Call to the Bullpen: One Month In

Call to the Bullpen is a regular feature that goes through every bullpen in baseball, and tells you, the fantasy players, which relievers are worth speculative or immediate adds to your team.  Saves are invaluable in fantasy baseball, and this column will be on top of every closer situation.

AL East:
Yankees: Mariano Rivera keeps chugging along. Nothing to see here, though those in dynasty formats may want to look into David Robertson. If Rivera retires at the end of the year then Robertson is an enticing and electric option.

Red Sox: Alfredo Aceves, two infinite ERA appearances withstanding, has done well. He may be a liability in the WHIP department but he makes up for it in Ks. Andrew Bailey is still months away and Mark Melancon has flopped. Daniel Bard looms as a possibility but he has pitched well in the rotation. 

Rays: Fernando Rodney started out white hot and has since reverted back to being Fernando Rodney. He's wild and sometimes loses control but you had to know what you were getting yourself into here. Kyle Farnsworth is making progress and worth stashing on the DL, just monitor how he fares. If he limps back to the pen then there's no way Maddon gives him the job back right away.

Blue Jays: Sergio Santos is supposed to be the guy but he is out for the month with shoulder inflammation. That sort of thing may linger so Francisco Cordero has a pretty long leash. Plus he has a pretty cool glove.

Orioles: Jim Johnson was hospitalized over the weekend but looks good to go. Pedro Strop is worth holding on to for a few days to see how Johnson bounces back but his usefulness is coming to an end. Avoid Kevin Gregg like the plague.

AL Central
White Sox: Hector Santiago was a surprise choice and he has struggled mightily lately and the screwball has abandoned him. Addison Reed is the closer of the future here but Matt Thornton, as always, looms large. Reed is pitching the best of anyone, Thorton has the experience (though he is better suited as a set up man), and Santiago has the job. Avoid this situation if you can but monitor Reed.

Twins: Does anyone really feel that great about having Matt Capps on their team? I wouldn't.

Indians: Vinnie Pestano was a trendy pick but it looks like old, reliable Chris Perez is the man in the big chair. Keep an eye on the situation but Perez owners can feel relatively comfortable for now. 

Tigers: There's no way the Tigers would move Jose Valverde from the closer's role.

Royals: Out goes Joakim Soria, in comes the dynamic duo of Jonathan Broxton and Greg Holland. Holland is currently on the DL and Broxton is shaky at best but right now Big Jon is the guy. Aaron Crow would be the best option here but it isn't happening. 

AL West
Rangers: Joe Nathan has been gaining strength as the season progresses and Neftali Feliz has pitched very well as a starter. Mike Adams is next in line should Nathan get injured but also keep an eye on Alexi Ogando. He has the best stuff of anyone in the bullpen and could put up a ton of strikeouts. 

Mariners: Brandon League still resides here and no one really can challenge him.

Athletics: Grant Balfour blew a save in spectacular fashion but he's going to be the guy until he's traded. No one wants Brian Fuentes in their lives.

Angels: Scott Downs has usurped Jordan Walden and the Angels bullpen as a whole is a dumpster fire. They are a possible destination for Balfour but right now the guy you want is Downs. 

NL East
Mets: Frank Francisco started out the year on fire then he remembered he was Frank Francisco. Since then his ERA has ballooned to 7.71 and his WHIP is nearly 2. He also has a hammy acting up and was out on Sunday. Ramon Ramirez shut the door in place of him and once again Jon Rauch has found himself in a position where he could pick up some saves. Throw a dart at this point but know that Francisco will probably still head the group if he's healthy.

Braves: They have the best closer in baseball and arguably the best setup man. If you were lucky enough to get Craig Kimbrel, I salute you.

Nationals: Drew Storen is out, Brad Lidge is also now out, and Henry Rodriguez is the last man standing. You can't bank on health from Lidge and Storen is a a question mark. 

Marlins: Heath Bell has looked awful but his contract means that he is going to be the guy. All that his owners can hope for is that he turns it around.

Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon is the only worthwhile arm here. Thankfully for the Phils, he's a pretty good one.

NL Central
Cubs: When you watch Marmol sometimes you walk away wondering how anyone can hit him. Then you see him in other situations and you wonder if he can ever throw a strike. No one is really challenging him for this role though.

Cardinals: Jason Motte turned on the jets and is looking to take that next step into the upper echelon of closers.

Astros: Brett Myers won't get many saves but he's a stable, safe option. You could do much worse.

Pirates: Joel Hanrahan started out the year shaky but has rebounded nicely.

Reds: Ryan Madson was signed to be the guy but was lost for the year. In stepped Sean Marshall who has been good but has had a fair share of blowups. Aroldis Chapman has prospectors drooling but the Reds would be smart to find a position for him in the rotation before making him the closer. 

Brewers: John Axford is one of the top five guys out there. He's put a few scares in his owners but he's still chugging along. K-Rod could challenge him at some point but for now he's clearly the setup man.

NL West
Dodgers: Javy Guerra took a line drive off the jaw and Kenley Jansen got the team's last save. Both of these guys are worth a look but Guerra has Mattingly's support. 

Giants: I hope you didn't draft Brian Wilson. With him being lost for the year many rushed to grab Sergio Romo. Well, Bruce Bochy had other plans and has instead gone with Santiago Casilla and Casilla has pitched very well. Romo is still an elite option but he is handle with kid gloves due to how brittle he is. Casilla has gained a long leash though wise owners should put Romo on their watch lists.

Diamondbacks: J.J. Putz has scuffled a bit but it's not clear who could surpass him. Many thought it would be David Hernandez but he is better as the "relief ace" who can be called upon in tight situations. Bryan Shaw is an interesting sleeper but Putz is still the veteran and that goes a long way for Kirk Gibson.

Rockies: Rafael Betancourt may take ten years between pitches but he's been very good. 

Padres: Huston Street in Petco has been a perfect marriage. Luke Gregerson and Andrew Cashner are excellent arms in their own right but Street will keep this job until he is injured or traded. 


2012 NFL Draft Live Update Blog

Here, I'll be posting my initial thoughts on every draft pick once it's finalized.  Keep checking back as I'll update when any major happening takes place.

7:15 pm
1. Indianapolis Colts select Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford

This is already assured to happen, and Luck's contract may even be almost done by the time he's shaking Goodell's hand.  In the end, this is the right pick; Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson did the right thing sticking with Andrew Luck and not succumbing to the uprising pressure to draft the flashy Robert Griffin III.  The reality is that Andrew Luck is a pro-ready quarterback on day one, and probably will have a season more like Peyton Manning's 2nd season (4,135 yards, 62.1% completions, 26 TD 15 INT) than Peyton's rookie year where he threw 28 interceptions.  Luck will be a solid but unspectacular pro at worst, at his best, we could be looking at the second coming of Peyton Manning.

2. Washington Redskins select Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor

Like the Luck pick, this one's set in stone.  The Redskins gave up a king's ransom to get this pick, and Griffin will be their future.  I'm not sure how great of an offensive situation he's walking into.  Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon aren't #1 receivers and Fred Davis and Trent Williams are suspended for the first four games of the season for substance abuse.  Additionally, they have yet to settle on a runningback of any worth.  Shanahan has never worked with this mobile of a quarterback though, so we'll see how he adapts his offense.  The one credit I'll give the Redskins: Moss and Garcon are deep threats, and an offense built around RG3 must be fixated on the downfield passing game, which it will be.

7:40 pm

Cleveland has just traded their 4th overall pick along with their 4th, 5th, 7th round picks to move up to the 3rd spot that Minnesota was leveraging in trades.  It ensures that Cleveland will get the guy they want: Runningback Trent Richardson.  It's a small price to pay, ensuring that they get the 3rd best player in the draft.  They also had 13 picks to work with, making it fully worth it.  The Vikings weren't going to take Richardson there, so they get 3 free picks for their troubles.  Good trade for the Browns to prevent the Buccaneers from trading ahead of them to get Richardson.

8:20 pm

3. Cleveland Browns select Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama

As I said, this was the right move for the Browns, and masterful trading by Minnesota.  The crazy thing is that Minnesota could trade down yet again, because they like OT Matt Kalil and CB Morris Claiborne.  The Vikings' indecisiveness will actually pay off for them because they'll probably be able to trade down yet again with either the Buccaneers, Rams, or Jaguars.  If the Vikings threaten that they'll take Morris Claiborne with the 4th pick, the Buccaneers will have to make a similar trade to what the Browns did, to ensure they get the player they truly need.

8:25 pm

Jacksonville has traded up to the #5 pick and Tampa Bay has slid back to #7.  You'd have to think this trade was so that the Jags could take WR Justin Blackmon out of Oklahoma State.  It'd be quite surprising if they didn't.  EDIT: The Jags gave up their 4th round pick to move up.  Nothing sizable whatsoever.

4. Minnesota Vikings select Matt Kalil, OT, USC

Minnesota makes the sound pick here.  Kalil sures up the left tackle spot for them for a decade.  He got criticized a lot leading up to the draft for not being a powerful blocker, but he's fundamentally sound and a solid tackle with great pedigree.  This was the right pick for the Vikings over Morris Claiborne, corner is deeper this year than offensive line.

8:32 pm

5. Jacksonville Jaguars select Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State

They really liked Blackmon and moved up to get him, their admiration was no secret in the hours leading up to the draft.  They got a target for Gabbert that specializes in quick routes like slants and curls and can help him as a security blanket which will allow him to get the ball out quickly.  Good trade by Jacksonville.

Additional news, Dallas has traded their 14th overall pick and their 2nd rounder to move up to the 6th overall pick.  St. Louis has traded down yet again, and won't get any of the 6 elite players they were ensured even after the trade-down with Washington.  This will be an interesting pick.  Probably will be CB Morris Claiborne or S Mark Barron though.

8:38 pm

6. Dallas Cowboys select Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU

The Cowboys wanted to have an elite secondary, and they did all they could to address the position this offseason.  First they signed Brandon Carr to a long-term deal, and now they dealt up in the draft to acquire the top CB, Morris Claiborne.  The only downside on Claiborne is his low Wonderlic score, but it surely didn't affect his ability to play the best cornerback in the country, in the SEC, in a complex and NFL-caliber defense.  Claiborne will be just fine and the Cowboys, as much as I hate to say it, made a great move to trade up.

8:46 pm

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Mark Barron, S, Alabama

The Bucs shore up their secondary and take Mark Barron, who vaulted from a top 20 pick to a top 10 pick over the last couple weeks, mostly due to the lack of depth at safety in this year's class.  Safeties have an increased importance now in the NFL, especially since they line up man-to-man on tight ends quite often.  Barron has the versatility to keep up with them and the Bucs hope that he can cover them as well as providing solid run support.  It's a bit high, but I like the pick.

8:50 pm

8. Miami Dolphins select Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M

Looks like head coach Mike Sherman will take his college quarterback with him to the Miami Dolphins.  This is a really questionable move.  I don't question how few starts he has, I just question the process of a college head coach getting fired and taking his quarterback with him to a HIGHER level of football.  Tannehill has the arm strength, mobility and measureables to become a solid QB, but probably doesn't have top-end quarterback upside.  He may settle in as a top 10-15 QB but never a top 5 QB.  He's got a long way to go to get there though, and pressure will be high to play him.

8:55 pm

9. Carolina Panthers select Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College

The Panthers have a small surprise here in taking Kuechly.  They could use him after losing LB Dan Connor, and he's the safest player left in the draft.  Kuechly was desired by everyone after the top 8 picks, so the Panthers made the smart pick taking him here if they really wanted him.  The offense was fine, so it was smart to address the defense.

9:00 pm

10. Buffalo Bills select Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina

This is an interesting pick because I feel like they had far more pressing needs, such as... almost every other position besides defensive line and runningback.  But they have 3 good cornerbacks, although none are probably elite with Gilmore in the fold.  They'll have to hope that Gilmore is really elite and isn't just another high-riser leading up to the draft.  Anyone remember Donte Whitner from 2006?  The Bills sure do, but they made the pick anyways, risky pick.

11. Kansas City Chiefs select Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis

The workout warrior is off the board, and a bit higher than most expected.  He skyrocketed from a 2nd rounder to a top 15 pick after running an unofficial 4.88 40 at 346 pounds and hitting the bench press hard.  The Chiefs really need to address other positions because theyve spent far too many high picks (Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey) on the position and take defensive linemen later.  Very high reward high risk pick.

9:08 pm

Philadelphia Eagles have traded up!  They've moved up 3 spots and the word has been that they've wanted Chandler Jones, the DE out of Syracuse.  But DT Fletcher Cox is still on the board and awful appealing.  It's going to be a D-Lineman, that's all I know.

9:12 pm

12. Philadelphia Eagles select Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State

Great pick!  As an Eagles fan I'm overjoyed.  DT is a huge need for the Eagles and they addressed it in a major way.  He fits Washburn's scheme well as a solid pass rusher but did well in run defense as well.  The Eagles only gave up a fourth round pick and sixth round pick to move up, a small price to pay for the apple of their eye.

9:19 pm

13. Arizona Cardinals select Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame

The Cardinals kept to their promise to Larry Fitzgerald, and took the second best WR available to help ease the burden of Larry Fitzgerald.  Now the offense can run through both WRs and doubling Fitzgerald  will come at a cost.  Now if they can just find a quarterback....

9:26 pm

14. St. Louis Rams select Michael Brockers, DT, LSU

The Rams didn't have a top-end defensive tackle but they do now.  Brockers is a huge mass of man, and one of the rawest players in the draft.  He only played 2 years, but he did enough in his short time to show the elite-level athleticism and measureables at the position to become a monster inside.  The Rams haven't had much luck drafting defensive tackles in their franchise's history though.  For their sakes and the sanity of their fans, they have to hope this pans out.

15. Seattle Seahawks select Bruce Irvin, DE/OLB, West Virginia

Wow!  HUGE surprise.  Irvin is an amazing sack artist, but wow this is early for a one-dimensional pass rusher.  He's got speed, and while he's strong for his size, at 245 pounds, he's basically just Chris Clemons 2.0.  He has to come off the field on rushing downs because of his size.  I can't say I like this pick.  I respect the Seahawks for taking the guy they like, but wow did they ever reach for him.

9:41 pm

16. New York Jets select Quentin Coples, DE/OLB, North Carolina

Coples fell a bit farther than I thought he would, and the Jets capitalized.  It was Melvin Ingram or Coples, and Coples has had the longer staying power.  Coples is a huge guy and probably plays better in run defense too than Ingram.  He's more likely to be a 3-down player than Ingram is, so great pick for the Jets.

9:47 pm

17. Cincinnati Bengals select Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama

The Bengals address the loss of Jonathan Joseph from last season and fill the void across from Leon Hall at cornerback.  Kirkpatrick also provides insurance if Leon Hall doesn't come back fully healthy.  Solid pick and they have a pick at #21 to take an offensive lineman or possibly a runningback like Doug Martin or David Wilson.  Good first pick by the Bengals.

9:54 pm

18. San Diego Chargers select Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, South Carolina

I can't believe Ingram fell so far in the draft, but the Chargers have to be happy!  This is their third straight first round pick on their front 7, and I think it'll pay off well for them.  Ingram is an insane athlete, and really should have been the #1 3-4 OLB prospect this year.  Great pick by A.J. Smith and they'll hope he can be their best pass rusher since "Lights Out" Shawne Merriman.

19. Chicago Bears select Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State

Well this is a surprise, but they really don't have a bookend for Julius Peppers on the defensive line.  Interesting pick, he was projected largely to go to Green Bay in the first round.  Bears upgrade their pass rush and I'm honestly surprised they didn't take Decastro.

Additionally, New England traded up to 21.  Schefty's saying they'll take Chandler Jones from Syracuse, but only time will tell.

10:05 pm

20. Tennessee Titans select Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor

Great pick by the Titans that not a lot saw coming.  The Titans have no downfield threat, Nate Washington is more of a #2.  Wright can truly stretch the field and be similar to WR Steve Smith.  Great pick to try and help Locker and take some pressure off the running game.

10:11 pm

21. New England Patriots select Chandler Jones, DE/OLB, Syracuse

New England traded up 6 picks to get him, and they got their guy.  They finally addressed their pass rush in a big way.  Don't have a ton to say about this except that they addressed their biggest need.

22. Cleveland Browns select Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State

This is risky as hell, but the Browns have committed to the 28 year old Weeden.  He's played almost exclusively in the spread, but he's the best passer left, and there's a big dropoff after him at QB.  I think the Browns did well to avoid Tannehill, but I don't know that Weeden is worth a first round pick.  Seems almost forced similar to the Tim Tebow pick by the Broncos a few years back. Quarterbacks get so hyped up past what they're truly worth now, it's an inefficiency in the draft.

10:18 pm

23. Detroit Lions select Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa

Well, the Lions managed to screw this one up.  Iowa tackles are never amazing, but they don't bust.  David Decastro was a sure thing and they passed it up.  I know they need tackle more than guard, but Decastro's a better player.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers select David Decastro, OG, Stanford

Well the Steelers wasted no time whatsoever in selecting Decastro with this pick.  It's amazing that he fell this far in the draft.  Great value pick for the Steelers.

25. New England Patriots select Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama

Great pick by the Patriots, their linebacking corps is set now.  They get a great run-stopper to compliment the versatile Jerod Mayo inside at linebacker.  They traded their 3rd round pick to move up 6 picks to get him, and I fully approve of the trade.  Hightower would have gone to the Steelers had Decastro not been there, good job by the Pats to get the good value there.

10:28 pm

26. Houston Texans select Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois

Mercilus is the second consecutive one-year wonder to declare from Illinois.  He fell pretty far as many thought he was on a fast track to San Diego.  When Bruce Irvin went 15th to Seattle, it negatively impacted Mercilus more than anyone else in the draft.  Good value pick for the Texans, and he better fits the 3-4 than Mario Williams because he's 30 pounds lighter.

27. Cincinnati Bengals select Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin

The Bengals get a road-grader lineman from Wisconsin to fill out the middle of their line.  Good second pick, and they netted an extra third round pick to move down from 21 to here.  I thought they may take Lamar Miller or Doug Martin, but they decided to address their OL first which is good.  They have slow, plodding runningbacks, so they need wide open holes if they're going to have a successful running game.  Good pick, but Cordy Glenn would have been nice here as well.

28. Green Bay Packers select Nick Perry, DE/OLB, USC

The Packers, similarly to the Patriots, had real troubles getting pressure on the quarterback.  Now they wont any longer as they have a pair of Trojans at 3-4 OLB.  Good pick here, as he's real similar to Shea McClellin.

29. Minnesota Vikings select Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame

The Vikings don't have any good safeties to speak of honestly, so Smith fills a need here.  He rose up to late 1st-round status these last few days, but was he pushed up because of the lack of top-end talent safeties in the draft this year?  Only time will tell.  Mike Mayock seemed to like him quite a bit leading up to the draft, and he's definitely the 2nd best safety available.  They only surrendered a fourth round pick to do it, albeit the first fourth round pick, and since that kicks off the third day of the draft, that's extremely valuable.  So it's a pricier trade than it seems.

30. San Francisco 49ers select A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois 

A surprising wide receiver selection as I was convinced that they would go for the game-breaking speed of Stephen Hill.  They opted for A.J. Jenkins instead who did have a phenomenal season this year with poor quarterback play.  He profiles more as an intermediate route player though which doesn't help extend their offense downfield.  Don't think I completely understand this one..

10:53 pm

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Doug Martin, RB, Boise State

LeGarrette Blount isn't any great shakes at runningback by himself, and definitely has stone hands. He can't play all three downs and can't pass protect.  He's headed for a platoon with Doug Martin and Martin will take over the job in the future after Blount leaves.  Solid pick by Tampa, and they only moved back 25 picks in round 4 to do it.  Great value and a great first day for the Bucs netting Mark Barron and Doug Martin, two starters.

32. New York Giants select David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech

I like the pick of Wilson to give them some depth at runningback.  Ahmad Bradshaw can't stay healthy at all, so Wilson is a similar style player that can fit right in when Bradshaw can't play.  Great value pick at the end of the first round here.

A little over three hours and we're done!  Quick but eventful draft.  Hope everyone enjoyed reading the live evaluations!


30 Teams in 30 Days: Chicago Cubs

2011 Record: 71-91, 5th place NL Central
Major Acquisitions: Theo Epstein, SP Chris Volstad, 1B Anthony Rizzo, SP Paul Maholm, RP Kerry Wood, OF Reed Johnson, 3B Ian Stewart, SP Travis Wood, RF David Dejesus
Major Losses: RP Chris Carpenter, SP Carlos Zambrano, RP Andrew Cashner, OF Tyler Colvin, RP Sean Marshall

The Cubs were uncompetitive, as has been the norm of late for this illustrious organization.  Despite a high payroll, the Cubs have been unable to amass wins on the field, mostly because their big money is locked up in players like Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, and Ryan Dempster; so they brought in Theo Epstein to help change the losing culture that's taken over the organization of late.  The Cubs were pretty average across the board offensively aside from steals, where their 69 steals in 2011 was the third least in baseball (Detroit was lowest at 49).  As far as pitching is concerned, the Cubs' staff easily led the league in giving out the most bases on balls, and the entire team totaled a 4.34 ERA, ranking them 25th in MLB.

Projected Lineup:
RF David Dejesus
SS Starlin Castro
CF Marlon Byrd
1B Bryan LaHair
LF Alfonso Soriano
C Geovany Soto
2B Darwin Barney
3B Ian Stewart

David Dejesus came pretty cheaply at 2 years, $10 million, and if he can return to his days of posting a .780 to .800 OPS with good defense, the Cubs got an absolute steal here, and a great leadoff hitter.  He went to Oakland where offense goes to die, and predictably his OPS plummeted.  His SLG was near a career-low and his BABIP of .276 was the lowest of his career, where he averages a .316 BABIP for his career.  Look for a bounce-back from him this year, and for him to be a tradeable asset in 2013.  Starlin Castro has the skills to be a star at shortstop and already has two insanely consistent seasons under his belt.  Both seasons he hit .300 and OPS'ed about .750, along with good speed on the basepaths.  Last year he stole 22 bases in 31 attempts, which isn't a great rate, but he's their best stolen base threat, so look for him to possibly increase that number closer to 30 this year.

Marlon Byrd is probably the best option to hit #3 which begins to show the problems with this lineup.  He'll post an OPS around .750, possibly towards .800, but has little power and only decent speed.  He's a more valuable quantity because he plays center field, but as a #3 hitter, he doesn't fit the mold. Like Castro, he doesn't walk much, so there could be a lot of 1-2-3 innings for pitchers facing the top of the Cubs' lineup.  Bryan LaHair has been handed the clean-up spot in the lineup for some reason, although he's proven absolutely nothing except that he can hit for power in AAA at age 29.  Generally these players don't pan out in MLB, but I suppose the Cubs have no better options, as Anthony Rizzo clearly isn't MLB-ready yet either.  LaHair has extreme power, slugging 38 HRs in 523 plate appearances in AAA last year, and projects as a decent bat by every projection system.  A .270/.340/.440 line or something similar seems to be the general guess at his MLB production over a full season, but again, he's such a question mark that even that is questionable.  Alfonso Soriano is a shell of his former self, as while he maintains 20+ HR power, his average has settled in around the .240 to .250 range and his plate discipline continues to falter, drawing a walk about one of every 20 plate appearances now, whereas even in 2010 he drew a walk about every 12-13 plate appearances.  He can still hit for power and drive in runs, but he'll leave runners stranded just as often, and of course he's still an adventure in the field.

Geovany Soto looked to be one of the premier young players in baseball in 2008 when he hit 23 HRs with an OPS over .850 as a rookie.  Since then, he's just shown to be an inconsistent hitter.  In 2009 and 2011, he posted OPS figures below .750 while in 2010, he just missed out on a .900 OPS in 105 games.  Soto still has 20 HR power, but he's realistically a .240 hitter that strikes out too often while showing that power.  He's basically a slightly more disciplined version of Alfonso Soriano at this point while hitting, so nothing special, but at least he isn't making $18 million to do that.  Darwin Barney is a tiny second baseman with no power at all, but is great on defense and can hit around .280, so he's an okay utility infielder or starter if the rest of the infield is above average.  Unfortunately that's not the case for the Cubs, as rounding out the lineup is 3B Ian Stewart, who posted a sub-.500 OPS over 146 plate appearances before finally being demoted by the Rockies and traded to the Cubs.  Stewart does draw a fair amount of walks and has 20-25 HR power over a full season, but his average tops out at about .250 and he's largely ineffective against left-handed pitchers.  As a member of a platoon at 3rd base, Ian Stewart could post an .800 OPS in a good year and be a pretty valuable 3rd baseman.  If he starts against left-handers as well though, his value is lessened.  He's still a decent bet to rebound and could be a fine starting 3rd baseman for now.

One bench/minor league player to watch: OF Brett Jackson.  The Cubs' top prospect, he's flown through the minors and dominated in his 215 plate appearances in AAA last year.  He's got legitimate 20/20 potential and the Cubs would be well served to move Marlon Byrd or Alfonso Soriano and get him in the lineup sooner rather than later.  If he comes up early during the season or even wins a starting spot out of Spring Training, he could be in talks for NL Rookie of the Year.  Anthony Rizzo is the other minor leaguer to watch, as he was acquired from the Padres.  Theo Epstein drafted him with the Red Sox, traded him to the Padres, and then reacquired him with the Cubs, so he clearly has an affinity for him.  Rizzo will jump in at first base quickly if LaHair proves to be a Quadruple A player.

Starting Rotation:
SP Ryan Dempster
SP Matt Garza
SP Paul Maholm
SP Randy Wells
SP Travis Wood

The Cubs don't have a true #1 pitcher, which is a serious issue, but Dempster and Garza are both proven, solid commodities.  Dempster posted a 4.80 ERA but don't let that deceive you, as his K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 rates were almost exactly the same as his 2010 season where he posted a 3.85 ERA.  His 2011 FIP of 3.95 was actually lower than his 2010 3.99 FIP, suggesting that Dempster's .324 BABIP was more unlucky than a sign of his decline as a pitcher.  Additionally, Fangraphs listed the Cubs as the worst team defense in MLB, so there's even more reason to assume he'll return to his previous expectations.  His performance is very similar to Mark Buehrle in that you can expect 200 innings every year, and for him to post an ERA in the high 3's or low 4's.  The upside for Dempster over Buehrle is that Dempster can be counted on for nearly a strikeout per inning, as he's topped 170 strikeouts in each of the past 4 seasons.  Matt Garza is the best pitcher on the staff, but Dempster's longevity with the team will have him listed as the #1 in all likelihood.  Garza dominated the National League after coming over from the Tampa Bay Rays.  His groundball rate increased 10% to 47%, he struck out 47 more batters in 6 less innings than his 2010 season, allowed 14 HRs in 2011 (28 HRs allowed in 2010), and posted career lows in ERA (3.32), FIP (2.95) and xFIP (3.19). Garza's 5 WAR season put him with the top 15-20 pitchers in baseball for his performance last year, and he certainly increased his value to the Cubs should they wish to extend him past his final arbitration year next year.  His FIP is lower than his ERA because while he posted .270ish BABIPs from 2008-2010 in Tampa Bay thanks to their great defense, the poor defense of Chicago failed him.

The rest of the Cubs' rotation is filled by non-descript starters that likely won't provide any great performance, but won't be horrible either.  Paul Maholm is a groundball pitcher who relies greatly on his defense, so he may be in some serious trouble coming to Chicago.  Maholm's 3.66 ERA and 3.78 FIP last year which were career lows.  He did strand a lot of batters on base last year at 72% (MLB average is 70%) and his BABIP was a career low .286, so Maholm's ERA should rise to the low 4's, but he'll be a decent 3rd starter.  Randy Wells is a fairly average pitcher with two above-average years and one very poor year in 2011.  Wells allowed a HR every 6 innings even as a pitcher with groundball tendencies, doesn't strike batters out, and still had a 5.11 FIP and 4.99 ERA with a BABIP of .275, far below the league average of about .300.  Wells is a filler, nothing more.  Wood is still young and has two partial MLB seasons under his belt, one where his BABIP was extremely low and he pitches to a 3.59 ERA and in 2011 his BABIP was .324 and he posted a 4.84 ERA.  Realistically, his ERA should settle in around his 2011 FIP of 4.06.  He's a pretty extreme flyball pitcher, so a move to Wrigley may help him quite a bit, getting out of Great American Ballpark, although he never struggled with surrendering HRs there.  Expect Wood to be an above average #5 starter, but for a contender he's no more than a #4 or #5 pitcher.

CL Carlos Marmol
MR Kerry Wood
MR Jeff Samardzija
MR James Russell
MR Trever Miller
MR Andy Sonnanstine
LR Chris Volstad

Carlos Marmol is one of the most frustrating pitchers in baseball.  He strikes out 12 batters per 9 innings with regularity, and set the record for relievers with a 15.99 K/9 in 2010, but he also walks almost 6 batters per 9 innings to go along with it.  His ERA and FIP are completely unpredictable, as he's posted FIPs as low as 2.01 (2010) and FIPs as high as 4.06 (2009).  His slider is near unhittable, but he also rarely throws it for strikes, and his fastball isn't very effective to offset it.  He throws his slider nearly 60% of the time so it's a wonder he hasn't suffered more injuries, but in the meantime he's still a good reliever, albeit one that can blow 10 saves in a season for your team like he did in 2011.  Kerry Wood and Jeff Samardzija both have below-average control, but strike out plenty of batters and are quite effective.  Volstad is probably the least effective of the potential candidates for the Cubs' rotation, so I'm projecting him to be the spot starter and long reliever.

Five Fearless Predictions for 2012:
1. Matt Garza duplicates his 2011 season, while his ERA drops closer to 3, and the Cubs deal him to the Tigers for a deal involving Jacob Turner.
2. David Dejesus rebounds and posts a .290/.360/.420 season, scoring 80 runs.
3. Ian Stewart returns to his previous levels of production, posting a .240/.320/.460 line and 20 HRs at 3B.
4. Ryan Dempster's ERA drops at least a full run, and his peripherals (K/9, BB/9, HR/9) remain almost exactly the same.  Dempster is shopped around but decides to exercise his no-trade clause and remains in Chicago.
5. Anthony Rizzo joins the regular lineup by the All-Star Break and posts a .770 OPS with 10 HRs.

When your #1 offseason acquisition is a GM, your organization is in dire straits.  This team needs serious work, and like the Astros, are a few years from contending, but they have young players like Rizzo, Castro, Soto, Jackson to build around and marketable commodities in Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster they hope to deal this year.  The Cubs won't make any real noise this year, but I'd expect slight improvement from last season.

Team Finish: 74-88, 4th place NL Central


Upton, McCutchen, Bruce: Who's More Valuable?

News broke today that the Pittsburgh Pirates reached a 6-year extension with the cornerstone of their franchise, Andrew McCutchen, worth $51.5 million over 6 years with a club-option for a seventh season at $14.75 million.  There's no question that the Pirates were prudent in signing this deal and saved themselves tens of millions down the road by locking up their young star by paying him slightly more money up front.  The interesting thing about Andrew McCutchen's contract is that it confirms that a market has been set for young, elite outfielders with two years of service time.

2010: Justin Upton: 6 years, $51.25 million 
2011: Jay Bruce: 7 years, $64 million (6 years, $51 million with club-option for 7th year at $13 million)
2012: Andrew McCutchen: 7 years, $66.25 million (6 years, $51.5 million with club-option for 7th year at $14.75 million)

None of these players are centerpieces of teams that are consistent high spenders, so the importance of locking their young talent up earlier rather than later was crucial.  The similarity of the contracts is amazing though, and shows a market for the elite 25-year-old (or younger) outfielder has clearly been defined.  The contracts are so similar, and all of them were signed preceding a different MLB season, in addition to there being a clear progression in total money that the players could make on their respective contracts, so it's very easy to compare the three players' production and determine which team got the biggest bargain.  

We'll look at each players' production at the time of their extensions, and compare them to see whose production was most valuable.  The chart below shows the players' averages per 162 games played in their MLB career before they signed their respective extensions (WAR and UZR are cumulative, not 162-game averages):

The immediate thing that jumps out is McCutchen's total WAR production in comparison to the other two players. Him playing CF should give him an edge of about 1 win per season, but because he rated so poorly in the field, his value in the field is about equivalent to Jay Bruce's, an above average right fielder.  This does mean he has a marked advantage in value over Justin Upton, however, who is a pretty average right fielder.  Last season, McCutchen's playing center field made him worth a full 10 runs (or one win) more than Justin Upton, to put things in perspective, so McCutchen over the course of 3 seasons accrued about 30 more runs of value than Upton would for his team just by virtue of playing center field vs. right field. McCutchen also gave back some of that edge because he was rated as the worst fielder of the three, again, partially because he plays the most demanding position.  

Upton's case is interesting because in his first season of 44 games, he struggled mightily with a -0.8 WAR and .647 OPS.  However, the reasoning for this was that Upton was merely 21 years old at the time of his call up, and only played 71 games above A ball, none of which were in AAA.  He was a very raw, unprepared prospect, but an undeniable talent and the Diamondbacks rushed him to MLB which luckily didn't stunt his development.  Of the three, Upton showed the most growth as an MLB player prior to his contract.  Additionally, his BABIP was the highest of the three players, 

Jay Bruce was basically a slightly lesser version of Justin Upton across the board, except he displayed more power (both are two of the ten most powerful hitters in the league) in his statistics than Upton did.  Additionally, Bruce played more games than Upton in his first 3 seasons (357 games for Bruce vs. Upton's 289), and was more effective in his first MLB season, posting a 0.9 WAR across 108 games with a .767 OPS.  Bruce had more time in the minor leagues, however, which seems to be a major reason for his more instant production (Bruce played 99 games in AAA prior to his MLB callup in early 2008).  Bruce did excel in the field however, playing the fourth best right field in baseball from 2008-2010 according to UZR, and showing the best arm in right field of anyone in baseball, even besting Ichiro during that time period.  Bruce's defensive value was the biggest difference between him and Upton.

McCutchen profiles between Bruce and Upton as a hitter during their respective time periods by OPS, as he was more productive than Bruce but less productive than Upton (largely because of Upton's insane 2009 season, which we'll get to later).  McCutchen rates as a below average fielder, which honestly made him about as valuable in the field as Upton, an average right fielder, so Bruce holds an edge here too.  The big difference that accounted for McCutchen's 12.9 WAR over his first 3 seasons was that he produced consistently from day one.  He played 420 games over the past 3 seasons, far out-pacing Bruce and Upton prior to their contract extensions, and produced at least 3.5 WAR in each season.  His 2009 and 2010 seasons were marked by identical .286 AVGs and .365 OBPs to further demonstrate his consistency.  This is largely in part due to his playing parts of three seasons in AAA, honing his craft before reaching the MLB level.  His 2011 season was the most valuable of any of the three as far as their respective "contract years" are concerned, so now let's examine the year that ultimately helped these 3 players get their contract offers so early in their careers:

As we can see, Upton's 2009 season was tremendous, and garnered him a couple votes in MVP consideration.  He only had 3 steals prior to his 2009 season, so he worked on his hitting prior to his work on the basepaths, showing a development progression that was ideal.  Upton has since been a consistent 20-steal player, with potential for more if he moved out of the middle of the order.  Upton's 2009 season was marked by a .360 BABIP as you can see, but he also displayed a higher baseline BABIP (.340) than that of Bruce or McCutchen in his career up to that point.  He and McCutchen both posted solid line drive rates in all 3 seasons, while Jay Bruce's 2nd MLB season featured him struggling to hit line drives as his LD% dropped from 20% to 13% and his BABIP was a mere .221.  As we can see, offensively, Upton had the most effective season by wRC+, creating 40% more runs than the average MLB player.  Bruce and McCutchen were still very solid, and All-Star caliber, but can't compare to Upton's rate production, as his SLG was far higher and he hit .300.  

McCutchen did end up posting the highest WAR, meaning his "contract year" was the most valuable of the three.  He actually could be expected to improve a fair amount from his 2011 production.  While his walk rate rose to 13%, which is elite, his K% rose 5% from 13.6% in 2010 to 18.6% in 2011.  McCutchen moved to the #3 hole for the first time in his career, which likely contributed in part to his lower average and career-high in home runs and HR/FB%.  Now, McCutchen has to be more concerned about driving runs than getting on base, especially since the Pirates' offense apart from the top 3 hitters is pretty anemic.  McCutchen hit 41% of pitches he made contact with for flyballs, and hit less infield flies than ever before, which shows a concerted effort to hit the ball for power.  His HR/FB% of 12% complemented this rise in flyballs, but McCutchen would be more valuable as a pure hitter if he hit more like 2009 and 2010 than he did last year.  To the Pirates, however, he's a more valuable quantity as a 25-30 HR hitter that adds in 20 stolen bases, similar to Justin Upton's production.

All three players, given their current levels of production, profile as potential $15+ million per year players on the free agent market.  Fangraphs posts a value of each player's seasons by multiplying their WAR by the season's market rate "per win".  Last year, after adding up salaries and dividing it by WAR, every win a player produced in WAR was worth about $4.47 million if the player was a free agent.  So given this, McCutchen, Upton, and Bruce were all worth over $20 million in the season preceding their contract extension.  All three are easily worth the contracts they commanded, and the Reds and Pirates seemed to get the better contracts, as those club options for a 7th year are squarely in the middle of Jay Bruce and Andrew McCutchen's primes.  Upton will hit free agency a year earlier in his respective career, so the Diamondbacks missed an opportunity to lock him up at a below-market rate.  

Given all of the analysis above, McCutchen's deal with the Pirates seems to be the most valuable contract to any of the players' respective teams.  McCutchen is a consistent 5-WAR player if he improves/continues on last season, which is very likely, and as a center fielder his bat is more valuable than in right field, where there is a lot of depth right now (Nelson Cruz, Hunter Pence, Matt Holliday to name a few).  His production will outpace his true value in every season of his contract, and he's locked up for 7 seasons instead of 6.  While this assumes a lot of projectability, McCutchen's consistency makes his performance the easiest to predict going forward.  To analyze the other two, it's tough not to look at their production post-contract to differentiate between the very similar skillsets, especially their dynamic power.  Upton's 2011 was phenomenal and he really put everything together, lowering his strikeout rate by 7%, posting the highest isolated power (ISO) of his career at .240, and posting the highest contact rate of his career at 74.5%, making contact on 85% of swings at pitches in the strike zone.  Upton still does have his flaws, as he's a free-swinger and will always strike out 100+ times per season, but his improvement in this area vaults him over Bruce in my opinion.  This isn't to say Bruce isn't valuable, as his 2011 season compares very favorably with Upton's 2010 season, the first season following each player's respective extension was signed.  Bruce projects as a .280/.360/.500 player going forward that should produce approximately 5 wins per season.

Big names to watch this season are Mike Stanton and Jason Heyward, as they both would have the same career lengths following this season, so they're due for similar extensions if their teams would like to be proactive.  I fully expect Stanton to receive an extension similar in value or surpassing the value of these players' deals.  These contracts are more common than odd now, and these three small-market teams did a fantastic job locking their players up long-term and rewarding them early on for their elite production.


30 Teams in 30 Days: Houston Astros

2011 Record: 56-106, 6th place NL Central
Major Acquisitions: DH Jack Cust, SP Livan Hernandez, SP Zach Duke, C Chris Snyder, SS Jed Lowrie, SP Kyle Weiland
Major Losses: RP Mark Melancon, SS Clint Barmes, LF Jason Michaels

The Astros lead off the season previews as the worst team of 2011.  Following are some fun facts about the Astros' ineptitude:

  • The Astros hit 95 HRs, good for 29th in baseball.
  • The Astros were 27th in baseball in ISO (Isolated Power), ahead of only Seattle, Minnesota, and San Diego.  
  • Of the Astros' top 5 hitters in 2011, 3 will not begin the season on the 2012 roster (Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence were traded, Clint Barmes left in free agency).
  • The Astros' starting rotation allowed 1.2 HR/9, third worst in MLB behind the Orioles and Reds.  
  • As a team, the Astros were 29th in baseball, allowing a HR on 12% of fly balls hit.  
  • In the 162 starts made by Astros pitchers, they accumulated 5.7 WAR as a team.  C.J. Wilson posted a 5.9 WAR season himself in 2011.

Projected Lineup:

CF Jason Bourgeois
2B Jose Altuve
1B Carlos Lee
LF JD Martinez
SS Jed Lowrie
RF Brian Bogusevic
3B Jimmy Paredes
C Jason Castro

No one in this lineup was in the Opening Day lineup at their respective position in the 2011 season, so while the players are largely the same as the 2011 season, there has been a lot of turnover within the organization.  Jason Bourgeois could be a poor man's Michael Bourn, and for that reason, he should really win the center field job, even if he is 30 years old.  Bourgeois stole 31 bases in 37 attempts, although he was only on base 80 times total in 2011.  As you can tell, he's got speed to burn.  If he plays well, he could be a tradeable commodity by mid-season, or could show the skills to be the Astros' center fielder for a few years.  2B Jose Altuve is a diminutive slap hitter that didn't show any plate discipline last year but made contact on 96.1% of pitches he swung at in the strike zone.  He was also one of the freest swingers in baseball, swinging at 55.9% of pitches he saw, the 10th highest rate of all MLB hitters with 200 plate appearances in 2011.  If he can hit .290ish, which his minor league track record suggests is possible, he's a useful player in the #2 hole, and can play a Placido Polanco type role of moving the #1 hitter over for the middle of the lineup.

I would call the 3 through 5 hitters the heart of the lineup, except they look more like 6 through 8 hitters for an actual good team.  To his credit, Carlos Lee revived his career a bit, hitting 18 HRs and posting a .788 OPS, but his power did fall off from the 24 HRs he hit in 2010.  The problem with Lee is that he's making $17 million to be an average to below average first baseman, and the Astros can't wait to be rid of that contract.  JD Martinez is one of the Astros' few recent draft picks to hit the major leagues, and should open the season as their left fielder.  He's shown 20 HR power in the minor leagues (15 HRs over 400 PAs), and has been a .300 hitter at every level.  He could be the best Astros' hitter this season, and is one of the few players projected by Baseball America to be in the Astros' 2015 lineup.  SS Jed Lowrie has potential, but is constantly injured. He's only played 173 games over the past three years and missed 258 games due to injury according to Fangraphs.  Lowrie did hit for high OPS in the minors without much home run power, and he has the potential to hit for a .780 or .800 OPS at shortstop, which is very valuable.  However, if he doesn't make it through the season, the value of that is very limited.  Brian Bogusevic is a converted pitcher who made it to the big leagues with his bat and now has a hold on an Opening Day job.  Bogusevic has stolen 20 bases each of his past 3 seasons in AAA, and seems to be a patient hitter, but sure can't hit for much power, as his .457 SLG from his 2011 big league at bats is higher than any slugging percentage he posted in the minors.  He could end up hitting 2nd and pushing Altuve to the bottom of the lineup, which would be wise, but Altuve and Bourgeois are speedier players.  Rounding out the lineup are two youngsters, 3B Jimmy Paredes and C Jason Castro.  Jason Castro was thought to be the catcher of the future and 2011 Opening Day catcher before suffering a serious knee injury that kept him out for the entire season.  Castro may not quite be ready for MLB, but he did post high OBP numbers in the minor leagues, and that may be all he's ever useful for at the plate.  He'll compete with Chris Snyder for the starting job.  Jimmy Paredes follows the trend of this team, speedy players with little to offer in the power department.  He has 30 steal potential in a full season, but never consistently hit above .290 in the minors and averaged around a .410 SLG, so he's not a prototypical 3rd base bat.  The Astros seem to like him more than Chris Johnson though, so he'll probably start at 3rd this year.

On the bench, Jack Cust offers a decent backup option if Carlos Lee goes down, or if needed, can play outfield and horrible defense while at it.  His power is on the decline and he's really just a bat that can get on base at this point.  Utility man Matt Downs had the best hitting season of any Astro, posting an .865 OPS in 222 ABs along with 10 HRs and 1.4 WAR.  Although he showed the most impressive skills at the plate of any Astro, he remains a bench option and won't start over the younger and more limited Jose Altuve.

Starting Rotation:
SP Wandy Rodriguez
SP Bud Norris
SP Brett Myers
SP J.A. Happ
SP Jordan Lyles

Wandy Rodriguez likely isn't long for the Astros, as he was nearly traded at last year's deadline.  With his contract now being one year shorter and the Astros reportedly willing to pay half of his contract to trade him, a contender should pick up Wandy Rodriguez at the deadline.  Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles are the two farm-developed starters on the Astros, and Norris has plenty of room to grow and become a #2 caliber pitcher.  He should hit 200 innings this year, and will post around a 8.5 or 9 K/9, meaning he'll notch nearly 200 strikeouts as well.  His problem will be limiting HRs in Minute Maid Park which won't help him do so at all.  His slider was the fourth best in baseball according to Fangraphs' linear pitch weights, as it was 15 runs above average.  He only trailed Clayton Kershaw, Ervin Santana and Madison Bumgarner in that category.  Unfortunately his fastball was one of the worst in baseball as it was 15 runs below average, or in other words, equivalent to Brad Penny's fastball in pure value last year, who is now pitching in Japan.  Jordan Lyles has a solid minor league track record but struggled heavily in his promotion to the majors last year, allowing a HR about every 7 innings (1.3 HR/9).  He's posted high strikeout rates in the minors, but at 21 years old he could use more seasoning in the minors.  Livan Hernandez may be his placeholder until he proves ready.  

Brett Myers regressed back to his career tendencies in 2011, as he began allowing HRs far too often as has been the case throughout his career, but he no longer has the strikeout stuff to offset that.  He posted a 4.46 ERA, and 4.26 FIP, so nothing impressive.  Unfortunately for the Astros, he pitched insanely well in 2010, netting himself a 3 year extension that the Astros are stuck with for two more years.  Myers actually had a less effective fastball than Bud Norris at 16 runs below average, and he didn't have any outstanding pitch to offset it.  Myers hit a pretty big wall and isn't likely to be very useful going forward.  J.A. Happ had a phenomenal 2009 season, posting a 2.93 ERA, but pitching to a 4.43 FIP and showing that he was a prime candidate for regression.  The Phillies were able to trade him to the Astros anyways, and shockingly he's been a huge disappointment to the Astros, posting a 5.35 ERA in 2011.  Now he isn't  THAT bad of a pitcher, but when he walks almost 5 batters every 9 innings and allows 1.2 HRs per 9 innings, he's not going to be any more than a #4 or 5 starter.  Happ does notch a lot of strikeouts, but he has far too many other weaknesses to be a useful pitcher going forward.

CL Brandon Lyon
MR Fernando Rodriguez
MR Wilton Lopez
MR Wesley Wright
MR David Carpenter
MR Lucas Harrell
MR Rhiner Cruz

The Astros' bullpen is pretty non-descript, especially after trading away their best reliever of 2011, Mark Melancon.  Wilton Lopez should be the closer, but the Astros will go with the dumb notion of a "veteran presence" at closer and likely tab Lyon as the closer although he's largely ineffective.  Lopez is a ground ball pitcher with a quick infield defense behind him and he limits his walks, so he makes the most sense at closer.  While he doesn't have a ton of pure strikeout stuff (7.10 K/9 in 2011), his groundball tendencies and low WHIP would serve him well.  Rhiner Cruz is the interesting name to watch, as the Astros took him #1 overall in the Rule 5 draft, meaning that they must keep him on their MLB roster for the full season, or return him to his former team.  Cruz will be limited to low-leverage opportunities in hopes they can keep him beyond this season and let him toil away in the minors in 2013 to improve, but he does post fairly high strikeout numbers, so he could see some early success in MLB if he's on top of his game.

Five Fearless Predictions for 2012:
1.) Bud Norris strikes out 200 batters in 200 innings, and posts a 3.0 WAR season
2.) Wilton Lopez secures the closer role by the end of May and posts a 20 save season with little trouble.
3.) Matt Downs hits 15 HRs in 350 at bats and is named an everyday starter by year's end.
4.) The Astros finish top 5 in baseball with 150 SBs, led by Jason Bourgeois and Jose Altuve's 80 combined stolen bases.
5.) The Astros deal Wandy Rodriguez for an underwhelming return of prospects in mid-July.

The Astros are a barren wasteland; devoid of talent, and with no hope in sight.  So what reason do Astros fans have to watch this season?  Well to be honest, there isn't a whole lot of reason to put stock in this season, but the Astros will use it to evaluate various youngsters and try to project which players they want with the team going forward.  Carlos Lee's $17 million comes off the books after this season, and if the Astros somehow improve to a 75-win team, we could see a free agency frenzy of signings in 2013.  Unfortunately for them, they move to the AL West in 2013, so the entire team should be expected to regress next year, and taking down the Angels or Rangers seems like an impossible task.  The Astros are probably five years from realistic contention, but this is the year they can start laying the groundwork for their future.

Projected Finish: 60-102, 6th place NL Central


Philadelphia Eagles Team Needs for 2012

Philadelphia Eagles
2011 Season: 8-8
Offense: 399.1 YPG (4th), 256.9 Passing YPG (9th), 142.3 Rushing YPG (5th), 24.8 PPG (8th)
Defense: 324.9 YPG (8th), 212.3 Passing YPG (12th), 112.6 Rushing YPG (16th), 20.5 PPG (10th)

2012 Potential Free Agents: DT Antonio Dixon, WR Desean Jackson, DEs Victor Abiamiri and Juqua Parker, FB Owen Schmitt, WR Steve Smith, QB Vince Young, OT King Dunlap, OG Evan Mathis

Third up in my 2012 offseason preview is my favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles.  Nothing more needs to be said than that 2012 was a complete and utter disaster and almost couldn't have panned out worse.  The Eagles were projected to win 9.75 games based on their points per game and points allowed per game, but constantly collapsed in the fourth quarter, choking away at least five fourth quarter leads to lose games. Newly appointed defensive coordinator Juan Castillo couldn't do anything right the first half of the season.  He moved Nnamdi Asomugha away from the right cornerback spot at which he had so much success over the past years, playing him at safety and even nickel linebacker, although Nnamdi isn't known for his exceptional tackling.  The Kevin Kolb trade that brought in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie probably brought with it a pressure to get Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the field together, even if in most situations, each was being put in the complete worst situation to succeed with their respective skill sets.

We all know the criticisms of Andy Reid.  His offense has been pass-happy even before the passing craze swept across the NFL recently.  The only problem with that is that he's had a top 10 runningback in the NFL for almost the past decade, whether it was Brian Westbrook in his prime or Lesean McCoy now, that he refuses to utilize properly.  He's horrible on challenging plays, to the tune of a 32.8% success rate (Philly.com provided the research back in 2009).  Additionally, he's quite possibly the worst coach with clock management.  Remember back to the Super Bowl when with 7 minutes left, the Eagles' offense was still huddling while down 2 scores.  Or when the Eagles had the ball at midfield with 1:50 left and one timeout, down 7 against the Saints in 2007, and punted the ball to them on 4th and 10, basically surrendering the game.  Reid's on the hottest seat in the NFL coming into 2012, and if he doesn't get this team to the playoffs, heads are going to roll.  But as with all NFL teams, we've seen about all the coaching changes that will take place this offseason, so I'll move on to addressing the Eagles' major problems.


Where Will Peyton Manning End Up?

It's amazing what a lost year can do to a franchise. This time last year the Colts were as stable an organization as there is in the NFL. Peyton Manning was just going to have some routine procedures but for all intents and purposes the man was viewed as indestructible. 

Then it all came tumbling down. Now in a year where the younger Manning brother is viewed as the superior one because of Peyton's neck, uncertainty, and lack of jewelry, the NFL is left to wonder. Where will Peyton Manning end up? Can the Colts possibly hold on to him? Would he want to face Eli twice a year?

To stress how crazy this thing has gotten, here are Vegas' odds on his potential landing spots. I think Cooper Manning could become a very rich man in the next few days.

Miami 5/2
Washington 3/1
Indianapolis 4/1
New York Jets 5/1
Arizona 25/1
Denver 25/1
San Francisco 40/1
Kansas City 50/1
Tennessee 50/1
Houston 75/1
Rest of Field 10/1


Washington Redskins Team Needs for 2012

Washington Redskins
2011 Record: 8-8
Offense: 336.7 YPG (16th), 235.8 Passing YPG (14th), 100.9 Rushing YPG (25th), 18 PPG (26th)
Defense: 339.8 YPG (13th), 222.1 Passing YPG (12th), 117.8 Rushing YPG (18th), 22.9 PPG (21st)

2012 Potential Free Agents: QB Rex Grossman, RB Tim Hightower, WR Donte Stallworth, C Will Montgomery, DEs Adam Carriker and Kedric Golston, MLBs London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh, S Laron Landry, CB Byron Westbrook

The Redskins started off the year 2-0 and everyone rushed to proclaim them the sleeper team in the NFC.  Rex Grossman is a real quarterback look at him play well!  They run the ball and play good defense!  Well unfortunately for the Redskins, that spiraled downward into a 5-11 finish on the season.  Lowlights of the season include:

  • Two of the Redskins' good young players were suspended for the final four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy
  • Mike Shanahan playing QB Carousel with Rex Grossman and John Beck
  • Mike Shanahan inexplicably not playing Roy Helu consistently until the end of the season
The first thing I would suggest the Redskins do is get a new coach, new GM, and new owner.  But since none of that is realistically happening, we'll move on to the real needs of the team.


Dallas Cowboys Team Needs for 2012

Dallas Cowboys:
2011 record: 8-8
Offense: 375.5 YPG (11th), 262.6 Pass YPG (7th), 112.9 Rush YPG (18th), 23.1 PPG (15th)
Defense: 343.2 YPG (13th), 244.1 Pass YPG (23rd), 99.1 Rush YPG (7th), 21.7 PPG (16th)

2012 Notable Free Agents: S/CB Alan Ball, S Abram Elam, TE Martellus Bennett, OG Derrick Dockery, P Mat McBriar, WR Laurent Robinson, LBs Keith Brooking, Anthony Spencer, Bradie James

The Cowboys finished the year as a pretty mediocre team, but one that blew plenty of opportunities to make the playoffs.  The Giants came back to win the NFC East in Week 17, and the Cowboys definitely have room to improve from this 8-8 season.

Super Bowl XLVI: The Blue Meanie

The roads that the New England Patriots and the New York Giants took to get here couldn't be any more different. The Pats were favored by the majority to come out of the AFC East while the Giants were, at best, though to come in as a wild card. It took the stars aligning for the G-Men (the Philadelphia Eagles deciding not deciding to start their season until December 11, the Dallas Cowboys losing games for no other reason than they are the Dallas Cowboys) but they still earned their way to the big stage. They held the Atlanta Falcons to two points and then followed it up by beating the NFC's top two seeds on the road (Green Bay and San Francisco). The Pats were the number one seed in the AFC and their road featured Tim Tebow and the Baltimore Ravens. Needless to say, the degree of difficulty wasn't quite as high.

These two teams met in November, a tilt that went New York's favor 24-20. It was the last game that the Pats lost but it was in the worst way imaginable. Not only did Tom Brady bring the Patriots back in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes left on the clock, but the Giants were without both Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw. Even with that, Eli Manning managed to lead yet another comeback against the Pats by hitting Jake Ballard for a game winning touchdown.

By now everyone knows that the Patriots pass defense is all sorts of awful. Having Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington on Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks is just asking for trouble. The Patriots defense is the worst to make the Super Bowl (411.1 YPG), they have allowed the most 20-yard plays in the league this year (89), and the pass rush mostly consists of Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich. When you throw all of things together you have a matchup that the Giants should feast upon as Eli Manning is playing the best football of his career.

Let's not look past the Giants' own defensive woes. Even though they have a fearsome defensive line they are the second worst Super Bowl defense (376.4 YPG) and rank among the league's worst in defending against tight ends (948 yards surrendered). Surprisingly enough, the Giants also had a negative point differential and their weighted DVOA was sixteenth. The Giants can generate enough of a pass rush with Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul but if they don't get home that points towards the Pats' favor. Deon Grant is not a guy you want covering Aaron Hernandez in the open field and who knows who can cover Rob Gronkowski (if he proves to be mostly healthy).

I don't think I need to dwell on the passing offenses for either of these teams. In three games Eli Manning has over 900 yards and he has an 8/1 TD/INT ratio. The Giants' line hasn't been that great, though, surrendering eight sacks. Tom Brady, on the other hand, has an un-Bradylike 6/3 TD/INT ratio. He has only been sacked once (against a Ravens D that ranked third in the league and the Broncos who were eleventh themselves) and also has 602 yards in only two games. The Pats were tied for second in the league with INTs (23 on the year) and the Giants had only three less themselves. What all of this tells me, in a nutshell, is that both of these QBs need to play mistake free because what these defensives lack they make up for in jumping routes and getting timely takeaways.

Nicks, Cruz, and Mario Manningham will get theirs. Nicks is averaging over 117 yards per game in the postseason and has four touchdowns. Cruz has yet to find pay dirt but he has 244 yards and 14 first downs. Manningham, who is seemingly the forgotten man, has three scores of his own with only eight receptions. Cruz is the obvious deep threat but when things get inside the 20s it seems that Eli tends to look towards Manningham. New England, as you can probably imagine, relies heavily on Gronkowski and Hernandez. Of Brady's 602 yards, these two have 353 of them and four touchdowns. Gronk is also the only pay to be in double digits on first downs (14). Of course, that was when he was healthy and before the human Patriots destroyer, Bernard Pollard, got ahold of him. Both TEs have formations where they come out of the backfield and Hernandez even rushes the ball (eight carries, 70 yards). I've gone this entire blog post without mentioning Wes Welker. In this year's earlier matchup Welker had 9 catches for 136 yards. Welker could be poised to be the biggest beneficiary, of both yards and extra attention from the Giants, of Rob Gronkowski's possible limitations. No other wide receiver on the New England depth chart can keep defenders honest except for Deion Branch one or two plays a game.

If I told you that one of these teams comes in with the league's worst rushing attack, you'd probably guess the Patriots. Or if you've been paying attention to the media's coverage, you'd know that the Giants reside in the cellar. At 89.2 Y/G, the Giants make the Pats' 110.3 look as though they have Barry Sanders in the backfield. Sure, a lot of that has to do with Ahmad Bradshaw being banged up during the season and now that he's healthy he and Brandon Jacobs are combining for 109 Y/G in the postseason. Bradshaw is also third on the team in receptions (14) and averages close to 32 yards through the air. On the flip side, New England has a bit of trouble rushing the ball. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has less than 50 yards per game. Aaron Hernandez's longest rush (43) equals Danny Woodhead's total for the playoffs. Stevan Ridley hasn't been healthy, but when he's been in he's been ineffective. If New England can't establish the run in some capacity then they're going to be in a lot of trouble.

The special teams matchups are a wash. Lawrence Tynes and Stephen Gostkowski are two of the best in the business. Tynes has missed two field goals while Gostkowski has been perfect. Steve Weatherford has averaged 46.4 yards per punt while Zoltan Mesko is at 43.8. Neither team had a kickoff return touchdown at all this year but Julian Edelman did return a punt for a score against Kansas City.

This was the most appealing matchup left in the playoffs if you enjoy offense. New England and New York are both physical teams that can rack up the yards and points at will. New York has an edge in defense, of course, but neither one excels in their matchup against the opposing offense. I'll admit I have a smidgen of bias here, but I will go with my preseason pick and pick the Patriots to overcome their blue demons. The whole game may come down to Rob Gronkowski's health and that is the most important thing to monitor heading up to the big game.

As an aside, be sure to check out this year's Puppy Bowl. They have a Piggy Pep Squad!
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