Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sizing up the AFC West

Welcome to my sizing up of the NFL before the start of the 2008 season. The following is how I see the quality of the teams stacking up, and the order in which I see the teams finishing. Any of the teams could finish better or worse than what I have listed here, and my first look will be at the AFC West.

4. Raiders - With the addition of running back Darren McFadden, the Raiders are better than they were a year ago. How much better remains to be seen. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced that JaMarcus Russell is going to fare any better in the pros than Michael Vick did. His high draft status was predicated pretty much on one strong season in college. The last team that did that was the Bengals when they drafted Akili Smith in the first round. I think they inch their way to a six win season.

3. Chiefs - I don't really believe that the Chiefs are better than their brethren by the Bay, or that Brody Croyle is going to be any better than Russell will be. Honestly, I think the two teams will battle it out for a spot in the West's basement. While I'm thinking six wins from the Chiefs, I wouldn't be surprised at a repeat of the team's four win 2007 campaign.

2. Broncos - There's some talent on this team, but I've never been as convinced of Mike Shanahan's genius as he or Denver fans have been. He's made some horrible personnel decisions, including the drafting of Maurice Clarett, and for an offensive genius, he's not exactly been able to get the most out of his quarterbacks. I think this team is looking at .500, 9-7 tops.

1. Chargers - San Diego is still the class of the West. They have the best defense and the best running back. Unfortunately their quarterback took a big step backwards last year, their running back likes to look for excuses outside of his team for why they lose, and I still don't have confidence that Norv Turner is the coach to get this team to the promised land. There were whispers of infighting and players not completely committed to Turner's system last season, and the team won fewer games. They will make the playoffs, likely at ten wins, but they will not get the bye.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The dividends of youth

For the second straight night the Red Sox battered Texas pitching, scoring eight runs through the first five innings. Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, and Jed Lowrie accounted for six batted in of the eight runs. The three of them make for an average age of 27.33 years old (approximately). Youkilis and Bay are both 29, Lowrie is 24.

The 25 year old Dustin Pedroia had another two hits tonight and is now 7 for 11 against Texas pitching.

But more importantly, 24 year old Jon Lester was in shutdown mode for seven and a third innings only one day after the spot-starter and bullpen immolated. Lester gave the bullpen a much needed break.

However, Mike Timlin poured gas on the fire in the eighth, failing to record an out before giving up one earned run of his own, and allowing two inherited runners to score - screwing an otherwise beautiful start by Lester who got the two runs credited to his ERA.

Even Justin Masterson, 23, got in on the win with a scoreless ninth.

I've noted this before, but there is a definite "the future is now" vibe that the Sox have with homegrown youngsters like Masterson, Lester, Pedroia, Lowrie, Ellsbury (24), and Youkilis leading a contingent of ten Red Sox' minor league products on the major league roster.

This is what Brian Cashman wants, what he is aiming for with the likes of Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain. It, so far, is not what he has received.

And it has made the difference.

As the Yankees have struggled with injuries and age, the Sox have managed to engage in plug-and-play with their youngsters, who have performed. Take one look at Kennedy and Hughes. Neither has performed.

As a matter of fact, neither was ready for the majors, and now the Yankees are relying on the likes of Sidney "The Pontoon" Ponson, and Daryl Rasner for whenever they begin their playoff drive. If these guys make up 40 percent of your rotation, the post-season is a long-shot. At best.

But these are the dividends the Sox have received for not rushing the young guns to the majors - Clay Buchholz not withstanding. And it's exactly why they should be in the thick of it next year as well.

The Hard Way

The Red Sox inched a game closer to the Rays. They did it the hard way.

In a four-hour marathon of a game, the two teams combined for 87 at bats, 37 hits, 36 runs, 36 men left on base, 35 RBI's, 13 walks, four errors, and only 12 strikeouts. The two teams used a total of 11 pitchers that threw a combined to throw more than 400 pitches.

By the end of it all, the Red Sox won by a final score of 19-17, a score more indicative of a football game rather than a baseball game.

While it's not encouraging that the bullpen trio of Javy Lopez, David Aardsma, and Manny Delcarmen combined to give up seven earned runs in two innings (a combined raging 31.50 ERA for those three pitchers in that two innings), it was good to see Hideki Okajima come in and put out the fire - stem the bleeding so to speak.

Other game observations...

David Ortiz looked like his wrist isn't bothering him so much right now. He had two home runs (in the first inning), one wrapped around the Pesky Pole, one to dead center, and a ground rule double to the triangle in center. For the game he was 3 for 4 with four runs scored and six RBI's.

In the bottom of the eighth, with two outs, the game tied at 16 and Dustin Pedroia on, Texas manager Ron Washington chose to intentionally walk David Ortiz (batting .260 this year) to get to Kevin Youkilis - the same Kevin Youkilis that is second on the team with a .316 batting average, leads the team in home runs with 22 (21 before his final at bat last night), and RBI's with 81.

To that point in the game Youkilis was 1 for 4 (home run) with two strikeouts and two RBI's. Youk, about due for another hit, made Washington pay for his choice, hitting a three run shot that cleared the Monster where the Wall meets the centerfield triangle. To borrow from Bull Durham - anything hit that far oughta have a stewardess.

Other positives include the fact that knuckleballer Charlie Zink pitched reasonably well into the fifth inning against a heavy hitting Texas lineup before the wheels fell off. I'll generally take four-plus innings from someone who never had a major league start before.

JD Drew continues to have a strong season with two hits, an RBI and three runs scored. Jason Bay continues to justify the trade with another RBI as he continues to hit over .300. But it's the middle infield that's tearing it up.

Jed Lowrie continues to make Theo Epstein's choice to give Julio Lugo a three year deal look foolish as he had another two hits, another two RBI's, and a run scored. His battery-mate at second, Dustin Pedroia is the Mighty-Mite, the Mini-Monster, He's become the Red Sox toughest out. For the game he was 5 for 6 with five runs scored and two batted in - including the RBI that tied the ballgame.

Lester goes next, then Matsuzaka, and Beckett likely followed by new acquisition Paul Byrd. Byrd should make things interesting at the back end of the rotation.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The time is now, and other thoughts...

The Rays are getting dinged up - Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, the team's two biggest offensive threats just went on the DL. Crawford is likely done for the year, and, with a broken wrist, it would be surprising to see Longoria back before the middle of September. The Red Sox, meanwhile, just finished a 4-3 road trip, winning two of three against the bottom of the barrel Royals, and taking two of four from the wild card hopeful White Sox.

What should be encouraging is that the Sox outscored their two opponents 38 - 22. Their big issue on the road this year has been scoring runs.

Jed Lowrie is making if very difficult for the Sox brass to justify keeping Julio Lugo. In fewer than half the at bats, Lowrie is on pace to have 105 RBI's over the course of a 500 at bat season. Lugo is on pace for 42 over the same number of at bats. Add to that the fact that Lugo leads the team with 16 errors, six more than Mike Lowell in only 11 more total chances, and eleven more than fellow middle infielder Dustin Pedroia (in 256 fewer chances than Pedroia), Lugo may have played his way into being a very expensive back up.

On a separate note -

This weekend I finally got to see the Pats-Ravens pre-season game, and here are some of the thoughts regarding that...

Matt Cassel didn't look as bad as his stats line. He wasn't good, but he had at least two completions dropped on him. If he doesn't improve, in over the next couple of games, I think he's gone by opening day.

The Pats brain-trust needs to hope that Brady doesn't sustain any major injuries.

More than Cassel, Chad Jackson has to perform. Jackson was outperformed by Matt Slater, CJ Jones, and even safety Ray Ventrone at the wide-out position.

I don't know that the Ventrone experiment is going to land him on the roster or not, but it's going to be fun to watch during the pre-season.

The team's young linebackers looked good - Jerrod Mayo had a great hit, standing up and stopping the Ravens running back at the line of scrimmage, Shawn Crable was very active, and even Pierre Woods, who really needs to show improvement this year, looked good coming off the edge. If I were to base the linebackers on what I saw in that game, all three of those guys are making the final roster.

Lamont Jordan looked good, but it was mostly against competition that he should look good against. I would like to see more of him against the first and second stringers.

I would like to see less of Billy Yates pretending to be a turnstile at right guard.

I would like to see better pressure from the front four on defense.