Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Slappy's

After hearing that I nominated him to replace Gary Bettman as NHL Commissioner, charismatic infomercial showman Vince Shlomi graciously offered to sponsor a new set of NHL awards. Yes, the man who gave us both the ShamWow and the Slap Chop has anted up to help present the Slappy's.

Tonight the NHL has it's annual awards show in Las Vegas and even with the promise of witty and entertaining commentary from host Jay Mohr (hitting you over the head with sarcasm alert), this event is quickly becoming a rival with the All-Star game for irrelevancy. Which is why I, along with Vince Shlomi's money (okay, it was a contra agreement - anyone need a Slap Chop?) am extremely proud to reveal the 2010 Slappy Winners:

The ShamWow Award
Finalists: Lee Stempniak, Ville Leino, Peter Mueller
This one goes to Ville Leino, who was a 'sham' in Detroit but transformed into a 'wow' in Philadelphia. The 26 year-old Finn went from 7 points in 42 regular season games with the Red Wings to 21 points in 19 playoff games with the Flyers, and at times, was the best player in the Stanley Cup finals. Leino's transformation from fringe player to the first line would be like Heidi Montag snagging the lead role in Scorsese's next film. Alright, a better comparison would probably be Judd Apatow's next film, but you get the idea.

The Yoko Ono Award

Finalists: Brian Campbell, Vincent Lecavalier, Shawn Horcoff
This award goes to Brian Campbell, who's onerous contract (6 years and $43 million remaining) is threatening to break-up the Blackhawks. The Hawks salary cap problems have been widely reported and even burying Cristobal Huet's $5.3 million contract in the minors next year won't solve them. Chicago will be forced to trade or walk away from a number of players who were integral to their Stanley Cup championship (Ladd, Byfuglien, Versteeg, Sharp, Hjalmarsson) mainly because Campbell is ridiculously overpaid and therefore, unmovable. Although, if I were Stan Bowman, I would at the very least make some exploratory calls to the finalists for the next award.

The Isiah Thomas Award
Finalists: Brian Burke, Steve Tambellini, Bryan Murray
This goes to the lousiest GM from the past year. No need to build suspense here: C'mon down Brian Burke! Instead of simply signing Phil Kessel to an offer sheet last summer, Burke chose to make a trade with the Bruins that actually cost the Leafs an extra first rounder next year rather than a third rounder this year. But hey, at least Burke can continue to crow that "he will never use an offer sheet", nevermind the disastrous implications for his team. He extended Mikhail Grabovski and refused to fire a coach who may have very well been trying to get into the record books as the worst penalty killing team of all-time. On top of that, Burke acquired a past-his-prime goaltender who will earn $7 million this year at a time when cheap, quality goaltending is in abundance.

Press-Box Hot Award
Finalists: Olli Jokinen, Tomas Plekanec, Matthew Lombardi
Press-box hot, as defined by the great writer Bill Simmons: "there are so few females that cover sports that the ones who do become disproportionately hot to everyone else sitting in the press-box". Well, this same line of thinking can easily be applied to an underwhelming unrestricted free-agent class. Because there are so few quality unrestricted free agents this offseason, a guy like Tomas Plekanec, who had a career high 70 points last season in his contract year (gigantic red flag) somehow ends up with a 6 year $30 million contract. As my friend Frosty emailed me today: "Montreal just got Horcoffed."

My Agent Deserves a Raise Award
Finalists: Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kyprusoff, Tim Thomas, Cam Ward, Tomas Vokoun, J.S. Giguere, Cristobal Huet, Niklas Backstom, Henrik Lundqvist
All of the nominated players will make at least $5 million next year, and if we've learned anything the past few years, it's that the goalie position is the easiest place to save dollars in a salary cap system. In other words, we have a 9-way tie! It will be very interesting to see what unrestricted free-agent Evgeni Nabokov signs for this summer, because the goaltending landscape has changed drastically in recent years. Nabokov might get squeezed all the way back to the KHL if he doesn't want to take a hefty paycut from the $6 million he earned this past year.

Celebrity WAG Award
Finalists: Mike Fisher, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Comrie
This is the big one, the Slappy version of MVP. This was the closest race of all the awards and for once, there truly are no losers. The Mike Comrie/Hilary Duff engagement photos made Comrie the favourite, but the winner is Mike Fisher who somehow convinced the unbearably cute Carrie Underwood to look past his mediocre on-ice stats and goofy friends (Spezza!) and say yes to his engagement proposal.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rotation Leading the Surprising Jays

A quick look at the current Jays batting order reveals how heavily this team relies on two things: home runs and cheeseburgers. Whoops, I meant home runs and starting pitching.

With zero everyday players batting .300 (Vernon Wells is leading at .286) and the home run totals predictably slowing from their ridiculous pace, Toronto owes their surprising record mostly to a quartet of starters who have done considerably more than just ease the loss of Roy Halladay. They've somehow managed to turn the loss of the best pitcher in baseball into a more complete unit.

When Doc was sent to Philadelphia in the offseason it was supposed to mark the beginning of the end for the Blue Jay rotation. Gone was the man who bordered on invincibility every fifth day, the guy who could handle Boston or New York and anyone else, they guy who was destined to throw a perfect game, and in his place were two inexperienced prospects, a reclamation project, and a player who hadn't thrown a big league pitch since the summer of 2008. Needless to say, expectations were not high for this group.

But nearly halfway through the season three of those question marks have performed solidly and the reclamation project is showing promising signs. Collectively the group has been churning out quality starts (6IP+ and 3 earned runs or less) which has allowed Toronto to capitalize on their home run binge and win games.

Sean Marcum, who had Tommy John surgery in 2008 and missed the entire 2009 season, has more than bounced back. In 14 starts this year Marcum has 10 quality and is second in the AL in innings pitched (92.1) and 5th in WHIP (1.10). Every time he gets the ball he seems to take a shutout into the 6th inning, and right now he's the odds on leader to replace Halladay as my favourite Jay. (I came close to awarding the official title to Aaron Hill after 'the trade' but ultimately decided to wait, so it's currently vacant. Glad we cleared that up.)

It wasn't long ago that many of us pointed to J.P. Riccardi passing on Troy Tulowitzki in the 2006 draft and instead selecting Ricky Romero as ample proof that Riccardi was not fit to be a MLB GM. While Tulowitzki would certainly look good (okay very good) filling the black hole that has been the Blue Jays shortstop position, Romero has quietly developed into one of the best young starters in baseball. He has made 13 starts including nine quality, is 2nd in the AL in strikeouts (91), fourth in innings pitched (90.1), and has two complete games to go with a 1.22 WHIP and 3.29 ERA. On top of those sterling numbers, the kid has some serious moxie and if he was anywhere but where he is, where the spotlight is hogged by two star-studded rotations and another that is all #1 picks, Romero would be much more heralded.

After making 17 starts last year, the soon-to-be 24 year-old Brett Cecil has made 10 starts this year (prior to last night) and has seven wins, seven quality starts, a 0.99 WHIP and a 3.22 ERA to show for it. Cecil, who was drafted 38th overall in 2007, has quickly blossomed at the Major League level.

When Toronto acquired Brendan Morrow from Seattle for Brandon League over the winter, it was seen as little more than two teams exchanging prospects that both had grown tired of. While League has been his usual Jekyll and Hyde self for the Mariners, Morrow, who many Blue Jay insiders claim to have the best 'stuff' of any Toronto pitcher, has put a slow April and May behind him to rack up three straight quality starts. While he continues to fight control issues (his 38 BB's are second in the AL), Morrow happens to be about $600,000 cheaper this year than League and at only 25 years-old, still has plenty of upside.

The combined 2010 salary commitment for those four Blue Jay starting pitchers is just over $2 million, or roughly the same as what the Yankees pay their bat boy. While none of them are anywhere close to replacing Halladay on an individual basis, together they're giving Jays fans reason to believe that this young and talented rotation could be the bridge to October baseball.

Or at the very least meaningful baseball in September.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bullpen's Are the New Goalie

A major league bullpen is like an NHL goalie: they can be found anywhere and for the most part, neither should ever be paid.

Sure if you're the Yankees or Red Sox or Angels working with an unlimited budget, you can spend on your relief corps. But if you're a smaller-market baseball team trying to win with limited resources, or if you are any team in the NHL working in a salary-cap system, the bullpen and the goal crease are two areas that can easily and effectively be skimped on when it comes to player contracts. I apologize that sounded an awful-lot like an essay, but this is serious stuff for a guy who thinks about sports 18 hours a day.

Over the last few years I've repeatedly written about goalies being under-valued in the NHL (here, here and here) and now that the Philadelphia Flyers have used two ultimate-journeymen between the pipes and still find themselves in the Stanley Cup final, this fact may actually be known. Although with Brian Burke trading for J.S. Giguere and his $7.5 million contract, Leaf fans might disagree.

In professional hockey, there is no point to spending money on that position. My apologies to everyone in Vancouver who are wiping away tears at the thought of Roberto Luongo's 12-year extension that kicks in next year. Frankly, I'm shocked to be living in a world where Rick DiPietro's 15 year contract is the second worst goaltending deal around. Never though it'd happen.

After watching both nobodies and somebodies win and lose ballgames in late innings the last few years, I am convinced the same philosophy can be applied to Major League bullpens. The number of MLB relievers who have come out of nowhere to have recent success is huge, way too high to count or list in this space, but one needs to look no further than our own Toronto Blue Jays for proof.

Scott Downs was a failed starter when he arrived in Toronto in 2005 but has been one of the most effective (and underpaid) lefty relievers in baseball since 2007. Sean Camp was the 500th overall pick in 1997 and blew chances to stick in both Kansas City and Tampa but has been stunningly effective in a Jays uniform. Jesse Carlson was lights-out a few years ago. Jeremy Accardo saved 30 games while earning less than $400k in 2007. And Kevin Gregg...well, Kevin Gregg sucks but at least he too is cheap. You can't win them all.

But you can patch together a bullpen out of castoffs, reclamation projects, and cheap older veterans looking to reprove themselves on one year contracts.