Archive for March, 2008

Building On Last Year

March 31, 2008

The Arizona Diamondbacks batted .250 as a team, had a .321 on-base percentage, were seventh in the National League in home runs, its hitters struck out 20.58% of the time, and they were outscored 732-712.  On paper, this looks like a bad team, but Arizona won 90 games, the NL West title, swept the Cubs in the Division Series before losing the NLCS to red hot Colorado.

Offensively, the young D-Backs will get better and their pitching is the strength of the team.  With Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Randy Johnson and Micah Owings, the D-Backs figure to keep the scores down and have another successful season and another division title.

The National League offers more curiousity than the junior circuit because there appears to be more balance.  And, each team has serious questions which can only add to the intruigue. 

NL East:  The Mets choked things away last year, but that’s not really fair to the Philadelphia Phillies, who blazed down the stretch and beat the Mets up head-to-head.  The Braves will be better, and they were only five out last season.  The Mets have the best pitching and that will give them a chance to contend, but their offense is going to be really good some days and really bad on others.  The Phillies should hold off the Mets, and 88 wins might be all it takes to win this division.

NL Central:  I don’t like the Cubs, but who else do you like in this division?  The Brewers appear to be ready to make a run, but how good are they?  Everyone says the Reds can be a surprise.  I don’t see it, but did anybody see Arizona and Colorado in the playoffs last year?  I’ll take the Cubs by default.  This division has the Pirates, who haven’t seen a .500 season since 1992 and the Cardinals, who have a AAA pitching staff.

NL West:  This is the best division in the league, and it should be a three team race between Arizona, San Diego and Colorado.  The Dodgers may be a trendy pick to contend with Joe Torre, but simply put, they’re not ready yet.  The San Francisco Giants are bad and they’ll be lucky to win 70 games this season.  The key for the top three is being able to beat up on San Francisco and take care of the Dodgers.

I’ll take Arizona because they have a young lineup that will continue to improve and they have very good starting pitching with two aces:  Brandon Webb and Danny Haren.  Still don’t know how good Colorado is? Before their 15-1 run to close the season, they were just a 77-72 team, so how good were they really?  They have a great, young lineup, but I’ll take San Diego to make it in as the Wild Card.

The official picks:  Phillies, Cubs, Diamondbacks, with Padres as the Wild Card.

Johnny Furgele 

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Are the Mariners For Real

March 28, 2008

The baseball season is upon us and it’s time to see who are the contenders and who are the pretenders for 2008. 

The trendy pick for 2008 is that the Detroit Tigers will slug their way to the American League pennant and land in the World Series.  In fact, Sports Illustrated has the Tigers beating the Cubs for the world championship.

I will sell both teams, because in order to win, you need to have pitching.  There is no doubt that the Tigers will score over 900 runs, but in the playoffs, scores are 3-2, not 9-7 and that’s where the Tigers will fall short. 

As for the Cubs, they have never done well as their favorite.  They still have major problems in the bullpen and with their starting pitching.  Is Kerry Wood going to become a bonafide closer?  Can he stay healthy?  The answer, most likely, is no. 

Let’s take a quick look.  In the AL East, the underdog Yankees will beat Boston for the division title.  I’m joking by calling the 26 time world champion Yankees an underdog, but most experts think they have fallen behind the Red Sox in the American League.  I don’t believe that.  They have been to the playoffs 13 straight years and until they don’t qualify, they can never be written off.  Their offense is still good, and the Red Sox pitching has just as many question marks as the Yankees.  Look for Robinson Cano to have a monster season and the Yankees to edge past the BoSox for the AL East crown.

The AL Central should be an exciting race all season.  Most like the Tigers, but Cleveland, the defending champion has better pitching and a pretty darn good offense.  The White Sox should be much better than their 2007 disaster of 72-90, and the Twins, written off every year will manage to hover around .500 and at least stay in the neighborhood.  I’m going to go with the defending division champion Indians because their pitching is much better than the Bengals.

The AL West landscape has changed dramatically this week.  Angel righty Kelvim Escobar may miss the entire season with a right shoulder tear and workhorse John Lackey is out until May.  I really like Seattle’s pitching anchored by Felix Hernandez and lefty Erik Bedard, acquired from the Orioles in the offseason.  If the Mariners are going to topple Los Angeles, the key will be Richie Sexson, who hit .205 with 21 home runs and 63 RBI.  The power numbers are still decent, but the batting average was awful.  The Mariners were outscored by 19 runs in 2007, but still managed to finish with an 88-74 record.  If Sexson can regain his form, and I think he can, the Mariners should be division champs.

After Bedard and Hernandez, their rotation is rounded out by lefty Jarrod Washburn and righties Carlos Silva, and Miguel Batista.  These guys don’t scare anybody, but they make their starts, eat up innings and keep their team in the game.  Batista went 16-11 last year, and though Washburn was only 10-15, he made 32 starts and averaged 6 innings per start.  Their closer, J.J. Putz is one of the best.

Predictions: Yankees, Indians, Mariners, with Red Sox as Wild Card. 

Coming soon:  National League forecast.

Johnny Furgele

Lack of Drama on Day 1

March 21, 2008

The NCAA Tournament kicked off yesterday and with the exception of Duke-Belmont, the lack of drama was….disappointing.  There will be no George Mason this year, as the Patriots were bounced in convincing fashion by Notre Dame.  Winthrop, which won a first round game in 2007 was trounced by Washington State and Ivy League champ Cornell, riding a 16 game winning streak, was thumped by Stanford in the Brainiac Bowl.

Duke was taken to the limit by feisty Belmont, and survived 71-70.  If you’re a Belmont fan, or non-Duke fan, what will stick in the craw is that twice Belmont had the ball up 71-70, and twice they could not extend the lead.  As an observer, another basket by the Bruins might have done the trick, but give Duke credit for playing tough defense.

The thing about Duke that is puzzling is their lack of depth.  This is a program that has one McDonald’s All-America after another, and yet, it was Belmont that played more reserves than the Blue Devils.  And, this has been the trend the last few years at Duke.  For most games, Duke plays only six or seven guys, while Belmont plays 10? 

Duke still may go far in this tournament, but they don’t really look like a great team.  Yes, their record is 28-5, and yes, they play in the tough ACC, although the ACC has been a bit overrated in recent years.  Sunday’s game will be a real test.  The lack of depth and only one day of rest.  Should be interesting.

Hopefully, this tournament will get going and provide some more drama than it did on Day 1.

John Furgele

Where is Cinderella

March 17, 2008

Who are your sleepers for the 2008 NCAA Tournament?  To qualify as a sleeper, a team has to be a number five seed or lower.  I heard some of the pundits, pick three and four seeds to be sleepers, and according to the chalk, seeds 1 thru 4 are expected to make the Regional Semifinals, better known as the Sweet 16.

For the record, the lowest seed to win the NCAA Championship was 8th seeded Villanova in 1985.  North Carolina State (1983) and Kansas (1988) won titles as 6 seeds. 

Who is this year’s Cinderella?  Is there another George Mason or LSU (made the 1986 Final Four as an 11th seed)? 

As always, give your reasons why?

John Furgele

March Madness Times Three

March 17, 2008

There were no real surprises when the 65 team field was announced for the NCAA Tournament yesterday, except the fact that the Georgia Bulldogs earned an automatic berth by winning the SEC Championship Game.  Of all the teams, give the now 17-16 Bulldogs credit.  They won two games on Saturday, then came back on Sunday to beat Arkansas, getting a 14 seed and a matchup with Xavier in the first round.

After the NCAA had first dibs, the NIT then took 32 more teams with Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Arizona State and Ohio State getting number one seeds.  The advantage here is that these four teams—provided they win—get three games at home before the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden.

The NIT is not the only consolation tournament these days.  The inaugural College Basketball Invitational (CBI) begins Tuesday with 16 more teams in the mix.  The CBI will play single elimination for rounds one, two and three, with the championship being a best two out of three.

Are there too many teams playing postseason basketball?  If some call the NIT the no-interest-tournament, what are they going to call the CBI?  There are 341 schools playing Division I basketball, so when you add up the NCAA, the NIT and the CBI, 113 of 341 are playing some type of postseason basketball, roughly 33 percent.

As long as there are schools willing to play and fans willing to buy tickets, the CBI is probably a good thing for college basketball.  College football has 32 bowl games, meaning more than half (54 percent) of the Division I football schools get a postseason opportunity.

The only problem I have with the CBI is that they took a few teams with .500 records and one, Cincinnati, with a 13-18 overall record.  Washington and Virginia come in with 16-16 and 15-15 records respectively, while Western Michigan, at 20-12, 12-4 in the Mid American Conference stays home.

The CBI is designed more like the old NIT, before the NCAA bought it and made it a real seeded tournament.  The CBI figures that Cincinnati is more of a marquis than Wagner, Western Michigan or other teams with better records.  Once they establish viewership, their mission statement may change.

If you like college basketball, this is what you wait for.  The regular season of college basketball has been rendered almost meaningless, but this is the moment sports fans embrace.  College football has the exact opposite problem:  a fantastic regular season and a more-than-ho-hum postseason.  At the end of the college football season, nobody really feels good about the ending as it is highly anti-climatic.  In three weeks, college basketball will crown a true champion and nobody will dispute who’s number one on April 8.

If I had to pick one formula, I would pick the one used by college basketball.  Yes, the regular season is too long, and too saturated with games on TV, but the end result is more than good.

Let the Madness begin.

John Furgele

Bubble Teams Should Embrace NIT

March 13, 2008

Come Sunday at 6 PM, there will be great angst for many coaches and players as the NCAA will announce the 65 team field for the 2008 NCAA Tournament.  And, like every year, there will be a team or two that will surprise everyone by getting in and there will be a team or two that will be surprised to be left out.

It is the snubbed teams that will bother me most on Sunday evening.  They will complain, argue, moan and groan that their resume was better than many teams that got in and Dick Vitale will scream that they should have gotten in.  Vitale thinks every bubble team should get in and if that did happen, the NCAAs would have 128 teams in it. 

The difference between Vitale and antagonist Doug Gottlieb is that Gottlieb has a spine, takes a stand, and doesn’t worry about ruffling feathers.  Vitale is the pleaser and wants everybody to like him.  When you ask Gottlieb “should Florida or Massachusetts get in?” he will give you an answer.  When you ask Vitale, he will say, “both.”

After the dust clears, the sportstalk nation will spend all of Monday ripping the committee for seeding, for leaving the wrong teams out and that will overshadow the actual tournament itself.  In fact, most talkers would rather interview the coach of the snubbed team over the coach of a team that actually gets in.

I would love to hear coaches complain less and embrace more.  Rather than say that their cache was better than others, why not say that they are happy to be invited to the NIT and that they look forward to playing in the NIT.  Not everybody can play in the NCAA, and somebody has to play in the NIT.  The only coach that embraced the NIT was Bobby Knight, and that is good for college basketball.  In this case, more coaches should follow Knight’s lead.

That’s not going to happen.  The Jim Boeheims of the world are not paid to play and even win the NIT.  Dave Odom coached South Carolina to back-to-back NIT championships, but that probably isn’t enough to save his job.  To hear Boeheim, say that “if we don’t make the NCAA, then it’s not a good season, period,” is unsettling.  At 19-13, he should consider an NIT invite a positive for his young players.  If he doesn’t feel this way, the NIT should leave Syracuse out of its tournament, too.

Few bubble teams last very long in the NCAA anyway, so why waste our breath talking about them.  As the saying goes, if you’re a bubble team, it’s your own fault, you probably should have played better during the year to avoid it. 

But, you’ll never hear that on Sunday.

John Furgele

Favre Great, But Overrated

March 5, 2008

It is with great hesitation that I write this because something tells me that Brett Favre will un-retire sometime before or during the 2008 NFL season.  For some reason, his retirement announcement seems to be a hollow one.

Is he really tired?  Is he really feeling old?  Is he finally admitting that after 253 consecutive starts, his body is too banged up to continue?

If this is indeed the end, Favre retires as an all-time great, but be that as it may, he was also one of the most overrated quarterbacks in NFL history as well.  Yes, he has the most passing yards of all time.  Yes, he has the 253 consecutive starts.  Yes, he has the 442 touchdown passes.  Yes, he has three MVP awards.  Yes, he has two NFC Championships and yes, one Super Bowl victory.   

But, in the big games, Favre was more than a bit spotty.  In 22 playoff games, Favre threw 28 interceptions, and his won-loss record was an okay 12-10.  In the 2001 NFC Divisional Playoffs against the St. Louis Rams, he was picked off six times.  There was the ill fated throw-it-and-hope interception against the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs,  and the four interceptions he threw against the Minnesota Vikings in the 2004 NFC WildCard Playoffs.  He also threw two picks in the 31-24 Super Bowl 32 loss against the 11 point underdog Denver Broncos.  And, let’s remember that Favre’s last pass was a wounded duck that landed right into the arms of New York Giants defensive back Cory Webster that propelled the Giants into Super Bowl 42. 

Favre was a gunslinger and sometimes gunslingers lose, and Favre was no exception.  He never lost the cannon of an arm and he was always a leader, always tough, always durable.  He overcome addiction, the sudden death of his father and the cancer ordeal of his wife to succeed in the toughest of sports.  His place in NFL history is secure, but because he was beloved by most NFL fans, they tend to think he was better in big games than he actually was.

Fans often do that.  A recent sports fan poll rated Joe Namath as the 13th best quarterback and nobody was more overrated than the 173 touchdown, 220 interception, 50.1 completion percentage career of Namath.  Like Namath, Favre won the big one, which in sports today seems to be the measuring stick when it comes to rating great players. 

Dan Marino was a better pure passer than Favre, but Marino never won the Super Bowl and he will always be knocked because of that.  Favre and Marino’s stats are eerily alike, but many will rate Favre ahead of him simply because he won a Super Bowl.  Joe Montana’s stats don’t come close to Favre or Marino’s, but he won four Super Bowls and will always be ranked “way ahead” of a Brett Favre or a Dan Marino.  Tom Brady could retire tomorrow, and he, too, would likely be ranked ahead of Favre as well.  Terry Bradshaw threw for 27,000 plus yards, or more than 34,000 less than Favre (and Marino), but because he won four Super Bowls, he gets the nod over Favre (and Marino). 

Not sure if that’s right, but I saw all of Favre’s career, and he was great, but overrated. 

John Furgele

The Shame of Sports Talk Radio

March 3, 2008

I was in my car for four hours today and had the (mis) fortune of listening to some sports talk radio.  There are two sportsradio networks, ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio.  For some reason, FSR is almost unlistenable.  I try, but I can’t seem to stay focused, which may be because they can’t stay focused on a particular topic.  Even their 20/20 sports update anchor takes too long to give scores and rambles. 

Freddie Coleman was hosting over on ESPN Radio.  I like Coleman.  He knows sports, and he can stick to a topic and doesn’t do a whole lot of clowning.  Coleman did spend 15 minutes debating the Hank Steinbrenner-Red Sox Nation dilemma for what reason I do not know, but most of the time he gives fans what they want:  sports news and information.

What both networks should be ashamed of is their total ignorance of the NHL.  Now, both networks will say that they’ve done studies, and they’ve been told that the listeners don’t care about hockey and don’t want to hear about hockey.  Let’s remember that both Fox and ESPN/ABC broadcasted NHL games for years, so there was a time when they thought that people cared.

Look, nobody expects a radio host to spend a lot of the show talking about the NHL.  We know that the ratings aren’t good.  We know that many Americans don’t like hockey.  But, what about the Americans who do like hockey; who do live in hockey cities; who do watch hockey games?  Why do they neglected? 

The NASCAR fan gets to hear segments, as does the PGA fan.  ESPN carries golf and I don’t mind them giving some attention to sports that they cover, but when I hear their hosts state on the air that “hockey is non-existent,” or hockey “isn’t a relevant sport,” it does make one question the credibility of the sports host.

WFAN in New York is almost as bad as the national networks.  They’d rather talk about how the Mets struggled to score in a pre-season gamethan talk about the NHL, which there are three of in the New York area.  In case you forgot, those three teams are the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, with the latter’s games  broadcasted on WFAN. 

If you’re a national sports talk host, you have to talk about and cover all major sports, not just the ones you like.  Colin Cowherd has three hours to tell us how great he is; to tell us for the 35th time that he dated a girl named Kitten, and to tell us what a ladies man he is.  Can’t you get Barry Melrose on from 11:06 to 11:17 once a week to update the nation on what’s going on in the NHL? 

Of course not.  Let’s talk about college basketball even though its ratings stink.  Let’s talk about the NBA because ESPN carries NBA games that get low ratings also.  I’m not a huge hockey guy myself, but I believe you have to fair and objective and at least offer something for the hockey fan.

Hockey is a major sport and deserves a little “like.”

John Furgele