Archive for April, 2015

NFL Draft: Last minute predictions

Posted: 04/30/2015 by levcohen in Football

I’ll admit that the NFL draft has caught me by surprise, if only a little bit. With the NBA and NHL playoffs (I’ll have second round predictions later this week) in full swing and baseball set to enter its second month, it’s been hard to focus on the NFL. But free agency came and went, and now it’s time for the draft. Somehow, the NFL has succeeded in becoming perhaps the sport with the most action and attention year-round despite the fact that only 512 regular season games are played all regular season, compared with 2460 basketball games, 2460 hockey games, and 4860 baseball games. Anyway, kudos to Roger Goodell (although he certainly doesn’t deserve the compliment) and the NFL. I’m not going to do a full first round mock draft, seeing as it’s pretty much a total crapshoot after the first X-number of picks (this year, I think that number is seven picks), but here are some quick predictions:

Three teams in the top seven will trade down: Right off the bat, I want to say this: I think it’s going to be a wild draft. Here are some factors that are going to make it crazy:

  • a top-five ish quarterback in Philip Rivers is reportedly on the block, as he could well want out of San Diego
  • There are two polarizing quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, at the top of the draft. The Bucs and Titans will demand a king’s ransom if teams want to trade up
  • Skill-position wise, it should be an eventful first round, with two running backs likely to go in the first round and as many as six or seven wide receivers
  • The number of talented guys who have seen their draft stock plummet due to off the field issues, from Shane Ray to Randy Gregory, each of whom was cited for pot possession and will probably last until late in the first round, to La’el Collins, a first round talent who will probably go undrafted with his status as a possible suspect in the murder of his ex-girlfriend, is higher than I can remember it.

Tennessee’s owner could want Mariota, but I think they went up trading down. Meanwhile, both Jacksonville and Washington are (and should be) looking to deal their pick in return for more later picks. In the end, Tampa, Oakland, the Jets, and Chicago will stay where they are (although one of the latter two could trade up into the top five), but the other three will move.

Ray and Gregory will both go in the first round and be steals: I’m sorry, but how can you call a guy whose only mess-up has been being caught smoking marijuana a “bad character” player? That’s just not fair. If I were a general manager with a top-20 pick and needed a pass rusher, I’d pull the trigger on Ray or Gregory, both of whom should become elite pass rushers. I have them going #25 (Ray) to the Panthers and #32 (Gregory) to the Bears (via New England), and it would be a mistake if they lasted until day two. Collins is a different story, but these two undervalued prospects will be steals.

A third QB will go in the first round: We know Winston and Mariota are going in the top five, probably top two, but I would bet that a third quarterback will crack the top 32. I haven’t seen many mock drafts with Bryce Petty or Nick Hundley going in round one, but I expect a team like the Jets or Bills to move back into the end of the first round to draft one or a team like the Cardinals or Browns to draft him. A sneaky option: could the Broncos draft Petty or Hundley to eventually replace Peyton Manning? They already have Brock Osweiler, but let’s face it: Osweiler isn’t very good. The Broncos have bigger needs, but it’s a possibility.

Todd Gurley will crack the top 10: This is a bold statement, as running backs are not very valuable in today’s NFL and Gurley is coming off a torn ACL and will thus be an injury risk in the future, but I think he’s the real deal, and so do NFL teams. He is the next Adrian Peterson (health permitting), and I don’t usually like comparing draft prospects to superstars. So whether it’s the Jets, Falcons, Giants, Rams, or a team trading up, I don’t think Gurley will last past the Rams at #10.

Landon Collins will last until Day Two: The Alabama safety was darn good in college and I think is a top 10 talent in the draft, but his stock has at best held steady over the past few weeks. Why? Simply because it’s a passing league and Collins is not a great cover safety. With Demarious Randall the hot name at safety, I expect Randall and not Collins to be the only safety drafted on Day One.

6-8 corners will be drafted tonight: Cornerback is one of the most important positions in the NFL, and this draft is deep at the position. Granted, there’s no elite talent at the position this year, with none likely to go in the top 10, but almost every team in the back half of the draft could use a corner. I have the Saints, Dolphins, Eagles, Steelers, Lions, and Ravens taking a corner in the first round, but even more teams could take one.

Leonard Williams will fall to #5: I think Williams, a defensive lineman is the best player in the draft, but with two good quarterbacks and some other nice talent at positions of need for top-four teams, he should fall to #5, where teams will attempt to trade up to nab him. I have Winston, Mariota, Dante Fowler Jr., and Amari Cooper (who I love), going 1-4, with a team (my bet would be the Bears, Falcons, or Saints) trading up to #5 to select Williams.

Enjoy the draft everybody!

AL West Preview

Posted: 04/28/2015 by levcohen in Uncategorized

It’s taken a while, but I’m finally finishing my MLB predicted standings today… three weeks into the season. Luckily, in the division I’ve left for last, the AL West, the two preseason favorites, the Angels and Mariners, are still just a game apart with both being slightly under .500. Surprisingly enough, the division, which I thought would be a pretty good one, is just 5-15 against other divisions so far this season, with the obligatory “small sample size” warning thrown in. Three weeks in, only the Astros are over .500, which helps illustrate just how little three weeks generally mean. Can Houston hold on for a shocking division crown, will the Angels and Mariners become the teams we thought they would be, or will Oakland or Texas sneak in for the division crown? Here’s how I think it will go down:

#1. Seattle Mariners (90-72): The Mariners were one of the teams I had going over their total, so I haven’t been thrilled with the 8-11 start or especially the -20 run differential, worse than only the Twins, Phillies, Brewers, and Giants. There are some reasons to be optimistic, though. Nelson Cruz has been great, but almost nobody else in the lineup has been; expect Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and the three regulars hitting between .132 (Mike Zunino) and .200 (Dustin Ackley) to get better. The Mariners have scored just 3.68 runs per game this season, closer to their historically bad offense a few years ago than the one I thought this offense could be. I’d expect the offense to trend closer to 4.5 runs per game as the weather gets warmer, Cano warms up (as he did last year), and the role players begin to produce. More surprising has been the fact that the M’s are giving up 4.74 runs per game, second worst outside the AL East, where nobody can pitch (by the way, check out the 4-16, -50 run diff Milwaukee Brewers, who are scoring 3.05 runs per game and allowing 5.55). Felix Hernandez is pitching as well as he always does, but usually-reliable Hisashi Iwakuma has a 6.61 ERA and is now on the DL due to a minor injury, while talented young starters Taijuan Walker and James Paxton have each given up 15 runs in 19.2 innings. All of this is a lesson in small sample size theater. The Mariners haven’t been playing well, but their stars — Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez — are fine, and they will be too. I still have them winning more games than any other AL team.

#2. Houston Astros (83-79): You can call me crazy, but after going on about the danger of small sample sizes, I kind of believe in this Houston team! Not enough to put them in the playoffs or anything, but enough to give them a huge boost on what I would have given them three weeks ago. Why? Well, part of it is the 12-7 record that I can take to the bank, but more importantly, I think the roster is a lot better than people are giving them credit for. I’ll start with the rotation. Is it me, or is the duo of Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel pretty darn good atop the rotation? The two have combined to post seven out of eight quality starts while going 5-0 in 53.2 innings with a 1.68 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 15 walks. But they were also pretty good last season. After putting up ERAs above 5.00 his first two years, Keuchel was at 2.93 last year with 5.1 Baseball Reference WAR in 200 innings. Meanwhile, McHugh also broke out last year after allowing 47 runs in 47.1 innings in his first two seasons. His ERA was 2.73 as he struck out more than a batter an inning. McHugh is the more dominant and, I think, better pitcher, but I think they are both legit. The rest of the rotation is suspect, but the bullpen, which is led by Luke Gregerson and has a 2.42 ERA so far, has more than made up for it. But I’m more interested in the offense, which has a lot of interesting pieces. Jose Altuve led the league in hits last year and is the favorite to do it again this year. The Astros have added Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis, each of whom has massive power. Speaking of power, Chris Carter is one of the few players in baseball who can hit under .200 and still slug close to 40 homers. But the young guys, George Springer and Jake Marisnick, are most interesting. Springer has started the year poorly and is clearly a streaky hitter, but he has the potential to have the best power-speed combination in baseball. Meanwhile, Marisnick is off to a torrid start, hitting .362 with a .990 OPS. It’s a deep lineup, with catcher Jason Castro hitting eighth and Marisnick ninth, and it could be a pretty good one. I think this is the year the Astros go over .500.

#3. Los Angeles Angels (82-80): I was all set to give the Angels 87 wins and a wild card spot when I realized that everything I said about the White Sox being a top-heavy team holds true with the Angels. Now, the guy LA is relying on, Mike Trout, happens to be the best player in baseball by far. But baseball is still a team sport, and it’s showing. Trout is playing extremely well, with a .318/.432/.545 triple slash, four homers, five steals, and nearly as many walks as strikeouts, but the Angels are still under .500. He’s scored 16 runs, and nobody else on the Angels has scored more than 10. Trout needs help, and while he’s getting it from leadoff hitter Kole Calhoun and from a few of their starters (ace Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago, and C.J. Wilson), he’s not getting much from the rest of the team. It looks like a 73 win team that just so happens to have Mike Trout, which is why I’m going to give them 82 wins.

#4. Oakland Athletics (79-83): Despite am 8-12 start, I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the Athletics, and I think they are ticketed for a near-.500 record. It’s a classic Billy Beane team, one full of no-names that combines to make a mismatched team that somehow plays .500 ball. Billy Butler and Ben Zobrist are about as well-known as any other players on the team, and Zobrist is injured right now. But Sonny Gray is one of the best starters in baseball, and maybe the most underrated one in baseball. And guys like Stephen Vogt, Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, and Mark Cahna always step up for them. It’s not a playoff team, but again, it looks as if it’s better than the some of its parts.

#5. Texas Rangers (71-91): Well this under pick looks pretty good right now. The Rangers are 7-12, and they aren’t going to be a good baseball team. Almost nothing has changed since I wrote about the Rangers. They have arguably the worst pitching staff in baseball without Yu Darvish, and while Prince Fielder is bouncing back in a big way, the lineup isn’t good enough to supplement a terrible pitching staff. Shin-Soo Choo, coming off a down year, is hitting .096, and that isn’t a typo. Elvis Andrus is a liability at the plate, Robinson Chirinos is the worst starting catcher in baseball, and Rougned Odor hasn’t proven that he can hit anywhere near league average. Add in the fact that Leonys Martin, owner a career .313 OBP, is the leadoff hitter, and the lineup doesn’t look that great. Adrian Beltre is an anchor in the middle of the lineup and Fielder is going to have a good year, but it won’t be anywhere near enough. The Twins might be worse, but this is by far the second worst team in the American League.

AL Central Preview

Posted: 04/24/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

This is the lone division about which I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t post my predictions before the season started. That’s because, 10% of the way through the season, this division’s outlook has changed more than any other. Why? Well, the Cleveland Indians, the favorite and a trendy World Series pick (I never bought that, by the way), have started out 5-9, with fewer runs than anyone other than the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Tigers, who looked to be much worse than last season, are 11-5, and the Royals, who were expected to take a huge step back after winning the AL last season, are 12-4. The Twins will still likely dwell in the cellar of the division while the White Sox are a year or two away from playoff contention, but a three team race may have turned into a two team race over the first few weeks of the season. Here’s how I think it will turn out:

1. Detroit Tigers (89-73): A three game losing streak has seen Detroit’s record plummet all the way to.. 11-5. Why have the Tigers been so good? Well, it starts with the stud hitters we knew the Tigers had. Miguel Cabrera has started the season tremendously, as have Yoenis Cespedes, J.D. Martinez, and, more surprisingly, Jose Iglesias. With the first three and Victor Martinez, we know that the Tigers have a good offense, and that hasn’t changed in the first two weeks. The real improvement has come from the defense, which has gone from costing the team 65 runs (if you accept the idea that 10 runs = one game, that cost them 6.5 wins) to saving them five in the first 16 games of the season (a 50+ rate). The biggest reason for that improvement is Iglesias, the soft-handed shortstop who has returned from injury to anchor the important position. So their defense is now at least average and their powerful offense is still among the league’s best. How come I have them going just 78-68 over the final 5+ months? Well, I’m still not sold by the pitching, which is much different from the dominant rotation it was a few years ago. Doug Fister was traded away after the 2013 season, Max Scherzer left last season, Rick Porcello moved on to Boston in the Cespedes trade, and Justin Verlander is injured and not likely to regain his MVP form. That leaves Detroit with David Price (a stud), Anibal Sanchez (a player who misses a ton of time every year due to injury), Alfredo Simon (a good season last year but the underlying numbers do not favor him), Shane Greene (a 26-year old with just 14 starts before this year), and a rookie, Kyle Lobstein, with poor stuff, to go along with their customarily poor bullpen. So far, it’s worked out pretty well, as the Tigers have posted a 3.15 team ERA and 2.3 WAR, fifth in the league. This is all despite the fact that they are striking out just 6.67 batters per nine innings, 26th in MLB. Can guys like Greene, Simon, and Lobstein, control-first pitchers who have succeeded thus far, continue to pitch effectively and protect the tame bullpen (6.59 K/9, 28th)? I don’t think they’ll be as good, which is where the decline comes from, but Price, Sanchez, an improved defense, and a powerful offense should be enough to win the division again.

2. Cleveland Indians (86-76): 5-9 start and all, I still haven’t given up on the Indians. It all starts with the rotation, which has the potential to be the most powerful and best in baseball. We know Corey Kluber, the 29-year-old who won the Cy Young last year, is going to be good, but I’m really impressed by what comes after Kluber. The Indians have three bona-fide breakout candidates in Trevor Bauer (24 years old), Carlos Carrasco (28), and Danny Salazar (25). All three have tremendous stuff and were top prospects at one point, and there are signs that all three are putting it together now. Carrasco’s breakout started last year, when he had a 1.72 ERA in 78.2 innings after the All-Star break. He got nailed in the face in his second start, which was a scary moment, but seems to be fine and has a 18/1 K/BB ratio through three starts. Meanwhile, Bauer and Salazar have combined to allow just four runs on 14 hits in 25 innings while posting a 36/13 K/BB ratio. If those guys are going to be as good as they have been thus far, this is going to be a scary team. It’s been a small sample size, and the Indians would be 7-7 if closer Cody Allen (14.40 ERA) hadn’t blown two saves in horrific fashion, turning two and three run leads into losses. And the hitting (.220/.282/.337 with 44 runs in 14 games) is bound to get better. It’s not going to be an elite offense, but it’s going to get a heck of a lot better. Consider: Michael Brantley, an MVP candidate last year, has missed six games and is now slowly warming up but still has a .563 OPS. Second baseman Jason Kipnis, the two-hole hitter, has a .501 OPS. Leadoff hitter Michael Bourn is at .521. And three everyday players, including Brandon Moss, whom the Indians traded for specifically for his offense, are hitting under .200. I expect all of those numbers to shoot up, and the Indians’ record to do the same. The injury to catcher Yan Gomes, who will be out a couple of months, hurts, but the Indians will rebound and be a playoff threat.

3. Kansas City Royals (85-77): When did the Royals become total jerks? The lovable Cinderella has turned into the Beast (I’m mixing my fairy tales, but whatever). They are getting into fights, hit-by-pitch battles, and verbal jawing, all while barely being provoked. I rooted for them last year; I’m not rooting for them this season. All that aside, forgive me for not thinking this 12-4 start is sustainable. Are Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas really this good? Unless they are all maxing out their potential at the same time, in which case the Royals would win the World Series (hands-down), I’m going to bet on “no”. I would expect each of them to have an OPS decrease of 100-200 points, and I don’t think they are regaining that offense anywhere else. Meanwhile, I still feel the same way about the rotation that I did before the season: it’s average. Yordano Ventura is good, Danny Duffy might be, and the other three guys (Edinson Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas) are simply innings-eaters. But with a bullpen like Kansas City’s, that might be enough. We heard a lot about the three-headed monster of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland last year, for good reason. But despite a DL stint from Holland, the bullpen, which has added depth in the form of Ryan Madson, Chris Young, and Franklin Morales, has been even better this season. KC’s bullpen has given up just three runs in 52.1 innings. That’s a .52 ERA. The next best bullpen has a 1.69 ERA. But can the bullpen carry an otherwise-average team to the playoffs? I think the offensive decline will be too much to overcome.

4. Chicago White Sox (77-85): I might be looking at this wrong, but this looks like a two-man team to me. Jose Abreu is one of the best hitters in baseball, and Chris Sale is a stud pitcher, but, aside from a good closer in David Robertson, what else does Chicago have? I mean, I like Jeff Samardzija, but I don’t think he’s more than an average #2. And Jose Quintana is good for a mid-3s ERA but allows too many hits to be much better than a solid #3. But the rest of the rotation (John Danks, anyone?) is iffy, and the guys Chicago has trotting out there with Abreu every day aren’t great either. I don’t expect anyone in the lineup other than Abreu to post more than +2 WAR. Guys like Alexei Ramirez and Adam Eaton are fine, but they aren’t going to carry Chicago to the playoffs. Abreu and Sale need help, and they are starting to get it. The White Sox just called up top prospect Carlos Rodon, a 22-year old, and speedy young Micah Johnson is the starting second baseman. But I never saw what other people saw (a sneaky wild card contender) in this Chicago team.

5. Minnesota Twins (68-94): The future is bright for the Twins, but they are going to be bad again this season. When your below-average offense is the best part of your team, you know it’s going to be a long season. The Twins are horrid defensively, with Torii Hunter and Oswaldo Arcia rating as two of the worst corner outfielders in baseball and a huge liability in Trevor Plouffe at third. In fact, first baseman (and former catcher) Joe Mauer might be the only guy who isn’t a net negative in the field. Then there’s the pitching, which won’t be much better than the staff that posted a 9.7 WAR (third worst) and 4.58 ERA (second worst) last season. Their #5, Mike Pelfrey, who posted a 5.19 ERA in 2013 and a 7.99 ERA last season, isn’t much worse than their #1, Phil Hughes. That’s how bad this is. And the offense isn’t much better, with Mauer serving as the only consistently above-average hitter on the team. But while the Twins will be bad this year, they have help coming in the form of five-tool prospect Byron Buxton, the consensus #1 overall prospect now that Kris Bryant is in the big leagues, and powerful Miguel Sano, a fellow top-10 prospect. They are also stocked full of right-handed arms waiting in the minor leagues, led by Alex Meyer (the #29 overall prospect according to MLB.com), Jose Berrios (#32), and Kohl Stewart (#36). All in all, they have six of the 40 best prospects in baseball, which makes for one heck of a farm system. So the future is bright for the Twins, but the present, well, isn’t.

AL East Predicted Standings

Posted: 04/20/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

After a short break, it’s time to continue with the MLB previews, although we are two weeks into the season. Next up is the AL East, the once elite and now very balanced division. There’s no terrible team in this division, but there’s also no real World Series contender. That makes this division a really hard one to pick.

1. Boston Red Sox (87-75): This Red Sox team is unique in today’s day and age in that they are a division favorite despite the fact that they are well below-average pitching-wise. They’ve allowed more runs than anyone other than the Rangers (65) while scoring 70 runs, tied with the Blue Jays for tops in baseball. For the foreseeable future, their starting rotation will consist of Clay Buchholz (who collapsed last year and has had a bad start to the season), and new additions Rick Porcello,  Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Joe Kelly. That’s really, really bad, and I expect most of them to post ERAs in the mid-4s. The bullpen, which is led by reliable Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Edward Mujica, and Craig Breslow, will hopefully be an asset, but it’s nowhere near enough to make up for the dumpster fire that the rotation is. Luckily, the best offense in baseball will make up for it and then some. The lineup legitimately goes eight deep, with studs Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Pablo Sandoval in the middle of the lineup and exciting young players Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts supporting them. Heck, even the bench, which includes established sluggers Allen Craig and Daniel Nava, has some good hitters. This offense is absolutely elite. I expect the Red Sox to be consistently above .500 before trading for some pitching at the deadline and elevating themselves to the top of the division.

2. Baltimore Orioles (86-76): This was another of the teams I picked to go over their over/under total, so again I’ll keep this short. So far, I haven’t really seen much from this 7-6 team that has made me change my mind. Adam Jones and Caleb Joseph have been unsustainably hot while Manny Machado and Steve Pearce have been super cold, so expect those early season stat lines to regress to the mean. I still think this is going to be an above-average offense, a trend in an AL East low on good pitchers. And I still expect the pitching to be average, although the early performances from Ubaldo Jimenez have been promising.

3. Toronto Blue Jays (84-78): The Blue Jays have been raking, but it hasn’t been due to production from their three most important players in Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Russell Martin; rather, Josh Donaldson (admittedly a star player in his own right) and Devon Travis (???) have provided most of the offense. All of this tells us that the Blue Jays have a very deep offense. You know you are doing something right when you can trot out Jose Reyes, Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will be enough. The rotation isn’t Red Sox bad, but it’s pretty close. R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are fine innings-eaters, but not much more than that. The rotation really hinges on three under-25 players: Drew Hutchinson, who needs to take a step forward from his 4.48 ERA/1.26 WHIP season (and move closer to his 3.85 FIP); and the team’s top two prospects in Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, each of whom have had a rocky start to the season. If Norris and Sanchez both can make big positive impacts, the Blue Jays can break the longest playoff drought in baseball. If not, they’ll be middle of the pack in the contested AL East.

4. New York Yankees (82-80): The Yankees are going to be a mediocre team this year, probably a few wins above or below .500. It’s a pretty boring team across the board, with one huge exception: Alex Rodriguez. To say that A-Rod is much-maligned is a huge understatement; he’s the most hated player in sports, including Aaron Hernandez (think about how crazy that is, but it’s true). Unfortunately for A-Rod haters, the aging slugger is hitting .286/.412/.643 so far this season with four homers. I don’t like the guy, but I’m kind of rooting for him to continue raking if only because it will make his story that much more interesting. By the way, I was wrong when I said there’s only one exciting part about this team, because Masahiro Tanaka is pretty intriguing, too. The Japanese pitcher, who was so electrifying last season, is now playing through torn ligaments in his elbow. It feels like it’s a ticking time bomb, but so far Tanaka has been pretty good, especially Saturday, when he allowed just two baserunners in seven innings. But yeah, those two guys are interesting and the rest of the team, while talented, is pretty mediocre. Again, 79-84 wins seems likely depending on how well Tanaka, Rodriguez, and the others hold up.

5. Tampa Bay Rays (79-83): Heck, even the Rays could be slightly above average! Tampa is the only pitching-heavy team in the division, and when everyone returns from injury, they will have a pretty scary rotation. With Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore set to rejoin the rotation in the next couple of months, the Rays could have a rotation of those three, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi. It’s a young, dynamic rotation that could carry them into the playoff race. It’s going to have to be pitching and defense for this team, though, because the offense isn’t very good. Evan Longoria is their only above-average player offensively. Period. I hate to end it there, but I don’t really have much else to say about the Rays or about the division. I have all five teams finishing within eight games of each other, so I expect this to be a close division, but the Rays look like they are clearly on the bottom.

First Round NBA Playoff Preview

Posted: 04/17/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

I sometimes forget how close together the start of the NHL playoffs and NBA playoffs are. Just three days after hockey’s postseason began, it’s basketball’s turn to (likely) overshadow their NHL brethren. I for one prefer the early weeks of hockey’s playoffs to basketball’s, but I’m in the minority there. I think the most intriguing matchups of the first round are Clippers-Spurs (by a longshot) and Mavericks-Rockets, but I’m generally underwhelmed by the quality of the first round matchups, which is why I’m going to keep these previews fairly short, especially for the Eastern Conference games. Since the West is more interesting, I’m going to start there.

Warriors over Pelicans in 4: I was going to give the Pelicans a win simply because of Anthony Davis, but then I realized that, while Davis will probably keep a game or two close, I don’t believe the Pelicans will actually win a game in this series. Look, New Orleans took some positive strides this season, especially since they don’t really have a great core behind Davis and their coach is at best below-average. Davis’s leap into the elite class of the NBA is especially important for the future. He had a 30.9 PER in 68 games, becoming one of just a few players who have cracked the 30 mark. But Davis isn’t going to beat the juggernaut that is the Warriors. Golden State can combat the Brow with Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, two of the best defenders in the NBA at their positions (Green is a power forward and Bogut a center) and will roast New Orleans’s #22 ranked defense with penetration and shots from likely MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and the deep bench. This team is insane, and it’s going to take a very good all-around team to make them sweat. Davis is a fantastic player, but he won’t be enough.

Rockets over Mavericks in 6: The Rockets are seen by many as a vulnerable team, but they won six of their last seven games to snatch the #2 seed from the Clippers, Grizzlies, and Spurs. Their reward is a game against the Mavericks, a much worse team than the alternatives (those three ^^^). This series will likely begin and end with James Harden. Without Harden, the Rockets would be a lottery team, especially without point guard Patrick Beverley. Harden will have to handle the ball, get to the rim, draw fouls and hit open teammates, and he’ll also have to play at least some defense, although the Rockets could hide him by letting him guard Rajon Rondo. Unless Rondo steps up, this seems like a matchup advantage for Houston. Is Rondo going to dramatically pick things up now that the playoffs have arrived? He’s going to be matched up against Harden, since I don’t think Monta Ellis can slow Harden at all. Outside of the star shooting guard, Dallas has the better starting lineup, with Rondo, Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler. They are the better offensive team, especially if Nowitzki returns to anything near his prime self. But defensively, Houston has been good throughout the year and better when they have Dwight Howard, who will likely log 30+ minutes at the beginning of the series. Dallas has a chance, because we haven’t seen Houston’s foul shot-happy style work in the playoffs, when the refs tend to swallow their whistles. It could be a chippy series between the Texas rivals, with Mark Cuban (Mavs owner) and Darryl Morey (Rockets GM) also feuding. If Houston gets a B+ effort from Howard and an MVP performance from Harden, they’ll win the series. But Dallas has a chance because they have a nice three-headed scoring monster of Ellis, Dirk, and Parsons with the defensive prowess of Rondo and especially Chandler. Both of these teams are good and neither are great, so I see Harden being the difference in this series.

Spurs over Clippers in 7: This was by far the toughest series for me to pick. It’s a shame that these two teams are matched up against each other, because I think they are both among the Western Conference’s four best teams (with Memphis and Golden State). The Clippers have Chris Paul, who just completed his first 82 game season in perhaps his best season ever, and they have Blake Griffin, a high flyer who has turned into a point forward who can score and facilitate the offense. They also have a top floor-spacer in J.J. Redick, who ended the season on a tear, averaging 20.6 points on three made threes per game in March and 19.9 on 3.1 in April. Then there’s DeAndre Jordan, the polarizing center who rebounds with the best of them and is a great rim protector. It’s a pretty good nucleus. The problem? Besides Jamal Crawford, they don’t get anything from the bench. That, I think, will be the difference in the series, because the Spurs always get huge performances by a bench player or two in the playoffs. Whether it’s Patty Mills or Cory Joseph or someone else, the Spurs are going to get a lot of production from their bench, perhaps because they’ve played their bench a lot all season. They also have Kawhi Leonard, who is at least the second best player in the series and maybe the best. On a per-game basis, I think Leonard is the best defender in the NBA. He is very long and fast, and if you dribble anywhere near him, he’s going to steal the ball. That’s invaluable, especially in the playoffs. Then there’s the Parker-Duncan-Ginobili trio, about whom I don’t really need to say much. This is going to be a really close series between two great teams, but I think the bench will be the difference.

Grizzlies over Trailblazers in 5: Before all the injuries, I really thought Portland had a chance to win the Western Conference. But then Wes Matthews got hurt. His backup Arron Afflalo missed the last few games, as did Nicolas Batum and C.J. McCollum. That’s basically every wing player on the team. Oh, and LaMarcus Aldridge has been fighting a torn ligament in his thumb and other maladies for more than half of the season. Damian Lillard is the only key player who hasn’t gotten injured this year. A Lillard-Aldridge duo is still pretty good, but they aren’t going to win this series. On the other side, I think Memphis has gotten overlooked late in the season simply because they fell from #2 to #4 (they are technically the #5 seed but will have homecourt advantage because they have a better record than Portland, who had to get a top-four seed because they won their division). I still think they are the fifth or sixth best team in the NBA and will have a huge defensive and depth advantage in this series. Barring a bunch of huge games from Lillard and Aldridge, this is going to be a quick series.

And now the Eastern Conference.

Hawks over Nets in 4: The Hawks are a great team and are not at all susceptible to an upset because they play fluid, mistake-free basketball. Meanwhile, at times it seemed as if the Nets were trying to miss the playoffs despite the fact that they had already traded their first round pick. Brook Lopez had a great finish to the season, but he’s the only guy I trust on the Nets. I won’t watch a minute of this series, and I expect a sweep.

Cavaliers over Celtics in 5: This is an awful matchup for Boston. The Celtics are a not-so-talented team that is fantastically coach and plays well against other teams that aren’t that physical (see: Atlanta). Now, they have to go against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even Timofey Mozgov could have a big offensive series given his huge size advantage over Boston’s mismatched frontcourt. I’m shocked that Boston even made it this far, and I’m going to give coach Brad Stevens a win, but they’ll be going home early.

Bucks over Bulls in 7: I feel obligated to pick a real upset in the first round so this is it. Sure, the Bucks are young and inexperienced, and sure, they are still without Jabari Parker, but I think they could cause the injury-laden Bulls some problems. I still don’t think Derrick Rose or Joakim Noah will be at full strength, which means Michael Carter-Williams and Ersan Ilyasova will have room to maneuver. I also like the Giannis-Jimmy Butler matchup and haven’t even mentioned Khris Middleton, who has morphed into their best scorer and a guy who’s in line to get a huge contract. If you asked me to pick between the starting lineups, I might pick Milwaukee’s! The Bulls are much more seasoned, but how much does that really matter? I’ll take the exciting young team in a tense seventh game in Chicago. It might not be likely, but I’ll look like a genius if it happens.

Wizards over Raptors in 6: This is where Paul Pierce comes in handy. He’s a fiery guy, and has an issue with Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors. He’s also a champion and a great playoff performer, which is something Toronto doesn’t have. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very inspiring matchup. Both of these teams have played terribly (at least for a #4 and #5 seed) recently, posting 13-15 (Washington) and 13-16 (Toronto) records since the all-star break. They are kind of like last year’s Pacers, except they were never as good as Indiana was at the beginning of last season. I’m going to take Washington because they have the best player in the series in John Wall and they also have Pierce, but it almost came down to a coin flip. Maybe Kyle Lowry can be more like his first-half self than his second-half self and the offense can be elite, but I doubt it. And maybe the Wizards will suddenly become the contender many people thought they would be and crush Toronto, but I doubt that, too. I’ll pick the Wizards and expect them to get drubbed by Atlanta next round.

NHL First Round Preview

Posted: 04/15/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

It’s time. The NHL playoffs is always one of the best events of the year, because there are so many tense moments and upsets over the course of the postseason. There aren’t as many true mismatches as in basketball, but it’s still a best-of-seven series, so we’re more likely to see the best team win it all. It’s a great mixture of excitement and fairness. In the first round, there are only two teams, Tampa Bay and the Rangers, who are more than -150 favorites, which would means you would have to bet $150 to win another $100. The other six series’ are pretty much coin-flips; sure, one team might have played better than the other throughout the season, but there are arguments to be made both ways. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference.

Rangers over Penguins in 5: The Penguins simply ran out of gas at the end of the season. They backed into the playoffs, going just 4-9-2 in their final 15 games. It’s the same old story for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are great, although they both had slightly down seasons this year. So is Kris Letang, who was in the running for the Norris trophy before suffering a concussion a couple of weeks ago. Letang won’t be available in the playoffs, which is bad news for a team that really struggled without their best defender. It’s a shame that Letang got injured, because the Penguins were showing signs of being a better team this season than the one they have been the past few years. They were possessing the puck more, killing more penalties (they killed 84.8% of penalties, third best in hockey), and they had the fifth best Corsi (% of total shots taken) in hockey at 52.8%. Meanwhile, the Rangers won the Presidents trophy and are flying heading into the playoffs. They have issues that I’ll get to next round, but they have the depth advantage, the goaltending advantage, and, with Letang out, they have the defensive advantage, too. Crosby and/or Malkin will steal a game, but I don’t think this series will ever be in doubt.

Canadiens over Senators in 7: Most postseason games come down to goaltending. This series almost certainly will. I don’t think there will be many goals scored in this series, which means it’s going to come down to who can make the fewest mistakes. Who would you rather have right now, Carey Price or Andrew Hammond? It says a lot about the Hamburglar’s amazing stretch that the question isn’t quite rhetorical. Let’s start with Hammond, the biggest surprise of the regular season. Hammond is a 27 year-old goalie who had played in one career NHL game before February 16th. He went 30-68-13 as a college goalie. And now, he’s 20-1-2 with a 1.79 goals against average and a 94.1 save percentage, as he’s led the Senators from a record-high 14 points out of a playoff spot to sneak in as the #7 seed. If he can keep it up, the Senators will win, because they are the better all-around team. The Canadiens might have the worst overall forward group in the playoffs, as they score just 2.21 goals per game, worse than any playoff team other than Detroit. They consistently get outshot (48.5% Corsi, while Ottawa is at 50.2%) but still win because of their almost-superhuman goalie. Price, the presumptive Vezina trophy winner, leads qualified goalies (Hammond is not one because he hasn’t played enough games) with 44 wins, a .933 save percentage, and a 1.96 goals against average. He’s been as good as Hammond, except he’s done it for the whole year (and the past few years). This game also features a head-to-head matchup of the two best offensive defenseman in hockey in Erik Karlsson (66 points) of Ottawa and P.K. Subban (60) of Montreal. Outside of the goalies, Karlsson and Subban are the engines. I think Karlsson is the better offensive player, but Subban has more playoff experience and is the more polished all-around player. Since Karlsson and Subban are two of the top eight defensemen in minutes per game, it might be a question of which player wears down first. Anyway, I expect Ottawa to hold a consistent shots advantage but Montreal to advance thanks to a bunch of 1-0 and 2-1 wins.

Lightning over Red Wings in 4: This is narrative-central. Old vs. young, Steve Yzerman (Tampa’s GM) against his old team, offense (Tampa led the league in goals per 60 minutes at 2.75) vs. defense (Detroit gives up just 1.98 goals per 60, seventh best in hockey). But enticing narratives aside, I just think Tampa Bay is better in pretty much all facets of the game. There’s the stud center in Steven Stamkos (43 goals). There’s the three-headed monster of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat, who rank second, third, and fourth in the league in +/-. There’s former Ranger Ryan Callahan (54 points) and former Red Wing Valtteri Filppula (48, not bad for a third line center). And in the two-headed monster of goalies in Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning have the advantage there, too. I think Tampa is going to win it all, so this is a no-brainer for me. When Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov, guys who are first, second, and seventh in the league in points per 60 minutes (3, 2.91, 2.61) are auxiliary pieces, you know you have a good thing going.

Capitals over Islanders in 7: The Islanders are a feel-good story because they have finally made it back to the playoffs in the last year of the Nassau Coliseum, and they have a very good chance of winning this series, but I think they are going to come just short. Why? It might come down to special teams, where the Capitals are way better both on the power play (25.3%, best in the league, to 18.7%) and the penalty kill (81.2% to 78%). There’s a reason that Washington’s goal differential, a +39, was 17 goals better than New York’s. The Islanders won a lot of close games, and I’m not sure they can keep that up in the playoffs. The matchup between Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares, two of the most skilled offensive players in hockey, is fascinating, and Tavares will need to win it if the Islanders want to move on in the playoffs. Under new head coach Barry Trotz, the Capitals are better-suited to move on in the playoffs than they have been in recent times. They control the puck, execute on the PP and the PK, and also have one of the best and most underrated goalies in hockey in Braden Holtby. That, I think, will be the difference, along with the fact that the Capitals will be home in game seven.

Now onto the West…

Jets over Ducks in 6: How the heck are the Ducks the #1 seed when they are just +10, ninth in the Western Conference? Well, how about this: the team is 33-1-7 in one goal games. How is that even possible??? If you think that’s something that will carry over into the playoffs, you should pick the Ducks. But I don’t, and I think the Jets are the better overall team. Put aside for a second that Winnipeg will have perhaps the biggest home-ice advantage in the playoffs given their insane fans. This team is just good. They are eighth in Corsi at 52.5%. They were +20, which indicates that they were actually better than Anaheim this season. The goalie situation is a mystery, with Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson splitting time (Pavelec is the starter but will have a very short leash), but it is in Anaheim too. The Jets don’t have the 1-2 combination of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but they do have an incredibly balanced team that won again and again when they were close to missing the playoffs. They closed the season on a 10-3-1 run, with 2.9 goals per game and just 1.8 goals allowed. They’re hot, and they are going to take advantage of an Anaheim team whose luck is going to run out.

Wild over Blues in 7: Another upset! I wanted to pick the Blues here because I believe they are the better team, but I have to return to my playoff rule: when in doubt, pick the team with the better goalie. And without a doubt, the best goalie in this series is Devan Dubnyk. He might not be the Hamburglar, but Dubnyk went 27-9-2 with a .936 Sv% and a 1.78 GAA since being acquired from Arizona. This is actually his sixth year in the league, but since he’s spent most of his career as a part-time starter in Edmonton and Arizona, it’s his first year in the spotlight. He’s responded pretty well, wouldn’t you say? Meanwhile, St. Louis has to pick between Brian Elliot, who played 46 games this season, and Jake Allen, who played 37. Allen closed the season well while Elliot struggled, and the younger goalie will start game one. It makes sense; Allen has a much higher ceiling than Elliot, and a team starting an average goalie isn’t likely to make it far in the playoffs. The Blues need Allen to get hot and stay hot. St. Louis is a very solid all-around team. Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, and T.J. Oshie would all be viable first line players, which shows how much depth they have at the forward position. Meanwhile, I’m having a hard time thinking of many top-line defense pairings better than the combination of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk will be out game one, but Jay Bouwmeester is a good replacement for him. On the other side, Minnesota is still led by the two players they got in that historic free agent spending free a few seasons ago: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Parise posted 62 points and a +21, while Suter played an insane 29:04 minutes per game. But here’s where I think people are missing the boat on Minnesota: the Wild aren’t a three man (Suter, Parise, Dubnyk) team. Jason Zucker scored 21 goals in 51 games and Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek each scored more than 20. At every position, the Wild go two or three deep with players you would be comfortable playing in a 1-1 game with a minute to play. The Blues have more depth, but the difference isn’t as big as the goalie difference, so give me Minny in seven.

Blackhawks over Predators in 6: It was nice while it lasted, Nashville, but I’m only giving you two wins because there’s no way Pekka Rinne isn’t stealing a game or two. With the news that Patrick Kane will surprisingly be back for game one of this series, the Blackhawks are a dramatically better team despite the fact that they are playing against the team with the best goalie, Rinne, in the series. Nashville is a very good 5 on 5 team, with the best goal % in 5 on 5 in all of hockey (56.9%) and the #7 Corsi (52.7%), but the Blackhawks (53.6%) is even better, especially with Kane in the lineup. If I gave you a choice between leading scorer Filip Forsberg, possible Norris winner Shea Weber, Mike Ribeiro and Pekka Rinne against Jonathan Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford, who are you picking? I’m taking the Blackhawks, and they also have a lot more depth beyond their top four than Nashville has after theirs. Oh, they’re also better on the power play and the penalty kill and have oodles of playoff experience. They have the best Corsi in all situations (54.2%) in the NHL. Sorry Nashville, maybe next year.

Canucks over Flames in 6: I think these two teams are the two worst in the playoffs so it’s a shame that one of them will make the second round at the expense of a better team like Minnesota or St. Louis. It’s a matchup between two below-average Corsi and possession teams. With that being said, I’m not going to write much about this series. Calgary’s huge problem, more than their lack of experience, is that they are a one line team. Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan have combined for 202 points, and the rest of their forwards have 267. In fact, the next three top scorers after the three I mentioned above are defensemen. On the other side, the Canucks have the Sedin twins and Radim Vrbata but also have a lot of depth behind those three. With the goaltending a wash and the Canucks holding home ice advantage, I like Vancouver in this series.

NL West Standings Predictions

Posted: 04/14/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

Let’s continue the preseason (or pre-meaningful results) baseball predictions with the NL West, a division that has a clear hierarchy: the Dodgers are the favorites, the Padres, Rockies, and Giants could all fight for a wild card depending on luck and player development, and the Diamondbacks are one of the worst teams in baseball. On we go, starting with the richest team in baseball:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70): Given how much money they’ve spent over the past few years, LA has to win the division, right? I know that isn’t always how it turns out, but the payroll figures are staggering. The Dodgers’ estimated total payroll, courtesy of Spotrac, is $277 million, which is $61 million more than any other team. Their spending dwarfs San Fran’s by more than $100 million, and the Giants have the fourth highest payroll in baseball. The result is a team that is nowhere near hole-free but is extremely talented. The team’s biggest strength is the top of the rotation, which is composed of Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of this generation, and Zack Greinke, another of the top-10 ish starters in baseball. They also have a great core of hitters, from Yasiel Puig to Adrian Gonzalez to Howie Kendrick to Yasmani Grandal, each of whom is still in or near his prime. There’s also young, cheap talent coming up. Joc Pederson, one of the top prospects in baseball last year as he tore up AAA, is now LA’s starting center fielder and figures to contribute immediately both offensively and defensively. And now that I’ve gotten to the subject of defense, I’ll add this, too: the Dodgers are one of the best defensive teams in baseball, too. Gonzalez and third baseman Juan Uribe are among the best fielders at their positions, and the Dodgers’ only starter who isn’t above-average defensively is the catcher, Grandal. The combination of two aces, some big hitters and lineup balance, and good defense is lethal, even when considering that the bullpen is shaky-at-best without Kenley Jansen, who will miss the first few months of the season. This team is good enough to overcome injuries to Jansen and #3 starter Hyun-Jin Ryu with room to spare. I’ll be shocked if they don’t win the division.

2. San Diego Padres (86-76): San Diego GM A.J. Preller has been a busy man these past few months. I wrote about their offseason a few months ago so won’t add too much, but there has been one more significant move since I last wrote about them; the trade of Carlos Quentin (salary dump), Cameron Maybin (average player), Jordan Paroubeck (mid-level prospect), Matt Wisler (top-100 prospect), and the #41 pick (a competitive balance pick that is tradeable under the CBA) for Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton. There’s no doubt that the Padres overpaid to upgrade their bullpen, but there’s also no doubt that they got better. Kimbrel might be the best closer in baseball, and he’s held a claim to that title for the past half decade, so he’s bound to win the Pads a game or two over the course of the season. On the other hand, he’s only going to pitch around 70 innings, and the Padres had bigger needs. Why didn’t they trade Wisler, Paroubeck, and the pick for, say, a shortstop? The shortstop position, which is pretty darn important, is currently being held by Alexi Amarista, a career .235/.282/.337 74 wRC+ hitter who is also a below-average fielder. Amarista might be the worst starting shortstop in baseball, so it would have been nice to improve at that position. The rest of the roster looks pretty good if not great. The entirely new outfield of Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp has been pretty good so far, and the rest of the lineup (outside of Amarista) is contributing too. Throw in a top-three of James Shields, Andrew Cashner, and Tyson Ross, a really good group without the name recognition of some other top pitchers, and this team is a true threat to make the playoffs. I don’t think they have the stars to get past the divisional round, but any playoff berth would constitute a huge improvement.

3. San Francisco Giants (78-84): The Giants were one of the teams I picked to underperform, as I thought their over/under of 83.5 was just too high, even for the reigning World Series champs. Again, I won’t add much, but boy is this team riddled with injuries. Hunter Pence and Matt Cain are currently on the disabled list, Brandon Belt and Casey McGehee have been in and out of the lineup, and this is generally a team that looks like it’s going to struggle to successfully defend its championship. Of course, a 3-5 record isn’t too bad, and the Giants could sneak into the playoffs if they just tread water for the first few months, but I don’t see it happening. It’s an odd year, after all.

4. Colorado Rockies (76-86): It looks like the Rockies are going to be 6-2 after today. They have a run differential of +15 and are 4-0 on the road, which is especially significant considering road games have always been their bugaboo. We know the offense is good when healthy, and they are hitting .317/.345/.508 on the season and have already hit an incredible 27 doubles, six more than any other team. But the pitching has been good, too; LaTroy Hawkins excepted, the bullpen hasn’t given up a run all season (in 22.1 innings), and young starters Eddie Butler, Jordan Lyles, and Tyler Matzek aren’t giving up many runs. And guess what? I don’t buy any of it. I need the Rockies to show me they can sustain this over the course of a few months before I start believing it. Troy Tulowitzki gets injured nearly every year, as does Carlos Gonzalez. Neither is hurt yet, but history says it’s going to happen, and it’s tough to sustain a hot streak when one of your best hitters is sitting out. Regardless, I think the lineup will be pretty good, because guys like young outfielder Corey Dickerson (.891 career OPS in 721 plate appearances), third baseman Nolan Arenado (becoming a perennial Gold Glove who can also hit), and first baseman Justin Morneau can really hit. The pitching, though, will still be a problem. The bullpen is nearly unchanged from the one that imploded time after time last season, as over-the-hill John Axford is the only notable acquisition. And Matzek and Butler have WHIPs of 1.75 and 1.73 respectively; you have to think that the two of them will start allowing more baserunners to score, as they’ve left 89% and 97% of baserunners on the basepaths, well above the low-70s average. This team is going to fall back to Earth and settle into the fourth spot in this division simply because they still can’t pitch. If Tulo and CarGo stay healthy they might move up a spot, but I still don’t see a playoff run looming.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (68-94): Just like with Colorado, all you have to do is look at the pitching. Josh Collmenter started opening day. Rubby De La Rosa, Jeremy Hellickson, Chase Anderson… You get the idea. That’s Arizona’s rotation, at least until former ace Patrick Corbin returns from the Tommy John surgery he had last year. The bullpen might be even worse, as Addison Reed, a shaky closer who has a career 4.15 ERA, is by far the team’s best reliever. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Diamondbacks give up the most runs in baseball, even eclipsing the number given up by the Rockies in the most hitter-friendly park in baseball. While the pitching staff is a wasteland, there are some bright spots in the lineup. Ok, maybe one bright spot. Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best players in baseball and always puts up great offensive numbers. Meanwhile, A.J. Pollock is a good all-around player and Ender Inciarte is a great fielder. But who besides Goldy is going to hit? I don’t have a clue. When your staff is as bad as Arizona’s, you have to have a heck of an offense to even get back to average overall. The Diamondbacks don’t have a great offense, which is why I think they’ll be the second worst team in the NL, better than only the Phillies.