Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Baseball Preview (NL East)

For each of the last two years, the Washington Nationals have been expected to run away with the NL East.  They didn't in 2015, when the Mets rode their outstanding pitching all the way to the World Series.  Then last year Washington was one of those three elite teams in the National League--only to lose at home in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Dodgers.

I'm not anointing the Nationals as the NL East champions just yet.  Especially after what happened to them two seasons ago.  But you also can't blame them for thinking about how to finally get over that hump in October.  Because they're still the class of this division by a wide margin.  A lot can still go wrong, but the only team that Washington realistically has to worry about challenging them for the division title is the Mets.

Last year, this division consisted of two playoff teams and two of the worst teams in all of baseball, with the Marlins right in the middle.  Things will probably be pretty similar this season.  Although, the Braves likely won't be as God-awful as they try to give people a reason to drive out to the Atlanta suburbs to watch that team.  I also think that if not for the tragic death of Jose Fernandez, the Marlins really would've had a shot at challenging for a wild card.

1. Washington Nationals: Name a flaw that this team has.  Go ahead.  I dare you.  As long as they stay healthy, this is the Nationals' division to lose.  Thanks to that trade for Adam Eaton, they no longer have to play Trea Turner in center field, and, considering the low price tag, signing Matt Wieters as a free agent really looks like a bargain.  He's certainly preferable to a full season of Jose Lobaton, who's a good backup but isn't a Major League starter.  Speaking of Major League starters, they've got one of the best rotations in the game.  It's so good that Tanner Roark, who went 16-10 with a sub-3.00 ERA last season (and got the win for Team USA in the WBC semifinals) is their No. 4!  Rotation depth is one of the main reasons why the Cubs won last season, so if they all stay healthy, Washington's starting pitching will really make them a threat to win it all.  The bullpen's a bit of a weakness, and they don't have the shut-down closer they used to in Drew Storen, but if that's all they need, don't be surprised to see somebody like David Robertson in a Nationals uniform by midseason.  I'm also not sure if I like the Adam Lind signing or not.  It's the National League, so he'll get plenty of at-bats as a pinch hitter, but will he be effective if he's not in there everyday?  And the only place you can put him is first, which would push Zimmerman to the bench, so that doesn't really seem like an option.  Daniel Murphy, meanwhile, was an MVP candidate last season, but he barely played in the WBC and Dusty Baker was NOT happy about it.  Will the lack of at-bats lead to a slow start?  They'd better hope not.  Because we saw in 2015 what happens when Bryce Harper has to carry the offense by himself.
Projected Lineup: Adam Eaton-CF, Trea Turner-SS, Daniel Murphy-2B, Bryce Harper-RF, Jayson Werth-LF, Ryan Zimmerman-1B, Matt Wieters-C, Anthony Rendon-3B
Projected Rotation: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross
Closer: Shawn Kelley
Projected Record: 94-68

2. New York Mets: Virtually everyone on the Mets roster spent time on the DL last season...and they still hosted the Wild Card Game.  Just imagine what could happen if their entire roster was healthy at the same time.  If it can, the Nationals will definitely get a challenge for the division title.  Because the Mets have a formidale lineup to go along with that dominant pitching.  Although, once you get past their ridiculous top three, there is somewhat of a drop off (although not by much when Steven Matz comes back).  And, no offense to Seth Lugo, but he was Puerto Rico's best option to start a World Championship Game?  Their bullpen is filthy, although I'm sure they'd like to know whether Jeurys Familia is going to be suspended and for how long.  Offensively they'll benefit from a whole year of Jay Bruce, who really was a difference-maker once he joined the Mets last season.  Plus, Lucas Duda is back, which gives them two lefties to sandwich around Cespedes (who opted out of his four-year contract after one year, just to sign a new four-year deal with the same team, which still really confuses me).  One guy they probably can't rely on getting back, though, is David Wright.  If you ask me, Wright is done.  He's played a grand total of 75 games over the past two years due to injuries and will likely start this season on the DL.  Wright has been the face of the franchise for more than a decade and deserves to go out on his own terms.  But he's a shell of his former self.  He, and the Mets, will be better off if he just retires.
Projected Lineup: Jose Reyes-3B, Neil Walker-2B, Curtis Granderson-CF, Yoenis Cespedes-LF, Lucas Duda-1B, Jay Bruce-RF, Travis d'Arnaud-C, Asdrubal Cabrera-SS
Projected Rotation: Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob de Grom, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo (Steven Matz)
Closer: Jeurys Familia
Projected Record: 85-77

3. Miami Marlins: The Marlins have the best outfield in baseball.  We already knew that Giancarlo was a beast, and Christian Yelich was the biggest revelation of the World Baseball Classic.  I went from asking "why is this guy on the roster?" to wondering if anybody was ever going to get him out.  He was seriously on base the entire tournament.  The two of them, plus Marcell Ozuna, with Icihro as a fourth option?  Wow!  Like I said, that outfield is stacked!  Their middle infield is really good too with Dee Gordon at second and Adeiny Hechevarria at short.  This really looks like a borderline playoff team.  I'd think that even more if not for the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez.  They signed Edinson Volquez to a two-year deal to take over that No. 1 spot in the rotation, but he'll never be able to "replace" Fernandez.  They're completely different types of pitchers.  And Volquez won't win nearly as many games as Fernandez would've.  Still, they needed to move on and they could've done worse than a veteran innings-eater whose had some big games in the past (like Games 1 & 5 of the 2015 World Series).  Closer A.J. Ramos is a stud, too.  Are they going to make the playoffs?  Probably not.  Can they finish above .500?  Definitely.  Will they be a team others want to play?  Absolutely not.  And I can at least guarantee one thing about the Marlins this season: they'll have more than just Giancarlo there as their token representative when they host the All-Star Game in July.
Projected Lineup: Dee Gordon-2B, Derek Dietrich-3B (Martin Prado), Christian Yelich-LF, Giancarlo Stanton-RF, Marcell Ozuna-CF, Justin Bour-1B, Adeiny Hechevarria-SS, J.T. Realmuto-C
Projected Rotation: Edinson Volquez, Dan Straily, Tom Koehler, Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley
Closer: A.J. Ramos
Projected Record: 82-80

4. Atlanta Braves: Good news Braves fans!  You have a pretty new stadium to call home.  Bad news: you have to drive out to the suburbs to get there.  Good news: the team's not going to be anywhere near as bad as it was last year.  Bad news: they still won't be any good.  While Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Chipper won't be walking through the door anytime soon, the Braves will at least resemble a Major League team again in 2017.  In fact, you'll actually see some familiar names when looking at their roster (which consists of a bunch of guys who were really good about five years ago).  And they're set up for the future, too.  Former No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson will be their everyday shortstop, and he's the guy they plan on building around as they try to be good again starting in like 2019.  Until then, he'll be surrounded by the 2012 NL All-Star Team, which extends to the pitching staff.  Julio Teheran is a legitimate ace whose numbers are skewed by pitching for such a bad team.  But they've got 43-year-old Mets legend Bartolo Colon penciled in as their No. 2, and fellow 40-something former Met R.A. Dickey is also a part of the rotation.  And don't ask me about the bullpen.  I have no idea who any of those guys are.  They at least have a Major League-quality lineup once again.  It's the suspect pitching that will keep the Braves fighting with the Phillies to stay out of the cellar, though.  Is it as bad as it was in the late 80s?  Not anymore.  But this team is a far cry from the mid-90s Braves.  At least their fans will have a new stadium to distract them.
Projected Lineup: Brandon Phillips-2B, Dansby Swanson-SS, Freddie Freeman-1B, Matt Kemp-LF, Nick Markakis-RF, Adonis Garcia-3B, Ender Inciarte-CF, Kurt Suzuki-C
Projected Rotation: Julio Teheran, Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, R.A. Dickey, Mike Foltynewicz
Closer: Jim Johnson
Projected Record: 71-91

5. Philadelphia Phillies: While the Braves made some positive moves so as not to completely embarrass themselves in their new ballpark, the same cannot be said about the Phillies.  This team is going to lose a lot.  They're not as bad as Cincinnati and San Diego, but only slightly.  Their big offseason move was the Clay Buchholz trade, but that had as much to do with the Red Sox not wanting him anymore as it did with anything else.  Although, the change of scenery could definitely be a good thing for him, and on a team like the Phillies, Buchholz has ace potential (he had it in Boston, too, but they were paying the guys in front of him a lot more).  That's about all I've got about the Phillies pitching staff.  In fact, I only learned a handful of relievers were even on the Phillies when they came into games during the World Baseball Classic.  Noticeably absent from the World Baseball Classic were Phillies position players.  That might be kind of a good thing since it means basically their entire team was in camp all Spring.  But it also means that the Phillies simply aren't good enough to have any of their players qualify for their national teams.  Not even Michael Saunders, who I'm guessing chose not to play for Canada because of the new team.  He's a guy that I really want to see succeed because he's seemingly always injured.  They also added Howie Kendrick.  We'll see how he does not playing for a Los Angeles-based team for the first time in his career.  At least he won't have to worry about his playing time.  I will say this about the Phillies, too.  They've got great pieces to build around in Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera.  Just hope they don't become the Padres and the rebuilding is a continual process.
Projected Lineup: Odubel Herrera-CF, Freddy Galvis-SS, Maikel Franco-3B, Michael Saunders-RF, Tommy Joseph-1B, Howie Kendrick-LF, Cameron Rup-C, Cesar Hernandez-2B
Projected Rotation: Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola
Closer: Jeanmar Gomez
Projected Record: 69-93

It's not going to be a runaway.  The Nationals are clearly the best team in the NL East, though.  It's their division to lose.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Baseball Preview (AL West)

It's going to be an interesting year in the AL West.  They've all done a lot of spending to prove they're among the big boys, but I'm not sure any of them will be able to pull it off.  These teams are all flawed.  It's really going to be a matter of whose flaws are exposed the least.

There's another big thing at play here, too.  How many wins will they get over the Angels and A's?  Remember a few years ago when the Angels had the best record in the American League, only to get swept by the Royals in the Division Series?  It turned out all of those wins were a bit of a mirage because so many came against the AL West.  The team that wins the division this season could have a similar problem.  The top of the AL West is going to be very competitive with each other.  What remains to be seen is how competitive they'll be with the rest of the American League.

1. Houston Astros: No team in the Majors was more active in the offseason than the Astros.  And all of those transactions have to make Houston the AL West favorites.  Although, if there's any cause of concern it's that all of these newcomers are veterans, so injury and decline are definitely things that you have to worry about.  Especially since the Yankees essentially fired Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran might've been their best position player last season, but he's 40.  Even still, getting Beltran to be the DH makes this lineup much deeper.  And, unlike Evan Gattis, McCann can actually still catch, which is certainly a plus.  All of these guys have been added to a lineup that already included Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer.  A few years ago, Sports Illustrated declared the Astros would win the 2017 World Series.  And they're going to hit.  A lot.  But for SI's prediction to ring true, they're going to need the pitching to keep pace.  They need the Dallas Keuchel who won the Cy Young in 2015.  Not the version they got last year.  They also need their other starters to give them something worthwhile so that their dynamite bullpen doesn't get overused.  The difference between first place and missing the playoffs entirely is very slim in this division.  They're the best team, but they have very little margin for error.
Projected Lineup: Jose Altuve-2B, George Springer-CF, Carlos Correa-SS, Carlos Beltran-DH, Josh Reddick-RF, Yulieski Gurriel-1B, Brian McCann-C, Alex Bregman-3B, Nori Aoki-LF
Projected Rotation: Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh
Closer: Ken Giles
Projected Record: 89-73

2. Texas Rangers: The Rangers are a really good regular season team.  That much we've established.  But for some reason, they haven't been able to get past Toronto in the playoffs in either of the last two seasons.  I think we're looking at a very similar script in 2017.  Texas lost Ian Desmond, but got Mike Napoli back after a year in Cleveland.  And, except for when he was getting thrown out at first on his own single, Jurickson Profar was on base for pretty much the entire WBC.  The Rangers have had high hopes for him for years.  Will he finally be healthy enough to be the player that we saw wearing a Dutch uniform?  I hope so.  He deserves a chance to finally show what he can do over the course of a full season.  On the mound, they've got an outstanding 1-2 in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.  But their remaining starters are questionable, so it's an absolute must that those two remain healthy.  The same can be said for newly-minted World Baseball Classic champion Sam Dyson.  He became the Texas closer last year and had 38 saves as they won the division.  But he's the only guy in the bullpen worth anything.  Much like Houston, the lineup is stacked.  Unlike the Astros, however, the bullpen is a weakness.  That's clearly the Rangers' Achilles heel.  And that's also why I give the Astros a slight edge in the AL West.
Projected Lineup: Shin-Soo Choo-DH, Elvis Andrus-SS, Adrian Beltre-3B, Mike Napoli-1B, Carlos Gomez-CF, Jonathan Lucroy-C, Rougned Odor-2B, Jurickson Profar-LF, Nomar Mazara-RF
Projected Rotation: Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Martin Perez, A.J. Griffin, Mike Hauschild (Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner)
Closer: Sam Dyson
Projected Record: 88-74

3. Seattle Mariners: I really thought last year we were finally going to see the Mariners break through.  And it sure looked like it was going to happen.  But then they faded at the end and ended up on the outside looking in for the 15th consecutive season.  They'll probably make it 16 in 2017.  Because this team was better last year than it is now.  Unlike the two Texas teams, the Mariners are built around their pitching staff.  Mainly the big Venezuelan guy who deserves to pitch in the postseason at least once in his career.  King Felix finally has some decent guys behind him and a worthwhile-enough lineup that he won't have to win every game 2-1.  That lineup, obviously, is built around All-Stars Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.  They also improved their defense with the addition of Jean Segura and got quicker with the addition of Jarrod Dyson, who gets the chance to be a full-time starter for the first time in his career.  I'm just not sure they've got enough fire power to keep up with the Astros and Rangers.  Seattle's strength is in its pitching.  Their offense has the potential to be dynamic, though.  It will need to be for them to end their playoff drought.
Projected Lineup: Jarrod Dyson-LF, Jean Segura-SS, Robinson Cano-2B, Nelson Cruz-DH, Kyle Seager-3B, Danny Valencia-1B, Mike Zunino-C, Mitch Haniger-RF, Leonys Martin-CF
Projected Rotation: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly, James Paxton, Yovani Gallardo
Closer: Edwin Diaz
Projected Record: 83-79

4. Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout is the best player in baseball.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have a very good team around him.  At all.  Which is crazy, seeing as the Angels have two sure-fire Hall of Famers (Trout and Albert Pujols) and boast the best defensive shortstop in the game in Andrelton Simmons.  Problem is the "stars" on this team are few and far between, and it doesn't look like they're too eager to get any.  So, basically, they're content to waste Mike Trout's prime.  The pitching doesn't help, either.  Jered Weaver was the one other constant on this team for years.  Now he's gone and Garrett Richards is the staff "ace" (if that's what you want to call him).  The rest of the rotation isn't much better, and the bullpen consists of a bunch of guys you've never heard of.  The only "name" they've got back there is closer Huston Street, who's going to spend at least the first month of the season on the DL.  Not that he'll miss out on too many save opportunities.  I continue to be fascinated by the Angels.  They've got the best player on the planet and have no reason not to be good.  Yet we're entering another season where they're nothing more than an afterthought in the AL West.  Maybe they'll surprise us all, it'll all come together, and they'll make a playoff run.  I don't see it, though.  The Astros, Rangers and Mariners are all better.
Projected Lineup: Cameron Maybin-LF, Andrelton Simmons-SS, Mike Trout-CF, Albert Pujols-DH, C.J. Cron-1B, Yunel Escobar-3B, Kole Calhoun-RF, Danny Espinosa-2B, Martin Maldonado-C
Projected Rotation: Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Ricky Nolasco, Matt Shoemaker, Jesse Chavez
Closer: Andrew Bailey (Huston Street)
Projected Record: 77-85

5. Oakland Athletics: Pretty soon, they'll be Oakland's only pro team.  But they'll still be stuck playing in that dump.  And they'll still have a hard time attracting free agents.  Every time the A's are good, it's because they build up young talent that all gets to the Majors at the same time and they're able to keep them together for a few years before breaking it up.  The break up for this team started with that major collapse and eventual AL Wild Card Game loss in 2014, and it sure looks like we're headed to Year III of the same.  Although, it is possible they'll be better this season.  And I can even see them battling the Angels to stay out of the cellar.  They've brought in World Series hero Rajai Davis to play center field, and the lineup actually isn't that bad.  I have a lot of questions about their starting pitching, though.  Especially since Sonny Gray is going to start the season on the DL.  If they end up where everyone thinks they will in July, we'll likely see the A's as sellers at the deadline.  And I bet there are a ton of teams that would love to get their hands on Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla and Sean Doolittle.  Oakland's got a decent-looking bullpen.  All they need is serviceable starting pitching to win games 3-2 in that ballpark.  I'm not sure how serviceable that starting pitching will be, though.  Although, every time I think the A's are going to suck, they somehow end up winning 90 games, so I'm definitely going to assume that's possible.  It just doesn't seem likely.
Projected Lineup: Rajai Davis-CF, Jed Lowrie-2B, Stephen Vogt-C, Trevor Plouffe-3B, Yonder Alonso-1B, Matt Joyce-RF, Khris Davis-LF, Ryon Healy-DH, Marcus Semien-SS
Projected Rotation: Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, Sonny Gray
Closer: Ryan Madson
Projected Record: 64-98

And that, kids, is how I see things playing out in the American League this season.  Unlike the NL, where there's a clear separation between the top teams and everybody else, things are a lot more open in the AL.  There are a handful of teams that I can see not just making the playoffs, but making a deep run in October.  In fact, there are only five teams that I don't think have any chance of competing: Tampa Bay, Minnesota, the White Sox, the Angels and Oakland.

As for the rest, my playoff field consists of Boston, Kansas City and Houston as the division winners, with Cleveland playing Texas in the Wild Card Game.  I've got the Indians beating the Rangers, then dropping a great Division Series against the Red Sox.  I see the Astros beating the Royals in the other Division Series, with Boston representing the American League in the World Series.  The Red Sox simply have more pieces than everyone else, which I think gives them a slight edge in a very evenly-matched American League.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the start of the National League.  Can anyone challenge the World Champion Cubs?  Sure.  Who?  Wait and find out.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Baseball Preview (AL Central)

Was there a member of the Kansas City Royals that was actually in camp during the WBC?  Seriously, it seemed like there was at least two Royals on every team!  I guess that just goes to show how loaded Kansas City is, which makes sense seeing as they're just a year removed from winning the World Series.  In fact, the AL Central has become one of the best divisions in all of baseball.  With the Indians winning the pennant last year, it's three straight for the division, and it's not unrealistic to think it could become four straight this season.

And the AL Central consists of more than just Kansas City and Cleveland.  Detroit will definitely be in the mix, too.  When you've got a loaded lineup anchored by Miguel Cabrera and a pitching staff that includes the Rookie of the Year and a rejuvenated Justin Verlander, you're going to be in the conversation.  Especially because all three of these teams are capable of making a deep October run.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see all three make the playoffs, especially since they'll get to beat up on the Twins and White Sox a combined 38 times each.

So which of the three will win the division?  That's anybody's guess.  I really see this being a three-team race all season.  Although one injury to a key player could change things.  (I say this, but Cleveland still made the World Series without its best player not named Francisco Lindor and two starting pitchers last year.)

1. Kansas City Royals: How sudden and shocking was Yordano Ventura's death?  A lot of those season preview magazines picked the Royals to win the AL Central, mainly because of Ventura as their ace.  So, yeah, it was shocking.  And it was a big blow to Kansas City.  I can see the Royals making a run at a starting pitcher if they're in the race at the end, but I can also see them selling off their pending free agents if things are going south in late July.  I think they'll rally behind Ventura's death and try to win for him this season, though.  Especially since they likely know that they won't be able to re-sign everyone, so this is the last time this group will be together.  And they've still got that ridiculous bullpen, even after trading Wade Davis to the Cubs for Jorge Soler.  He replaces Alex Rios At DH, they've replaced Kendrys Morales with Brandon Moss, who, frankly, should be in the American League.  Neither one is an upgrade, but they're serviceable enough to fit into the Kansas City lineup.  The biggest loss (other than Ventura) will be Jarrod Dyson, though.  The Royals' bench is nowhere near as deep as it used to be.  I also have to point out the irony of Drew Butera knocking Sal Perez out of the WBC.  He must've wanted to be the starting catcher really bad!  Alas, it looks like Sal's going to be ready for Opening Day.  I'd also be remiss to not mention the fact that Eric Hosmer is one of my favorite players in the entire league.  All the guy does is hit.
Projected Lineup: Alcides Escobar-SS, Alex Gordon-LF, Lorenzo Cain-CF, Eric Hosmer-1B, Mike Moustakas-3B, Salvador Perez-C, Brandon Moss-DH, Jorge Soler-RF, Whit Merrifield-2B
Projected Rotation: Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas, Nathan Karns
Closer: Kelvin Herrera
Projected Record: 90-72

2. Cleveland Indians: They went to the World Series without Michael Brantley, Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco.  They also have one of the best managers in the game in Terry Francona.  So why do I think they'll finish second this year?  Because the Indians' 2016 was basically a perfect storm, and I'm not sure I see everyone having a career year again.  Although, adding Edwin Encarnacion to that lineup was a major steal.  I also give it until the All-Star Break before Encarnacion and Carlos Santana swap positions.  It just makes more sense to do that.  Encarnacion isn't a great first baseman, but he's perfectly capable over there, and Santana really was just over there because they needed a position for him (which is also why he played first base for the DR in the WBC).  And Francisco Lindor is a freak of nature.  They just have a lot of guys who are going to miss the start of the season, though.  If they can weather the storm until Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall come back, they'll be in good shape.  I'm also curious to see how Andrew Miller will be used.  They obviously can't use him the way they did in the playoffs, so I'm thinking he gets the eighth inning in front of Cody Allen the way he was with the Yankees in front of Aroldis Chapman (both of those trades really worked out, huh?) at the beginning of last season.  His postseason was ridiculous, but he needs something resembling a normal workload if he's going to be just as effective during the regular season.  Even in the World Baseball Classic Miller wasn't automatic.  Can that be chalked up to playing competitive games in March?  Or is it a sign of something else?
Projected Lineup: Carlos Santana-1B, Brandon Guyer-RF, Francisco Lindor-SS, Edwin Encarnacion-DH, Jose Ramirez-2B, Tyler Naquin-CF, Yan Gomes-C, Giovany Urshela-3B, Abraham Almonte-LF (lineup gets much better once Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall are added)
Projected Rotation: Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco
Closer: Cody Allen
Projected Record: 88-74

3. Detroit Tigers: The window is closing on the Tigers, if it hasn't already.  They've got a ton of stars and are going to win a lot of games, but that's a veteran core, which looks very susceptible to injury.  And this is a team where an injury could be catastrophic, so you know they had to be concerned when Miguel Cabrera had to leave Venezuela's second-to-last WBC game.  By all accounts he's fine, but it's definitely cause for alarm and something the Tigers are going to worry about all season.  Fortunately, they can have him DH now and then and not really lose much with Victor Martinez playing first base.  If J.D. Martinez has to miss extended time, that could make just as big a difference in the middle of that lineup.  There are also some questions about their rotation.  Is the Verlander of old really back?  Will Fulmer avoid a sophomore slump after his Rookie of the Year season?  Can Anibal Sanchez get back to form and be a valuable piece of the rotation again?  And the Tigers' bullpen issues, which they have seemingly every year, are back.  It's not as pronounced an issue as it was in the past, but Brad Ausmus is definitely going to need to find his reliable guy in front of K-Rod and establish those defined roles.  If everything goes right, I can see them winning 90-plus games and winning the division.  If nothing goes right, I can see them finishing below .500.  I think somewhere in the middle is more likely.
Projected Lineup: Ian Kinsler-2B, Justin Upton-LF, Miguel Cabrera-1B, Victor Martinez-DH, J.D. Martinez-RF, Nick Castellanos-3B, Mikie Mahtook-CF, James McCann-C, Jose Iglesias-SS
Projected Rotation: Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris, Anibal Sanchez
Closer: Francisco Rodriguez
Projected Record: 85-77

4. Minnesota Twins: It's not really possible for the Twins to be as bad as they were last season, so at least they've got that going for them.  In fact, with the White Sox in a complete rebuild mode, I expect Minnesota to work its way out of the AL Central cellar.  But they're not going to be surprise contenders like they were two years ago, either.  That's not too far away, though.  Especially with a solid young core of guys like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Max Kepler.  They're kinda like the Rays, though.  They've got a handful of those guys, but not enough.  It's also difficult for them to attract free agents, which is why the signing of Jason Castro was so huge.  He gives them another veteran to build around.  This is still Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier's team, though.  It's really on the mound where the Twins are going to struggle, though.  Ervin Santana is more of a No. 3 starter than a No. 1.  They'll also get a full season from another former Angel, Hector Santiago.  In fact, their entire starting rotation from the end of last season returns in tact.  Problem is none of them are anything worth writing home about.  And I really like closer Glen Perkins.  It's just a shame he doesn't get more than two save opportunities a week.
Projected Lineup: Byron Buxton-CF, Brian Dozier-2B, Joe Mauer-1B, Miguel Sano-3B, Max Kepler-RF, Eddie Rosario-LF, Byung-Ho Park-DH, Jason Castro-C, Jorge Polanco-SS
Projected Rotation: Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffey
Closer: Glen Perkins
Projected Record: 72-90

5. Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale is gone.  Jose Quintana, David Robertson, Todd Frazier and Melky Cabrera are likely to follow.  There's going to be some excellent baseball played in Chicago this season.  It just won't be on the South Side.  Sale changing his Sox was their official declaration that they're going to be rebuilding.  And that likely means for as many times as they waive the "W" at Wrigley, they'll be waiving the "L" at Comiskey.  At least at the start of the season, they aren't completely terrible on paper.  I fully expect that to change by July, though.  And it's not exactly like their current roster is full of All-Stars.  Peter Bourjos in center field?  How many teams does that make it now who think this guy is actually a Major League starter?  He isn't.  But at least with the White Sox, he won't be taking at-bats away from someone who actually deserves to be playing.  They wisely locked up Tim Anderson to a long-term deal, banking on him as their shortstop of the future and face of the franchise as they move on from the Sale Era.  Once they trade Frazier at the All-Star Break, Yoan Moncada will join him on the left side of the infield, where they'll be set for years.  I grew to really like Nate Jones in the WBC.  Will he also be traded, or will he become the closer when Robertson is?
Projected Lineup: Tim Anderson-SS, Melky Cabrera-LF, Jose Abreu-1B, Todd Frazier-3B, Avisail Garcia-RF, Matt Davidson-DH, Omar Narvaez-C, Tyler Saladino-2B, Peter Bourjos-CF
Projected Rotation: Jose Quintana, Miguel Gonzalez, Derek Holland, James Shields, Carlos Rodon
Closer: David Robertson
Projected Record: 70-92

I've got Cleveland returning to the playoffs as a wild card team, but I still think this is Kansas City's division to win.  That's going to be a great battle to watch all season, though.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Baseball Preview (AL East)

Without a doubt, that was the best World Baseball Classic ever.  And I'm not just saying that because the United States won.  The entire tournament was incredible.  The passion of the players and the fans gave games an October-like feel and an intensity you just don't see in March.  The WBC will always have its critics, but I think this year's event proved that when done right, it's a great thing.

It also guaranteed that the World Baseball Classic isn't going anywhere, so the haters just need to get used to it.  I think it's also safe to say that more players are going to buy-in next time and the Team USA that tries to defend its title in 2021 will likely be even stronger than this year's champions.

I'm still going to be riding this high for the next couple of days, so you were probably expecting some sort of Best of the WBC post, but we're just 10 days away from the start of the regular season.  That means it's time to start my annual six-part season preview.  And it'll start where it normally does.  In the division I know best.  The AL East.

1. Boston Red Sox: The addition of Chris Sale made the Red Sox even bigger favorites in this division than they were going to be.  Except...David Price will miss the start of the season and is out for who knows how long?  And you'd also have to figure Rick Porcello will come back down to Earth after his Cy Young-winning 2016.  I also think Sale won't dominate the AL East teams as much as he did in Chicago now that they're going to see him over and over again.  Regardless, he's still the best No. 3 starter out there.  I'm curious to see what their offense is going to look like without David Ortiz.  Although, Pablo Sandoval returns after missing all of last season due to injury and he's roughly the same size as Big Papi, so I guess it's a wash there.  They still have Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez, as well as a lot of really good young guys.  Even if there's a sophomore slump or two, they've got enough movable parts to figure their way around it.  As I see it now, either Mitch Moreland or the Panda is going to be the odd man out, assuming Brock Holt plays third.
Projected Lineup: Mookie Betts-RF, Jackie Bradley Jr.-CF, Dustin Pedroia-2B, Hanley Ramirez-DH, Xander Bogaerts-SS, Mitch Moreland-1B, Andrew Benintendi-LF, Brock Holt-3B, Sandy Leon-C
Projected Rotation: Rick Porcello, David Price (DL), Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright
Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Projected Record: 91-71

2. Toronto Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman, who shouldn't have been the MVP of the WBC, but that's a conversation for another day, thinks the Blue Jays have the best rotation in baseball.  They don't.  They don't even have the best rotation in the AL East.  And after two years of going all in and having it pay off, Toronto will probably come back to the pack a little bit this season.  The Blue Jays still have enough to make a playoff run, though, and I see them staying in the wild card hunt.  They need to stay healthy, though, because they're nowhere near as deep as they used to be.  Re-signing Jose Bautista was big, although there wasn't really a market for him, so they kinda overpaid to keep him even though no one else wanted him.  Losing both Bautista and Encarnacion would've been a really big blow to a lineup that loves hitting home runs.  They replaced Encarnacion with Kendrys Morales, which is a massive downgrade overall, but he'll still give them the home run power that they lost in Encarnacion.  Most of their core group other than Encarnacion is back, so they're going to hit tons of homers and score plenty of runs again.  The pitching's not as good as Stroman thinks, but it doesn't need to be.  As long as the starters do an adequate job, the Blue Jays will be in the hunt for the wild card, and they've got a shot at the division if the Red Sox falter.
Projected Lineup: Melvin Upton Jr.-LF, Troy Tulowitzki-SS, Josh Donaldson-3B, Jose Bautista-RF, Kendrys Morales-DH, Russell Martin-C, Justin Smoak-1B, Kevin Pillar-CF, Devon Travis-2B
Projected Rotation: Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Francisco Liriano
Closer: Roberto Osuna
Projected Record: 87-75

3. New York Yankees: When the Yankees sold off their stars last season, it was to spark a youth movement spearheaded by Gary Sanchez.  Most people predict that the purge will pave the way to the next Yankees dynasty, perhaps as early as next year.  As a result, the expectations aren't high this season.  Which puts Joe Girardi in a very interesting position.  Because if they don't make (or at least contend for) the playoffs, he likely won't be around to see next year.  The Yankees have played a grand total of one playoff game in the last four years, and one playoff game in five years doesn't exactly look good on a manager who's expected to win every year.  While I think it's a reach to say they're going to challenge for the division title, I can definitely see this team hanging around the wild card race.  It really depends on how good Sanchez, Judge and Bird really are (and if they can handle the labors of a full Major League season).  Let's not forget, the veterans on this team are pretty good, too, although Didi Gregorius is probably out until May with that shoulder injury he suffered in the WBC.  There's been some clamoring to have Gleybar Torres start on Opening Day in his place, but I completely agree with the decision to start him at Double-A.  But if Chase Headley struggles, we could see Torres playing third base in the Bronx later this season.  Torres was the big prize in the Aroldis Chapman.  After the Cubs borrowed him for a couple months and got a World Series title out of it, Chapman is back in the Bronx, keeping the bullpen as much of a weapon as it was last year.  With Chapman back, Dellin Betances can move back to the eighth inning, where he's clearly more comfortable.  With a bullpen this good, all they need is six innings out of the starter.  And this rotation, while it doesn't have any front-line guys other than Masahiro Tanaka, is definitely capable of doing that.
Projected Lineup: Jacoby Ellsbury-CF, Brett Gardner-LF, Gary Sanchez-C, Matt Holliday-DH, Greg Bird-1B, Starlin Castro-2B, Chase Headley-3B, Aaron Judge-RF, Ruben Tejada-SS (Didi Gregorius)
Projected Rotation: Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Chad Green
Closer: Aroldis Chapman
Projected Record: 85-77

4. Baltimore Orioles: Adam Jones should've been the MVP of the World Baseball Classic.  I don't know what tournament the voters were watching, but he was clearly the guy who made the biggest difference for Team USA.  And his catch wasn't just the play of the tournament, it was the turning point.  Speaking of the catch.  Who did he rob of a home run?  None other than teammate Manny Machado, who tipped his cap as he came off the field.  Jonathan Schoop was also in the WBC with the Netherlands, and Baltimore's home run or strikeout duo of Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo is also back in the middle of the lineup.  This year they've even moved Trumbo to his natural position of DH after the adventure of putting him in the outfield for most of last season.  The question with Baltimore is always whether or not they'll have enough pitching to contend.  It becomes even more of a question now that Chris Tillman is going to miss the start of the season.  They've got a really good bullpen with Brad Brach, Darren O'Day and lights-out closer Zach Britton, though.  Kinda like the Yankees, the Orioles really only need their starter to give them six.  And they're going to score plenty of runs (they'll also have plety of games where they score 1 or 2).  As a result, the AL East will likely be a four-team race once again this year.
Projected Lineup: Hyun Soo Kim-LF, Manny Machado-3B, Adam Jones-CF, Chris Davis-1B, Mark Trumbo-DH, JJ Hardy-SS, Jonathan Schoop-2B, Seth Smith-RF, Welington Castillo-C
Projected Rotation: Chris Tillman (DL), Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley
Closer: Zach Britton
Projected Record: 81-81

5. Tampa Bay Rays: Poor Tampa Bay.  They've regressed back to their Devil Rays days.  It's not that bleak, but you get the picture.  The rest of the AL East has simply gone back to as good as it used to be, and they've all got more resources than the Rays, which makes it hard for Tampa Bay to keep up.  Nevertheless, they made the smart decision to lock in some of their core guys   Problem is they don't have enough of them.  Even still, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi are a very good 1-2 at the top of the rotation, and Alex Colome is a worthwhile closer.  Archer and Odorizzi can't pitch every game, though.  And the Tampa Bay lineup is certainly nothing to write home about.  It's Even Longoria, Kevin Kiermaier and a bunch of guys who wouldn't be starters on any other team.  Regardless, the Rays are probably going to have a say in who wins the AL East.  They're going to end up with a winning record against one of them.  And that could be enough to cost someone the division title or a wild card.
Projected Lineup: Kevin Kiermaier-CF, Colby Rasmus-LF, Evan Longoria-3B, Logan Morrison-1B, Corey Dickerson-DH, Brad Miller-2B, Steven Souza Jr.-RF, Matt Duffy-SS, Luke Maile-C
Projected Rotation: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Blake Snell, Matt Andriese
Closer: Alex Colome
Projected Record: 68-94

Simply put, Boston is the best team in the AL East.  But the Red Sox will need everything to go right in order to win the division again.  Because they're not so much better than everyone else that they'll just be able to run away with it.  In fact, the Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles are all capable of challenging for the division crown.  The combination of pitching and hitting make the Red Sox the clear favorites in the AL East, though.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Privileged and Spoiled

My original plan for today was to do Part I of the baseball preview.  But there was a piece of news that kept scrolling on ESPN over and over that simply bothered me too much to let it go.  It's the quote from LeBron James saying that certain players "need rest" and that it was a coach's job to "win a championship, not win a game."  He also said that the NBA "can't do anything about it."

Well, LeBron, I know a lot of people (yourself included) think you walk on water.  But you don't come off well here.  I've never played in the NBA and I never will, so I can't speak to the grind of an NBA season.  Those comments, though, illustrate the biggest problem with the NBA today.  The let the players run the show.  And in this case, the players come off as privileged and spoiled.  This isn't Allen Iverson ranting about practice ("We're talking about practice!") either.  This is guys sitting out games because they "need to rest."  Gimme a break!

Resting starters is nothing new.  Starting goalies rarely play the second game of back-to-backs in the NHL, baseball teams will either give guys the day off or DH them in a day game following a night game, and football teams that are locked into playoff positions commonly sit starters in Week 17.  You even see it in soccer.  European teams rarely play their starters in the weekend game before a midweek Champions League contest.  The difference here, though, is that (with the possible exception of the soccer teams) those starters who are sitting are still technically available.  In the NBA, when teams rest starters, that means they're not playing at all.  They might as well not even suit up.

That I think is why the NBA is so upset with the Cavs.  They played a nationally-televised game against the Clippers the other night, with LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all sitting out.  A nationally televised game.  And the defending champions decide that the game isn't important enough for three starters to play in it.  Talk about an insult to the league.  And the fans.

Unfortunately, this happens way too frequently in the NBA.  How many times last season did you see something about the Warriors weighing resting their players against going for the wins record?  Likewise, the Spurs sit their entire starting lineup at once how many times a season?

It's magnified so much more in the NBA because that's such a star-driven league compared to the other three.  Sure, an A's-Twins game in September can resemble Spring Training and NFL preseason games are complete wastes of time, but hockey is a much more physically-demanding sport than basketball and, other than goalies, are their stars ever given a night off to "rest?"  Imagine going to a Blackhawks game and they decided to play without Kane, Toews and Keith all on the same night.  What would be the point in even going to the game?

To me, that's the biggest issue here.  NBA teams don't just sit their best players to "rest" them, they announce ahead of time that they aren't playing.  Even worse, they sit the all in the same game!  If you're a fan and you're buying tickets, especially if it's a road game for a team you want to see (potentially only once), you have every reason to be angry about that.  It's an insult to the fans to essentially tell them "this game isn't important enough to use our starters."  If I was one of those fans, I'd demand my money back, even if I still went to the game.

Only teams that are comfortably in playoff position sit their stars out to "rest" them.  But, just for a second, imagine if they were a borderline playoff team and they ended up missing the playoffs by one game (or it affected a seed) because they "rested" their best players and lost to a team they had no business losing to.  Even worse, how do you think the team that misses the playoffs by one game because the Cavs or Warriors decided to sit players against a borderline playoff team, and that was the game that ended up putting the other team in the playoffs feels in that situation?  (I know what you're thinking--that's not Cleveland's problem.  And it's not.  But that's not really much consolation to the team on the short end of that scenario.)

I'm not the only one who was rubbed the wrong way by LeBron's comments.  Karl Malone, who never took a game off during his Hall of Fame career, shot right back at him.  He informed LeBron that his "work" is playing a game.  There are plenty of people risking their lives for our country that don't get the option of taking a day off...and they aren't paid anywhere near as handsomely as professional basketball players.  The Mailman even threw out his own suggestion...only players with at least 10 years of experience can sit out to "rest."

He might be on to something, except I'd take it a little bit farther.  Unless there's an injury or suspension, you're only allowed to sit a maximum two of your regular starters in any given game.  How "regular" is defined could be open to interpretation, so let's just use who started the last game as the definition to start with.

And if a guy is "out" for "rest," he's not in uniform.  If he's not going to play, he shouldn't be in uniform.  (Besides, isn't it an NBA rule that you need to have a minimum number of players available?)  Or, you simply don't declare ahead of time that certain guys aren't playing (I don't know why you would want to for scouting purposes anyway).

As for LeBron's opinion that "there's nothing the NBA can do about it," I'd have to say he's wrong again here.  That's why a very upset NBA called the Cavs' GM and started this whole firestorm.  My guess is fines for the first offense, with the penalty scale increasing from there, leading to coaches being suspended without pay for a game.  They need some sort of deterrent, and that's the best one I can think of, seeing as the union would never sign off on any form of punishment for the players.

There's 82 games in an NBA season.  Throwing in the preseason and playoffs, that total gets over 100.  That can be a lot on the body.  I get it.  That's why they've built extra off days into the All-Star Break and, starting next season, will be starting a week earlier to give the players an extra week off during the season.  All of that's being done at the request of the Players' Union.  The least they can do in return is actually show up for all 82 games.  They owe it to the fans.  You know, the people responsible for their ridiculous salaries.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Big East Is Back

It's been four years since the breakup of the Big East, which has been enough time for us to gauge the success of the split.  There have been definite winners and losers, but one thing is for sure.  The Big East has absolutely maintained its status as one of the premier conferences in college basketball.

The most obvious winner here has been Villanova.  Since the split, they've won four straight Big East regular season titles and won the tournament twice (after winning one title in the first 34 years of the conference's existence).  Oh yeah, and they won the National Championship last year, and they're the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament.  So, yeah, I'd say remaining in the Big East has worked out pretty well for the Wildcats.

In fact, it's worked out well for the likes of Seton Hall and Providence, too.  Those two were overwhelmed in the supersized old Big East to the point where they were barely competitive.  But since everybody else left the conference, Seton Hall and Providence have both won a Big East Tournament title (their first since 1993 and 1994, respectively), and they're back to being NCAA Tournament regulars.  So, I'm sure if you were to ask the higher-ups at Seton Hall and Providence, they don't mind the fact that the Big East is back to being a smaller league.

All three of them hadn't won the Big East since the mid-90s (their last wins were three in a row, one each, from 1993-95).  Now, the three original Big East members (Villanova technically isn't an original member, but they joined in the Big East's second year, so they count) have kept the trophy "in the family" so to speak.  I'm sure we'll eventually see one of the newer members win the Big East Tournament at some point, but as someone who fondly remembers the old Big East, it's nice to still see those traditional teams winning (at least for now).

A lot of "experts" predicted that the Big East would never again approach the level of NCAA at-large bids it did when it was a 16-team superconference.  While it's impossible to reach the record 11 that the old Big East set in 2011.  We're not likely to see three Final Four teams or three No. 1 seeds coming from this version of the Big East, either.  But the people who saw the split as the beginning of the end of the Big East were sorely mistaken.  This year, there are seven Big East teams in the NCAA Tournament, second-most of any conference, and the Big East has put at least four teams in the Tournament every year since the split.

Meanwhile, the American, the other child of the old Big East is still trying to find its footing as a basketball league.  Yes, UConn won the National title in that league's first season.  But the Huskies were a seven-seed that year, and the American hasn't so much as had a team in the second week of the Tournament since then.  In fact, this is the second time in three years that the conference is being represented in the NCAA Tournament by just SMU and Cincinnati.  (And, the comparison isn't exactly fair, but one of the reasons the UConn women have never lost a conference game in the American is because they have literally NO competition.)

There's no question which league came out on top, at least on the basketball side of the split.  And you've got to feel for UConn and Cincinnati.  They're the two marquee schools in The American, yet they'd both prefer to be in any league but.  UConn desperately wants to join the ACC (and still might if they decide to add a 16th team), while Cincinnati is willing to jump to any major conference that will have them.  If one or either were to leave, that would be a major blow to The American, and further push the Big East ahead.

UConn and Cincinnati aren't the only former Big East schools that came up losers in this situation.  It hasn't exactly been roses for Syracuse and Pitt, the two that started all of this by joining the ACC.  Or Rutgers, which sucked in the Big East and is even worse in the Big Ten.  Rutgers has no business being in the Big Ten.  Everybody knows that.  But the Big Ten wanted a "New York" school, so Rutgers jumped at the opportunity.  You can't really blame them, but their athletic aspirations have, for the most part, been a colossal failure, and the school is hemorrhaging money.  And New Jersey taxpayers are not happy about it.

Back to Syracuse and Pitt, though.  They've suddenly found themselves in the same situation in the ACC that Seton Hall and Providence used to be in during those final years of the old Big East.  Syracuse, in particular, was always one of the marquee programs in the Big East.  In the ACC, though, they're just another middle-of-the-road team.  They went from being one of the best teams in the Big East and an almost guaranteed Tournament bid every year to one that's lucky to finish in the top half of the ACC.  Syracuse has missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three years and shouldn't have gotten in last year.  Yes, they made the Final Four.  That doesn't change the fact they didn't belong in the field.

Pitt's in even worse shape than Syracuse.  Not only are they a mid- to bottom-level team in the ACC, they don't have the brand name to make them automatically relevant the way Syracuse does.  I really think they're in danger of turning into another Boston College.  BC saw nothing but dollar signs when they joined the ACC 10 years ago, but look at them now.  They're irrelevant in both football and basketball, which really is hard to do.

Notre Dame and Louisville, meanwhile, made the Big East-to-ACC transition without missing a beat.  Notre Dame has arguably become a better basketball program since joining the ACC, while Louisville, after dominating the final years of the old Big East, has found a similar level of success in the ACC.  Louisville's football program definitely benefited from the move, too, so of all the former Big East teams now in the ACC, they're absolutely the ones who've performed the best since switching conferences.

Of course, the argument could be made that the new ACC is more competitive than the old Big East ever was.  That may be true, but it further illustrates my point.  In the ACC, Duke and North Carolina will always be top dogs.  Syracuse is just another team.  In the old Big East, though, Syracuse was one of those top dogs.  There were plenty of other rea$on$ for their move, but I don't see that changing anytime soon.

I'm sure the 10 remaining Big East teams don't miss Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers, though.  They're perfectly happy being in the Big East as it is.  The conference will never be what it was.  But the Big East is still relevant come March.  And that's not going to change.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hockey's Playoff Problem

For a bunch of smart guys, NHL owners sure make a bunch of boneheaded decisions.  They're still noncommittal on the PyeongChang Olympics, even though the owners are literally the only people who don't want NHL players there.  Today, IIHF President Rene Fasel finally went far enough to say that if they don't go to Korea, going to Beijing in 2022 might not be an option.  That was a point that finally had to be made.

Anyway, I'm not dedicating yet another post to that topic.  Especially since I've made my thoughts pretty clear.  What I do want to talk about is another glaring problem that the NHL created itself and can easily fix.  Which it needs to do sooner rather than later.  Mainly, the asinine fact that the two best teams (and the two best players) in the league--Washington and Pittsburgh--will meet in the second round of the playoffs!  For the second straight year!

The New York Rangers are the sixth-best team in the league, yet they're looking at being on the road for game one in every round of the playoffs.  Why?  Because, while they have the sixth-best record in the entire league, they're in fourth place in their own division.  And since NHL brass are stuck in the 1980s, the playoffs are division-based.  Which is just stupid.

If you think about it, the Rangers are better off finishing fourth than finishing third.  Finishing third in the Metro means you have to beat both Pittsburgh and Washington just to get to the conference finals.  Meanwhile, finishing fourth and being the No. 1 wild card team means you get to "flip" divisions and play the first-place team in the Atlantic (currently Montreal), followed by another Atlantic Division team.  You'll only have to play one of the big two, and that won't be until the Conference Final.  So, which would you rather be--the fourth-place Rangers (first round opponent: Montreal) or the third-place Blue Jackets (first round opponent: Pittsburgh)?

Let's look at it another way.  Montreal has the fifth-most points in the Eastern Conference, yet, if the Canadiens win their division, they'll be guaranteed home ice advantage in each of the first two rounds.  Meanwhile, Columbus has the third-best record in the East and likely won't have home ice advantage at all.  Or, to break it down even further, either the team with the second- or third-best record is guaranteed to be eliminated in the first round.  But either Ottawa or Boston (currently sixth and seventh in the East) will be guaranteed to advance.  Am I the only one who thinks that makes no sense?

What makes even less sense is that the NHL is doing absolutely nothing to keep its two biggest stars playing as long as possible.  Just imagine for a second Ovechkin vs. Crosby in a seven-game series, with the winner playing for the Cup.  Sure, there's no guarantee that would happen.  But under the current format, what is guaranteed is that it can't.  Only Crosby OR Ovechkin can play in the Eastern Conference Final.  Not both.  But don't worry, you might get to see one of them against Ottawa!

You also aren't even guaranteeing that the eight best teams in a given conference will make the playoffs.  While this doesn't seem likely, it's certainly possible, especially since the Met is a much stronger division than the Atlantic at the moment.  Yet the third-place team in the Atlantic is guaranteed a playoff spot, regardless of how many points they finish with.  Meanwhile, the sixth-place team in the Met (which, while unlikely, could theoretically have the sixth-most points in the East) will definitely be left out in the cold.

They went to this format after the Winnipeg realignment and modeled it after the strictly division-based playoff system that was in place for about 15 years in the 1980s and 90s.  The league and the owners reasoned that it would reduce travel, create rivalries and lead to memorable series like some of those ones in the 80s.  Except there was one big factor they forgot to consider.  In the 1980s, there were only 21-24 teams in the league, with 16 of them making the playoffs.  Since virtually everyone made it, the division-based structure made sense.  With all the expansion over the last 20 years, though, now it's only a little over half the league that makes the playoffs.  That's a big difference.

This system is already a little bit of a compromise.  The NHL originally wanted to go just straight top four teams in each division with no crossover, only coming up with the idea of wild cards after the players pushed back.  Well, the players think this method is stupid, too, so maybe it's time for them to push back again.  Especially because the solution is so simple.

Really, all they need to do is go back to the conference-based system that worked fine from 1994-2013.  I'm fine with division winners getting the top two seeds.  But after that, teams are seeded based on their regular season record.  Not where they finished in the final standings.  It would also guarantee that, since the second-best team couldn't be seeded lower than third overall, the two best teams in a conference can't meet until the conference finals.  And, do what you did in the past and reseed after the first round.  That way, Washington would be guaranteed to face the "worst" team in each round, instead of having to beat Pittsburgh just to get to the conference finals.

With Vegas set to join the league next season, that seems like the perfect time to change the playoff format back to what it should be.  Because the current one is incredibly stupid.  Everyone thinks so except the owners.  Which means we're probably stuck with it for a while.