Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Saturday Night Football Pick

Posted: 12/17/2016 by levcohen in Uncategorized

Saturday Night Football is back with a bang, with the Dolphins traveling North to face the New York Jets. Ok, so it might not be back with a bang. But it’s back, and it has playoff ramifications for the Dolphins, so I guess it’s worth watching.

Miami dolphins (8-5, 8-5) at New York Jets (4-9, 4-9):*

Spread: Dolphins favored by 3

Over/under: 38

My prediction: I know the jets suck, but something about picking Matt Moore as a road favorite makes me feel uneasy. Jets win 17-14.

jets cover

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Half of Week 10 Review, TNF Pick

Posted: 11/19/2015 by levcohen in Football, Uncategorized

Last week had all the makings of a crazy one. There were a lot of unpredictable games, with a ton of point spreads falling in the 4-6.5 “who the heck knows” range. Sure enough, the week was defined by its weirdness. Underdogs went 10-4 straight up and just three teams won at home. The Bengals, Broncos, and Packers in particular all disappointed in losses to mediocre teams. I have plenty of takeaways from this week, but I’ll post those when I have more time. For now, here’s my performance from last week, my team eliminations, and my Thursday Night Football pick.

I’m going to eliminate the Chargers,  Cowboys and Ravens after losses sent them to 2-7 records (the Chargers had a BYE, but I forgot to eliminate them last year) that tie for the worst in football. I’ve now eliminated 11 teams after 10 weeks, although I’m starting to second-guess my KC and Chicago eliminations.

Eliminated teams: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, Kansas City, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Dallas, Baltimore, San Diego

8-6 straight up… 83-49
8-6 against the spread… 65-62-5
5-6-3 over/under… 64-63-5

Upset picks:
4-0… 18-16

Lock of the Week:
0-1… 7-3 (really Packers???)

Tennessee Titans (2-7, 4-5) at Jacksonville Jaguars (3-6, 5-4):
Spread: Jaguars favored by 3
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Does this game mean anything? You would think not, given that its participants are 2-7 and 3-6. In most games between teams with those records, the only thing on the line is a better draft picks. But these teams reside in the AFC South, the division that is co-led by the Colts, who are without their quarterback for at least the next few weeks, and the Texans, who lost their quarterback, looked terrible offensively, and still managed to knock off the previously-undefeated Bengals in Cincinnati. That’s football, folks. But the point is that the Jags in particular have a decent chance at making a run for the division (20.3%, per Football Outsiders), largely because they also have the easiest remaining schedule (their opponents the rest of the season have a combined 24-44 record). The Titans are in a much tougher position, but they too have a better shot than a 2-7 team normally would. So this game could have some importance.

The Jaguars just look like the better team at this point. They’ve played very well in their last three games, with a tough five point loss at the Jets book-ended by upset wins over the Bills and Ravens. Sure, their win last week was gift-wrapped by the most boneheaded of boneheaded mistakes by Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil, but they played the Ravens to a draw nonetheless (not that that’s really something to be proud of). I’m not saying the Jags are good, but they have some offensive talent with Blake Bortles being surrounded by T.J. Yeldon, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns, a trio of dynamic skill-position players.

I have no such optimism about Tennessee. They’ve scored more than 13 points in a game once in the last six, and that was against the Saints’ infamous defense, which is on pace to be one of the worst of all-time and was so bad that Rob Ryan was fired mid-season. Their defense is good, but with the exception of the wins over the Bucs and Saints, Marcus Mariota and his limited weapons just aren’t getting it done. Delanie Walker is a consistent tight end, but who else is there?? Antonio Andrews, who rushed the ball 11 times for eight yards? Sorry, I can’t pick the Titans, even against the road, where they are 2-2 straight up and against the spread. It’s scary to pick the Jags, especially after a fluky win, but I’ll take Jacksonville. Jags win 27-20.

Jaguars cover
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Week 9 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 11/12/2015 by levcohen in Uncategorized

Week nine served to further clarify things in a lot of ways, as I wasn’t surprised by much of what happened. In the last two weeks, I’ve seen enough to eliminate the Chargers. I’m close to crossing off Dallas, Miami, and Baltimore, but I’ll wait another week to do that.

Eliminated teams: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, Kansas City, Tennessee, Jacksonville

Here are five takeaways from week 9:

    • Tyrod Taylor is really good, and a lot better than I thought. I picked the Dolphins to beat the Bills last week, discounting the fact that Taylor was returning from a two game absence. When Taylor got injured, the Bills were 3-2. They lost the two games he missed and didn’t look particularly good in either game. Sure enough, though, as soon as Taylor came back, the Bills rebounded. Taylor went 11/12 for 181 yards and a touchdown (most of which went to Sammy Watkins, who was coming back from injury himself) and added 10 carries for 44 yards as the Bills hung 33 points on the Dolphins. Granted, Taylor was helped by a great running game (or atrocious run defense), with LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams tearing the Ndamukong Suh-led defense to the tune of 25 carries for 224 yards and three touchdowns. But Taylor, who’s now looking like the best offseason signing of them all at his price, looked calm and composed as he led the Bills on four touchdown drives. Buffalo, now 4-4, has a reasonable chance of making the playoffs, but their schedule toughens up; it’s the third-hardest in football from here on out.
    • With Denver losing in Indianapolis, I think it’s now very fair to say that the remaining undefeated teams — 8-0 New England, Cincinnati, and Carolina — fully deserve their unblemished records. The teams rank first, third, and fourth in DVOA, and each of them has notched impressive wins. The Panthers have beaten Green Bay and Seattle, the Bengals have beaten the Raiders, Seahawks, and Steelers, and the Patriots have drubbed too many teams to count en route to a league-best +133 point differential. It’s looking more and more likely that we’ll have an undefeated team this season, especially since all three teams have reasonable schedules going forward. My prediction: the Patriots go 15-1 while the other two go 14-2.
    • The Raiders are legit. They lost in Pittsburgh by three points, but in doing so they showed that they have a real chance to make the playoffs. Their offense is top-10, with Derek Carr breaking out this season and having plenty of targets around him. Meanwhile, they have a below-average defense, but Kahlil Mack and Co. should improve at least a little down the stretch. At this point, their playoff chances are probably a coin flip.
    • The Eagles are still a confounding team, but it looks like their offense is slowly getting better. Sam Bradford has looked more comfortable in back-to-back competent efforts against the Panthers and Cowboys, while the running game has been one of the best in football since week three. Given their week division and their strong defense (although the loss of rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks, the DROY frontrunner, really hurts), the Birds have to be favored to win the NFC East. Now, they’re unlikely to do much in the playoffs, but they should be able to get that far.
    • It’s kind of creepy how, in many cases, backup players and especially running backs can fill in so well for injured stars. Just look at Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Kansas City, teams that lost Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte, and Jamaal Charles, three of the best backs in football. All three teams have gotten great games out of their backups, who have looked almost as good as the injured stars. Maybe that tells us that successful running is more due to a good offensive line and system than anything else.

7-6 straight up… 75-43

9-4 against the spread… 57-56-5

6-7 over/under… 59-57-2

Upset picks:

1-2… 14-16

1-0… 6-2

Buffalo Bills (4-4, 4-4) at New York Jets (5-3, 4-3-1):*

Spread: Jets favored by 2.5

Over/under: 41.5

My prediction: total toss up here, but since I just talked up the Bills, I might as well defend them here. Bills win 20-17.

Bills cover

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Because I’m in a place with very limited internet connectivity and no computer (I’m using my phone), I don’t think this is the time or place to do my week 8 recap. I’ll do that later this week, but I do have to make a Thursday night pick, so I’ll do that quickly. Sorry if the formatting is off slightly; that would be thanks to my phone.

Cleveland Browns (2-6, 4-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (7-0, 6-0-1):

Spread: Bengals favored by 12

Over/under: 45

My prediction: The Bengals are really good, but 12 is a lot of points to be giving. Bengals win 26-16 in a game not as close as the final score indicates.

Browns cover

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This is around the time in the baseball season that it makes sense to start looking ahead to the playoffs and to the award races. I started doing the former with my Mets post and figured that I’d get going on the latter today with one or both of the MVP races. The problem is that both the NL MVP and the AL MVP races are effectively over, with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout running away with their respective races. The comparison between those two is another post entirely, one that’s probably been over-analyzed already. And the NL Cy Young is Zack Greinke’s to lose, given that Greinke is 11-2 and has a sub-2 ERA. If Greinke has more starts like the one he had against the Phillies (six runs in six innings), the back door could open up for Max Scherzer or Gerrit Cole, assuming Greinke and fellow-Dodger Clayton Kershaw split votes. But the award is Greinke’s if he continues to pitch well, which is something that can’t be said about any pitcher in the AL.

This race is refreshingly wide-open. You’d normally see a semi-decent candidate from the best team in the league gaining momentum, but there’s nobody on the Royals who deserves much of a look, barring a 2008 CC Sabathia stretch from new acquisition Jhonny Cueto (in 2008, Sabathia finished sixth in the NL MVP voting despite starting just 17 games for the Brewers after a mid-season trade. In those 17 games, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA while averaging nearly eight innings a start. Cueto won’t do that.). The Yankees, the team with the second best record in the AL, also don’t have a viable starting candidate for Cy Young, although reliever Dellin Betances might have an argument (more on that later). Many of the best pitchers in the AL pitch on teams that are below .500, which, while in no way a death knell, is a big negative for some voters. Another problem is that there’s no pitcher who’s racked up an anomalous number of wins. Felix Hernandez leads the AL with 14 wins, and even he has a less than 50-50 shot at 20 wins. Lastly, nobody’s having a Greinke-esque season in the AL when it comes to ERA, with no pitcher currently posting an ERA under 2.00 as we slog through the dog days of August.

Ok, so we know why this is a close and congested race. Who are the frontrunners? First, let’s learn something from previous AL Cy Young winners. Since 2008, the seven winners have averaged just north of 19 wins with only one, Felix Hernandez in 2010, winning fewer than 16. Only one of the seven has posted an ERA higher than 2.60, and that was Max Scherzer in 2013 when he had a ludicrous 21-3 record along with a 2.90 ERA. So anyone with an ERA above, say, 3.20 (anyone below that can easily get under the threshold) and anyone with single-digit wins should be eliminated. Already, we’re left with just six candidates: Sonny Gray, David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Felix Hernandez, and Edinson Volquez. And given that every Cy Young winner since 2009 in both leagues has struck out more than 200 batters, we can eliminate Volquez, who has just 102 strikeouts in 139 innings. Besides, he’s Edinson Volquez. That should have been enough. So we’re left with five candidates.

I wouldn’t have said this a couple of weeks ago, but right now it looks like Price should be the favorite to take home his second AL Cy Young award in four years. Three great things have happened to Price’s stock in the last two weeks. First, he was traded from a sinking team in the Tigers to a team with a much better chance of making the playoffs in the Blue Jays. Second, the Jays have gone 11-1 since the trade, drawing within a single game of the Yankees in the AL East. Price isn’t responsible for most of that, but most voters are frankly too shallow to realize that. The Jays have gone from a fringe playoff contender to a likely playoff team, and that matters to voters, especially if they go on to win their division. Finally, Price has pitched extremely well since the trade, allowing just six hits and one run in 15 innings while striking out 18 and winning both starts as a Blue Jay. So he now sits at 11-4 with a 2.35 ERA. He sits just fifth in the AL in WAR at 4.1, but that won’t matter to most voters. Price ranks fourth in the AL in innings pitched with 161 and has 156 strikeouts, which should allow him to break the 200 mark easily. Minus a few wins, in fact, his season very much mirrors his 2012 Cy Young season; in 2012, he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA for a 90-win Rays team that barely missed the playoffs. Again, though, more important than all of the stats is the fact that Price is making a clear impact on a team that’s exploded since it has acquired him. If the Blue Jays win the AL East with Price pitching well, the former Ray and Tiger will probably win the award. If not, though, there are plenty of other candidates for the award.

The ERA leader always has a chance in the race. This year, barring a late slump, that guy will be either Sonny Gray or Scott Kazmir. And since Kazmir is just 6-6, Gray is the guy with a chance to capitalize on his low ERA. The 25-year old has been good ever since being called up in 2013 but is having his true breakout season this year. He’s 12-4 with a 2.06 ERA and seems to be well on his way to a 17-7, 2.30 type season, numbers that would put him squarely in the race. Unfortunately, Gray happens to pitch for the Athletics, who are 12 games under .500 and are just half a game better than the Red Sox, the worst team in the AL. He’s also not the prototypical dominant Cy Young candidate, as while he throws as fast as any candidate besides Price, Archer, and Betances, he lacks the out pitches the other guys have, as evidenced by his lackluster 7.57 K/9 rate, which, if it remains static, will leave him just short of 200 strikeouts. Gray pitches to contact, and he’s gotten really lucky this year, with a lot of balls finding gloves. That explains why his FIP is nearly a run higher than his ERA, and it could mean that his ERA will regress meaningfully over the final few months. And while a relatively unknown 17-7 pitcher with a 2.10 ERA on a bad team might win the Cy Young, the same guy with a 2.50 ERA would probably fall short. Gray’s a very good pitcher, but I think he could fall short of a top-three finish.

In every way except the traditional ones, Archer would be a better candidate than Gray. The two are at similar points in their careers, and Archer’s 10-8 record and 2.62 ERA pales in comparison to Gray’s profile. Archer’s on pace to go 14-12, and only the 13-12, 2.27 ERA King Felix in 2010 managed to win a Cy Young with a record like that. But everything else about Archer, the candidate with the best WAR, screams “stud.” He throws his average fastball 95 miles per hour, and he uses his deadly slider to strike out 11.06 batters per nine innings. He’s on pace to strike out 275 hitters, more than any Cy Young winner since Randy Johnson in 2002. And even if he ends up with 250 strikeouts he’ll be in great shape. The problem is again that he’s a relatively unknown starter on a .500 Rays team that is unlikely (16.8% playoff shot, per Fangraphs) to make the playoffs. So while Archer might be the deserving Cy Young, he won’t have the pedigree, ERA or record to make a serious run barring a dominant final month and a half.

One thing you might have noticed is that most of these candidates have pretty much come out of nowhere. That’s certainly the case for Dallas Keuchel, who after posting an ERA above five in his first two years has bounced back with a 2.93 ERA last season and a 2.40 ERA this year to go along with his solid 13-6 record. Keuchel’s average fastball clocks in at under 90 miles per hour. He’s one of just seven qualified AL starters without a pitch that averages 90 mph, and Hernandez, the next slowest of the candidates, averages 92.1 miles per hour on his fastball. Keuchel might be the guy with the best story. He’s the ace for the biggest surprise in baseball, as his Astros have quickly gone from being baseball’s laughingstock to leading the AL West for almost the entirety of this season. Unfortunately, it looks as if he’s falling off a little as the season has gone on. Since posting a .73 ERA in April, he’s looked a little more shaky, as evidenced by his 3.71 ERA in July and his 3.29 ERA through two August starts. But those numbers are still pretty darn good, and Keuchel will have a legitimate chance at the Cy Young. In order to win the award, the Astros probably need to hold on for the AL West championship, Keuchel needs to keep his ERA under 2.50. Oh, and it would also be nice if he could hit 20 wins. It might be unlikely, but a 20-8 season on baseball’s feel-good team would probably be enough for Keuchel to take home the Cy Young.

Then there’s Felix Hernandez, who along with Price is a guy everyone knew about before the season. Hernandez probably feels robbed of a Cy Young, as he was just edged out by then-upstart Corey Kluber despite leading the league in ERA at 2.14 and WHIP at .92. He now has four top-four Cy Young finishes and could be on his way to adding a fifth this season. Hernandez is an outlier here because his 3.11 ERA is pretty high for a Cy Young candidate, but I had to include him both because he leads the league in wins and because I think he has a good chance of going on a tear to close the season. Let’s say Hernandez allows 10 runs in his final 10 starts (70 innings) while winning six and losing two. Pretty reasonable for an ace like Felix, right? Well, in that scenario, Hernandez would end the season with a 20-8 record and a 2.53 ERA. That probably still wouldn’t be enough to win him the award given that he plays for a pretty poor Mariners team, but it would definitely put him in the conversation. And the name Felix Hernandez is always going to give him a little bump, especially since he’ll be competing with no-names like Dallas Keuchel for votes.

Finally, I’d like to talk about Dellin Betances, my darkhorse candidate. Now, I know Betances has no real shot at winning this award unless all five of the other guys get shelled a bunch and a few other starters get injured. And given that he’s going to end the season with around two-and-a-half times fewer innings pitched than the starters, he probably shouldn’t be in the conversation. But the guy is so dominant for one of the best teams in the league that I almost feel obligated to bring him up. Betances and Aroldis Chapman are the only relievers to post WAR tallies above 1.8, and the Yankees flamethrower (96.8 average fastball, sixth fastest in baseball) leads the way with 2.3. He also has thrown more innings than all but two relievers, and one of those two, Justin De Fratus, has thrown most of his innings in mop-up situations, as evidenced by his 0-1 record and 5.69 ERA. Betances trails only Chapman in strikeouts per nine innings with 14.28, and he leads all relief pitchers with 92 punchouts. Oh, he also has a 1.23 ERA, second best in baseball. But most important is the role he fills with the Yankees. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually think Betances’ six wins say a lot about what he’s done for the team. He always comes in in high leverage situations, and he almost always gets the job done, including when closer Andrew Miller was injured. He has 18 holds and seven saves while often pitching on back-to-back nights. And while this shouldn’t matter, he also looks incredibly intimidating to hit against, as he’s 6’8″ and not all that lanky. So if he brings his ERA lower and keeps dominating opponents, why shouldn’t he be in the discussion? …. Right, the innings thing. Bummer.

The American League is closer to complete parity than I can remember it ever being, with no team even as many as 10 games out of a playoff spot and only the Royals boasting a winning percentage over .555. With that being said, this might be a year in which pitching for a winning team means less than it otherwise would. That opens the door for guys like Gray, Hernandez, and Archer while giving Betances and Volquez less of an advantage. Here’s the way I see the AL Cy Young award race shaking out:

David Price
Dallas Keuchel
Sonny Gray
Felix Hernandez
Chris Archer
Dellin Betances

This is a crazy race, and I can see it going any number of ways. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned the two leaders in WAR in Corey Kluber and Chris Sale simply because this year they don’t fit the profiles of Cy Young award winners. But I feel pretty confident that, barring a collapse or injury, these five starters are all going to finish near the top of the ballot, with Price or Keuchel winning the award simply because they have the best combinations of stats and storylines. And Betances might even find himself on some ballots too.

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.

Since there are more contenders out west than there are in the Eastern Conference, the first three of my 13 posts about the teams who have a shot at winning it all were about Western Conference teams (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, LA). That means there are now five teams in each conference I haven’t written about, and since I’m getting bored about talking about Western Conference teams, I’m going to continue with the current EC #5. Remember, I’m doing these from bottom to top by where each team currently resides in the standings, not in inverse order of most likely championship teams. So when I preview Cleveland now, before Washington and Toronto, don’t think that I feel that those teams have better chances of winning it all than the Cavs.

I was surprised to see that Cleveland is now considered basically a co-favorite (either slightly ahead of or behind Golden State) with the Warriors to win it all at around 3/1 odds, far better than the group beneath them of OKC, Chicago, San Antonio, and Atlanta. Although I see the argument, I’m not as bullish on the Cavs. First, let’s start with the reasons that Cleveland is still so well thought of.

The biggest reason: LeBron James. You probably don’t need me to say more about LeBron, but I will anyway. He’s made four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them, although all four championship appearances occurred while LeBron was a member of the Miami Heat (LBJ made one championship appearance in his first stint with Cleveland but got swept by the San Antonio Spurs). Early in the season, there was speculation that James wasn’t the same, that he was declining, and that he wasn’t good enough to carry teams to championships anymore. Well, guess what? Rumors of his demise… you fill in the rest.

A two week break that LeBron took around the New Year sure looks good now. Yes, the Cavaliers lost all eight games they played without James (they are 32-13 with the King and 1-9 without him, which again shows LeBron’s value), but given the state of the Eastern Conference, who really cares? The Cavs are already a game and a half out of the #3 seed after a 14-3 run since LeBron’s return, which has taken them from 19-19 to 33-22. And they don’t even need homecourt advantage; at their best, they will be able to beat anyone, anytime in the playoffs.

There are other reasons to like the Cavs, even when putting aside the big three (more on the Kevin Love situation later). Cleveland made a couple of trades that might prove pivotal come playoff time. They might have made a slight overpay for Timofey Mozgov, but Mozgov has fit in seamlessly with the Cavs and specifically LeBron, who he runs a nice pick-and-roll with. He’s also something the Cavaliers desperately needed; a rim protector. Mozgov is averaging 11 points and nine rebounds along with 1.6 blocks and an above-average 18.9 PER, but more importantly he fills a vital role for a team with title aspirations.

The upgrade from Dion Waiters to J.R. Smith also looks important, for one specific reason. In Miami, LeBron James was surrounded by top shooters, from Ray Allen to Mike Miller to Rashard Lewis (etc.). In fact, the Heat probably wouldn’t have won the 2013 Finals without some of those shooters. In Cleveland, LeBron lacked those role-players who could knock down a few threes in a two or three minute span. Waiters, a 25.6% three-point shooter on 2.6 threes per game, clearly wasn’t helping. Smith is. An absurd 65.5% of his shots as a Cavalier have come from beyond the arc (7.6 of 11.6), and he’s making 36% of his threes. Behind the big three and Mozgov, he’s probably the Cavs’ most important player. The addition of Iman Shumpret shouldn’t hurt, either, as Shump will be able to take some of the defensive responsibilities away from LeBron when James needs to put extra effort in offensively.

Mozgov, Smith, and Shumpret are nice, but to win a championship, the Cavaliers will need LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love hitting on all cylinders. James is still the best player in the league, but he probably won’t be able to bring it every night in the playoffs like he did two years ago against the Spurs. That means neither Kyrie nor Love can slump in the playoffs. We know who Kyrie is; although he’s probably never going to be a Chris Paul-esque pass-first point guard, he can score as well as any other point guard in the league. His finishing at the rim is impeccable. He can explode for 50+ points on any given night and is averaging 22 points per game. And he’s also shooting 41% from three. He’s a top shelf scorer and a great #2 option.

You all know that Kevin Love has struggled at times this year. Put aside the “Fit-in, fit-out” thing, which I think is totally overblown, and just look at his stats. His scoring is down nine points per game. He’s shooting 5.5 fewer times per game and 3.1 fewer times from the line. The power forward, who in the past has been a force as an offensive rebounder, is often stuck in the corner. It feels as if entire quarters go by without Love touching the ball. Heck, even his assist rate has been cut almost in half (4.4 to 2.3). And yet, there are plays like this. Love is an insanely good basketball player, at least on the offensive side of the court. He can rebound, shoot, and pass with the best of them. That’s why I was so excited to see the pick-and-roll game of KLove and Kyrie or LeBron. It just hasn’t materialized. Instead of playing like the guy he was in Minnesota, Love has been more of a spot-up shooter. That might just be what this team needs, but I think Love and the Cavaliers need to find a middle ground. He’s not going to get the ball in the post every play like he did while he was a member of the MInnesota Timberwolves, but he also needs to be more involved in the offense than he is now. He just doesn’t touch the ball enough, and a frustrated Kevin Love will cost the Cavaliers dearly come playoff time.

I just worry that, against Chicago or even any of the Atlanta/Toronto/Washington trio, something will be off. If the Cavaliers are at their best, they can roll any of the latter three and would probably beat the Bulls, too. But they won’t win four straight series with Kyrie and LeBron playing hero ball for an entire series. Both of them are incredible players, but the Cavaliers also need peak Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov, because otherwise they are going to get destroyed on the boards and in the paint by the bigger Bulls should they meet in the playoffs as many are predicting. The bottom line is that the Cavaliers have as much talent as anyone else in the Eastern Conference, which automatically makes them a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. But if you ask me to pick between Cleveland at 3/1 odds, Chicago at 8/1, or Washington at 40/1, I’d take Chicago or Washington, and it isn’t close.