Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blue Jays Report Card - Part II: The Bats

Lyle Overbay - I'm just not a fan. He never seems to be in sync with the rest of the team, when he gets hot (rarely) the rest of the roster is ice cold, and when you need a big hit he almost always disappoints. I also think his defence is overrated which translates into him being one of the worst first basemen in the AL. Grade: B-

Joe Inglett - The new Reed Johnson: he plays hard, is scrappy, is very easy to cheer for and also has the soul patch thing that Reeder sported. The super-sub, with his play in the outfield and at second base, should have a spot locked up for next year's squad. Grade: B

Aaron Hill - Truly disheartening to see our best young everyday player make an extended stay on the disabled list only weeks after signing a new team-friendly contract. I like Hill's game a lot, both offensively and defensively, and at this point I think the best move would be to just tell him to get ready for next season. Grade: B-

Marco Scutaro - Has a knack for getting the timely hit and has absolutely been more than anyone could have expected. However I still think if he's playing everday that can't be a good sign. But after being asked to play 3 of the 4 infield positions, it's tough to get down on him. Grade: B

John McDonald - He's been awful with the bat (even for him), but I'm willing to give him a pass since Gibby barely played him before he got hurt in May. And Riccardi jobbed him when he brought in Eckstein, a guy that was widely assumed to be washed up. Grade: C

David Eckstein - Another awful signing by J.P. who has now inked Royce Clayton and Eckstein in back-to-back years rather then just going with Johnny Mac full-time and providing continuity to the line-up. If Eck sees another game as DH I'm going to eat my remote. Grade: C

Scott Rolen - It was painful to watch as Gibby religiously stuck by him and batted him in the 3, 4 or 5 hole while his numbers and general plate appearance bore more resemblance to a 7 or 8 hitter in the line-up. But at least the Jays weren't held hostage by all the Troy Glaus HGH questions, because that has really hurt the Cardinals. Grade: C-

Alex Rios - After improving both his home run and RBI totals four consecutive years, Rios will need a ridiculous final two months to keep that streak alive. But when you're (supposedly) being protected in the order by guys like Rolen and Scutaro it doesn't make a lot of sense for opposing pitchers to challenge you. Grade: B-

Brad Wilkerson - A stop-gap player who has done just enough to escape being released (again), but really has no business being on a team with playoff aspirations. I guess that's why he's playing here. Sigh. Grade: C-

Vernon Wells - Getting injured while stealing third in a game where we're up 7-1 left me scratching my head, especially for a guy with only 4 stolen bases this year. Is it me, or does he seem like Jason Spezza with a ball glove: supremely talented, but looks like he would rather have a good time and lose than focus hard and win? Grade: C+

Matt Stairs - A solid addition since joining the Jays last year and his home run power has taken on increased importance in a line-up that lacks anyone close to a heavy hitter. However, in my mind it doesn't make sense to employ an everyday DH, I'd rather leave the spot open and shuffle a handful of guys (Wells, Rolen, Rios, Lind) through the position instead of giving them a full day off. Grade: B

Shannon Stewart - His reacquisition never made sense (a laughable 14 runs scored and 3 stolen bases in 175 AB's), and now with Lind firmly established in left it's adios to Mr. Stewart and his popgun arm. Grade: C-

Adam Lind - Finally found his footing under Cito and has been the Jays best and most consistent bat since being recalled from the minors in June. Lind has only been held hitless twice in the last 24 games and has an outside shot at leading the team in homers despite the fact that he'll probably end up playing only slightly more than half the season. Grade: B+

Greg Zaun - So Zaunie wants out, wants to go to a contender. Has he looked at his own stats, or realized he's 37 years old? Listen Greg, the only way you're going to see the postseason is if Sportsnet hires you as analyst again. Grade: C

Rod Barajas - He's been better than Zaun but I'm not ready to hand over a multi-year contract to a guy who turns 33 in September and has an awful .298 OBP. But his power and throwing arm are a huge upgrade compared to Zaun and he seems to have bonded well with the pitching staff, so I'd try to bring him back on another 1-year deal if he was willing. Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Blue Jays Report Card - Part I: The Arms

Roy Halladay - An absolute delight to watch. Truly one of the best pitchers of his generation. Works fast, never gives an inch and always bounces back from a bad pitch, inning or game. People have been touting Cliff Lee as the probable AL Cy Young winner, but from here it looks like Doc should be preparing his second acceptance speech. Grade: A+

A.J. Burnett - Let's be honest, J.P. didn't need to announce last night that he was keeping Burnett. Doc had already made the decision for him with his All-Star game comments about possibly wanting out if the organization wasn't committed to winning. Unless the Jays found a way to get a ready-for-prime-time prospect back, one to either take A.J.'s spot in the rotation or play short stop, there was no way they could justify a deal. And that type of player was never going to be on the table. Either way, Burnett is gone next year and combined with McGowan's injury it's going to leave a huge void in the rotation.
Grade: B

Shaun Marcum - I love him as a third or fourth starter but not so much as a number two. And that's what he'll be in 2009 if we don't replace Burnett in the free agent pool. Or via trade. Back to Marcum: he racked up 11 quality starts in his first 13 appearances and somehow only came out with 5 wins. Well, we know how (worst...bats...ever) but the point is he's pitched much better than his record indicates. Grade: A-

Dustin McGowan - Never really got back into last summer's groove where he established himself as a true major league starter with considerable upside. With the injury history he has (Tommy John surgery in 2004) I just hope we haven't already seen his best.
Grade: C+

Jesse Litsch - Young "straight-peek" had a really incredible run followed by a mostly horrible one, but I was surprised to see him get sent down. He started to get hit hard and also struggled with his control but his ERA was still a reasonable 4.46. It's basically the first trouble he's had as a big leaguer, and at 23 years old, what did the team expect? When he debuted early last year it was obvious the Jays never intended to keep him around. He pitched for his big league life most of the season and still had to come into spring training this year and prove it wasn't a fluke. I don't think Riccardi believes in the kid. I do Jesse, I do. Grade: B

B.J. Ryan - Not sure I entirely trust him anymore. I still think B.J. is a quality closer and his performances have been solid after coming back from injury, but when he's on the mound at Yankee Stadium or Fenway I don't feel like it's lights out. That meltdown in Anaheim on June 1st (after a back-breaking loss the night before) and then his next appearance when Giambi crushed one in the bottom of the 9th (and started his awesome mustache) was the turning point of the season for Toronto. From 31-26 and 3 games out of first (and delusional fans dreaming of the playoffs - whoops) to yet another hollow September. It's not all your fault B.J., but the most damage was done on your watch. Grade: B+

Scott Downs - He's been fantastic. Again. Only three poor showings in 44 appearances. Incredible. And two of those were way back in April. Grade: A+

Jesse Carlson - Emerged out of nowhere (7 years in the minors with 4 different organizations) to become a valuable lefty. You have to wonder if it makes sense to keep both him and Downs, because it seems a bit redundant. Maybe it's time to cash in and move Downs. Grade: A

Brian Tallet - And when you have another good lefty who can step in and give you more than an inning if needed or be a situational guy, wouldn't it make sense to to bolster another position? When you factor in Accardo returning, is there really a need to continue with 4 lefthanders? Grade: B

Shawn Camp - Been getting a lot of work since the All-Star game and has responded very well. At 33 and coming off a disastrous year in Tampa and a mostly forgettable five year career, getting anything out of Camp has to be considered a bonus. Grade: B+

Jason Frasor - Gotta love Cito giving Frasor his umpteenth chance to prove he should be more than a mop up man, showing everyone on the roster that he wiped the slate clean. However, on this one Gaston could've asked around and quickly found out the guy should be stapled to the bench in any key situation. Grade: C-

Brandon League - Speaking of umpteenth chances, ladies and gentlemen, the flame-throwing, rock-star coiffed, tattoo covered Brandon League! He's a big-time prospect with electric stuff who can't find the strike zone under any kind of pressure. But he can throw 98! Grade: C-

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Ugly Canadian (Open)

It's been a quick and tragic descent toward mediocrity (or worse) for the Canadian Open. The tournament that was once considered the 5th major has become a mere footnote on the PGA Tour.

Whether you blame Tiger (for removing us from his schedule) or the Tour itself (for sticking us with a horrific date directly following the British Open), it's clear our National Championship has lost much of its considerable luster.

With a list of past champions that includes many of the game's biggest names (Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods) and as owners of a 104 year-old tournament (3rd longest in golf), how did we (read: the RCGA) let this happen? Ok, that was a lot of brackets, but I needed them.

Instead of the best golfers on the planet competing to be our champion, we now attract a couple of great players, a lot of good ones, and more than a few who should be selling us equipment at Golf Town. When only 6 of the top 50 ranked players in the world show up, it's tough to take an event seriously, especially if it's a national championship. Which is why something, anything, needs to change.

And the Nationwide Tour has already provided the blueprint: attach Wayne Gretzky to the tournament. Make it the RBC Canadian Open hosted by Wayne Gretzky. Invite Canadian celebrities (athletes, actors, entertainers, etc.) to play in a two day pro-am that wraps up Friday and leaves the weekend to the pros.

That preserves the integrity of our national championship and hopefully calms the traditionalists, but also gives the event a much needed facelift. It could be a celebration of Canadian talent and achievement (as long as Pamela Anderson isn't involved), two days to honour our own and raise the tournament's profile.

Some might argue that with two celebrity pro-am tournaments already on Tour, there isn't any need for a third. However, both the Bob Hope and Pebble Beach are amongst the first events of the season, so staging another more than five months later shouldn't be an issue.

Imagine the media attention people like Sydney Crosby, Steve Nash, Ryan Gosling, Jack Bauer and a host of others would command? Couldn't it be sold to the players as a nice change of pace after a major championship week? Or as a chance to meet some of our country's most recognizable faces? Surely it would provide more entertainment value and publicity than four days of grinding golf by players most people have never heard of.

The last time the Canadian Open generated any real buzz was four long years ago when Mike Weir snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and handed Vijay Singh the trophy. Since then the event has been met with less and less enthusiasm, and yet organizers continue to do nothing to change the trend.

If the top players aren't going to show up regardless of what we do, we're pretty much reduced to one single storyline: can a Canadian win or contend? It's like Groundhog Day.

In that case, I say we go all the way and make Bill Murray a part of it.

A Brave New Raptor World

Who is this impostor and what has he done with Bryan Colangelo? It's a question many Raptor fans have asked themselves after the 'Saviour' traded for a seemingly washed-up Jermaine O'Neal.

Gone are the warm and fuzzy feelings that surrounded the GM upon his arrival. The general awe and excitment, not to mention respectability that Colangelo brought with him when he arrived in Toronto is slowly fading away, just like Chris Martin's hairline and Lindsay Lohan's career.

With the acquisition of O'Neal in exchange for T.J. Ford and Rasho's expiring contract, the ball-moving youthful Raptors squad that surprised many by winning the Atlantic division a year ago and appeared on the rise is nothing but a memory.

In its place is a win-now type of team that most people assume won't, largely because the new guy who makes $22 million (nearly 1/3 of the Raps cap space) hasn't played a full season in 5 years, and the former #1 pick (Andrea Bargnani) can't turn around without committing a foul.

In moving Ford I would have preferred the rumoured offer from Portland that included Martell Webster and Channing Frye, but I can understand the (presumed) logic: Webster and Frye are obviously younger and healthier but they won't necessarily make you a great deal better. They are simply more pieces to build around and another way to buy more time for the core of this team to mature.

That would have been a tweak to the roster. And in a suddenly strong Eastern Conference, that might have been enough to get back to the playoffs.

Instead, with one swift move (gamble?) Colangelo changed the entire dynamic of the team and the overall direction it was headed. The Raptors have transformed from a young and potentially promising team to one that is suddenly all about the now. In the end it may prove be a lateral move, but taking the safe route and continuing with the youth movement might not have shown Chris Bosh this franchise was serious about winning. Getting Jermaine O'Neal does.

Everyone, myself included, has been extremely quick to point out how O'Neal will almost certainly go down at some point. He's only 30 years old but has already been through 12 NBA seasons. His best days clearly are not ahead of him. The flip-side is that T.J. has serious back and neck issues that could force him into retirement at any moment.

Plus, the Raptors HAD to move Ford. And because eveyone in the league knew Toronto was shopping the guy, Colangelo was dealing from weakness. Let's put it this way: two years of an old Jermaine O'Neal are unquestionably more desirable than four years of an overweight and uninspired Boris Diaw.

Perhaps O'Neal really was on cruise control the last couple of years in Indiana, patiently biding his time on an awful team, waiting for his next opportunity. In that case, Toronto could be the beneficiary of a fallen star who works himself back into top shape to showcase his game for one more big contract.

One thing is certain: the Raptors will be exponentially better with Jose Calderon playing 40 minutes a night. When Ford was out of the lineup in the middle of last season Jose absolutely carved up opposing defences and the team played its best basketball and won a lot of games. He's also a great teammate and a consistently hard worker. T.J. created chemistry problems, his own shots...and not much else.

Everything considered, maybe Colangelo hasn't lost his golden touch. If O'Neal can stay healthy (and that is a gigantic 'if'), there's no doubt the new roster has a higher ceiling than the old one.

And if he can't, if the experiment doesn't work, O'Neal's contract expires in 2010 so the Raptors will have ample space to get Bosh another new wingman. Actually, with more than $22M coming off the books, Toronto could get him two.

Will it be enough to convince Bosh to stick around?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The NHL's Slippery Slope

Another day, another lucrative, long-term contract generously served up by a league that obviously can't (or won't) help itself.

This time Vinny Lecavalier is the recipient and will earn $8.556 Million as a 38 year-old playing out the final year of his (rumoured) 9 year $77M contract. In the year 2018.

That massive deal follows in the footsteps of several other recent signings (sidebar on the right) that indicate NHL general managers are collectively changing the way they do business. Or they're all crazy. Has to be one of the two.

Are teams simply hoping the salary cap will continue to increase, year-after-year, without any recourse? Do they think by the time the last few remaining years of those deals come around, the cap will be $75M or $100M and the contract will actually look cheap? Can they automatically assume that one or two good seasons is enough to project a player's production 5 or 10 years down the line?

It's a nice thought, but...what if that doesn't happen? What if the annual salary cap, after rising a whopping 35% in 4 years, levels off and then a guy you've committed 7 or 8 years and $40-50M to doesn't fulfill expectations? Even worse, what if you have two guys like that? Or three?

It's a dark road the NHL is traveling down, and it's the same trail the NBA burned in the late 90's that lead to people like Jim McIlvane, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, and Austin Croshere earning some $127 million (combined) in salary. This is great news if you're Jeff Finger or Ron Hainsey or any other marginal player who may (or may not) have upside, but for everyone else it means bad times. Unless you cheer for Detroit, each contract from here on out has the potential to bury your franchise for the foreseeable future.

The NBA owners forced a lockout in 1999 not only to put a cap on player salaries, but also to implement the maximum length a contract could run. Teams were doling out 8, 10, even 12 year deals to stars and that in turn increased contract duration expectations around the league. Eager to keep young players away from free agency, GM's began paying on potential instead of production, and tacked on extra years without hesitation.

Remember the deals handed to Larry Johnson, Juwan Howard, Glenn Robinson and numerous other players who were either too young or still unproven? Remember the kind of damage they did to their respective teams?

Larry Johnson 12 years/$84M - 1994
Glenn Robinson 10 years/$68M - 1995
Donyell Marshall 9 years/$42M - 1994

Juwan Howard 7 years/$105M - 1996
Jayson Williams 7 years/$100M - 1999
Brian Grant 7 years/$84M - 2000
Vin Baker 6 years/$86.7M - 1997
Tim Thomas 6 years/$67M - 1999
Bryant Reeves 6 years/$65M - 1997
Antonio McDyess 6 years/$67M - 1998
Tom Gugliotta 6 years/$58.5M - 1998

In a few short years the entire landscape of the NBA changed. Instead of trading players you traded contracts. Where once you had almost every team competing, legitimately trying to win night in and night out, with most having a realistic shot of at least qualifying for the playoffs when training camp opened...all of a sudden you had a clear set of contenders and an equally clear set of pretenders who were fed to the lions and playing for the lottery from day one.

The NBA finally realized guaranteeing several tens of millions of dollars to athletes for a decade or more at a time, regardless of their performance, wasn't working out that well. Didn't exactly lead to motivation. Another factor was injuries. So they capped the length a contract could run for, and proceeded to shorten it again in the next round of CBA negotiating.

It was noted hockey genius Charles Wang who started this particular movement in the NHL, but it wasn't when he gave Rick Dipietro a 15 year contract in 2003. It actually began two years earlier when Wang signed (ahem) Alexei Yashin (10 years/$87.5M) and the Capitals inked Jaromir Jagr (7 years/$77M) to enormous contracts that neither player came close to playing out. In fact, both were paid to leave. Washington ate nearly half of Jagr's contract while he was wearing a Rangers jersey ($3.4M/year), and seven long years from now the Islanders will have squandered $17M in cap space for Yashin to stay home and continue not caring about hockey. Good investments?

In the years since we've seen several hockey players sign ridiculously long contracts and the situation is now unfolding just as it did in basketball. At first it's the stars: the hottest free agents and the best young players score huge extended deals. The rationale is obviously a move to circumvent the cap (more years at less dollars), and also, in the case of restricted free agents, to keep them away from other teams.

The problem isn't with the superstars getting big paydays, it's the length it comes with, and the effect that has on what everyone else can then demand.

As we look back on the recent history of the NBA, we can see the immediate future for the NHL. And it's not a pretty sight.