good thing, and Thomas seems like the perfect sixth man. So I still think Bledsoe will re-sign, and he should take his place next to Goran Dragic in that surprisingly vaunted backcourt. I think it’s entirely reasonable that Bledsoe and Dragic could play 33-35 minutes a piece (like they did last year) with Thomas getting another 25-30. Not bad. But the question still remains: why hasn’t Eric Bledsoe inked his contract with the Phoenix Suns yet? The answer has to be money. The Suns have offered Bledsoe a deal identical to what Kyle Lowry just received and similar to the ones that other good but not great point guards have gotten: four years and 48 million. Meanwhile, Bledsoe is reportedly holding out for the max deal, which for a player of his service time is five years and 80 million. Without a doubt, the Suns hold the edge in negotiation. They can argue that they’ve already replaced Bledsoe with Thomas, and also that Bledsoe can’t get more money with any other team. As a result, Bledsoe has to make a decision: does he want to sign a four year deal with similar average annual value that the Suns are offering (about 12 million per year)? Or does he want to sign a shorter contract in order to prove that he’s worth more the next go around? In the end, Eric Bledsoe is going to re-sign for the Suns barring a huge shock. It’s just a matter of length and dollars. I suspect that Bledsoe will sign a deal for four years and between 50 and 55 million dollars or will get his wish in terms of years (five) but not AAV (probably more like 10 or 11 million per year if he gets five years). To sum it up, his four options are:

  1. A two year deal worth around 30 million (15 per year)
  2. A four year deal worth around 52 million (13 per year)
  3. A five year deal worth around 55 million (11 per year)
  4. The wildcard: sign the Suns’ qualifying offer and test his luck as an unrestricted free agent next season. It’s possible, but it’s very risky and I don’t think Bledsoe will end up taking it.

It’ll be interesting to see which option he takes, but in the end, Eric Bledsoe is going to be a member of the Phoenix Suns next season. Not too much intrigue there.

Greg Monroe‘s situation got interesting last summer when the Pistons signed Josh Smith to a big money deal that looked bad then and has gotten progressively worse in the past year. The problem is that the Pistons essentially have three good players vying for two spots, and instead of deciding to make one of the three a bench player, they decided to start all three. That obviously didn’t work out for any of the three (Andre Drummond being the third), because Smith was placed at small forward and took way too many ill advised shots. Drummond is clearly the best player of the three, and he’s going to be the Pistons’ starting center for the foreseeable future. That means that, unless the Pistons want to have the same below-average and very poorly spaced team that they had last season, either Smith or Monroe has to go, and, sure enough, there have been trade talks involving Smith. But team president and head coach Stan Van Gundy reportedly told Smith that he would almost certainly be in Detroit next season, which begs the question: could Monroe be the one on the way out? The Pistons are surely listening to sign-and-trade ideas, but nothing has happened so far, and no team has made Monroe an offer sheet. Could it be that nobody has a specific interest in Monroe? It’s possible, and that would explain the lack of news regarding the big man. But that doesn’t really make sense, because Monroe is a 24 year old who can play both power forward and center effectively. He’s averaging 14 points, nine rebounds, 1.2 steals, and a 51% field goal percentage in his career. He might not get any better, but regardless, he’s a very good player at a position where efficient scorers are hard to find. Then again, he’s a poor defensive player who is asking for the maximum contract, and that’s probably too much to ask for. With that said, I’m surprised that Monroe hasn’t signed an offer sheet or re-signed with the Pistons yet. In the end, this is what I think it comes down to: the Pistons want to sign-and-trade Monroe, but nobody wants or is willing to give enough up for the big man. So Monroe will either end up back on the Pistons, or some team will step up and sign the big man to an offer sheet or acquire him in a sign-and-trade. Who will that team be? I have no idea, which is sort of the point. It seems like there’s no team that fits here. The Suns apparently have interest, but Monroe doesn’t fit their run-and-gun approach. The Blazers had interest, but then signed Chris Kaman. I don’t think Monroe wants to go back to the Pistons, and the team will keep exploring sign-and-trades, but he might have to return to Motown in the end.

There are still a couple of interesting unrestricted free agents still available (Mo Williams, anyone?), but Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe are the two big fish still available. Bledsoe seems likely to return to Phoenix; it’s a matter of how much money he gets. Monroe could be signed and traded if there is a team with enough interest, but he too might return to his previous employer, in his case Detroit. It seems like both of these guys will be signed soon, and it should be interesting.

Who will win the NL Central?

Posted: 07/21/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Four out of the six divisions in baseball are one or two team races. The AL Central is the Tigers’ to lose, while the AL West (Athletics and Angels), NL East (Nationals and Braves), and NL West (Giants and Dodgers) are between two teams. The other two, the AL East and NL Central, are thankfully more open. I’ll talk about the AL East race later, but today it’s the NL Central, a division in which four teams are within 2.5 games of each other. That means that every team except for one, the sorry Cubs, is in the race. That’s pretty cool. Most people would consider the Cardinals the favorite, just because of their name value and history. Others like the Brewers, because they’ve arguably performed the best this season and have easily the best offense of the four. Others still like the Pirates, because they have won 29 of their last 46 games. Finally, even the Reds, without the services of star hitter Joey Votto, who has been on and off the DL all season, are in the mix. It’s a wild race, and I’ll try to handicap it here.

Case for the Cardinals: They’ve been here before, and have the most playoff experience of any of these teams. That will help down the stretch. They are also very well-rounded, both offensively and pitching-wise. Even without Yadier Molina- and the loss of Molina really, really hurts- the lineup is pretty deep. The lineup goes seven deep, from Matt Carpenter at the top to Jon Jay in the seven hole. Interestingly, even with all the big name offensive players, the Cardinals have really struggled to score runs. They are 29th in the league in homers with 63, and have scored just 370 runs, also second worst in baseball. That’s going to improve, and the pitching probably won’t have to carry the team as much as it has been. The pitching has been really good. Adam Wainwright is the obvious guy, and he has been even better than advertized; even with everyone focusing on Clayton Kershaw, it can be easily argued that Wainwright has been the best pitcher in baseball this season. Even with the injuries to Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, the rest of the rotation has also been, for the most part, terrific. Lance Lynn has been a steady hand all year, with an ERA hovering around three and just seven homers allowed in 120 innings. That’s another positive from this pitching staff: the offense has struggled mightily to hit the ball out of the park, but the pitching has been even better at keeping it in the park. They’ve allowed 58 homers, fewest in baseball. Joe Kelly, recalled after the injuries, is unheralded but has a 3.05 career ERA in a decent sample size. This is a team that has been relying on its pitching and defense (this is also one of the two or three best defensive teams in baseball), and the pitching and defense have successfully carried the team. The argument is this: we know the pitching is there, and we know the offense has been underperforming but has the talent to bounce back. And when the offense bounces back, who in this division has the players to stop the St. Louis Cardinals?

Case for the Brewers: First, I want to touch on Jonathan Lucroy, who just so happens to be the most underrated player in baseball. His WAR, 3.8, places him in the top 10 among all hitters and is nearly a win better than the next best catching. He was known as a defensive catcher, but he can also hit. He’s hitting .311 with a .872 OPS, and Fangraphs has him at 42% better than the average hitter (a 142 wRC+). Lucroy is the key to the Brewers’ success, but he’s not the only good offensive player on the team. Ryan Braun might not be a good person, but he’s definitely a good baseball player, PEDs or no PEDs. Carlos Gomez is the superstar, with good defense, speed, and power. He’s a five tool player, and a 30-30 waiting to happen. Those are the three key offensive pillars, and they are supported by guys like Aramis Ramirez (.787 OPS), Scooter Gennett (hitting above .300), and Khris Davis (16 homers). Not bad, and certainly better than the Cardinals have been this year. On the pitching side, there are definitely some holes, but it’s solid all around. They lack an ace, but have four solid starters, from Kyle Lohse to to Wily Peralta to Yovani Gallardo to Matt Garza. The fifth starter, Marco Estrada, isn’t so great, but there are worse problems to have than a bad fifth starter. And the bullpen has, again, been solid if unspectacular. That, really, is the Brewers’ argument. They have two star players, Lucroy and Gomez, and then a bunch of solid parts around them. That is sometimes enough to make the playoffs, especially in a bad division. The Brewers have hung around for more than half the season, and have the ability to stay in the race and win it at the end.

Case for the Pirates: Andrew McCutchen is not only the best player in the division, but also probably the second best in baseball behind Mike Trout when you consider positional scarcity (knocking out Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera), and ballpark (bye bye Troy Tulowitzki). Like it or not, all of Pittsburgh’s hopes are pinned on McCutchen. They need to be, because, outside of Cutch, this is an ordinary team. And boy has McCutchen produced. He’s hitting .320 with a .981 OPS, 17 homers, and 16 steals. He walks nearly as much as he strikes out (14.1% BB and 17.6% K), and has a 175 wRC+, which means he has been 75% better than the average hitter. Only Trout has been a better offensive player this season. Period. What else to the Pirates have? Well, they have a couple of other above-average offensive players, from Russell Martin to Neil Walker to, uh, that’s about it. Gregory Polanco, the hotshot prospect who was hitting everything in sight in AAA, was supposed to be the Robin to McCutchen’s Batman. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, as Polanco has hit for no power and has just a .324 slugging percentage. That hurts. The case for the Pirates is this: the rotation can improve, and the Pirates have the prospects to improve through trade. They’ve also been playing really well recently and have the best player in the division in Andrew McCutchen. It’s a longshot, but the Pirates have a chance in this division.

Case for the Reds: According to Fangraphs, the Reds have added more defensive value than any other team in baseball. The average fan might discount that, but you shouldn’t, because that’s why the Reds are in this race. They have the best up the middle defense in baseball, with Devin Mesoraco behind the plate, Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart up the middle, and Billy Hamilton in centerfield. Hamilton and Cozart in particular have been amazing, placing as two of the eight best defensive players in baseball, ahead of the likes of Andrelton Simmons, Dustin Pedroia, and Sal Perez. The Reds also have a guy named Todd Frazier who, believe it or not, has turned into a very good player. He has power (has 20 homers and was in the home run derby), speed (15 steals, which shocks me), on base ability (.350 OBP), and defensive ability. He’s a great all-around player. Unfortunately, the rest of the offense hasn’t been too great, and the Reds place 25th among teams based on strict offensive value added. A couple of starting pitchers have really stepped up for the Reds. Jhonny Cueto has been among the best starters in the national league, with an ERA of just 2.18. He’s been joined by a huge surprise story in Alfredo Simon (only started the season in the rotation because Mat Latos was out and now has a 2.74 ERA), and, with the return of Latos, the Reds boast perhaps the best rotation in the division. They also have an incredible closer who goes by the name of Aroldis Chapman. You probably know all about Chapman, so all I’m going to say is this: he is striking out more than two guys per INNING, with 61 strikeouts in 30 innings. Even last year, when he K’d an obscene amount of hitters, the strikeout rate was in the 15 range. Now it’s above 18? Unbelievable. The Reds case is run prevention: they’re going to win a lot of 3-1 and 2-0 games, because their defense and pitching are both good. Without Votto, who will be out for more than a month, their hitting is below average, and probably the worst among the four teams. But their pitching and defense will make up for it, and they’ll be in the race when Votto comes back for the stretch run.

Bottom Line: I like the Brewers, and I love Andrew McCutchen, but in the end I think this is a race between the Cardinals and the Reds. The Cardinals have to be favored, since they have a better offense and more depth. But the Reds have been sneaky-good over the past weeks, and are just hanging around in striking distance. If they are still in contention when (if?) Votto gets back, watch out. Here are my predicted final NL Central standings:

1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs (don’t forget the Cubs!)

World Cup Final Prediction

Posted: 07/13/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

LeBron James, who’s in the news for very understandable reasons (I’ll eventually write a LeBron back to the Cavs (!) post), summed the importance of the World Cup final up very nicely. “This is the highest you can get,” James said, going on to say that the World Cup final is bigger than the NBA finals. We all know this is true, of course, but hearing the best player in basketball say it is particularly illuminating. James, of course, is in Brazil as I type and will be attending the game between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana. Must be nice.

This game has been dubbed by many as some variation of “man vs machine,” with man being Lionel Messi and Germany acting as the machine. While that has some basis in reality, I don’t think it’s even close to the reality. First, Germany. The Germans have been rightly celebrated over the past few days after a 7-1 demolition of Brazil that still seems like it was a dream. There’s no question that Germany was dominant in that game, with clinical finishing and strong defending. With that said, I’m still not sure they are a powerhouse team. The Brazilians were almost as poor as the Germans were dominant, with soft defending and very little defensive pressure. Without Neymar and Thiago Silva, their two leaders and star players, they just collapsed, and they look even worse after a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third place game. Basically, Brazil fell apart, and that wasn’t all Germany’s doing. Germany also got lucky against Brazil. There’s no question that they were and are the better team than a Neymar and Silva-less Brazil, but they aren’t six goals better. They scored seven goals on 12 shots on goal, which is unsustainable. They had just 49% possession. Brazil outshot them (13 on goal), and outpossessed them. That doesn’t mean they outplayed Germany, and they didn’t (stats can be misleading), but it’s definitely true that the game was closer than the final score indicates. Brazil had numerous chances to score early in the second half, and were unlucky not to have a couple of goals in the first few minutes of the second half. What if the final score had been 5-3 instead of 7-1? Would Germany still be considered a powerhouse team, one of the best of all-time? I doubt it.

With all that said, they are still a heck of a team. They’re organized and clinical, and it all starts at the back with goalie Manuel Neuer. Neuer has cemented his status as best goalkeeper in the world (sorry, Tim Howard) with a near-spotless tournament. His reflexes are tremendous, and he’s very steady in goal, allowing just four goals in six games. He also adds a lot to the attack, with great feet and passing ability. When the ball gets played over the top, Neuer is always there to get it. He has fantastic awareness, and when he gets the ball, he looks to start a counterattack immediately. The bottom line is that Neuer is a great asset and the best player on this team. The defense in front of Neuer isn’t fast, but it’s definitely steady. The strength of the defense is just that- strength and size. It’s going to be hard to score in the air against Germany, which means Argentina will have to beat them with speed. And then there’s the attack, which is dynamic and deep. Thomas Muller isn’t the fastest, most skilled, or best finisher in the world, but he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. As a result, he has five goals in the World Cup and three more assists and is a co-Golden Boot (award given to best player in the World Cup) favorite (Messi being the other co-favorite). He’s joined by a host of other great attacking players. Mesut Ozil is the creator, Toni Kroos is the finisher, Miroslav Klose is the poacher, and tremendous attackers Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze are stuck on the bench. After their seven spot against Brazil, Germany now has scored 17 goals in the World Cup. Only one other team, the Netherlands, has scored more than 12 goals, and they’ve played an extra game. Impressive. So even after that whole paragraph about why the Germans aren’t an all-time great team, I still have to admit that they are the best team in this World Cup by a pretty wide margin.

And then there’s the so-called “one man team,” Argentina. There’s no doubt that Lionel Messi is great. He’s the best player in the world, even though he didn’t have a huge impact on the semifinal against the Dutch. He’s scored four of Argentina’s eight goals, and assisted on another one. So it’s pretty fair to say that he has been a very large part of the Argentine offense. But it’s not like this team doesn’t have other attacking options. In fact, heading into the World Cup their wealth of attacking options was their biggest strength. Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and Sergio Aguero join Messi to form perhaps the most skilled attacking group in the World Cup. But it hasn’t worked out. Aguero missed two games with an injury and was clearly hobbled in the semifinal, and has yet to score a goal. He might start the final, but is without a doubt not at 100%. Di Maria scored the winning goal against Switzerland late (on a beautiful pass by Messi) but then got injured in the quarterfinal and missed the semifinal. He might not be ready to play in the final. Even with all those attacking options, Argentina’s offense has been pretty static, which explains their paltry eight goals in six games. With Messi and company, though, they are just one brilliant play away from doing something special.

Surprisingly, Argentina’s defense has carried the South American team to the final. They’ve allowed just three goals, and if you exclude a 3-2 win against Nigeria that didn’t really mean much (Argentina had already clinched progression to the last 16 and only needed a tie), that number goes down to one: a garbage time goal scored by Bosnia in the first game. That means they have not allowed a single goal in three knockout round games. Leading the defensive effort has been Javier Mascherano, who is another Golden Boot candidate and has been absolutely fantastic, especially in the semifinal, when he stopped Dutch attack after Dutch attack despite “tearing his anus.” The defense was supposed to be Argentina’s Achilles’ heel, but it’s been the opposite, saving the team time after time after time.

I expect this game to be a lot less open than Brazil-Germany. I expect a close, low-scoring game, with neither team playing dominant soccer but both playing well defensively. I really wanted to pick Argentina, because I think they are being underrated and because I think they have the speed to get behind Germany’s defense. But in the end, Neuer and the Germans are just too good. I think it’ll be close and go to extra time (hopefully), with Germany scoring the winner in that additional time and winning the game 2-1. The Golden Boot will be won by Muller if he scores a goal and by Colombia’s James Rodriguez if he doesn’t. I’m rooting for Argentina in this game, but I don’t really care. More than anything, I want a close and exciting game, and I think we’ll get it. I’m picking Germany, but it’s going to be a lot closer than people think.

Where is Carmelo Anthony going to land?

Posted: 07/05/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

NBA free agency is in full swing now, and although there have been some interesting moves so far, the biggest moves and non moves are still in the future. I’m speaking, in particular, about Carmelo Anthony and the Miami Heat’s big three. Today I’ll write about Anthony. Where could he go? What impact will he have wherever he goes? Before today, I thought that there were two clear suitors in the Melo sweepstakes: the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls. Now, though, there appears to be a third viable suitor: the Los Angeles Lakers. According to Bill Simmons, the Lakers made a huge impact on Anthony during their meeting, and this now has to be considered a three horse race. Which team has the best shot? Which spot makes the most sense?

First, a quick blurb on whatever whoever does sign Carmelo will get. Anthony has made seven of the last eight all-star games, has scored 25.3 points and added 6.5 rebounds per game in his career. He’s generally considered one of the seven best players in the game, and is rivaled by only Kevin Durant in terms of his scoring prowess. He’s also only 30 years old. That’s the good part. The bad part is that he has frequent defensive lapses and has only advanced past the first round of the playoffs twice in his 12 year career. So while he’s a great player, he hasn’t proven himself in the playoffs. Regardless of his playoff woes, he’s obviously going to improve any team he joins exponentially.

New York Knicks: 60%
At one point right after the season, I thought Carmelo Anthony was sure to leave New York. He was sick and tired of losing, and the Knicks weren’t going to be able to turn the team around, at least next season. That is still the case. Barring a bunch of huge turnarounds, the Knicks aren’t going to contend next season. They are already over the cap, with Amar’e Stoudemire set to make more than $23 million this year and Andrea Bargnani making $11.5 million. Luckily for Phil Jackson and the Knicks, both of those cap hits will come off after this season, at which point the Knicks will be free to pursue other free agent stars in the 2015 market (Kevin Love could be among the free agents). There’s also the small little subject of money. The Knicks can- and reportedly already have- offer Anthony five years and $129 million. Melo can only get $96 million and four years from any other team. The Knicks also have the advantage of playing in the biggest market in the country. Anthony’s wife, LaLa, apparently wants to stay in New York, which could be a deciding factor. So if Anthony is willing to play through another less-than-outstanding season, he is likely to re-sign with the Knicks. But that’s the problem: is Anthony willing to play through another poor season? He’s in the middle of his prime right now, and it would make sense for him to want to go to a contender rather than staying with the Knicks. In the end, I think Anthony trusts Phil Jackson, and I think he believes that the Knicks will be very good in the coming seasons. That should be enough to keep him in the big apple.

Chicago Bulls: 25%
This might make the most pure basketball sense. With Melo, the Bulls would elevate themselves into the conversation of best team in the East, perhaps even over whatever team LeBron James will lead next season (if LeBron is in the East, which seems likely). With a (cross your fingers)¬†healthy Derrick Rose¬†leading a roster that also has Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, and now Doug McDermott, who should make an instant impact, they’d be a title contender. They need a scorer, and Carmelo Anthony would be a great fit for them and vice-versa. But the Bulls would need to open up cap space to sign Anthony, and that space would likely come in a sign-and-trade with the Knicks involving Anthony and Carlos Boozer. Would the Knicks be willing to do that? Another issue is, again, Melo’s wife, LaLa. She wants to stay in New York and it would be easy to see her okaying a move to Los Angeles, but how about Chicago? The bottom line is that, while Melo to the Bulls makes all the sense in the world, other factors are likely to keep it from happening.

Los Angeles Lakers: 15%
In a way, the Lakers make the least sense in this conversation. They lack what the Knicks have- the right to give Anthony more money than anyone else, and what the Bulls have- the pieces to form an immediate title contender. So why do they have a one-in-five chance to sign Carmelo Anthony? Well, they play in LA, which is great, and they also have a guy named Kobe Bryant. Bryant and Anthony are close friends, and it could be that Anthony will sign with the Lakers just to be able to play with his buddy. The Lakers are also in a good position salary cap wise. They could sign Anthony to the maximum deal without altering anything. Still, I think the lack of talent around Kobe will be too much for Anthony to overlook. The Lakers are now in the conversation, but they are still the third wheel.

Verdict: The Knicks are clear favorites to retain the services of Carmelo Anthony. They can give him more money, Anthony believes in Phil Jackson, and they have a lot of cap room opening up after this season. But the Lakers and Bulls also have reasonable shots at picking up the star forward. The Bulls have the benefit of a team that’s ready to win now, and the Lakers have Kobe Bryant.

The Sixers are sticking to their blueprint

Posted: 07/01/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

Heading into last week’s NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers had the third and 10th picks. They had tanked last season, and were said to want Andrew Wiggins. Before Joel Embiid’s foot injury, the Wiggins dream was becoming close to a reality. The consensus was that the Cavaliers would draft Embiid, the big man with limitless upside, at #1 and that the Bucks would draft Jabari Parker second. But Embiid fractured his foot, and the Cavs lost interest. The Embiid injury probably hurt the Sixers the most. The top three became a top two, and the third pick’s value was diminished. In the week before the draft, nobody knew what the Sixers were going to do. Would they trade up to the top spot and take Wiggins? Would they take Australian point guard Dante Exum? Would last year’s top rookie Michael Carter-Williams be traded for a lottery pick? Where would Thaddeus Young be traded? Which shooter would the Sixers draft at #10? Well, the answers to those questions are no, no, no, nowhere, and nobody. Instead, the Sixers drafted Embiid at #3 and Croatian Dario Saric at #10. Embiid’s foot will likely take 5-8 months to heal, and he therefore likely won’t play next season. Meanwhile, Saric recently signed a three year deal in Europe with a buyout after two years, so he won’t be playing in the NBA anytime soon, either. On the surface, drafting Embiid and Saric seems odd and, well, stupid. The Sixers need NBA-ready players, because they were stuck playing career D-leaguers for much of last season. With two top-10 picks, they were in a prime position to grab two players who could play with Carter-Williams and improve the team as soon as this coming year. Instead, they drafted two players who won’t play next season.

But while many reactions were negative, the Sixers draft was totally predictable and I had no problem with it. The most important thing is that the Sixers have a plan, and they are sticking to it. They don’t care how bad they are next season, or even the year after, but they plan on being bad until they have enough pieces to win. In the meantime, they are picking up assets who can play in the future or can be traded. Sixers fans should trust GM Sam Hinkie, at least for the time being. Hinkie’s trade of Jrue Holiday was brilliant and brought back terrific value, and the Sixers have more cap room and more assets than they had before Hinkie became general manager. If Hinkie and the front office thought Embiid and Saric were the best players available, and they clearly did, then they were right to pick them. It’s clear that the Sixers were willing to suck last year and are willing to do it again this year. It’s also clear that they are willing to take a publicity hit and see the Wells Fargo Center get emptier and emptier as they lose more and more games. Hinkie, though, doesn’t just want to build a playoff team: he wants to build a championship contender. He’s trying to build it from scratch, though, and it’s not easy to build a championship contender. It’s clearly going to take some time, and the process that started with the Holiday trade will take years. Sixers fans understand this and are still remarkably patient. Unfortunately, next year’s team isn’t going to be much better than this year’s was. The Sixers will say that Nerlens Noel, who missed last season with a knee injury and will return next year, is their rookie. Next year, Embiid will likely be the same, and Saric can be the rookie the year after. For now, that’s fine: the Sixers are still in their grace period and can be bad for another year without too many fans protesting. And when they cash in on another top-three pick next season, they’ll add just another asset, whether it is an injured player or an international one. The fact that the Sixers drafted injured big men in the top-six twice in a row is interesting and probably unprecedented, but based on Hinkie’s short track record and his desire to build a championship contender, it’s not at all surprising. Again, this is a long process, and the goal is to be a great team and not just a perennially good one. That’s fine… for now. If the team is this bad in a year or two, it’ll be time to worry about Hinkie and the team’s future. For now, the most important thing is for a plan to be formed and stuck to, so it was refreshing to see Hinkie and the Sixers ignore the fans and media and follow that blueprint. I understand why the fans are mad and the media is critical, but I think Hinkie deserves more of a chance to continue stockpiling assets. That’s what he did in last week’s draft, and it’s possible that, while neither Embiid nor Saric will play next year, they will end up as two of the best players from this draft by the time they retire. People probably would have been happier had the Sixers drafted Exum and Doug McDermott, two NBA-ready players, but then the Sixers would have abandoned their blueprint. I liked what they did better, because they took the two best guys available and, while they will be poor again next season, they are giving themselves the best chance to win championships and not just regular season games in the future.