Saturday, June 30, 2012

Green Go Big

The NBA Draft took place last night with the Boston Celtics picking at 21 and 22.  Despite all the wild rumors swirling about the trade activity on draft day, surprisingly teams stayed put and made their picks, the Celtics included. No big names going anywhere on draft day, and no packages to move up into the lottery.  The rumored Rivers family reunion never got off the ground and the Celtics sat in the early twenties with two picks in a draft with no discernible difference between the players selected from #4 overall and #29 overall.


Just like they did a few years ago with Avery Bradley, General Manager Danny Ainge went for high-risk/high-reward rather than the usual "scrub-time at best loser" or "draft and follow foreigner" who is available there.   Bradley, who was rated ahead of #1 overall pick John Wall, had run into pre-draft injuries concerns (he "had an ankle" as they say), teams disagreeing if he was a point guard or shooting guard reducing potential value, and finally he had Rick Barnes as his coach when at Texas who did not seem to know what to do with him there all year.  Looking past all that, Danny Ainge grabbed him up and now he has displaced future-hall-of-fame player Ray Allen in Boston.  Looking back at the 2010 draft, who would be picked ahead of Bradley in a re-draft? John Wall, maybe (that's a toss-up right now); DeMarcus Cousins or Greg Monroe (they're BIG!), sure, depending on how you value size versus a 2 guard;  #2 overall pick Evan Turner? I doubt it. FYI, these are the lottery picks here. How about who was drafted around Bradley? Larry Sanders, Luke Babbitt, Kevin Seraphin, or Eric Bledsoe? No, no, no, and NO! (Bonus: right after him went James Anderson. Ugh.)  A lot of turds are found in the teens and twenties of the draft.  Finding the rare gem is an art that obviously is neither easy nor any sure thing.


Now, the Celtics have scooped up Jared Sullinger, who had dropped from lottery pick to complete free-fall due to a back problem (or "bulging dicks" as hilariously misspoken by Andy Katz on ESPN on draft night) and lack of athleticism.  Sullinger is a fit if only to give Kevin Garnett 20 minutes of rest a night.  Sullinger can play the four, play down low with his back to the basket, and basically be a scoring option on the post, which is an essential need.  Yes, he will take time to be NBA ready, even if he is healthy.   At best, he is a member of the bench rotation who can score.  That alone puts him above any other pick in the 20s.


Fab Melo was the head-scratch pick at 22 in the draft.  Obviously, he is raw.  His offensive game is non-existent, but that is what coaches and summer leagues are made for in the modern NBA.   The days of well-rounded, finished products graduating from college and being drafted are long gone. Defensively, Melo is off the charts, and that is how he should earn minutes in Boston.  With Kevin Garnett back, and at the 4, it further underscores the need for a big in the middle. Melo can protect the rim and has the athleticism to block and disrupt shots. Even if Brandon Bass returns,  Melo should be able to eventually earn regular minutes as a defensive force off the bench.


With KG back, and Greg Steimsma and JaJuan Johnson possibly earning minutes up front, the weakness this past year of no big bodies up front suddenly has some youth and athleticism starting to rear its head.  It's a good short and long term option now going forward for Boston.  The draft pieces should fit, but Doc Rivers needs to figure out how and where in the coming months.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Training Camp Countdown: Part Two-Offensive Line

The Patriots Training Camp start date is finally set in stone. It has been set to begin on July 26th. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through hopefully February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox stuck between thinking they can make a run still this season and finally taking the step towards blowing up the team; the Celtics are gearing up for the NBA Draft and for the July 1 free agency date while waiting to hear from Kevin Garnett if he wants to play next season; and the Bruins, for some reason, still haven't traded goalie Tim Thomas.  


Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp next month for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The running backs got a in-depth review previously here. Let's jump in to the second installment of all things Patriots with the...

OFFENSIVE LINE:

The biggest concern is the most important position: Left Tackle.  Matt Light, who had covered Tom Brady's blindside and kept Brady upright against some of the best pass-rushers out there these last ten years, retired over the off-season.  Contingency plan A had been implemented by the front-office in the 2011 draft when they selected the 6 foot 8 inch offensive tackle Nate Solder in the first round. Teaming him with fellow giant offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer gives the team two young giants to anchor the outside and keep the most important player on the field, TB12, upright.  Vollmer, when healthy, has been solid at right tackle. Solder had an excellent rookie season for an offensive tackle sliding between the right and left side and as 3rd tight end in short yardage situations.

Vollmer's back issues are a major cause for concern, as he missed a good chunk of last season. Without him, the Patriots turn to either former number one pick Robert Gallery or last year's fifth round pick, Marcus Cannon. Gallery is ideally suited to play inside at Guard, and would likely only be available at right tackle, not left. Cannon, who had dropped in the draft due to his cancer diagnosis, came off the PUP list last year as the swing man on the line playing guard and tackle.  The other tackles in camp are Matt KopaKyle Hix, and Markus Zusevics, and all three do have practice squad eligibility.  These three will get a lot of attention in camp as they battle for a spot on the 53 man roster.  Depth is needed at tackle and one of these three need to step up and impress.

At guard, All Pro Guard Logan Mankins fought through injuries last season and had a down year.  His limited mobility in the Super Bowl led to some pressure on TB12 that usually would not exist and likely played a part in the offense sputtering. Mankins back at full-strength is a must for the Patriots, so expect them to take it slow early on in camp with him.  

The right guard position was ably and unexpectedly filled by perennial Pro Bowl veteran Brian Waters who was cut by Kansas City and walked in and stepped right up.  Waters was one of the trio of veterans who came in last year (Andre Carter and Mark Anderson on the defensive line) and contributed to the Super Bowl run (Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth were the 40% wash-out of the veteran equation last season).  He left the question of retirement up in the air, and could very possibly not return at all after missing all off-season team activities. Of course, he could show up at training camp, show-up part-way through training camp, or get a "Veteran's Bonus Injury" where he has an excused absence for most of camp to "rehab". Certainly a situation that bears watching.  

Former Raider and Seahawk and former top pick Robert Gallery signed on this off-season for a season in Dante's Burning Inferno working with offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia.  Scar, as he reportedly is referred to, is the one and only coach on staff who predated Bill Belichick.  To have a coach like Scar still on staff from the Raymond Berry days is remarkable. That the offensive line has developed so many nobodies into productive players is a huge credit to Scarnecchia.  The respect that Bill Belichick has for him is evident in how he has lasted in the organization.  Believe me, Robert Kraft is not foisting anyone on Bill Belichick's coaching staff, ever. How Gallery responds to Scar and if he takes a step up will definately be something to check in on throughout camp.  


Three other names to watch are the guards trying to hang-on the roster or practice squad: Donald Thomas, Jamey Richard, and Jeremiah Warren.  I admit, not a lot to know about these guys right now.  Thomas was signed last year. He is extremely raw, having not played much in college. Richard is 27 and has the best bet to stick having played for Indianapolis the last four years and can fill in at center in a pinch. Warren is trying to be another undrafted free agent who catches on.

Finally, at center, a position that ran through four players due to injury last year, the Patriots bring them all back with Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, and Nick McDonald coming back.  Connolly signed the big (for a Patriots lineman) money deal this off-season and likely will start the season at Guard or Center, but definitely starting somewhere on the line.  Koppen is the long-time starter at center who missed last year due to injury and is back fighting for a job.  Wendell has flexibility as well and has stuck these past years and filled in without major incident when called upon. McDonald is the prospect "stolen" from Green Bay who stepped in last year during their win against the Colts when Koppen, Connolly, and Wendell were all out. A fourth string center jumping off the practice squad to start without a major hiccup is huge. What a testament to the scouts and front office. 


The depth is there. It wasn't last year, and somehow Waters fell in their lap.  Their starting center went out, and they never skipped a beat.  Now, they need to get Logan Mankins healthy and replace Matt Light.  However, the Pats are in good shape with Scar at the helm yet again to mold and shape the offensive line into a strength.    

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Breaking the Youk

Pennies on the dollar. The Pale Hose hosed the Red Stockings. Nuff said.


Kevin Youkilis is now a member of the Chicago White Sox.  For what? A 25th man on the roster in Brent Lillibridge and his career .215 batting average and Zach Stewart, a big right-handed starter who is on his final chance to prove he is a MLB pitcher and not a faded prospect.  Not the haul one would expect for a gold-glove winning, multi-All Star, multi-position player with power. 


Of course, the haul is less when a player is injured, loses his job, and is batting under .240.  The Red Sox have committed to Adrian Gonzalez, which should have led to Youkilis being traded, not moving back to third base.  Of course, the Red Sox should have ponied up for Mark Teixeira when the Yankees swiped him out from under the Red Sox front office's noses; re-signed Adrian Beltre; kept their prospects and never traded for Adrian Gonzalez, and then had Will Middlebrooks to take over third and move Beltre or let David Ortiz walk and break Middlebrooks in at DH.  Or, forget Teixeira, keep Youkilis at first base and kept Adrian Beltre at third until Middlebrooks was ready.


For a player who made his mark with patience at the plate, Youkilis's early career was sitting and waiting to get into the line-up.  Youk sat behind 2004 post-season hero Bill Mueller before getting into the lineup full-time in 2006 at the age of 27.  In the post-season of 2007, Youk carried the Sox offense past the Indians in the ALCS, looking like the best player on the field (and also in 2008 when they Sox almost got past Tampa). Injuries started taking him off the field in 2010 and 2011, and his frustration at moving across the diamond was on his face at every at-bat as his strike-outs looking and subsequent explosion at the home plate umpire.  Youk moved to third without complaint as Adrian Gonzalez came over, but he obviously was more comfortable at first base.


There are a lot of #20 jerseys that are gathering dust next to the Ramirez, Schilling, Crisp, Damon, Matsuzaka (no one dares wear one in public these days), and Papelbon jerseys in the back of closets throughout New England.  Regardless of past missteps by the front office, Middlebrooks is the future at third base and the finest offensive prospect since, well, since Dustin Pedroia, I guess. Kevin Youkilis is off to Chicago (to the delight of the President) and the Red Sox need more.  Waiting on injured players to return is not the answer.  The Red Sox need to clean house. Youkilis going out was the right move, but only if it's the first move.



Monday, June 25, 2012

Training Camp Countdown: Part One-Running Backs


I am giddy about the Patriots in 2012.  A month to training camp in July and I cannot get enough. The Red Sox are in last place, the Celtics season is ended by the obnoxious LeBron James yet again, and the Bruins off-season will be quiet unless they get Rick Nash and/or trade Tim Thomas.  For me, it is a burning hunger for all news Patriots.  I want to get to know more about Trevor Scott, Brandon Lloyd, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, and Tavon Wilson. I want to get to know Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney again.  


Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp next month. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  With a shout-out of Guten Tag all the NFL and Patriots fans in Germany who stumble across this site on the web and a giant Danke for reading, let's jump in to all things Patriots starting with...

RUNNING BACKS: 
Youth is served at running back after going with an undrafted free agent (Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis), waiver pick-up third down back (Danny Woodhead) and the ERS (elderly rush squad): Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, et al) the past few years.  Finally, some young legs are in the back-field with Woodhead returning to his usual 3rd down/shotgun role and Green-Ellis replaced with 2011 draft picks Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.  The ERS gets represented by 29 year old Joseph Addai over from the Indianapolis Colts' post-Peyton Manning housecleaning.  Also in the mix are a couple of fullbacks (most likely limited to goal line/special teams if either one makes the cut) and undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden (who should not be counted-out as Bill Belichick has repeatedly shown that he has no compunction dropping a draft-pick to keep an UFA. 

All eyes are on Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, as they have been handed the keys to the offensive engine.  If Addai is playing, it is not a good sign as Ridley and Vereen are expected to win the job.  I like Bolden's potential as well, but again, not a good sign if he is behind Brady in the backfield week one.  Ridley flashed good instincts, strength and speed, and, unfortunately, some fumble-itis which led to a seat for the playoffs after looking like the best running back since a young Laurence Maroney in 2007. Ridley ran with power, showed good speed and instincts, and seemingly won the job at running back from Green-Ellis until the fumbles caused Belichick to (over-cautiously, I think and thought at the time) move him back on the depth chart.  If Ridley held onto the ball, he may have been entrusted with the keys in the playoffs.  

I think back to the start of the Super Bowl, when pinned back to the goal-line, first-and-ten at the six.  Rather than Tom Brady drop into the end-zone and have the stupid intentional grounding safety to start the game, instead a hand-off to Ridley and he cuts it up past the ten to the twelve yard line for a six yard gain on first down.  Inconsequential? Perhaps not.  Say the Patriots retain possession, even if only to get out to the 30 yard line and cut out a Giants possession, a big momentum-changer, and instead of a 9-0 hole in the first quarter (Giants took the post-safety punt and drove into the end zone in short order) maybe a 0-0 start and a chance to get up and change the game.

Shane Vereen rarely saw the field last season. With Green-Ellis in already at RB and Ridley healthy, he got buried. The Cal product saw the field for a short burst in November against Kansas City and Philadelphia. Having only 15 carries for 57 yards over two mid-season games  is hard to get a handle on someone.  Vereen's story coming out of college was he was smart, had great pass-catching ability, instinctive runner with patience (a must in the Patriots offense) was built with low-to-the ground power, and some speed.  The Patriots need speed at running back. No doubt.  I am hoping that the Josh McDaniels offense re-inserts the running back screen this season ("Screen to Vereen!" That's what I want to hear each week) as it is such a pass-protection weapon in slowing down the pass rush and keeping defensive players away from Tom Brady.

Vereen has the skills to make the screen game deadly again (really, did any defense care if Green-Ellis went out for a screen? He had hands of stone and no burst in the open field).  Add in the powerful running and big play ability with him and Ridley in the backfield and the Patriots may actually be able to move the ball on the ground.  Not being able to, or having the confidence to, commit to the ground in the playoffs has hurt this team too much in the past.  Since Maroney carried them to the Super Bowl in 2007 ( for the record: 3 playoff games: 61 rushes, 280 yards,  3 touchdowns, and he returned kicks. Yes, the 14 rushes for 36 yard turd-fest in the Super Bowl was a downer,  but in the first two games against Jacksonville and San Diego were fantastic: 22 for 122 versus Jax; 25 for 122 versus a tough San Diego defense), no one (Maroney included) has been a threat out of the backfield.  Going back to 2004 is where the Patriots have to go for that stud running game (Corey Dillon, come on down!). 

Hopefully, this is the year that the running game changes with a great sophomore effort from their two 2011 high picks and becomes a strength of the team again.  Tom Brady is, and will be, great, but the more help for him the better.  Ridley and Vereen have the ball, let's hope the don't fumble.




Saturday, June 23, 2012

Blow up the Nation Already!

A month ago, the Red Sox and Yankees were tied for last place in the A.L East.  One massive winning streak built around an amazing run by one great pitcher (C.C. Sabathia) and four average pitchers on a hot streak, the Yankees have taken control of the division. The Red Sox? Well, after getting completely man-handled by a pitcher coming into the game with a Daniel Bard like 9.37 ERA (Jair Jurrjens) last night, the basement is once again their home.  Forget the fractured clubhouse talk, the non-stop ripping of Bobby V., and the injury excuses, the Red Sox have some moves to make before the trading deadline.  Realistically, they need to make a lot of moves.  As I put on my General Manager cap, here's how I toss a Molotov Cocktail into this stinking mess called the 2012 Boston Red Sox:


Mike Aviles/Nick Punto: I start with these two bozos, because I doubt the Red Sox get ANYTHING back in any kind of deal for them.  Best bet is to swallow the cash, release them both, and bring up Jose Iglesias from AAA. Just as an FYI, that Jed Lowrie guy that the Sox couldn't wait to give away last off-season, remember him?  The guy the Sox threw away for Mark Melancon and his 15.43 ERA?  The guy making barely over $1 million?  He's in Houston batting .269 with a .354 OBP, .498 slugging percentage (.852 OPS) and 13 home runs.  Mike Aviles and his .285 OBP and .710 OPS for the same money as Lowrie looks so appealing.  


Kevin Youkilis: No surprise here. The Red Sox should have traded the (Jewish) Greek God of Walks in the off-season when his value wasn't next to nothing like it is now after ineffectiveness and injury. Most likely, they can get weak prospects or a salary dump starting pitcher back (Maybe a high-priced veteran like Ryan Dempster if Theo Epstein wants Youk back). The Red Sox are over a barrel here, because everyone knows Will Middlebrooks has a strangle-hold on third base.  


Jacoby Ellsbury: While on the topic of trades that should have taken place last off-season, Ellsbury was coming off an MVP season with two full years of control ahead of him. His value was sky-high. As the greatest General Manager ever, Branch Rickey, famously stated over 50 years ago:  "I'd rather trade a player a year early than a year too late."  Ellsbury will hit the open-market in 1.5 years and be patrolling center-field at Yankee Stadium while making over $20 million per year for the next eight years or so. The Red Sox were in a position to get a LOT back for Ellsbury.  Letting him play out his service time and walk should not be an option.  Once Ellsbury FINALLY gets back on the field, get him out on the trade market.  He can still bring back something of value.  Really, the best bet is he has a HUGE second-half and can bring back a top prospect or two in the off-season.



David Ortiz: I know, I know. He has been the ONLY consistent hitter this season.  But this season is over.  Focus on 2013, and where is Ortiz?  If the Sox are gonna pay $15 million to have a DH, they can unload him and save some cash to redistribute for youth.  I don't see Ortiz getting what he wants from Boston in the off-season. Remember, Jed Lowrie and the Houston Astros are coming the American League and inter-league games will become the norm.  The market size for Ortiz (especially where he has dropped some weight and shown he can still play  first base) has effectively doubled.  Trade now or pay later. Ryan Lavarnway can DH right now and eventually be the second-sting catcher in a pinch. 


Daniel Nava/Cody Ross/Mike Sweeney/Darnell McDonald: I like these guys. I really do, and I know there is not a lot of cash outlay here. They have done the job in a pinch this season and looked impressive. Yes, I am going to say it again: TRADE HIGH! Whatever can come back from a team desperate to make a playoff run is worth it right now.  These guys are not the future in Fenway.  They need to be cleared out so Ryan Kalish, Che-Hsuan Lin, and Lars Anderson can be in the outfield and show if they are worth keeping around long-term or tossed in as part of a deal for more parts. 


* * * 


Notice there are no pitchers listed yet.  I HATE the idea of trading away pitching. Pitching is to be hoarded, not traded. But at this time, there are some potential ways to shake things up:


STARTING ROTATION: Personally, I have a thing about trading away left-handed starting pitchers who throw 95 MPH.  However, since Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, and John Lackey are basically untradeable, it comes down to Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz and Lester currently has the opportunity to get more back in return. Buchholz is younger and, if healthy, still has the hope of being a true #1 starter.  I don't WANT to trade Lester, but having him continue to be infected by the Texas Twosome of Beckett and Lackey and their lack of work ethic and bad attitude is not fair to him as a pitcher.  Wait, I take it all back.  Unload Matsuzaka for a bag of balls and unload Beckett for whatever comes back in return.  Release Lackey and eat the salary. Try cleaning-up the bad influences first before giving up on Lester and Buchholz and let them team with Felix Doubront for a young core of starters.


BULLPEN: Now that the dalliance with starting is over at long last, perhaps Daniel Bard will get comfortable in the bullpen again.  The Red Sox bullpen has over-achieved already and the return of Andrew Bailey and Daniel Bard at the back-end frees up a few choice pieces. Franklin Morales, Matt Albers, and Alfredo Aceves will never have a higher value than right now.  Unload the trio of over-achievers before a couple of 1/3 innings pitched, six runs allowed kill any trade value. A young arm or two with issues and some upside is better than any marginal major league/AAAA chump at this point.


* * *


This team is not going to be rebuilt on the fly.  This team needs a major shake-up sooner rather than later.  This is not the New England Patriots taking a team that was a defensive stop/hail mary pass away from a Super Bowl Championship re-loading in the off-season.  This team has not made the playoffs since being swept in the ALDS in 2009.  They have not been realistically close to winning it all since 2008.  By August 1, this team should look young, exciting, and future-looking. It won't, I know, but it should. Let's hope the Axis of Evil in the Ownership Booth rubber-stamp Ben Cherington's potential house-cleaning, but I a not holding my breath waiting for it to happen.



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