Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Re-birth

Suddenly and emphatically the Toronto Blue Jays announced they are back on the scene 

It will be easy to say this is a risky move by the Jays, that they took on too much money and too many bad contracts. It is. They did.

Jose Reyes got overpaid as a free agent last year (6 years, $106M) and missed good chunks of the three years before that (playing in 295 of a possible 486 games). Josh Johnson is a total gamble*.

Mark Buehrle is by far the surest thing in this deal for the Jays, but he'll be 34 by the time next season starts and has somewhat improbably made at least 30 starts and pitched 200+ innings every year since moving into the starting rotation to begin his second major league season back in 2001.

Those three, along with John Buck and Emilio Bonifaco will cost Toronto over $160M in salary. If Reyes is trending down, if Johnson gets hurt, and if the mileage catches up to Buehrle, it could easily go all wrong.

But even if that scenario plays out, what does it mean? Another 3rd, 4th or 5th place finish? If it doesn't work, it's just status quo. Jays fans are used to it.

Which is why so many of us are thrilled not so much with the actual components of the trade, but that Anthopoulos ultimately pulled the trigger and ownership actually approved it.

And on the bright side, Reyes fills obvious needs both at the top of the order and in the stolen base department. With only 1 year remaining on his hefty $13.75M contract, the 28 year-old supremely-talented Johnson is a chance worth taking. Buehrle is a workhorse, a dependable veteran presence who has won in the playoffs.
This trade was a bold move. It might not translate into playoff games for the Blue Jays, but at least it finally feels like they're truly trying to get there again.
*After a very good rookie year in 2006, Johnson missed almost all of 2007 and more than half of 2008. Johnson was then dominant in 2009 and 2010 (he was briefly considered the best pitcher on the planet during one stretch) but missed most of 2011 (only 9 starts) and was only okay last year when he stayed healthy and pitched 191 innings. For 2013, you really have no idea what to expect out of him.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Owners or Players?

The question has been constant for each and every hockey fan since a real threat of a lockout became apparent towards the end of the summer.

Who's side are you on: Owners or Players?

I couldn't choose. I assumed all along that a league that cancelled an entire season and players who sacrificed on average 20% of their career earnings only eight years ago wouldn't be so foolish as to miss games again. With "record revenues", a long-term U.S. television network deal, and plenty of buzz from another thrilling Stanley Cup playoff that culminated with a major market being crowned champions, I just didn't believe they could be so stupid. I thought a deal would get done. I thought a deal had to get done.

Did I think the owners initial offer that they unfathomably made public back in July was comically unreasonable? Absolutely. But I also assumed that with an average NHL player's salary sitting at $2.5 million, and the minimum at $550K, the NHLPA would comprehend how ridiculously well-compensated they are and be motivated to keep the gravy train rolling.

Even if the offer was a slap in the face (which again, it definitely was), it set the parameters for where the league wanted to go with the CBA and it was then up to the PA to get the best deal they could within those parameters. That's how these negotiations work, not just in hockey, but in all sports. In all business. The owners take the risk and therefore they have the ultimate say on how they will divide up their business. They set the framework and negotiations (eventually) progress from there.

But instead of common sense prevailing*, here we are days away from what should be the first night of the regular season, and we are somehow already guaranteed to miss games and might be on the verge of losing the whole season. Again.

*I along with 200,000 other hockey fans out there can mediate this stand-off in no time: gradual slide to 50/50 split of HRR; immediate increases to revenue sharing and re-distribution to lower-revenue teams; 8 year maximum length on contracts; same rules for free agency. Boom. Your welcome.

Instead of locking themselves in a room and chipping away at the gap that exists between the two sides, we've watched as months pass in between the swapping of proposals, and now weeks go by without any sort of meetings. The lack of urgency from either side is jarring.

I couldn't choose a side when the question was first asked months ago, and I'm no closer to an answer now. Mostly I'm just extremely frustrated with everyone involved.

I'm frustrated with the owners who have so little regard for the fans money and passion that they readily shut the game down every 8 or 10 years. I'm frustrated with the players who have copped out and gone overseas. I'm particularly frustrated with Mike Cammalleri for saying "you can go over there [to the KHL] and make millions and millions and millions of dollars to play hockey". Ummm, Mike, you do realize we can easily go online and figure out that you've earned about $26 million thus far in your NHL career, and have 2 more years at $7 million per on your contract. Would $40 million count as "millions and millions and millions of dollars to play hockey"? Because in my book it does.

And I'm frustrated with myself for already admitting that whenever this senseless lockout ends, I will be back going to games and watching them on television, just like nothing ever happened.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Vote for Carlos Villanueva

Q: Why does the Canadian baseball/sports media refuse to give any love to Carlos Villanueva?

CSJ: The easy answer is because neither of Alex Anthopoulos nor John Farrell have ever given them reason to, but we won't go there. Starting over then...Beats me. All he's done is pitched his butt off when asked to fill-in on a decimated starting rotation. In eight starts this year covering 47 innings, he's given up 40 hits and 16 earned runs with 50 K's against 14 walks. Read those numbers again*. They're probably unsustainable, but you'd still think they'd be good enough to at least merit consideration for a starting role moving forward. Yet when referencing the work that needs to be done to fix said rotation for next year, you never hear Villanueva's name come up alongside Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow. You can argue that he is prone to the long ball (12 HR allowed in 21 starts as a Jay) and that with an average of only 5.2 innings per start, he lacks stamina. But Toronto is 13-8 in those 21 games** and with the options currently very thin both in big-league ready prospects and note worthy free-agents-to-be, why isn't Villanueva being touted as a potential candidate for a permanent role as a starter?

*I wanted to include xFIP, WAR, and K/9, which are all awesome advanced stats but after googling my way to very little and not wanting to spend 2 hours separating the starting numbers from his totals, I can only offer this to my fellow stat nerd brothers: his 2012 WHIP as a starter is 1.15 which would place him 8th among AL Starters.

**Including a passable effort over 13 start last year: 72 IP, 85H, 42 earned runs, 42K, 16BB. Again, sorry for the archaic stats but we should really blame the internet because how can Carlos Villanueva's advanced stats only as a starter this year not be at my fingertips? WHY?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Did the Jets overpay for Pavelec?

Reason #947 why you don't need to pay a goalie: any team in hockey could have signed Mike Smith last summer for a measly $2 million a year.

Yes, the same Mike Smith that went 38-18-10 with a .930 SV% and 8 shutouts in the regular season before going Superman on us in the playoffs and nearly carrying the Coyotes all the way to Stanley Cup Finals, was the 28th highest paid goalie in hockey last year.

Which brings us to the 5 year/$19.5M contract the Winnipeg Jets and Ondrej Pavelec agreed to. There is no doubt Pavelec, despite posting the 34th best SV% in the NHL last year, is a decent goalie with the potential to improve. What there is doubt about is whether spending almost $4M a year on only half of your goalie position is a prudent use of cap space.

Below is the starting goalie salary for each of the last 10 Stanley Cup Finalists:

2012: Kings, Quick - $1.9M and Devils, Brodeur - $5.2M
2011: Bruins, Thomas - $6M and Canucks, Luongo - $10M
2010: Hawks, Niemi - $827K and Flyers, Leighton/Boucher - $750K (avg.)
2009: Penguins, Fleury - $3.5M and Red Wings, Osgood - $1.7M
2008: Red Wings, Osgood - $800K - and Penguins, Fleury - $1.6M

By my math that is 6 of the 10 playoff starters that were paid less than $2M a year, and going even further, 5 of the 10 teams (Detroit twice, Pens in '08, Hawks, Flyers and Kings) spent less than $3M total on the goaltending position. 

Recent history suggests a team that pinches pennies on the goalie position is actually more likely to reach the Finals than one that doesn't.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Just Breathe

Brian Burke is about to make a trade. We know this because a) Burke loves a camera and b) he told us as much.

On January 12 the Toronto Maple Leafs were riding a season high four game winning streak when their general manager Brian Burke naturally decided to stand on his soapbox and announce that he was open for business.

"I'm not interested in getting our asses kicked in the first round." he said, before later in the media scrum adding, "We are looking to add and get better now."

Some general managers might look at a four game winning streak and decide it probably isn't the right time to suggest he is ready to make changes. Some general managers, particularly those in charge of teams that haven't participated in a single playoff game since they arrived, might think getting their asses kicked in the first round might not be so bad. That it might even represent progress.

Of course some GM's also occasionally smile, and some are even capable of offering a "no comment" when asked for their opinion. Brian Burke is not one of those GM's.

Burke was built for reality TV. Earlier this season he made news for revealing he offered to rent a barn and schedule a time to fight Kevin Lowe. It's amazing that HBO has waited three seasons to showcase him on 24/7.

Leading us back to the fact that Brian Burke is about to make a trade...and that scares me.

After seven long years, Leaf fans can finally see the end of the tunnel. The Toronto roster, as it currently stands, is young, quick, talented and not only does it have considerable upside for the future, it's already proving it is legitimate. The Leafs have 2/3rds of an elite first line, an excellent second line, tremendous depth on defence, and decent depth in their bottom six forwards. (As I've been saying for years, goalies don't matter.)

Even the penalty kill, after three and a half years (that felt like seven) of truly horrific play, has come around. Last night's win over Pittsburgh moved Toronto into seventh in the conference, with 6th place Ottawa entirely catchable.

All of which is say that now is not the time to make a two or three for one type of deal that removes multiple players from the NHL roster. Now is not the time to move a comfortable and productive Grabovski. Now is not the time to dangle Kulemin or first and second round draft picks. Now is not the time to play to the media, to put the team on edge, to make a trade only because you've previously indicated you were ready to make a trade.

Now is the time to let this roster breathe.

Now is the time for Burke to show his players the same patience he has shown his head coach.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What Are They Worth?

Winnipeg has decisions to make on 12 free agent players

As the Jets struggle to remain a part of the Eastern conference playoff race and the end of their magical first year back in the NHL begins to appear on the horizon, management will soon be faced with deciding who among their group of nine unrestricted free agents will move forward with the team, as well as how their three restricted free agents might fit into the picture.

The biggest offseason contract decision at any position for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will be that of what to do with winger Evander Kane. Coming off his entry level contract, which paid him an annual salary of $900k with bonuses that can take him all the way up to $3.1 million (depending on all sorts of things we won't get in to here), the 20 year-old has quickly become Winnipeg's most dangerous player and the one with the most upside. With 18 goals on the season, Kane's next score will tie his career high and a 30 goal campaign is within reach, which would represent continued progression for a player who will have increased his goal and point totals in each of his first three seasons. He's big and strong and his skill set includes elite level speed and a heavy, accurate shot with a quick release. Kane looks an awful lot like he's a dominant power forward waiting to happen.

However, he also lacks consistency and from the sounds of it, maturity. From trying to sell tweets to local businesses, to alienating teammates, to ignoring autograph seeking fans, Kane still has a lot of growing up to do and pegging his value at this stage of his evolution will be tricky. The average annual salary on a new contract will ultimately depend on the length, meaning a shorter deal of 2-3 years could be at about $3 million annually while anything longer than four years will cost considerably more per year. This negotiation could turn ugly and potentially even extend into training camp.

The other restricted free agent up front is Eric Fehr, who is earning $2.2 million this year to play an average on nine inconsequential minutes a night. The Jets took a chance on Fehr, acquiring him for a 2012 4th rounder in what was essentially a salary dump by the Capitals, but with just one lonely goal on the season another one-way NHL contract in Winnipeg is unlikely.

Among the UFA's at forward, Jim Slater ($1.1 million) and Tanner Glass ($750k) have become 2/3rds of what would be an excellent fourth line (if they weren't miscast as a third line), and both should expect new multi-year offers. Slater is the team's face-off specialist and a consistent 10 goal scorer so a similar salary on a two year deal would be appropriate. Glass has proven he can play the energy role and chip in offensively, which could force the Jets to go to at least three years in the $1 million per year range or risk losing him to another team.

Also unrestricted are Tim Stapleton ($525k), who has one huge fan in Claude Noel (I've given up trying to understand Stapleton on the point during the PP) and not many others, and Kyle Wellwood ($700k), who has two fans in his parents. The only way Wellwood should be on an NHL team is if he's playing in the top six, because as Jets fans (and Shark, Canuck and Leafs fans before them) have witnessed, in a third or fourth line role he is entirely ineffective. With that said, if Wellwood is in your top six permanently, as in not just an injury forced fill-in, well, say hello to the draft lottery. Bon voyage to them both.

On the back end Winnipeg has four UFA's, most notably Johnny Oduya, who is in the last year of a contract that pays him $4 million this season. After a very difficult first 10 games, which included a trip to the press box as a healthy scratch, Oduya has settled in nicely but will probably need to take a bit of a haircut on his current salary if he wants to stick around next year and beyond. I expect Cheveldayoff is already negotiating with Oduya's agent, and if no extension can be reached before the deadline, he could be dealt for a prospect or a pick.

The rest of the free agent defencemen, all of whom are unrestricted, include the oft-injured Randy Jones ($1.15M), the rehabbing Derek Meech ($700k), and the surprisingly dependable Mark Flood ($525k). Of the three Flood is the most obvious choice to continue with the team beyond this year, but each could easily be replaced if contract negotiations prove to be at all difficult. Jones, if he can stay healthy, could also be moved at the deadline.

In goal, both Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason are set to become free agents but a case can easily be made to stay the course, assuming Mason is willing to take a one year deal at slightly below his current $2.1 million salary. The offseason goalie market, particularly for aging veterans (Mason will turn 36 in April), has dried up considerably in recent years as teams recognize there are more quality goalies than jobs available, making bargain bin deals an option for any team willing to be patient (Vokoun, Elliott, Smith, to name just a few from last summer alone). All accounts suggest Mason is a positive presence in the dressing room and his performance, albeit in limited action, indicates he still has enough game to stop pucks when called upon. As long as he doesn't get greedy, it's a good bet he'll return.

Pavelec, despite his mediocre numbers (2.89 GAA and .910 SV%), has played very well overall and has established himself as a core piece of this team moving forward. He's coming off a deal that paid him only $1.3 million, and can expect a significant raise. Pavelec and his agent will likely point to his countryman Jaroslav Halak as a reasonable comparable and look for something in the neighbourhood of $4 million annually for at least four years. But as a restricted free agent, and with his misleading numbers, Cheveldayoff has an opportunity to lock Pavelec up with a team friendly contract, something closer to $3 million per year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Brains Behind the Bruins

In less than six years the NHL's best General Manager, Boston's Peter Chiarelli, has drafted, signed or acquired all but three of the 23 active players on his roster

When Peter Chiarelli was hired by the Bruins in May of 2006, he inherited a team that seemed to be going nowhere after it traded a dollar (Joe Thornton) for three quarters (Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau) and finished 13th in the East.

Knowing the team had lost it's identity, Chiarelli immediately capitalized on a brutal mistake when the team he had just left, the Ottawa Senators, chose to re-sign Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara. That allowed Chara to hit the open market, and Chiarelli snapped him up with a five year deal that made the towering defenceman the NHL's highest paid rearguard ($7.5 million/year) and the new face of the Bruins.

That same summer Chiarelli also added free-agent Marc Savard, drafted Phil Kessel (5th), Milan Lucic (50th), and Brad Marchand (71st), and traded former Calder trophy winning goalie Andrew Raycroft to Toronto for Tuuka Rask. Even though Boston improved by only 2 points in the standings during Chiarelli's first season (06-07), the foundation for an elite team was quickly being put in place.

The next year (07-08) the Bruins returned to the playoffs, and as an eighth seed forced a game seven before losing in the opening round. They advanced to the second round the following two years (08-09 and 09-10) before becoming the Stanley Cup champions in 2010-11. That culminated a pretty good run.

Or so we thought.

Improbably, they've actually improved upon that form and have been steamrolling the NHL since Halloween. Boston is currently on a 24-4-1 run that has included a pair of 6-0 triumphs, as well as 7, 8, and 9 nothing games in their favour. They lead in goals scored and goals against, have the league's best road record, are the only team not to have allowed a shorthanded goal, and could have as many as 11 players score 15 or more goals.

Chiarelli has assembled hockey's deepest and most complete line-up and his Bruins are the odds-on favourite to become only the second team in the last 20 seasons to successfully defend their championship (Detroit in 96-97 and 97-98).

In addition to the moves outlined earlier, Chiarelli has made a number of shrewd high profile deals (Kessel for draft picks that became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton; Brad Boyes for Dennis Wideman, who eventually turned into Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell), was rewarded for staying patient with holdover young talent (Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci), and identified and acquired the right veteran pieces to help short-term (Mark Recchi) and long (Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly, Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk).

Even the goaltending situation, which not that long ago was a potential area of concern, appears to be working itself out beautifully for Chiarelli. After Tim Thomas provided exceptional value during his first three and a half years in Boston, Chiarelli signed the goalie to a four year $20 million contract extension that kicked in for the 09-10 season and would see Thomas through to his 40th birthday. As that season unfolded Thomas struggled and Rask emerged, and it looked like the Bruins might be stuck with a potentially crippling $5 million cap hit for an aging back-up goalie.

Instead, Thomas bounced back with a Vezina and Conn Smythe-winning performance last year, has posted nearly identical numbers again this year, and now has only one more very cap manageable season left on that extension. Meanwhile Rask has gained plenty of experience, and will be looking to increase his workload and salary at a time that should fit perfectly into Chiarelli's plans.

Which evidently include more Stanley Cup parades in Boston.

*Bergeron, Krejci, and Thomas were the only three players Chiarelli didn't bring to Boston.