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And the First-Half MLB Awards Go To . . .

July 13, 2011
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With the Major League Baseball season just past the halfway point and currently on its all-star break, now’s the perfect time to take a look at the key standouts from the first three-plus months.  Here, with a sabermetrics slant (stats courtesy of FanGraphs), we’ll discuss MVPs, Cy Young-caliber pitchers, rookies of the year, and the premier managers of 2011.  Let’s get to it. . .

American League MVP

Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto: Bautista spent several years as the quintessential journeyman who bounced around a slew of different organizations (including four in 2004) as an inconsequential figure. That all changed in 2010, though, with Bautista’s stunning 54-home run season north of the border. Many were sure it was a fluke – and those same people laughed when Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos signed Bautista to a big-money, long-term contract in the winter – but the 31-year-old’s encore has thus far been even more dazzling than his breakout. In fact, he ranks first in the AL in homers (31), on-base percentage (.468), slugging percentage (.702), walk rate (19.7 percent) and wins above replacement (6.6), and his .334 batting average is “only” good for second. Simply put, Bautista has fled the world of anonymity and irrelevance to become the preeminent player in baseball, silencing scores of doubters along the way. And, assuming his current play continues, the man called “Joey Bats” will have an MVP award to show for it by season’s end.

Great Uniform, Greater Player

AL Cy Young

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles: This is an extremely tough one to pick because Weaver, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and James Shields are all having glorious seasons. The ace of the Angels is atop the pack in ERA (1.86) and fielding-independent pitching (2.39), so we’ll hesitantly give him the nod. Weaver’s 4.7 WAR is a hair behind Sabathia’s pace-setting 4.8 and he’s fifth in innings pitched (140.2).

AL Rookie of the Year

Michael Pineda, SP, Seattle: As if Felix Hernandez wasn’t enough for opposing hitters to deal with, Pineda has burst on the scene at the tender age of 22 and given the Mariners another top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The all-star leads AL starters in strikeouts per nine innings (9.0), has shown good control (2.87 BB/9), and boasts a terrific ERA/FIP/xFIP triple slash line of 3.03/3.17/3.50. That 2.4 WAR is awfully solid as well.

AL Manager of the Year

Manny Acta, Cleveland: With the White Sox, Tigers and perennially playoff-bound Twins in front of them, the question entering the season was whether the Indians or Royals would finish last in the AL Central. However, the young upstarts from Cleveland are five games above .500 and trail division-leading Detroit by merely half a game. At least some of the credit can go to the forward-thinking Acta, a sabermetrics-minded manager who insists he expected the formerly cellar-dwelling Indians to turn heads this year. So far, so good.

National League MVP

Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh: The last time the Pirates had a player of this caliber, Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium in the early 1990s. McCutchen is a third-year pro who had back-to-back excellent seasons to begin his career, but 2011 has truly been his coming-out party. “Cutch-22,” as he’s known, is the face of the resurgent Pirates, having put together a BA/OBP/SLG triple slash line of .291/.390/.505 with 14 HRs, 15 steals, and a second-place WAR ranking (5.1). McCutchen is also enjoying an elite defensive season. He ranks third in the NL in ultimate zone rating (8.3), seventh in UZR/150 (14.4) and tied for 12th in defensive runs saved (six). Pittsburgh has been searching for a true franchise player since Bonds signed with San Francisco in ’93, and it has found one in this 24-year-old center fielder. He’s gonna need a pretty big trophy case to house all the oncoming awards.

MVPirate
NL Cy Young

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia: Excuse the hyperbole, but Halladay is so unbelievably good that you’d almost be crazy to suggest he isn’t the foremost pitcher in the sport. The ace of aces is in the midst of another phenomenal season with an ERA/FIP/xFIP triple slash of 2.45/2.16/2.51. He leads the NL in FIP, xFIP, tERA (2.24), pitcher WAR (5.1), BB/9 (1.07) and K/BB (8.12).  Just to give you an idea of how far ahead of the pack Halladay is in K/BB, second place is 5.04. At age 34, Halladay is well on his way to his third Cy Young – not to mention Cooperstown.

NL Rookie of the Year

Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington: While his .242 average isn’t impressive, Espinosa more than makes up for it in other areas. Among NL second basemen, Espinosa ranks second in home runs (16), slugging percentage (.460) and WAR (3.3). He leads at his position in steals (12) and has been a solidly above-average defender (3.3 UZR). The only 2B better in the NL this year has been Brewers all-star Rickie Weeks.

NL Manager of the Year

Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh: Maybe the apocalypse really is near. What other explanation can there be for the fact that the Pirates are 47-43 through 90 games? But seriously, in a division with St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, absolutely no one expected the Bucs to be just a game back of first place at the all-star break. Like the Indians’ Acta, Hurdle (who previously went to a World Series as Colorado’s manager) should get some credit. Good for him and the Pirates, whose last playoff appearance came in 1992. Their résumé of awfulness also includes six straight last-place finishes in the NL Central and 18 consecutive sub-.500 campaigns. For now at least, Steel City fans can dream of October for Hurdle’s Pirates.

A Hidden Gem Right in our Backyards

July 10, 2011

There won’t be many posts about soccer on this site, so don’t go running for the hills yet.  Today was the first chance I’ve had to watch the great Brazillian soccer sensation Marta on TV.  Marta, who is just 25 years old, has already been named the FIFA women’s player of the year 5 times.  She happens to be a member of the Western New York Flash, who have played all their games this year in Rochester, NY.

As a former soccer player in high school, and an all around fan of the game, I’ve always been interested in the progress of our national teams when the World Cup comes around.  I like to follow both the Rochester Rhinos and the Flash as well.  I’m not writing this claiming to be a soccer expert or die-hard fan saying I told you so.  I’ve usually get to 3 or 4 Rhinos games a year, but haven’t ever had the itch to see the ladies play.  That all changed today.  I think there are a lot of people in the same boat as me when it comes to actually attending a Flash game.  But assuming many people in the area watched the thrilling cup game today, the team could see many more people flock to the gates when the great striker returns.

Marta was by far the best player on the field today, even if you hold her cheeky tactics against her.  She deserved the jeers that rained down from the crowd today, for sure.  It’s just another reason to like her even more.  The more the crowd booed, the better she seemed to get.  That shows fantastic mental toughness.  The ball control she possesses just can’t be matched, or in many cases, stopped.  Forget the missed offsides call prior, the goal she scored in the 92nd minute today was one of the better goals I’ve ever seen…men or women.  What I was most impressed with, was her ability to get people the ball in space.  Multiple times, she’d thread a pass through multiple defenders only to have a fellow forward collect it in a 1 on 1 situation.  She makes everyone around her much, much better.

People need to get out to Sahlens Stadium, before it’s too late.  This is a world class talent, who somehow plays in Rochester.  Abby Wambach, a native of Rochester, is a huge draw for the team.  The problem is that she plays in Florida, limiting the big time crowds to games when Wambach visits town.  Marta should be just as big of a draw.  I’ve already marked next Wednesday, July 20th down on my calender.  Assuming the World Cup players are back on their club teams by them, it could be an electric game.  It should also be a sellout, which makes soccer games so much more exciting.

I knew Marta was good, I knew all the accolades that followed her around.  Now, I’m almost in awe of her skill, and won’t miss out on the chance to see her live.  It’s something that everyone in the area should try to do, before some big market team steals her back again.

Sabres Prospects Looking to Shine at Camp

July 8, 2011
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As most members of the Buffalo Sabres relax by their pools this summer, the organization’s prospects are hard at work.  Lindy Ruff and his associates are running their annual development camp at Niagara University this week.  This is a great time for future Sabres to showcase their skills in front of their coaches directly, as well as learn about what it takes to be an NHL player.

Most prospects are in attendance.  One exception is Buffalo’s newest first-round pick, winger Joel Armia, who was excused from camp to work out with the Finnish national team.   Also at the camp is Sabres forward Tyler Ennis, the only full-time member of the team in attendance, and he is using it as a way to become a leader as he matures into an NHL veteran.

“My first camps there were guys here who had played in the NHL, and I know I learned a lot from them,” Ennis said. “They always had a good attitude, so I’m just going to try and work hard, have a positive attitude and be respectful to all these young guys, try to be a good role model for them.”

There are plenty of intriguing players who have a solid shot of playing in Buffalo this year.  Center Luke Adam, the team’s second-round pick in 2008, could be atop the list.  He is a natural center, a position at which the Sabres currently have a need. The reigning AHL rookie of the year got his first taste of the NHL this past season, tallying three goals and an assist in 19 games.  He seemed to have trouble getting accustomed to the speed of the NHL game, and is spending the summer doing everything he can to get a full-time promotion:

“Going into training camp my goal is to be on this team,” said Adam. “There’s no second thought in my head right now that I would want to play in the American League next year. I want to play in the NHL and I’m putting in a hard summer of work and I’m going to do everything in my power to earn a spot here in training camp.”

Another name being talked about is the Sabres’ 2009 first-rounder, Zack Kassian, a physical winger who had a good preseason for the Sabres last year before going back to the OHL.  He would give the Sabres more of an edge on account of his toughness, yet would also bring scoring touch to the team.  The 20-year-old amassed 77 points (26+51) in 56 games last season for Windsor, and was a PPG player in 16 playoff games, before ending up with Buffalo’s ex-AHL affiliate, Portland, to end the year.  If Kassian plays well in the preseason, he could find his way onto Buffalo’s roster; however, current odds are in favor of him starting in Rochester to fine-tune his game.

The Sabres seem like a team loaded with future NHL talent, including a solid group of blue-liners led by Brayden Mcnabb, TJ Brennan and Mark Psysk, and depth at forward with Adam, Kassian, Marcus Foligno, Daniel Catenacci, Corey Tropp and Jacob Lagace all in attendance at this week’s camp.  The problem is that there’s not enough room for all of these players in Buffalo, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Image courtesy of the Buffalo News.

Sabres Have Options with Sekera

July 6, 2011

Upon hearing the news that Sabres blue-liner Andrej Sekera was filing for arbitration yesterday, I thought to myself “it’s been fun, Andrej.”  Sekera, who is just 25 years old, could get a large raise from the meager $1,000,000 he earned this past season.  The Slovakian finished the year with just 3 goals (along with 26 assists), yet appeared completely in control of multiple games this season.  Sekera was also a healthy scratch for Buffalo at one point in February for a three game stretch.  Following that, he came back and looked like a different player, scoring 10 points (2+8) over his next 5 games.  You have to take the good with the bad, and hopefully over time he learns how to be more consistent.

Will he return with Blue & Gold next year?It’s not a foregone conclusion that Sekera’s case will ever reach an arbitrator, the team could reach an agreement with him on an extension at any time.  There is still plenty of time to hammer out a deal, as Sekera’s ruling could be pushed into August.  If an extension cannot be reached, I fear that Andrej will get a very favorable ruling in court.  The question becomes, is he worth it if he is awarded a contract over 2.5, or even 3 million?  Keep in mind that Buffalo has a very crowded top 4 currently, and Sekera is on the outside looking in.

The Sabres haven’t been scared to walk away from rulings in the past.  In 2006, forward JP Dumont was awarded 2.9 million dollars in arbitration, and the Sabres were forced to walk away from it.  Last summer, Buffalo walked away from a $1,000,000 contract for Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo native.  It would surprise me very much if Buffalo just walked away from Sekera, due to his potential trade value.

If the Sabres don’t feel they have room on their roster for #44, a trade needs to happen.  There is always a large market for smooth skating offensive defensemen, especially a young one like Sekera.  Buffalo could perhaps package Sekera in a monster deal for a #1 center, this of course being the best case scenario.  Another possibility is seeing him flopped for a young center who can play on the Sabres 3rd line behind Derek Roy and Ville Leino.  The one name that jumps out is 27 year old Detroit C Valtteri Filppula.  Detroit’s system would benefit Sekera greatly, and they could be a frontrunner to land Sekera in a trade.  Filppula has been consistent the past 4 years, scoring between 35 and 40 points in each season.  His career shooting percentage is 12.2%, and he steps his game up in the playoffs.  In the past 3 seasons, Filppula has 33 points (9+24) in 45 games, compared to 114 points (39+75) in 206 regular season games in that same span.  While not a faceoff specialist, he won a respectable 51.5% of his draws this year.  He’d be a great fit for the Sabres, while only leaving a hole at the #7 defenseman, assuming Marc-Andre Gragnani resigns with the team.

If the Sabres feel they need to keep Sekera, the new contract will push the Sabres over the salary cap of 64.3 million.  Currently, the team has just over 354,000 in space.  Waiving Al Kotalik and Shoane Morrison will free 5 million in cap space, which is more than enough to ink Sekera to a deal and slide in under the cap.  It will leave Regier handcuffed if he wants to make any more moves this summer or at the trade deadline.  Is he really worth it as a 3rd pairing guy?  I like Sekera, he has shown flashes of greatness with the puck.  He has also shown lapses in his own zone and in his all around game.  I don’t think paying a bottom pair dman over 2.5 million is in the best interest in the team when it comes to building a Stanley Cup contender.

Whatever choice the Sabres make – aside from walking away all-together – there will some benefit, along with some issues.  It’s just time for Buffalo to move on from #44, and invest their money in another forward.  The team has Drew Schiestel waiting in Rochester right now, as someone who could become the 7th defenseman.  They don’t have an NHL ready 3rd line center anywhere in their organization, and that’s whats more important.

Is This How Burke Envisions The Leafs?

July 5, 2011
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Out of all the GMs in the NHL – hell, maybe even of all the four major sports – the one that I respect the most might be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Brian Burke, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind or make a move to drastically shake up his team. Lately, though, I’m beginning to question his decisions, especially regarding what he has done in free agency.

The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, and that of course includes Burke’s reign from ’08 to now. Granted, he inherited a mess from former GM Cliff Fletcher (who inherited a bigger mess from John Ferguson Jr.), but the Leafs have still spent both freely and poorly under Burke. For instance, in 2009, Burke signed hardnosed defenseman Mike Komisarek to a five-year deal worth roughly $4.5 million per season year. Komisarek has been a bust in two seasons in Toronto, and he has already been mentioned in trade speculation.   Accompanying Komisarek as a defensive acquisition in ’09 was Francois Beauchemin, who signed a three-year deal exceeding $10 million. Beauchemin didn’t live up to the hype in Toronto and was dealt back to his former team, the Ducks, last season.

Now, Burke has has signed two former Buffalo castoffs for big money.  After falling out of the running for center Brad Richards, Burke signed Tim Connolly to a two-year, $9.5 million contract; he also re-signed winger Clarke Macarthur to a two-year, $6.5 million pact. As someone who has seen these two players close up the last few years, I have to wonder why either was signed. Both are indeed serviceable NHL players, but not front-line talent. Macarthur did have a breakout year for the Leafs, but is he worth that money? He was wildly incosistent in Buffalo, where he was in and out of the lineup consistently, and when MacArthur was a restricted free agent last summer, the Atlanta Thrashers didn’t even bother to tender him a deal. As for Connolly, his role in the league has changed. He was known for his crisp passes, highlight-reel dekes, and huge potential as a younger player, but injuries and, in some minds, a lack of passion have derailed those plans.

In Buffalo, after the departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in 2007, Connolly was asked to step up and emerge as a legit top six option; unfortunately, he was never able to become the consistent high-end center the team needed. Connolly’s career high in games played in a season is 73, and – despite signing multiple lucrative NHL contracts – he has never produced enough points to merit huge money. Connolly is a solid special teamer, but he’s probably a third-line center because of his inability to produce consistently at even strength. The Leafs do need a center for Kessel, but Connolly isn’t the answer.

Connolly and MacArthur now join the list of overpaid Leafs forwards like Kessel, Colby Armstrong, Joffrey Lupul, and newly acquired Mathew Lombardi.

Burke just has to go back to what has made him a success – namely good drafting and savvy trades. He may have just made a smart deal in acquiring Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson from Nashville for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney, though Lombardi is dealing with concussion issues. Burke rolled the dice in 2009 by acquiring Kessel from Boston for two first-round picks – one of which turned into Bruins forward Tyler Seguin.

The Leafs do have some young talent, but not the caliber of players Burke drafted in Vanouver or Anaheim (the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Bobby Ryan come to mind). Entering 2011, it looks as if Burke’s Leafs are primed to miss the playoffs for the eighth straight year.

Are Sabres Ready to Take Over Northeast?

July 5, 2011
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Over the past few weeks, there hasn’t been a team in the NHL that has made more big splashes than the Buffalo Sabres.  Whether it be trading for Robyn Regehr and his no trade clause, or throwing mountains of “real dollars” at players to get them to sign here; the NHL has taken notice.  The Sabres have done everything in their power to become a top team in the league, and I think they’re ready.

Lets go back to when Pegula took over the team in the middle of February, just under 5 months ago.  The team was stuck in the mud after their awful start, and the playoffs were a major long-shot.  Following the purchase of the team, Terry’s Sabres went an unbelievable 15-3-4 to rocket up to the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference.  There weren’t any new players, or new philosophies.  The teams around them didn’t suddenly get any worse.  The only change, was a new owner,

Boston is the team to beat until proven otherwise.

who revitalized both the team and fan base.   Today I will take a look at the entire Northeast division, and who still stands in Buffalo’s way on their way to the top of the East.

Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres have drastically improved their defense, adding both Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff to their top 4.  Tyler Myers is already the teams #1 defenseman, and Jordan Leopold is a very solid 2nd pairing guy.  The team lost veteran Steve Montador to Chicago, and Andrej Sekera remains unsigned, but should either be signed soon or traded away for some help in their forward ranks.  Mike Weber will be rock solid as a 3rd line guy as well, giving Buffalo a very deep corps on the blueline.

Ville Leino will give the Sabres a major boost as a top 6 forward.  While he hasn’t played center much, if at all, since his debut in the NHL; Leino took enough faceoffs (78/136), to at least get a solid idea on how he is on draws.   He will add puck control and goal scoring ability to the ranks.  While he isn’t the #1 center that most Sabre fans desired, he is good enough to give the Sabres 3 competent scoring lines.  The Sabres, in my opinion, have just one major need left to fill, a #3 center.  Paul Gaustad should not be a 3rd liner, regardless of what his paycheck says.

There is little doubt in my mind that the Sabres will be a much improved team in 2011-12.

Cole is a solid pickup for the Habs

Boston Bruins – The first team that comes to mind as a possible road block for the Sabres, are the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.  Boston is a team with a world class goaltender in Tim Thomas, an All-Star #1 defenseman in Zdeno Chara, and a lock down style that is very difficult to crack.  Buffalo was one of the few teams who had the Bruins figured out, going 4-1-1 vs. the Black and Gold this season.  The only player to leave Boston this summer via free agency so far was Michael Ryder, who signed a 2 year deal with the Stars.  Benoit Pouliot joins the team from Montreal as the only addition.  The team should still be a top 3 candidate in the East, assuming 38 year old goalie Tim Thomas doesn’t slip due to injury or age.  Still the class of the East.

Montreal Canadiens –  Always under immense pressure from their fans, the Canadiens made the playoffs this year as a 6 seed.  Montreal was active in free agency, resigning several veterans and bringing in forward Erik Cole and a backup goaltender in Peter Budaj.  Will those additions be enough to make the Northeast division a three team race?  The Habs should be a playoff contender yet again, but I don’t see them making much noise other than that.

Toronto Maple Leafs – Poor Toronto.  They haven’t won a cup since the Sabres inception in 1970, and more importantly, haven’t made the playoffs since the lockout in 2004.  After a failed run at prize center Brad Richards, they settled for former Sabre Tim Connolly on a 2 year, 9.5 million dollar contract.  Connolly was one of Buffalo’s bigger scape-goats over the past couple years, and the media in

Connolly will get booed at least 3 times next year

Toronto won’t wait long to pounce.  The Leafs also swung a trade with Nashville, acquiring forward Matthew Lombardi and

defenseman Cody Franson for a role player and prospect Robert Slaney, who hasn’t scored a goal in 43 AHL games and is a -20 in those games.  That certainly was a steal for the Leafs, who should make a push for a bottom 3 seed this year, but I expect them to be on the outside looking in yet again this year.

Ottawa Senators – Ottawa isn’t any good, and unlike Toronto, they aren’t afraid to admit it.  The Sens were relatively quiet in free agency, signing goalie Alex Auld and bottom 6 forward Zenon Konopka to 1 year deals.  They won’t be anything to worry about this year, as GM Brian Murray takes his time in rebuilding Ottawa the right way.

I feel there will be a two team race for the Northeast in 2012 between Boston and Buffalo.  Both teams are deep enough to consistently play well night in and night out, and should give up a fun ride over the coming winter.

Allstar Fan voting….asinine concept

July 5, 2011
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An inexcusable snub

So, after seeing the results of fan voting for this year’s MLB All-Star game, I’ve finally realized how truly stupid it is to let moron fans click behind a mouse and decide who is worthy of being in the July classic.

The first name that jumps out at me is of course, “The Captain” Derek Jeter. The dude is clearly on his downfall. He’s batting sub .260 and has 2 home runs. Why is he going? It is because a bunch of bandwagon Yankee fans from all over the world recognize his name more than someone more deserving like an Andrew McCutchen? (If you don’t know who he is, you should, dude can play) I’m a known Yankee hater, however someone like CC Sabathia certainly deserves to be in the game, and he is not.

It’s not just baseball. I could sit and nit pick players and we could argue who should be in, who shouldn’t, for hours and hours. It’s any of the pro sports that let fan voting have an impact. It’s obviously a popularity contest. It’s the same reason Yao Ming (can i write a check? —Hope you get that reference) gets voted into the NBA All Star game when he hasn’t played in forever. There’s a lot of people in China, and they love him, so all of a sudden he’s an All Star again.

I don’t even know of a great solution. I guess I’d rather have the media do the voting, they’d certainly do better than having Yao Ming, or a .256 hitting Jeter in there. You wouldn’t have NHL fans trying to get Rory Fitzpatrick in their All Star game, or Montreal fans voting in all of their players.

It just stings more in baseball because the All Star game actually means a little something, when the winning league gets home field advantage in the World Series. I’m sure as much as they love Jeter, Yankee fans would rather have an Asdrubal Cabrera in the lineup helping their American League try and get the home field in October.

No matter what, people are going to complain, but it’s atleast fun to debate about.