Thursday, November 26, 2015

2015 Football Picks, Week 12

It's Thanksgiving, which means it's time for the usual early helping of football picks.  This is the one week each season where I include the Thursday games in my picks.  Why?  Well, the reason is quite simple, really.  Usually, there's only one game on Thursday.  On Thanksgiving, there are three.

Although, for the second straight season, Thanksgiving is an exclusively NFC holiday.  I'm not sure what the AFC teams did to piss the NFL off, but it wasn't fair last year that all six teams in action on Thanksgiving were NFC squads, and it's not any fairer this year.  Sure, we've got Patriots-Broncos in the marquee game on Sunday night, but the Patriots played in Dallas this year, and it's the Cowboys' year for the CBS Thanksgiving game.  That couldn't be against New England why exactly?  (And with the Lions hosting the Jaguars and Titans next year, it looks like we'll run into the same situation in 2016.)

Anyway, that's a tangent for another day.  I'm thankful that we're done with bye weeks, which makes figuring out playoff scenarios a whole lot easier.  And I'm thankful that the NFL is giving us a full helping of three good Thanksgiving Day matchups, even if it is three NFC games, capped by Brett Favre's jersey retirement in Green Bay.  

Eagles (4-6) at Lions (3-7): Philadelphia-Detroit has been a different team in the two weeks since their bye.  The rematch with the Packers comes next week in the rare consecutive Thursdays schedule, but first they play the Eagles on Thanksgiving.  Philadelphia is just three days removed from getting shellacked at home by the Bucs.  But for some reason, even though I know it's probably stupid, I think they'll recover and win in Detroit.

Panthers (10-0) at Cowboys (3-7): Carolina-Have you seen the uniforms the NFL is subjecting America to in this one?  NFL, please stop trying to blind America!  Anyway, how come people are only talking about the Patriots?  The Panthers are also undefeated and, frankly, I think they're a better team than New England.  Dallas is undefeated in games started by Tony Romo.  Until now.  A lot of people thought this might be the one Carolina finally drops, but I think the Panthers make it 11 straight to start the season.

Bears (4-6) at Packers (7-3): Green Bay-The NFL moved the Packers' traditional Thanksgiving date in Detroit back a week so that they can have the primetime showcase for Favre's retirement ceremony.  And do you really think they're gonna lose, to their archrivals, on the day Brett Favre makes his return to Lambeau?

Vikings (7-3) at Falcons (6-4): Atlanta-This is an important matchup between the NFC's wild card leaders.  The winner moves into the driver's seat for the No. 5 seed, which means a game against the NFC East champion instead of at Green Bay or Arizona.  Of course, Minnesota still has its sights set on a division title, while the Falcons need this one if they have any hope of keeping pace with the Panthers.  Atlanta's also reeling, so they need this one to just stay in playoff position.  They flip-flop places after the Falcons win.

Rams (4-6) at Bengals (8-2): Cincinnati-Back to regular old Sunday afternoon for the Bengals, which is a good thing.  Because after an 8-0 start, they've dropped two straight in primetime.  Of course, St. Louis isn't the caliber of division-leading Houston or Arizona, either.  Which is why I think the Bengals get back on track.

Raiders (4-6) at Titans (2-8): Oakland-Here we go again.  The Raiders are favored in an early game.  This time it's in Nashville against a Titans team that we've come to find out is actually pretty bad.  It all looked so encouraging after that season-opening win.  Little did we know, that would be the high point in another lost season.  So, yeah, it should be pretty obvious I'm going with the Raiders here.

Buccaneers (5-5) at Colts (5-5): Indianapolis-Speaking of the Bucs-Titans season opener, who would've figured it would be Tampa Bay that would end up flirting with playoff position with six games to go?  But that's exactly how they enter the Dungy Bowl.  The Colts, meanwhile, have finally picked up some wins against teams that aren't in their own division.  They get their third this week and finally move above .500 for the season.

Bills (5-5) at Chiefs (5-5): Kansas City-What happened to the final two seconds of the Bills game on Monday night?  Yep, still a little peeved about that.  And it resulted in Buffalo dropping into a four-way tie for the second AFC wild card.  Two of the teams they're tied with are Kansas City and Houston, who just happen to be their next two opponents.  We'll see what Rex's team is made of and whether or not they can end the NFL's longest active playoff drought.  Unfortunately for them, Kansas City might just be the hottest team in football not based in Foxboro or Charlotte.

Dolphins (4-6) at Jets (5-5): Jets-Since beating the Dolphins in London to go to 3-1, the Jets are just 2-4.  Miami, meanwhile, is 3-3 since then.  If the Dolphins win, they actually have a chance of being relevant in the playoff conversation over the season's final month.  This is a game the Jets need to win badly.  And they know it.  Otherwise, they become a last-place team.

Giants (5-5) at Redskins (4-6): Giants-I hate in when the NFL schedules the Giants and Jets at the same time, then doesn't move one of the games.  It really doesn't matter that much to me, though, since I'm working during the early games on Sunday.  The Redskins are the only team in the NFC East the Giants seem capable of beating at the moment.  If they want to maintain their division lead, they'd better do it again.

Chargers (2-8) at Jaguars (4-6): Jacksonville-Remember all that stuff I said about Tennessee and Tampa Bay?  Same goes for San Diego and Jacksonville.  Who ever would've thought the Jaguars, the JAGUARS!, would be on a two-game winning streak and the winners of three of their last four?  Or that San Diego would be 2-8 after 10 games?  This is normally the time of the year when you start wondering how high the Jaguars will pick.  Not if they can actually stay within one game of the division lead.

Saints (4-6) at Texans (5-5): Houston-New Orleans did the inevitable during its bye week and fired Rob Ryan.  It had to be done.  That defense was becoming so easy to score on they might as well have been an FCS team in the second half of Ohio State's homecoming game.  Things don't get any easier against a Texans team that's 4-1 since starting 1-4, including big wins over Cincinnati and the Jets in their last two games.  With Buffalo, New England, Indy coming up, Houston really can't afford a slip up in this one.

Cardinals (8-2) at 49ers (3-7): Arizona-In news that shocks absolutely nobody, Arizona's really good.  Of course, the Cardinals were 9-1 last year at this point and they proceeded to lose four of their last six, then a playoff game at Carolina, but this season seems different.  At the very least, they should pick up a victory in San Francisco against a bad 49ers team with a backup quarterback no problem.

Steelers (6-4) at Seahawks (5-5): Seattle-Seattle's in very unfamiliar territory.  They haven't been below .500 this late in the season in a while.  But that's exactly the position they'll find themselves in if they fall to the Steelers, who lead the AFC wild card race and are still within striking distance of the Bengals in the North.  Tough call here.   The Seahawks aren't anywhere near as unbeatable at home as they used to be.  But Seattle's still a tough place to play, and the Steelers don't travel to the Pacific Northwest very often.  In the Super Bowl's 50th anniversary season, this one of the Super Bowl rematches.  They met 10 years ago in the last NFL game broadcast by ABC before NBC got Sunday Night Football and the Monday night game moved to ESPN the next season.

Patriots (10-0) at Broncos (8-2): Denver-Instead of Manning-Brady XVII, we get Brady-Osweiler I on Sunday night in Denver.  When are the Patriots finally going to lose?  The Giants and Bills had the perfect game plans in each of the last two weeks, but New England keeps finding a way.  Eventually, someone's gonna have the perfect game plan AND execute it.  If Manning was playing, Brady would certainly have the edge.  But Brock Osweiler is the X-factor.  No element of surprise seeing as he played last week, but it'll definitely be a different look for the Patriots to deal with.  Call me crazy, but I've got a hunch Denver pulls it out.  If they don't, you might as well start making your plans for another AFC Championship Game in Foxboro.

Ravens (3-7) at Browns (2-8): Baltimore-Since Thursday's Thanksgiving, the NFL is sparing us a crappy Thursday night game.  So we get a crappy Monday night game instead.  At least they found some way to make it interesting by having Cleveland be forced into naming Johnny Overrated the starter by the owner before Johnny Immature showed up during the bye week and turned himself into Johnny Benched.  The Ravens leave home for the first time in a month by visiting their former home (does that still count as their "former" home now that they've been in Baltimore for 20 years?).  They won in Pittsburgh on a Thursday night.  Now they'll get a win in Cleveland on a Monday night to go with it.

Bonus Game: GREY CUP-Ottawa RedBlacks vs. Edmonton Eskimos: Edmonton-You want a remarkable story, how about the Ottawa RedBlacks?  The CFL was absent from the capital for 10 years before the RedBlacks finally brought Ottawa back to the league last season.  Now, in just their second year, they're playing for the Grey Cup against Edmonton, the most successful team in CFL history.  Great story, but the RedBlacks' run won't end with a championship.  The Western Division was stronger all year, and Edmonton's the better team.

Last Week: 9-5
Season: 100-60

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Legend's Final Ride

When you think about whose faces would appear on NASCAR's Mount Rushmore, it's difficult to come up with a fourth.  Sure, you could make an argument for founder Bill France or someone like Junior Johnson (or even Jimmie Johnson, who could rewrite all of the NASCAR records by the time he's done), but really, it's more of a Holy Trinity. 

Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon are NASCAR's version of Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.  And that means we've officially reached the end of an era.  With Gordon's retirement, next year's Daytona 500 will be the first Cup race in God knows how long without one of the sport's three giants.  Sure, there are plenty of active drivers who are stars in their own right, but none are legends.  There will definitely be a void.  Jeff Gordon's absence will be noticed...and it will be felt.  That's the impact he's had.  And not just on NASCAR, either.  On the entire sports landscape.

Love him or hate him, you can't deny that Jeff Gordon is one of the most important figures in NASCAR history.  He was the transcendent star.  The good-looking guy from Indiana who broke into a sport that was previously the exclusive domain of Southern good ol' boys.  That's probably what brought about some of the resentment towards Gordon, but he was also exactly what NASCAR needed. 

At a time when NASCAR was trying to find a place in the ever-expanding world of televised sports, Jeff Gordon showed up and gave them a marketable star who would be known as more than just a racecar driver.  Everyone knew Jeff Gordon.  He was either their favorite driver or the driver they loved to hate.  Either way, they were either going to races or watching them to see him.  It's because of Jeff Gordon that NASCAR became big time.  It's because of Jeff Gordon that so many casual observers turned into bona fide NASCAR fans.

There's no debate about Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt's place in the NASCAR pantheon.  They were among the charter members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame for a reason.  Petty was the sport's first legend.  The all-time leader in wins, he won the last of his record seven Winston Cup titles in 1979.  That year, Dale Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year honors, before winning the first of his seven championships in 1980.  Earnhardt's final Cup Series title was in 1994.  Jeff Gordon won three of the next four.  (Fun fact, the only race in NASCAR history to feature all three was the 1992 Hooters 500, which was Petty's last start and Gordon's first.)

Earnhardt's career intersected the end of Petty's and the beginning of Gordon's (and on that one memorable day, all three crossed over), but that doesn't do anything to dim the star of any of them.  Just like the fact that Jeff Gordon didn't win a championship over the final 14 years of his career does nothing to diminish his accomplishments (it's kinda crazy to think that Gordon's last Sprint Cup title came in 2001, the year Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500).  Because Jeff Gordon's career is about so much more than what he did on the track.

Gordon announced prior to the start of the year that 2015 would be his final campaign.  And with that he became the sentimental favorite to even all of those who had been Jeff Gordon haters throughout his career.  How well he did almost didn't matter.  The 2015 season was Jeff Gordon's way to say goodbye to the fans, and the fans' chance to say "thank you" to Jeff Gordon.

Then it became about something else.  Despite not having any wins, he had enough points after 26 races to qualify for the Chase in his final season.  He still had enough points to survive the cut from 16 to 12, then again from 12 to 8.  Suddenly, when he won at Martinsville, Gordon was guaranteed a shot at the championship in his final race.  And he celebrated the win, which was his 93rd, as if it was his first, knowing that it would likely be his last.

As it turns out, there was no storybook finish.  Gordon was a very respectable sixth at Miami, but he was behind Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, two of the other four drivers still eligible for the championship.  Even still, if you'd said prior to the season that Jeff Gordon would finish third in the final driver standings, nobody would've believed you.  But just like John Elway and Derek Jeter and so many others, the legends have a knack for going out in style.

This isn't the last we'll ever see of Jeff Gordon.  Not by a long shot.  He's already signed on to be a race commentator for FOX next season, and he's still one of the more marketable personalities in sports.  (Who else can see him pulling a Michael Strahan?)  It's also a pretty safe bet that he'll be a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

But things won't be the same, either.  Come February and Daytona, Jeff Gordon will be retired and someone else will be driving the 24.  One by one, the stars I grew up rooting for are riding off into the sunset (or, in Gordon's case, driving off into the sunset).  Jeff Gordon's just the latest to hang it up. 

He went out on his own terms.  And he leaves his sport in a better place than when he started.  A lot of that is due to him, for which the entire NASCAR universe owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 Football Picks, Week 11

Last week wasn't a good one.  On so many levels.  First, there were the uniforms in the Bills-Jets game.  Then there was upset after upset (or expected upset no panning out) to the tune of a 3-11 record.  Then there was another solid effort by Team Joe Brackets, highlighted Peyton Manning scoring NEGATIVE points, in a lost season that could result in some management changes at the end of the year.

So we move on to Week 11, which isn't off to the best of starts.  Although, you can write that one off, seeing as the Jaguars and Titans are equally bad and neither team deserves to be on national television, let alone playing each other on national television.

Thursday Night: Tennessee (Loss)

Colts (4-5) at Falcons (6-3): Atlanta-"First-place" Indianapolis finally got its first win over a team outside the AFC South by beating the Broncos.  Now they need another one to avoid actually being tied with Jacksonville.  The Falcons need a win, too.  They've lost three out of four since starting 5-0 and, with the way the Panthers are going, are playing for a wild card.  But they're coming off a needed break, which I think will be a big difference.  I'll take Atlanta.

Broncos (7-2) at Bears (4-5): Chicago-Denver has lost two in a row, and we found out why on Monday.  Now Peyton is out with his bad foot and Brock Osweiler will make his first NFL start in the Broncos' reunion with former coach John Fox, who has the Bears playing some pretty good football.  They've won two straight, and I think they make it three heading into that Thanksgiving night showdown at Lambeau.  I just can't in good faith take Denver on the road with Osweiler at quarterback.

Raiders (4-5) at Lions (2-7): Detroit-This is a tough one.  Ever since Mrs. Ford said she was going to fire everybody, the Lions turned into a brand new team, as evidence by their first win in Green Bay since 1991 last week.  The Raiders are no longer a laughingstock, but I still don't think they're good enough to go into a 1:00 road game and be expected to win...even if it is against the Lions.

Cowboys (2-7) at Dolphins (4-5): Dallas-Tony Romo returns this week.  That's the best thing Cowboys fans have heard in two months.  They went 0-7 without him, so, yeah, it's significant that he's back.  It's probably not enough to save their season, but the difference will be seen immediately.  Starting with a win over a Dolphins team that's been much improved since they left Joe Philbin in London.

Buccaneers (4-5) at Eagles (4-5): Philadelphia-Speaking of teams that are much improved, how about Lovie Smith and the Bucs?  The crazy thing is they play better on the road.  They've already got wins in New Orleans and Atlanta.  Now they head to Philly where the Eagles have a chance to move into a tie for first place.  Losing to the Dolphins was a punch in the gut, but now that they know they'll have Mark Sanchez under center, that should wear off the shock value.  I think the Eagles win it before heading to Detroit for a Thanksgiving matchup with the Lions.

Redskins (4-5) at Panthers (9-0): Carolina-And then there were two.  The Bengals choked on Monday night yet again, leaving just the Panthers and Patriots as the NFL's lone undefeated teams.  Carolina's already got a two-game lead for home field, and they should be able to continue the best start in franchise history at home against Washington.  Then they head to Dallas for another franchise first--their first Thanksgiving game.

Rams (4-5) at Ravens (2-7): Baltimore-Things started off so well for St. Louis.  Then reality hit a little bit, and things have gotten so bad that they've benched Nick Foles.  At least things are going better than they are in Baltimore, where the Ravens have just two wins and are coming off a home loss to Jacksonville.  This wasn't exactly the way they envisioned their month at home going.  They should at least be able to end it with a win.

Jets (5-4) at Texans (4-5): Jets-Was Monday night a turning point for the Texans?  I think it might've been.  Houston's a better team than they've let on during the early part of the season, and Monday night proved that.  The Jets are also a better team than they showed last week.  Maybe they were blinded by the uniforms.  But they're still in the mix for a wild card, and Houston's tied for first place in the AFC South, so this is an important game for both.  The Jets are coming off a long week, the Texans off a short one.  That's why I give a slight edge to the Jets.

Chiefs (4-5) at Chargers (2-7): Kansas City-They got booted from Sunday night, so this becomes just your regular regional CBS late game.  And it's two teams headed in opposite directions.  After going 1-5 during that brutal start, the Chiefs have won three straight, including a dominating victory in Denver last week.  They're right back in the mix for the playoffs.  I don't know what's going on with the Chargers, but some changes might be in store in San Diego.  Either way, the Chiefs are currently the better team, and they get their second division road win in a row.

Packers (6-3) at Vikings (7-2): Green Bay-Were the Packers caught looking ahead?  Quite possibly.  But what I do know is that it's imperative they turn it around now.  From 6-0 a month ago, now they're looking at a wild card.  And they'll be two games back if they don't beat the resurgent Vikings in Minnesota.  I don't think it's possible for Green Bay to be any worse than they were last week.  They can't afford to be.

49ers (3-6) at Seahawks (4-5): Seattle-It wasn't too long ago that this was one of the hottest rivalries in the NFL.  Oh, how times have changed.  Now they both need a victory if they want any chance of being relevant come December.  The loss to the Cardinals was incredibly deflating for Seattle.  Fortunately, the 49ers aren't Arizona.  Believe it or not, the Seahawks haven't been above .500 all season.  They'll at least get back to that mark in this one.

Bengals (8-1) at Cardinals (7-2): Arizona-Two teams had a chance to shine in prime time last week.  One delivered.  The other didn't.  Now they meet each other in a game NBC flexed into Sunday night.  Even though the Bengals are no longer undefeated, it's still a good matchup between first-place teams.  And who would've ever figured that the Cardinals would get back-to-back Sunday night games?!  Certainly not me.  They won last week.  After they win this week, they may petition the NFL to have all their games on Sunday nights.

Bills (5-4) at Patriots (9-0): New England-Oh man, we came so close, didn't we.  The Giants did everything right (except on the final drive), and the Patriots still found a way to win.  Now they go for 10 straight against the coach that has given them all kinds of fits in the past.  They beat the Bills in Week 2, but it was 40-32 and Buffalo had a chance to tie it at the end.  But alas, New England won, just like it always does.  Why should we expect things to be any different this week?  (Although, the Patriots' last Monday night game was that blowout loss in Kansas City last season.)

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 3-11
Season: 91-56

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Harper & Donaldson: The Most Valuable of 2015

Unlike the last two days, there's very little suspense heading into Thursday's announcement of the AL and NL MVP's.  Bryce Harper was the best player in the National League this season by a wide margin.  The only question about Thursday's vote is whether or not it'll be unanimous.  Same thing in the American League.  Mike Trout will get some first-place votes because he's Mike Trout.  But his regular Troutian season pales in comparison to what Josh Donaldson did in Toronto.

When the Blue Jays traded for Donaldson last winter, it was the start of everything that culminated in a trip to the ALCS.  They put him in the 2-hole, in front of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, setting up the most fearsome 2-3-4 in all of baseball.  And because Bautista and Encarnacion were behind him, Donaldson didn't draw an intentional walk all year.  They pitched to him, and he put up ridiculous numbers.  He also played sensational defense at third base.  Donaldson was the MVP front-runner all year.  And with good reason.

Mike Trout, meanwhile, continued to prove why he's perhaps the best all-around player in baseball.  This is his fourth season, and his previous three MVP finishes were second-second-first.  Sabermetric geeks love Mike Trout and his WAR so much that he's going to be an MVP candidate from here to eternity.  And it easy to take Trout's numbers for granted.  But there also has to be a point where Mike Trout and his greatness are taken with a grain of salt, too.  Is Mike Trout the MVP simply because he did what he usually does?  This year, I'd have to say the answer is "No!"  Not only was Donaldson's season more impressive, the Blue Jays made the playoffs and the Angels didn't.  Donaldson has to get the nod.

It was awesome to see Lorenzo Cain's name come up as a "finalist," which is code for he's the guy who finished a distant third in the voting.  Last year's ALCS was his coming-out party, but boy, did Cain back it up in 2015!  He hit third for the World Series champions (yes, I know the voting is done prior to the start of the postseason) and set career-highs with a .307 average, 16 homers, 34 doubles, 72 RBIs and 101 runs scored, as Kansas City finished with the best record in the American League.  He's obviously not going to win over Donaldson, nor is he going to finish second ahead of Trout, but it's nice to see a guy like Lorenzo Cain getting some recognition.

Unless a pitcher has a truly spectacular season the way Justin Verlander did a few years ago or Clayton Kershaw did last season, he's not going to be in the MVP conversation.  And, obviously, he's not a finalist, but Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel does deserve some MVP love, too.  With 30 voters each going 10-deep, you're going to see plenty of players with AL MVP votes, especially once you get past those four.  Some of the guys I would've considered include Prince Fielder, Chris Davis, Mark Teixeira, Kendrys Morales, Albert Pujols, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Altuve, Jose Bautista, Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler.

As for my AL MVP "vote," Donaldson is a clear No. 1, with Trout a clear No. 2.  I've got Keuchel over Cain for the 3-spot, with Prince fifth.  Rounding out my 10: Chris Davis, Kendrys Morales, Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Teixeira, Manny Machado.

Over in the National League, they started engraving Bryce Harper's name on the trophy sometime in mid-August.  Bryce Harper was far-and-away the best player in baseball this season.  It wasn't even close.  Harper has his haters, but consider for a second that the guy is still just 22, and his fourth Major League season was just a glimpse of why the Nationals drafted him No. 1 overall a few years ago.  He hit .330 with 42 home runs, drove in 99, walked 124 times, and scored 118 runs.  The last player to put together a season like that at such a young age?  Try nobody!  The previous youngest was some guy named Ruth, who did it when he was 25.

The Nationals, who were christened as National League champions in Spring Training, didn't even make the playoffs.  It wasn't Bryce Harper's fault.  And you can't use the fact that Washington missed the postseason against him.  Because neither did the teams of the other two finalists--Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt and the Reds' Joey Votto.

Goldschmidt is kind of turning into a National League version of Mike Trout.  So consistently awesome--both offensively and defensively--that you almost take it for granted.  He was runner-up behind Andrew McCutchen in 2013, and I suspect he is again this season.  Joey Votto's a finalist because he had the hitter's equivalent of Jake Arrieta's second half.  It was historic.  To the tune of a .362 average, .535 on-base percentage and .617 slugging percentage after the All-Star Break.  Problem is, he did it for a Reds team that was long out of the race by that point.

Now for the elephant in the room--Yoenis Cespedes.  There were a lot of people making "Cespedes for MVP" claims for the ridiculous two months he had with the Mets.  Does Cespedes deserve to have some votes thrown his way?  Absolutely!  But it's asinine to suggest that he deserved to be considered on the same level as Harper.  Or even Goldschmidt and Votto, for that matter.  Cespedes had an incredible two months.  The Mets don't make the playoffs, let alone the World Series, without him.  But he was in the National League for two months!  He won a freakin' AL Gold Glove!  Cespedes played 50-something games for the Mets.  That's not enough of a body of work.  Especially when you're comparing him against guys who played a whole season in the NL.

One of the big gripes Harold Reynolds had on the MLB Network show where they announced the finalists was that Harper, Goldschmidt and Votto all ended up out of the playoffs.  I don't think being on a playoff team should be a requirement, but I don't begrudge voters who want to see their MVPs in the postseason.  So, if you want somebody from a playoff team to consider, how about the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo.  Chicago went 3-for-3 in the first three awards.  We know they're not gonna make it 4-for-4.  But Rizzo earned every MVP vote he got (of which I'm guessing there were plenty).  He was third in the league with 101 RBIs, which went along nicely with 31 homers, 38 doubles and 94 runs scored.

Another Cub, Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, wouldn't be a bad guy to consider, either.  Neither would Zack Greinke, who easily could've won the Cy Young instead.  There are also a pair of Colorado Rockies who put together solid seasons for a terrible team--Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez.  Same thing with Dee Gordon, the NL leader in both hits and average, and the Major League leader in stolen bases.

There's definitely a precipitous drop-off between Bryce Harper and the Field.  If it's not a unanimous vote, it'll come pretty close.  The rest of my "ballot" would look this way: Rizzo, Goldschmidt, Cespedes, Votto, Greinke, Gordon, Arenado, Arrieta, Gonzalez.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Now For the Hard One

NL Cy Young.  This is by far the most competitive of the eight awards that will be handed out during MLB's Awards Week, and I don't envy the voters.  Seriously, how do you choose?  Neither choice is a bad one, and you're not wrong if you prefer one over the other.  In any other year, it would be a slam dunk.  But this year, the difference between Greinke and Arrieta is so razor-thin that this could end up being one of the closest Cy Young races in history.

Before getting into candidates 1 and 1A, let's not forget about the third finalist.  Clayton Kershaw was so dominant last year that he unanimously won the Cy Young and added MVP honors, becoming the first National League pitcher to be named MVP since 1967!  It's not like he was a slouch this year.  It just wasn't quite up to Kershaw standards.  And he still went 16-7 with a 2.13 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and a ridiculous 301 strikeouts in 232 2/3 innings.  That was only good enough to finish third!

Then there's Max Scherzer.  He probably finished fourth, and his numbers were just as ridiculous as Kershaw's, proving he was worth every penny the Nationals gave him.  Yes, he only went 14-12, but that wasn't his fault.  Scherzer had a 2.79 ERA and 276 strikeouts, while walking only 34!, in 228 2/3 innings.  He also led the National League with four complete games and three shutouts, two of which were no-hitters.  And this guy isn't even a finalist!

Now for the main two contenders--Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta.  Again, there isn't much separating them.  They both had outstanding seasons.  And they're both deserving of the award.  In any other year, it would be so clear-cut for one of them that the vote would be just like last year's.  It really is a shame that they can't both win.

So how do you separate them?  Arrieta had a ridiculous second half.  He went 22-6 and gave up something like four earned runs from the start of August til the end of the regular season.  His second-half ERA was 0.75, the best in Major League history.  The All-Star Game started in 1933.  Overall, he ended up with a 1.77 ERA while pitching half his games in Wrigley Field.  And did I mention Arrieta had 236 strikeouts?!

But as historic as Arrieta's second half was, he wasn't even an All-Star.  Greinke started the All-Star Game.  He was brilliant from April to September, which is why my choice would be Greinke.  His ERA, for the year, was 1.66, and it was never over 2.00 at any point during the season!  Then there was the 45 2/3-inning scoreless streak (fortunately Mike Trout's homer off Greinke in the All-Star Game doesn't count).  Oh, and he went 19-3 for an .864 winning percentage, and had a WHIP of 0.84.

It's razor-thin.  Both teams made the playoffs, so you can't use that as a qualifier.  And they were both technically No. 2 starters, although Arrieta surpassed Lester long before the season ended.  It's really a gut feeling.  My gut has been saying "Greinke" all year.  So I'm sticking with it.  Greinke a very deserving winner, no shame in silver for Arrieta, and Kershaw "settles" for third after back-to-back wins.  Since Cy Young voting goes five-deep, we'll go Scherzer in fourth and Gerrit Cole fifth.

Over in the American League, things aren't much easier.  Do you go with Dallas Keuchel or David Price?  I'm not exactly sure how Sonny Gray finished third in the voting, but, sure, we'll go with that.  We all know this is a two-horse race.

Just like Greinke, I've viewed Keuchel as the front runner all season.  He was THE guy for the Astros, as Houston came out of nowhere to lead the AL West most of the season and make the playoffs.  As part of his 20-8 record, he went a perfect 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at home.  Keuchel also tossed an AL-high 232 innings and struck out 216 while holding opponents to a .217 average.

Price started the year in Detroit before being traded to Toronto at the deadline.  And, like another Tigers trade, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets, Price turned the Blue Jays from just another good team into a force to be reckoned with.  He was as good as advertised and better.  In just two months in Toronto, Price went 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA and 87 strikeouts.  With the Blue Jays, his record against the Yankees was, I think 3-1, and his dominance against them over the final two months propelled Toronto to its first division title (and playoff appearance) in 22 years.  His performance North of the Border will probably earn him some votes for MVP (an award Blue Jays teammate Josh Donaldson is likely to win), too.  Overall, Price ended up 18-5 with 225 strikeouts and an AL-leading 2.45 ERA.

The Keuchel-Price decision isn't any easier than the Greinke-Arrieta decision.  Price being traded shouldn't matter because he stayed in the same league, so his numbers are all from the American League.  But my preference is Keuchel.  Price was his usual self.  His dominance was expected, and even though his arrival turned the Blue Jays' season around, the Astros don't come anywhere close to where they got without the left arm of Dallas Keuchel.  You can point to A.J. Hinch or Jose Altuve or Carlos Correa all you want.  But Houston doesn't end up in the playoffs without their ace.  And I just don't see how that doesn't go unrewarded.

My vote in the AL goes to Dallas Keuchel.  David Price deserves MVP votes for what he did in Toronto, but Keuchel's body of work was just a smidge better, which is why I put Keuchel 1 and Price 2.  Rounding out my ballot are Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale and, I guess, Sonny Gray.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Manages to Win?

Before I start talking about this year's Manager of the Year candidates, let me say that I feel like such an idiot for forgetting that Noah Syndergaard was a rookie!  And that the NL Rookie of the Year voters are almost as stupid as I am.  Syndergaard finishes fourth!  Behind Matt Duffy and Jung Ho Kang?  Bryant being unanimous was a given.  But Syndergaard certainly deserved to finish ahead of both Duffy and Kang.  Maybe the voters simply forgot about him the same way I did.

Anyway, now it's time for the managers, and there are plenty of deserving candidates in both leagues.  And not just the three that are finalists.  Take John Gibbons for example.  Alex Anthropolous will be Executive of the Year, and deservedly so, for the way he rebuilt the Blue Jays during the season.  But Gibbons deserves just as much credit for Toronto's division title and run to the ALCS.  Yet he's not even a finalist for Manager of the Year!  It was that competitive this year.

Two of the three AL finalists were rookie managers, and the third was new to his team.  I guess that's what gives them the edge over Gibbons, who I'd have to assume finished fourth in the voting.  And there's really very little to separate Paul Molitor, Jeff Banister and A.J. Hinch.

Hall of Fame players don't always become good managers.  Especially in their first year on the job.  Period.  Yet that's exactly what Molitor did.  The Twins hadn't been good in a while, and nobody expected them to contend this season, either.  Yet they were in the wild card race until the second-to-last day and finished second in the AL Central behind the World Series Champion Royals (where'd Ned Yost end up in the voting, by the way?).  Minnesota came up just a bit short, though, so I can't give Molitor the nod over the managers of the two Texas teams.

I have to admit, I didn't know the name of the Rangers' manager until like the middle of September.  Yet Jeff Banister took a team that wasn't even close to the best in its own division and somehow won the AL West title.  This with an injury-riddled team that lost its best pitcher, Yu Darvish, for the season during Spring Training and didn't have an ace until a midseason trade for Cole Hamels.  Yet they managed to win 88 games and surpass both the Angels and Astros for a division crown.

Speaking of Houston, A.J. Hinch was the right guy at the right time.  It was a young team full of talent, including Cy Young finalist Dallas Keuchel and Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, who showed up in June.  Most people thought they were at least a year away, but the Astros were ready now.  Hinch had them in first place for most of the season, then, after they fell back, held on for the second wild card before winning the Wild Card Game and taking the Royals to five in the Division Series.

There's no discounting what Houston did this season, and A.J. Hinch is one of the key reasons why they did it.  He's got to be rewarded with Manager of the Year honors.  Banister finishes a very deserving second, with Molitor in third.  That's exactly how my ballot would look, as well.

Over in the National League, I though it was Mike Matheny's award to lose at the All-Star Break.  St. Louis is good every year.  But this year, Matheny took a team that had Yadier Molina and 85 rookies and didn't just win a division title.  He won 100 games in the best division in baseball.  It was going to take a lot to overtake Matheny for NL Manager of the Year, and that's exactly what happened.

When the Cubs hired Joe Maddon away from the Rays, they knew what they were getting.  He's a mad genius, but he's also got an incredible baseball mind.  Little did anyone know he'd turn around the Cubs so dramatically and so quickly.  The Cubs won 97 games.  The Cubs!  And they're only gonna get better.  Look at what Maddon did in Tampa.  He's gonna do the same thing in Chicago.  And it started sooner than everyone thought it would.

The Cubs got all the way to the NLCS, where they were swept by the Mets and their dominant starting pitchers.  What Terry Collins did with that team was nothing short of amazing.  The Mets couldn't hit for the first four months of the season.  Yet Collins kept them within striking distance of a Nationals team that had been preordained as division champions.  Then they got some bats and took off, winning their first division title in nine years, and sending Collins to the postseason for the first time in his 1,688-game career.

Collins was the Sporting News Manager of the Year, which is voted on by the managers themselves.  But it's the media that votes for the BBWAA awards, and I think they'll probably lean towards Maddon.  Honestly, neither choice would be a bad one.  But only one can win.  My vote would go to Maddon by a hair over Collins.  Matheny gets the bronze, but in any other year, he just as easily could've been the winner.

We've got six deserving finalists for the Manager of the Year awards.  But based on where their teams were last year and where they ended up this year, the first under their leadership, I'd give a slight edge to A.J. Hinch and Joe Maddon, making both the Astros and the Cubs 2-for-2 during awards season so far.  They could both make it 3-for-3 on Wednesday when the Cy Youngs are announced, but more on that tomorrow.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Rookie No-Brainers

Ever since the BBWAA started having that special on MLB Network announcing the finalists the week before their awards come out, some of the fun of blogging about it has been taken away.  The likely winners have been talked about for weeks, but it was always entertaining trying to figure out who the other top vote-getters were.  Now we know who the top three are for every award, which is not quite as enjoyable.

And they're starting us with two of the easiest ones.  It's not the MVP "races," but the Rookies of the Year are almost as much of a lock.  The only question is whether Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa will be unanimous.  Judging by the other four finalists, I'd say it's likely they are.

Remember back in March/April when everyone was up in arms that Kris Bryant wasn't breaking camp with the Cubs?  Yeah, I don't either.  That was such a ridiculous drummed-up controversy, and it did nothing to affect his Rookie of the Year candidacy.  In fact, it might've strengthened it.  Because he put up ridiculous numbers while hitting third for a Cubs team that made it all the way to the NLCS.  You easily could've filled out a ballot using only Cubs, and still had rookies to spare.  Kyle Schwarber, Jose Soler, Addison Russell, take your pick.  But Bryant definitely stands out above the rest.

At the All-Star Break, you could've argued that the NL Rookie of the Year race would come down to Bryant and Joc Pederson.  By August, it was no contest.  Pederson struggled so much in the second half that he was benched for a while, then moved down to eighth in the Dodgers' order by the time he was back in the lineup.  I'd still put Pederson up there pretty high on my list, though.

Surprisingly, the 85 rookies that played for the Cardinals this season aren't among the finalists, either.  Instead, it's Matt Duffy of the Giants and Jung-Ho Kang of the Pirates.  Duffy was on the roster in the World Series last year and won a ring.  This year he took over as San Francisco's starting third baseman while the Red Sox tried to feed Pablo Sandoval.  Then there's Kang, the 28-year-old Korean import who was great at shortstop for the Pirates before suffering the most gruesome season-ending broken leg this side of Ruben Tejada.

While Duffy and Kang had nice seasons, I don't think I'd put them in the top three.  Bryant is a clear winner.  But I'd go with Pederson and Schwarber behind him.

Over in the American League, the rookie class is much weaker.  Carlos Correa didn't debut until June 8, but was so impressive during those four months that he deserves to be the runaway winner.  The No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft, he was the youngest player in the Majors this season.  He sure didn't play like it, though.  He hit .279 with 22 homers, 68 RBIs, 52 runs scored and 14 stolen bases for a Houston team that was in playoff position all season and took the eventual World Champion Royals to Game 5 in the Division Series.

He's not a finalist, but I sure was impressed with another 20-year-old--Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna.  It takes a lot for a good team to entrust the late innings to an unproven rookie.  But that's exactly what Toronto did.  And boy, did it pay off!  In 68 games, he picked up 20 saves and struck out 75 in 69.2 innings, a rate of 9.7 strikeouts per 9.  Having seen Osuna a lot this season, especially in the final two months.  This guy's the real deal.

Unlike the three finalists, Osuna was in the Majors all year, even if he didn't become the closer until later in the season.  Joining Correa as finalists are two other worthy contenders, Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor and Minnesota's Miguel Sano.  Lindor was called up right around the same time as Correa (in fact, they both played 99 games), and his impact was just as strong.  He hit .313 and played superior defense.  The Indians have found their shorstop.

Sano's numbers are made more impressive by the fact that he wasn't called up until around the All-Star Break (I told you the AL had a shortage of rookies this season).  He had 18 homers, 17 doubles and 52 RBIs while leading all AL rookies in slugging and on-base percentage, despite playing only half the season.  The one thing I will say about Sano, though, is that he served primarily as the Twins' DH.  As you know, I don't normally hold that against a guy.  But when he's up against two awesome defensive shortstops, they get the edge.

When it comes to the vote, we'll likely have our second unanimous AL Rookie of the Year in a row.  Lindor's a clear second to Correa, with Sano in third.  As for my vote, it's Correa, Lindor, Osuna.