Monday, August 30, 2010

Raiders Primed For Adequacy

For the first time in years it looks like the Oakland Raiders have their act together. The 2-1 preseason doesn't mean too much but the level of cohesiveness and competence the team is playing with suggests the Silver & Black can rise above the laughingstock level it's been relegated to since being blown out by Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl.

Jason Campbell, acquired from the Redskins for a future fourth-round pick, provides stability to a position that was wasted on JaMarcus Russell for the past three years. And of course Jason had to be crushed in last Saturday night's exhibition and suffer a bad stinger. He also has a bum wrist but all signs point to a full recovery before the season open. That's good... because the Raiders recovery starts with him. Bruce Gradkowski can provide spells of decency but he's not a long-term answer.

Speaking of injuries Michael Bush has a broken thumb, which leaves Darren McFadden the starter at running back by default. Run-DMC has been injured and ineffective during his pro career but the talent is there. The onus will be on the returning O-line to provide good protection and open lanes. The center position will be manned by either rookie Jared Veldheer or Samson Satele and looks to be the weak link. It's not a great unit but another year in Tom Cable's zone-blocking scheme should lead to improvement.

The wide receiving corps is a major question mark. Louis Murphy emerged last year as the most consistent pair of hands on the team. But he's not a #1-caliber receiver. Chaz Schilens is injured again, Johnnie Lee Higgins is fast (but maybe not as fast as newcomer Jacoby Ford) and Darrius Heyward-Bey is a question mark. At least Zach Miller is a bomb tight end.

Two rookies hope to shore up the defense. First-round and second-round picks Rolando McClain and LaMarr Houston are penciled as the MLB and DE respectively. Houston joins a formidable front four that also includes Matt Shaughnessy, Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour. Sandwiching McClain will be Trevor Scott, Kamerion Wembley and Thomas Howard in some combination. Nnamdi Asomugha leads the defensive backs. Chris Johnson keeps improving as the other CB but he's no Nnamdi. Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff are okay safeties.

SeaBass and Lechler are the two best kickers in the league. Ford and Higgins are likely the speedy returners.

The Raiders' schedule includes the six games against its division rivals (Broncos, Chargers and Chiefs) along with the AFC South (@Titans, Texans, @Jacksonville, Colts), NFC West (Rams, @Cardinals, @49ers, Seahawks), @Steelers and Dolphins.

Call me crazy but I think Oakland can play .500 ball this season.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Grading the Seattle Mariners Recent Draft Picks

So the Mariners suck... but at least there's hope for the future. Here's a look at how high draft picks under the new front office regime have fared:

Josh Fields, RHP, First Round
This was a Bill Bavasi pick back in 2008 but newly-minted GM Jack Zduriencik decided to sign the hard-throwing junior from Georgia. Fields has flashed good stuff when he's been healthy, striking out a batter per inning but also walks a batter more than once every other frame. He's been unable to pitch beyond AA and is 25 but should advance quickly to the M's bullpen. Whether he'll close or pitch the 7th or 8th innings... who knows? B-

Dustin Ackley, 2B, First Round
The consolation prize in the Stephen Strasburg sweepstakes was a no-brainer. Ackley came out of UNC in 2009 as one of the purest hitters in recent memory and after a rough start in AA he's done nothing to discredit that title. A promotion to Triple-A has ignited Dustin; he's hitting around .300/.360/.450 in Tacoma. For the year he sports an excellent 68/61 walk-to-strikeout ratio though the lack of power (5 total home runs) and sub-.700 OPS against lefties leave room for improvement. Ackley switched to second base after playing the outfield and a little first base in college. He has limited oomph on his throwing arm thanks to an injury but it shouldn't affect him too much at second. Dustin heading down to Arizona Fall League to continue learning the intricacies of the infield. And A- isn't out of the question but lingering questions remain. B+

Nick Franklin, SS, First Round
There was considerable debate whether the M's should have taken a Florida prep player with no standout tools. Well Nick's shut everyone the hell up. 20 home runs, 20+ stolen bases and a glove that looks like it'll stick long-term at SS will do that. He's certainly a Top 100 prospect and probably even cracks the 50s. I'm being cautious with the grade because he's so young and the power is probably a little fluky but M's fans have to be ecstatic with their first-round pick from last year. B

Steven Baron, C, First Round (supplemental)
Welcome to Disasterville. In 450 career at bats he has .200 batting and .300 slugging averages. But hey he's a good defender behind the dish. D-

Rich Poythress, 1B, Second Round
After a dreadful stint in AA the former Georgia Bulldog has (surprise) thrived in High Desert. The slugger is among the league leaders in homers and RBI. Rich's power projects to play in the majors, though Safeco Field will certainly sap some of it. B-

Kyle Seager, 3B, Third Round
Ackley's former Tar Heel teammate has had a breakout year in High Desert to the tune of .342/.414/.477. Then again, what hitter doesn't thrive in the Cal League? Kyle's shown good gap power and a decent glove at the Hot Corner. He wasn't thought of much following the draft but now he's a viable bench guy in the big leagues. C+

James Jones, RF, Fourth Round
Interesting toolsy outfielder has a long way to go. Good build, great athlete, still raw at the plate after pitching in college. With a promotion to High Desert on the way don't be surprised when James puts up some huge numbers in 2011. C+

I wasn't thrilled with signing Fields. Instead I think the compensation pick could have netted a player with more upside. That being said Josh is on the fast track to the majors and should shore up an iffy bullpen (so long, Sean White!). Ackley is who we thought he was while Poythress and Seager appear to be on their way to the big leagues. Whether they'll pan out as regulars though remains to be seen. James Jones still has a long way to go and the Baron has been a complete disaster. Franklin has been the huge surprise and it'll be great to see him continue to develop. Overall it was a good draft. I'm not as confident about the 2010 selections but it's way too early to put a stamp on anything.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My SummerSlam Experience

Before last night's WWE SummerSlam at the Staples Center it had been 14 years since I attended a wrestling event. I used to be a pretty big WWE (then WWF) fan; renting tapes of old specials, playing the awful SNES game and scrutinize magazine rankings (where's the love for Razor Ramon?!). And of course watching copious amounts of RAW and all the good jazz that came with it. If yesterday proved anything it's that I've been away for too long.

The 15,000 in attendance were treated to a bonus match before the 4:45 PPV went air. The match was between... uhh, I don't exactly remember. They were lower-tier wrestlers who performed okay. It was a decent appetizer for those hungry for action.

After the initial pyrotechnics show Staples Center filled with smoke for about ten minutes, which looked awesome. Also the giant TV monitor malfunctioned for awhile; the screens down the middle went black (which you can see in the above photo).

The first official fight on the night was for the Intercontinental Championship. Dolph Ziggler and the challenger and crowd favorite Kofi Kingston (because h e's black??) performed okay. The match culminated with The Nexus rushing from the seats and bashing Kofi. Watching it live and it in person it was pretty wild to see seven buff dudes bumrush another buff dude and (pretend to) beat the crap out of him. If anything it added further fuel to the impending Team WWE-The Nexus showdown.

Next was Alicia Fox versus Melina, who looked like she was dressed for Carnival. This was the token Divas match and the least interesting twenty minutes of the night. Melina ended up victorious and tried to look emotional winning one of two fake WWE women's championship belts. It sorta worked. What surely would have been a heartfelt speech was ruined by LayCool, the tag team chaps and the two baddest bitches in the ring.

The Big Show is listed at 485 pounds. Even from a distance it's crazy how behemoth of a man he is. He eventually beat down the trio called SES. Actually The Big Show pinned two of them; Punk ran away. I don't know who the SES chick was but during the intro she kept screaming "excuse me!" while trying to speak, which predictably led the audience to scream whatever insults it fancied. Good times.

At some point during the show The Miz showed up and went on a ten-minute rant about how basically he's awesome (!!!) and everyone else sucks. He then declared that he would help Team WWE defeat The Nexus later on. I'm selling it short with my recap but it really was quite the speech.

Sheamus versus Randy Orton (probably the most popular wrestler with the LA crowd) was in my opinion the best fight of the match. First of all it was for the highest prize in the game, the WWE Championship. Secondly the level of intensity and wrestling was great and sustained. This was a long, arduous fight that culminated with a Sheamus DQ for a chair (at least I think that's what happened). Orton lost his shit and eventually slammed Sheamus onto the announcer's table. Rage!

The second-to-last fight featured Kane vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. for the Heavyweight Championship (I think). This was billed as a vengeance match as Kane accused Rey of attacking The Undertaker on Memorial Weekend and putting him in a vegetative state. Kane was so furious that he rolled out a casket before the match, promising to close it on Rey. Mysterio professed his innocence, claiming it was Kane who brained his brother. Kane, Cain?

The battle itself was fairly interesting. The contrasting styles between the hulking Kane and the acrobatic Mysterio was hot and cold. Seeing Rey jump on Kane and twirl around was spectacular.

Eventually Kane dropped a couple choke slams and was primed to dump Rey's ranchera corpse into an eternal of burning and suffering. Kane opened the empty coffin but the mercurial Mexican escaped! Some scuffling ensued, including Kane almost crashing into the coffin. The giant shut the lid and promptly Tomestone'd Mysterio. Finally, we would see someone stuffed into the damn coffin.

When Kane opened the lid again... The Undertaker was inside! No doubt the most thunderous applause were reserved for when The Prince of Darkness emerged. Of course I was wondering how the hell a 7-foot man lied relatively still for almost half an hour. I'm guess he sneaked under the ring before the match, then rolled into the coffin (which sat atop a draped table) on cue. But anyway... The Undertaker looked menacingly at Rey... before turning to his brother! Sibling wars! Kane usurped his brother once again, Tomestone'ing him. Fade to black.

Finally, the main event. The Nexus vs. Team WWE. After The Nexus took to the ring the WWE was announced one by one, starting with its leader John Cena. Bret The Hitman Hart received a well-deserved roar from the crowd. It was weird seeing a superstar from my childhood wearing a t-shirt to cover his gut. Other superstars included The Edge and Chris Jericho. When The Miz showed up he was promptly booted by the John Cena and replaced by Daniel Bryant... who I guess is a great wrestler and got kicked out of wrestling? These fake storylines are confusing.

The fight itself was good. Predictably it went back and forth until only The Baron and John Cena remained. Cena, who had been pummeled by The Nexus as well as The Edge and Jericho (due to extenuating circumstances and accidental friendly fire), fooled The Baron for a quick takedown.

Highlights during the melee included Hitman performing a Sharpshooter, then promptly getting DQ'ed for picking up a folding chair. The Miz also ran in and took out one of the WWE stars while the ref wasn't looking.

But the story of the match was Cena. He crowd loved or hated him, chants alternating between "Go Cena!" and "Cena Sucks! While not the greatest technical wrestler to ever grace the ring he demonstrated why he's a star. He has it. He's willing to have 20,000 pairs of eyes on him and accept the task of entertaining, make people believe this is real. When he pumped up the crowd during the match, people believed. When John was mobbed outside the ring, crashing against the step steels and slammed against the concrete floor people winced (okay, that stuff might have been really painfully). And after Cena emerged victoriously he stayed in the ring for five minutes to thank the crowd. And it responded.

Hell, even his upcoming wrestling movie with Patricia Clarkson and Danny Glover looks decent.

All in all it was a helluva fun time. Certainly more fun than the dozen or so Clippers games I've been to at the Staples Center. On my way out I couldn't help notice the kids sitting next to me. I was once like them; easily excitable from watching grown men pretend to beat the shit out of each other. And for one night I reverted to my former self. Thanks SummerSlam. Hope to see you next year.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Favorite Baseball Teams Replace Their Managers on the Same Day

Both firings came as a surprise yet the writing was on each of their walls. On Monday the Seattle Mariners and USC Trojans fired their respective baseball managers.

Don Wakamatsu's downfall seemed inconceivable back in spring training when whispers of a playoff run were being murmured by the media. Coming off an uplifting 85-win campaign and adding ace Cliff Lee to the team certainly made it appear the M's were on the upswing.

And then the season started. The offense never clicked -- particularly Ken Griffey Jr., whose unceremoniously exit from a glorious career probably derailed Wak more than anything. Once he lost The Kid he lost the Mariner family.

Don also had a maddening tendency to commit to a belief system even when it was painfully obvious changes were necessary. The lineup, for instance, would always see the horrific Jose Lopez bat either third or cleanup. Granted Wak was hamstrung by a lack of quality bats on the roster but there were better options than a free-swinging plodder. The pitching staff wasn't immune to befuddling choices neither. Sean White, probably one of the worst arms in a decent bullpen, was constantly thrown into high-leverage situations.

If Wak was predictable with the lineup he disciplined at a whim. He allowed for Lopez to be unproductive and lazy the entire season, tolerating mediocrity as it were. But when the unproductive but hard-working Chone Figgins made a mental mistake he was singled out. A dugout dust-up ensued and it was the beginning of the end.

Yes, Don Wakamatu was probably dealt a bad hand in 2010. But he didn't do much to salvage the situation. Conversely Chad Kreuter, despite having only minimal managing experience was hired to coach the most prestigious college baseball program in the country. After four years of the Kreuter Experience the Trojans failed to advance to the College World Series let alone win a title. In fact USC was oftentimes abysmal, punctuated by this season's 10th-place finish in the Pac-10 Conference.

Kreuter was an awful recruiter, focusing his efforts on elite national talents like Tim Beckham and Mike Stanton that had no intentions to play in college. And while USC is hamstrung by the NCAA's ridiculous baseball scholarship rule that hasn't hurt other private universities such as Miami and Stanford.

Simply put USC is expected to contend for titles and Kreuter failed miserably. He had to go.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Top Five Episodes of Bill Simmons' The B.S. Report

Bill Simmons' widely-popular podcast, The B.S. Report, now has a complete archive for your listening pleasure. I've listened to... something like 98% of the episodes and compiled a list of some of The Sports Guy's best.

Keep in mind this list skews completely to his older stuff. Frankly I think The B.S. Report has been getting too Hollywood for its own good.

UPDATE 12/28/12: The B.S. Report is doing a Time Machine Week, showcasing the "best of" Bill Simmons podcasts. So far the list includes the Bill and JackO "The Real World" episode so it's definitely worth checking out.

UPDATE: Evidently none of these links work. Well done ESPN.

1. 8/2/07 - Play | Download
Bill Simmons talks to Dave Meltzer about the WWE and the Chris Benoit tragedy. How can the WWE recover?

Absolutely riveting podcast regarding the double murder-suicide of one of wrestling's greatest talents. While Simmons does chime in with an occasional quip this is for the most part a grim odyssey into the sordid details of Benoit's personal demons and substance abuse. Most people enjoy the Sports Guy for his irreverence and comedy but I find his quiet thoughtfulness (like in his much-heralded farewell to The Dooze) his strongest suit. Meltzer has chronicled wrestling for well over a decade. His knowledge and passion for the "sport" clearly shines here.

4/10/08 - Play | Download
Bill and JackO stop being polite and start getting real as they relive 20 years of MTV's "Real World."

A non-stop riot between two college buddies babbling about two decades of sex- and drug-fueled reality TV. The easy, breezy back and forth with Simmons and JackO is what makes the duo so hilarious. Zingers abound, particularly the line where Simmons threatens to go on a shooting spree if his daughter sluts it up on a future show.

3. 7/19/07 - Play | Download
Bill Simmons addresses his feud with Jerry Remy and talks with Michael Wilbon about writing, chemistry in broadcasting, racism in Boston, and the death of Len Bias.

A wide-ranging chat with one of ESPN's best commentators, WaPo's Michael Wilbon. Simmons obviously has a huge connection with Bias, the #2 overall pick by the Boston Celtics who died from a cocaine overdose mere days after the draft. The PTI co-host covered the ACC during Bias' reign in Maryland. When the conversation turns to the rim-rocking forward is when the episode really hits its peak.

4. 11/27/07 - Play | Download
Bill gets lost inside Walton's World as he tries to find out what it was like to be a part of the 1986 Celtics.

I'm definitely a person in the Bill Walton camp. He's one of the brightest, honest and most-decorated athletes from the last fifty years. Bill can hardly contain his love for the '86 Celtics and it's fascinating to listen to Walton (one of the greatest champions in sports history) wax on about team chemistry.

5. 8/24/08 - Play | Download
Bill and JackO dissect the Mike and the Mad Dog split, try to bury the Yankees' 2008 campaign, discuss the Olympics, review some reality television and more.

The second time I insert JackO into the Top Five. He and Simmons click that well together. I don't understand why JackO hasn't started his own podcast yet. The John O'Connell Hour of Power with his rants about the Yankees, reality TV and Republicans. I would listen every week.

Monday, August 02, 2010

2010 Cliff Lee Facts

As of August 2nd...

* Cliff Lee has a 9-5 record.

* In 15 starts he has thrown seven complete games.

* His middle name is Phifer.

* In 147 innings he has struck 118 batters, walked 13 and allowed 126 hits.

* He has thrown one wild pitch.

* He walk rate is five times lower than the MLB average.

* Despite missing the first month of the season he has been the fourth-best pitcher in baseball, according to WAR.

* Ruben Amaro traded him for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gilles and JC Ramirez.