Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pitt- Oregon State Sun Bowl Preview

This is almost certainly the final post of the year for us here at Three River Sports, as tomorrow will be filled with watching Pitt athletic teams and drinking, and no one wants a half-drunk posting following the Pitt-OSU game, so have a Happy New Year and be safe out there kids.

But before I get to the subject of this little column, I NEEDED to link to this little story in the Trib regarding our beloved tailback LeSean McCoy who is showing some serious feistiness in wanting to get the old Pitt-Penn State rivalry resumed. Clearly the Pitt players, many of whom have high school friends at the State College, enjoy having some fun with it and want to play, but until that guy from Tales From The Crypt retires as the PSU Head Coach, the rivalry is dead, unfortunately.
Anyway, let's get to this thing, with some of the critical things to watch for in this ball game:
-As always, the Panthers are likely to only go as far as the legs of LeSean McCoy will take them. Expect McCoy to get the ball early and often, and surely Oregon State's defense is going to try to do everything humanly possible to stop McCoy short of putting 11 in the box. The Beavers would love for Pitt to have to use Bill Stull to beat them.

-Of course, Jonathan Baldwin will likely get a few shots downfield early in the game to try and keep the Beavers D honest. If Stull can complete even one of those to the scary athletic wide receiver it could change everything. I'm sure the Beavers have seen the number of missed downfield passes, and thus won't truly commit to stopping it until the Panthers prove that it can work.

-Rashaad Duncan started yapping a couple days ago, and now the Oregon State O-Line has heard it and is using it for bulletin board material. I'm not a big fan of these kinds of tactics, so I certainly could have done without all that, but let's just hope Rashaad lives up to his claims. Pitt's D-Line sets the tone for the D, and lets hope that tone is more like the one set in the Iowa and WVU games and less like the Cincy or Rutgers games.

-With Jacquizz Rodgers expected to miss the Sun Bowl, its pretty apparent that Oregon State is going to have to rely more heavily on their passing game. Its pretty clear that the Beavers aren't too comfortable throwing the ball a lot, though, because although QB Lyle Moevao has three 300 yard passing games, they were all in losses. Still, the Beavers new starting running back Ryan McCants is a freshman with 79 career carries. I expect the Panthers D-Line to mostly shut him down and force OSU to the air.

-Aaron Berry, Jovanni Chappel, Dom DeCicco, and the rest of the Pitt secondary will have their work cut out for them if this is the case. OSU has two very good receivers even with the brothers Rodgers sitting on the sidelines. Neither Sammie Stroughter or Shane Morales are the tall downfield threats that have given the Panthers fits, but they are both better than any corner the Panthers can throw at them.

-One thing I didn't mention earlier about in regards to Pitt's passing game: Oregon State has a very good secondary that is likely to give our resident head-scratcher Bill Stull some serious fits. Brandon Hughes and Greg Laybourn were both all Pac-10 players and their other two DB's were honorable mention on the conference teams, a pretty scary thought considering the fragile confidence of Stull.

-While Oregon State has some good return men, their special teams, especially on field goals, have been mostly mediocre this season, and I fully expect to see Wanny bring the house with Romeous, Taglianetti, and the rest of the special teams demons to try to get some blocks. Few teams in the country are as good as the Panthers at blocking punts and kicks, and that could be a gamebreaker for the Panthers.

-The Beavers also have a solid D-Line, so I will be interested to see how well the Panthers O-Line, which has really REALLY come on strong at the end of this season, will fair against them. This is one of the more underrated aspects to Pitt's success this season, in my mind. Remember how many questions there were at the beginning of the season regarding this O-Line? Well Jason Pinkston and Joe Thomas have morphed into very promising tackle prospects, John Malecki has turned into a nasty guard, CJ Davis has been spectacular, and Dom Williams has been solid in relief.

The Bottom Line
I think the Panthers strike early with Shady, and the Beavers are unable to respond to a few quick scores without their beloved 'Quizz Rodgers leading the way on offense. McCoy goes off for well over 100 yards, Stull puts in a solid effort, and the Pitt D does a nice job holding what's left of the OSU offense in check. Panthers 31-20

Monday, December 29, 2008

End of Season NFL Power Rankings

Well since it's the end of the NFL regular season, I figured it's about time I did something tht I had been meaning to do for several weeks: An NFL Power Ranking.

I know, I know, it's a little on the generic side, but if everyone else on the internet can do one, why can't I? So anyway, let's get to it:

1 Titans- They are the best, and until someone proves they can beat the Titans first-team, there is no reason to think otherwise. They are built very effectively for tough, postseason ball, which should make them a tough out, especially at home.
2 Giants- The Giants are the Champs, 'nuff said. I don't think anyone wants a piece of this bunch.
3 Steelers- The ferocious black and gold D makes the Steelers a very menacing opponent, as does the postseason experience of Big Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers offense.
4 Colts- The Colts have positioned themselves for a road run, and things look to be clicking at the perfect time for Peyton's crew.
5 Panthers- I've never been much for Jake Delhomme, but this team is playing good ball and finding ways to win right now.
6 Falcons- Hey I'm a big Matt Ryan fan, but can we slow down this Matt Ryan MVP Express Train? I mean, does no one realize that Michael Turner is unquestionably the most important person to that offense? If they don't know it yet, they will soon.
7 Ravens- I took great comfort in knowing the Steelers can't face these guys in the second round. I want no part of a Round 3 with the Baltimore Birdies.
8 Dolphins- This team overachieved to a truly remarkable level this season, but I just can't possibly imagine this team making a serious run in the playoffs, they just aren't ready.
9 Patriots- Hey, I'm all for things that screw over the Patriots, Bill Belicheck, and Boston sports fans, but there is something definitely wrong with the NFL's playoff system when an 11-5 team that is as good as the Patriots and have overcome as much as they have misses out on the postseason.
10 Vikings- As horrific as I expect Tarvaris Jackson to perform in the postseason, Adrian Peterson is just sooooooooooooo good.
11 Eagles- I can't fathom how this team turned things around. Their goose was cooked after tieing the atrocious Bengals and benching Donovan McNabb, and yet here they are, a postseason team after running the Cowgirls off the field.
12 Texans- A strong finish for the Texans jolts them way up the power rankings even though they have been eliminated from the playoffs for about a month.
13 Cardinals- Yes the Cards finally got back on the W side of the ledger after capping their season by topping the Seahawks, but does that really reassure anyone after their dreadful slide that preceded the win. This team is the best of an awful division. Congratulations, that will get you a first round home loss, just ask...
14 Chargers- What a crock that this team is in the playoffs. They were 5-8 and about to lose to the god-awful Chiefs a few weeks back, yet somehow stormed back to win and then caught the free-falling Broncos.
15 Bears- Playing the motive-less Texans, the Bears choked away a playoff chance. I'm not sold on Kyle Orton, but he's at least not going to kill you like Sexy Rexy, and I'm REALLY not sold on Lovie Smith as a coach, but I guess they'll both get another go-round.
16 Jets- The Man-genius gets canned, Brett Favre is talking retirement... the J-E-T-S could look VERY different next season, and I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.
17 Saints- Drew Brees is really, really good, but the defense and the so-called star runners like Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister... not so much. This team needs to re-tool themselves.
18 49ers- A wildly encouraging finish under the fiery Mike Singletary. We've heard this story before about the 49ers, but with some nice pieces and a reasonably competent (if a little crazy) head coach, I'm actually semi-buying it, especially in that putrid division.
19 Buccaneers- If it weren't for several other late season meltdowns on more high profile teams, the Bucs collapse would definitely be a bigger story. This team looks like its peaked in its current format and needs a rebuilding job. I don't think that happens under Jon Gruden though.
20 Redskins- Dan Snyder is insisting Jim Zorn is sticking around, and while he was an upgrade over the guy who called the illegal back-to-back timeouts, he's nothing special, and I'm surprised (and a little disappointed) in the free-spending Snyder.
21 Cowboys- Similar to their division rivals in the nation's capital, I have trouble seeing the Cowboys keeping their head coach. I mean Wade Phillips is a really, really bad head coach. How can a team with that much talent lay such an egg in an important game like the one yesterday? And how could any semi-competent coach let things get so poisonous in the locker room?
22 Broncos- One of these days the fine folks of Denver will realize Mike Shanahan might be the most overrated coach in NFL history not named George Seifert. Until then, they're destined to late season collapses like the one they just suffered through.
23 Packers- The Packers were a real mystery team. They played well, Aaron Rodgers was solid, they were decently coached, and played in a winnable division. They just couldn't win any close games. I think they could be a surprise squad next season, assuming they don't press the panic button.
24 Raiders- Who would've thought Tom Cable would bear some resemblance to a decent head coach? Certainly not me, but there's no denying that the guy was a pretty solid presence for the Raiders this season. Maybe there's hope yet for life in the black hole.
25 Bills- The Bills 3-9 finish after a 4-0 start is one of the least-talked-about big stories of the season. This team was a flat out mess for the final 3 months of the year, and I'm not sure how they had enough faith to extend Dick Jauron's contract in the midst of that disaster.
26 Seahawks- This team suffered from Bill Cowher syndrome. That is, their coach was leaving after the season and it sunk the whole damn thing for them. Holmgrem probably wasn't putting in the work necessary, the players weren't as eager or as hungry to play for him, etc. It's a write-off season out in Seattle.
27 Jaguars- A true stinkbomb of a season, and if it weren't for the Jaguars being the Oakland A's of the NFL, they'd probably send Jack Del Rio packing, but they're too cash-strapped to pay two coaches, and its unlikely they'd be able to land a quality coach for what they'd be offering.
28 Bengals- What does Marv Lewis have to do to get fired? Sure Carson Palmer's injury ruined this season, but how many chances does this guy get? They are unbelievably bad and I'm not sure there is one person on this team that showed any signs of progress this season. Just a nuclear winter of a situation.
29 Browns- Speaking of nuclear winter... But at least the Brownies have some talent. Being one injury away from offering Bernie Kosar a tryout led them to this level, but at best this was a 7 win team. Remember back when all the "experts" thought they were poised for a division title. Oh how I love the idiot NFL experts.
30 Chiefs- Much like Marv Lewis, how can it be that Herm Edwards still has a job? Just a truly bizarre situation that requires a fresh start from the management and coaching perspective, and Edwards surely isn't that.
31 Rams- How bad is it to be a football fan in Missouri right now? Which one of these teams have bragging rights right now? Would anyone care if the Rams moved back to LA? So many questions, so little wins.
32 Lions- And of course, the Lions... 0-16!?!?!?! A truly remarkable and historic season for the Lions. I will never forget this bunch of losers as long as I live. I think this franchise would be best served to shut things down for a few years, let all their contracts expire, sell the team to some fresh blood with knowledgeable personnel and just re-enter the league in 2012 as an expansion team. It's really the quickest way I can see toward them becoming a successful team again.

The Jaw turns down the Brownies

Yes the Cleveland Browns canned Art Shell's half-brother Romeo Crennel yesterday, and yes they went after our beloved Jaw, Bill Cowher, to be their next head coach, but it looks like Cowher is smarter than many of us gave him credit for, as he almost immediately pulled his name out of consideration.

Honestly, we shouldn't be surprised by this. Sure, the coach has ties to Cleveland in his past, but he's stated in the past he doesn't want to have to compete directly against the Steelers and all his old ties here. And who can blame him? If he were to fail, what could be more damaging to his legacy than near-proof that it was as much the Steeler Way as it was the Cowher Way that contributed to his success during his time here?

And on top of that, the Browns are truly a mess. As much as I believe Cowher fancies himself a Bill Parcells-type figure, I don't think he wants to go through the process of building up a decimated team like the Browns. I mean, yes this team could be turned around into a playoff contender, but they still need a pretty fair amount of talent, have major questions at QB, and have some serious attitude issues. I don't think Cowher wants that type of mess to deal with, although he certainly would have plenty of time (and money).

And for those of you who don't remember, Cowher's tenure in the Burgh was nearly derailed when he took over personnel control after Tom Donahoe was run out of town. It wasn't until Kevin Colbert seized back control that the Steelers (and Cowher) got back on the right track. I bet Cowher still worries about that, and would probably like to have a strong personnel man to work with, especially in a mess like Cleveland.

I was a bit surprised by his proclamation that he would return to CBS in 2009, but not that surprised, because it could just be posturing on his part. I still think that if the right job opened up (like Jon Gruden going to Tampa or Tony Dungy to Indy) with a team that has excellent infrastructure in place but just hasn't been able to get over the top, Cowher would leap at the opportunity. I think the Jets are an intriguing option, as are Dallas and Washington, regardless of what their owners say about their respective coaches futures, and San Diego is also a possibility after Indianapolis wipes the floor with them next weekend.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Steelers Win, Lose All At Once

As we all knew they would, the Steelers more than took care of business against the unbelievably bad Browns, more than embarassing their division "rivals." Yet right now, it's very difficult to feel even the least bit positive about what took place on the North Side earlier today, thanks entirely to the loss of our franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, to an apparent head injury that is being reported as a concussion. I mean, just look at that photo above without throwing up a little bit. I dare you.

The hot topic all week long in the Burgh was Mike Tomlin's decision to play his starters for the early portion of this game even though the Steelers had nothing to play for, and be quite certain the hot topic this coming week will be the results of this decision. Seeing Big Ben being carted off the field on a freakin' stretcher surely had many a Yinzer cursing Mike Tomlin's name, but hindsight is always 20/20. Personally, I am of the belief that Roethlisberger should have been taken out of the game after 2 or 3 drives, just enough to keep him fresh, but I have trouble faulting Tomlin too much for this decision. Yes it sucks, especially if the Steelers lose Roethlisberger for the playoffs, but the Steelers couldn't afford to not play Ben and the other starters at all, as that has backfired far too many times in the past several years on teams who behaved similarly.
If you want to yell at Tomlin and the Steelers coaching staff, do so because they have failed to make any progress whatsoever with this O-Line this season, leading to an almost inevitable Roethlisberger injury. I mean, Max Starks, who wasn't even a starter at season's beginning, is far and away the best lineman on the team right now, and I would only give him about a B- for his work. (In case you're wondering, my other grades are: D- for Willie Colon, D for Darnell Stapleton, C+ for Justin Hartwig, C for Chris Kemoeatu, and an I (incomplete) for Marvel Smith)
If it comes out in the next two weeks that Roethlisberger is out for the team's second round playoff game, the Steelers chances are diminished to just about zilch. Look, I think Byron Leftwich is a very nice backup QB, but if he has to play the Dolphins or the Colts or the Patriots or the Ravens, I'd expect Bruce Gradkowski type numbers out of him. He's just not a playoff-caliber starter, especially for a team he's sparingly played for this season. So, while it may no longer be Christmas, I think Steeler fans everywhere need to make a belated Christmas wish to Santa Claus, that Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and ready to roll when the Steelers take the field in two weeks at Heinz Field.
As far as the game goes, I really don't think there's a ton that we can take from the results of this game. Yes, it was good to see Willie Parker actually show he still has a pulse, and I was happy for Hines to get not only another 1000 yard receiving season but also his 800th career catch, and I was definitely pleased to see the D baring their teeth again after a disappointing performance last week against Tennessee, but everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, this was the Browns we were playing, and they barely qualify as an NFL team anymore, especially when about 40 of their players have quite obviously quit on the team, as happened today.
The bottom line is that the Steelers chances, like they always have, will rest on a combination of their matchups, the level of excellence the D reaches, and the play of their QB. Only now, that final factor has a little bit of a twist throw into it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Steelers-Browns Preview

After taking a few days off from posting, I decided to make a brief return today to give you something of a Steelers-Browns preview for tomorrow's game... but in all honesty, have you ever been less excited for a game against the Browns? I haven't. The Steelers could win 70-0 with Willie Parker breaking the single game rushing record and Troy Polamalu picking 6 passes (both distinct possibilities) and I wouldn't bat an eyelash.
For one, the Steelers have absolutely, positively nothing to play for. Yeah, Mike Tomlin is claiming the Steelers will play to win, and that the starters will play for a while, but I'll believe that when I see it. Tomlin went to the Tony Dungy school of coaching, and Dungy has long rested guys with nothing to play for, and I think Mike similarly follows suit, getting the key guys out there for a good portion of the first half, and then turning things over in the second half to Byron Leftwich, Gary Russell, Limas Sweed, Keyaron Fox, and Anthony Madison. Not exactly the most exciting setup for a ball game.
And this goes without mentioning that the Browns would probably struggle to beat the Florida Gators or Oklahoma Sooners right now. I mean, honestly, how badly injured is Bruce Gradkowski going to be after this game? He has almost no familiarity with this offense, the Browns have clearly and decisively quit on Romeo Crennel, their receivers are miserable, and the Steelers D is pissed off after getting knocked around last week. Just a recipe for disaster for poor Bruce. If something were to happen to Bruce, and Ken Dorsey is in fact too hurt to play, the Brownies will turn to Richard Bartel. At this point, you're surely asking yourself, who is Richard Bartel? Well, he went to the football mecca that is Tarleton State and here's a photo just for fun:
Now, I follow the NFL Draft and college sports as closely as just about anyone who isn't actually paid to do so, and I can honestly say that I have never heard of Richard Bartel and have never heard of Tarleton State, and I honestly can't even fathom how the Browns found out about this guy. He's spent the last two years on the Cowboys practice squad, so I guess there's that, but I will be rooting like crazy to see the deer-in-the-headlights look on this kid's face if he has to playing against the snarling, salivating Steelers D. I wonder how many pieces he'll be in after the Steelers inevitably destory him? Will the people at the funeral home recommend a closed-casket service so as not to disturb the family and people in attendance? So many questions, so little talent on the Browns roster. In all seriousness, though, the only QB on the Browns roster who does scare me is Josh Cribbs, the former college QB, because that guy can flat out play. I think the Browns would probably just be best served to run the wildcat the entire game and literally not throw a single pass the entire day. When you're the Browns, to paraphrase Woody Hayes, only 2 things can happen when you throw the ball, and 2 of them are bad, because there's no way Cleveland's completing a pass with awful quarterbacks and Braylon Edwards' seasonlong Dr. Strange Glove impersonation.
The one interesting thing to keep an eye on for the Steelers will be Hines Ward's attempt at 1000 yards receiving. Hines is just 27 yards away from his 5th 1000 yard season, and his first since 2004. He was very close in 05 and 06, and I hope that the Steelers give him a chance to get there. All it would really take would be 2 maybe 3 completions his way and he'd be set. That's not too much to ask, is it? He should get that by halftime with little trouble and then can pop a squat like the rest of the Steelers for the second half.
I suppose I should put together a prediction, so here goes: Steelers 28 Browns 14 in one of the most pathetic football games you will ever see. Ben and the D combine to put a 14-0 lead on the Browns in the first quarter, then pop a squat the rest of the way as the Steelers roll. And Hines gets something like 30 yards receiving to just top 1000 yards and is then hauled off the field.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pens Lose a disaster of a game; What is going on with this team?

Wow, when I picked last night's game out of the lineup of choices when we were splitting up the season tickets, I certainly didn't expect this. I figured that it'd be cool to see all the old ex-Pens in town coached by the Mullet Man himself. But I also pretty much knew that this Lightning team, barring Steve Stamkos turning into the next great rookie (which he hasn't at all) and Martin St. Louis reverting to the player he was a few years ago (which he hasn't at all), this Lightning squad was going to be a mess and that the Pens would take care of business against their former mates and I'd get to cheer this guy one more time before I had to start rooting against him:Well, I was half right...

In one of the most pathetic displays of hockey I have ever seen, the Penguins mustered a god-awful 15 shots, and I would say that nearly half of them were just pucks thrown at the net to try to get something going, and never had any real shot of going in. To show just how terrible the offense was, this is the first time that I can ever remember a goalie (Tampa's Mike Smith) putting together a shutout and NOT BEING ONE OF THE 3 STARS! This Pens team just looked like they hadn't finished their holiday shopping and wanted to make sure this game ended as fast as possible and as many people were driven away from the Igloo early because of the stench of their play so the postgame traffic would be minimal for them.

What's really concerning is this video from the Pensblog of Michael Therrien's postgame news conference. Guys are complaining on the bench? About what? How terrible every single person on the roster is playing? Not one guy on that team (except poor Flower that is) has the right to complain after that stinkbomb. 17,000+ fans have every right to complain and to ask for their money back. We paid good money to see a hockey game between two NHL clubs, not an AHL-caliber club play a hockey game while the Pens were apparently under the impression this was a morning skate session. You can tell from the video that Therrien is just absolutely disgusted by this team right now, and when he's been like that in the past, it often results in some serious lineup shakeups and some good old fashioned ass-whipping in practice, and I expect to see similar actions taken in the coming games.

I mean something has to be done here, right? 15 shots against THE WORST F-ING TEAM IN HOCKEY?!?!?! How does a team with the so-called "2 best players in the world" let that happen? I'll tell you how, because the two best players in the world, are not being aggressive enough right now, they're not shooting, and when they do shoot, it's involving about 1 or 2 too many passes and a few too many dekes and not nearly enough just firing a slap shot at the net at 100 mph. Do you realize the Pens have outshot their opponents just 12 times in 34 games this year, and just 3 times in their 11 December games? If you have two offensive forces of nature like Sid and Geno, you should be outshooting your opponent every single night, no excuses.

The problem I think starts with these two though. Sid has always been the unselfish one, but Geno didn't use to be this unselfish (at least not that I can remember). Last night he was skating in on Smith on a sort of breakaway and instead of taking a hard shot at a hapless goaltender like Smith, he left the puck for Sid who was skating in behind him. The only problem was, by the time Crosby got there, there were two Lightning players right in front of him, and he had no choice but to take a lousy shot. I mean what the hell kind of hockey is that? Congrats Geno, you made a no-look pass to the trailer, but passed up a good shot to give another guy a crappy one. Good job. There was a time last year, when Gonch and Whitters were healthy, and Hossa was still here, and Malone was here causing havoc in front of the net, when making an extra pass or two ended up being wildly beneficial to this team because everyone on the top two units and on the power plays could handle the puck extremely well and Bugsy was always standing on the doorstep looking for deflections and putbacks, which made the Pens shots on goal typically more valuable and effective, so it was okay to shoot a little less if they were higher percentage. But with the caliber of player on this team now, it's no longer okay for Sid and Geno to make these cross-pass ices when they have a half-decent angle at the net. I can't tell you how many times last night I witnessed a Pens player bungle a pass in his direction. It was like watching an entire team filled with Kris Beechs and Josef Melichars. And yet our two playmakers kept feeding these guys the pucks over and over again. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If that's the case, it's time to lock Sid and Geno up in Western Psych, because that fits what they are doing to a T.

Crosby is the leader of this team, so I'm holding him most responsible for what's going on right now, as should everyone. I mean yes, his numbers are very good this season, but what I saw last night and what we've all seen in the last month, is that something just isn't right with this team. Look, I know Crosby is never going to be Ovechkin-esque in shooting the puck. I've accepted that, but as the leader of this team, he needs to understand that his role has changed from what it was last year. When he has the right players with him, he is the best setup man in the business, but when you are playing with guys who can barely control the puck let alone put it in the net, it's time to throw that role aside and become selfish. Like any great leader, Sid's role needs to adapt to whatever the team needs it to be, and right now, that role is of a goal scorer. He's shown flashes of it in the past, but it's time for him to sustain this role and become the force of nature the Pens need him to be. And if he can't do it, then Geno needs to become the focal point of this offense and of this franchise. Sorry Sid, I love you and you'll always be the leader, but if Geno can turn back into the 50-goal guy I thought he could be last season, then right now he is much more important than you, and you both need to understand that.

Oh, one final tidbit: What's with the booing of Ryan Malone last night, Pittsburgh? Really, we're going to boo a native son who submitted one of the all-time tough guy performances in last year's Stanley Cup and was a key contributor on one of the best teams in franchise history because he cashed in for a truckload of money? I mean, that's ludicrous. Look at that picture above one more time. This guy should be given a standing O everytime he's seen in the Burgh. And I know, he was stirring things up early on and got called for a penalty for pushing around some Pens, BUT I DON'T CARE! DON'T YOU EVER BOO RYAN MALONE AGAIN!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pirates Stove Heating Up

After a slow and incredibly boring start to their offseason that culminated with the signing of Ramon Vazquez, the Pirates look as though they are finally set to make some moves to get things jumpstarted. And that is at least a little bit encouraging for us sickened Pirates fans.

Obviously the big highlight is the contract extension signed by Ryan Doumit yesterday. The contract for Doumit is a pretty nice on in my eyes. The deal should really only be evaluated on its 3 year amount, as I've always thought its pretty foolish to base any deal on the options because its so difficult to say what the state of Doumit and the state of the Pirates will be 3 years from now. Plus, if Doumit performs like the Pirates hope, the last year will likely be irrelevant, either because the team has turned itself around and the Bucs sign him to a new extension before that sesaon, or because the team still hasn't turned around and they deal him for spare parts (God I hope not!).

The three year deal has guaranteed money of 11.5 million, which is a pretty reasonable base pay for a catcher capable of becoming one of the 2 or 3 best hitters in the bigs at his position. If Doumit were to play all 5 years here and reach max incentives (highly unlikely given some of the clauses) the deal could reach 27 million, but if he does reach max incentives, then this deal is pretty much highway robbery for the Bucs it'd be so good.
The curious, and perhaps creative, thing about this deal is that the option years are triggered or declined at the same time. I can't recall seeing this type of deal anywhere else, though it's probably been exercised somewhere. So this essentially amounts to a 3 year contract and then a 2 year contract if the Pirates want it to be. The options are for at least 7.25 and 8.25 million per season (they go up if he reaches some clauses), so that second contract would be quite lucrative for Doumit and quite expensive for the Pirates if they choose to exercise it.
Some other moves the Pirates are making or considering:
-It appears neither Paul Maholm or Nate McLouth are going to get extensions done with the Pirates. Not too surprising, and in all honesty, I'm not too upset about either case. It may not be a popular view, but I think McLouth is headed for a regression season in 2009. Don't get me wrong, I like Nate, but to pay him based on his 08 season is folly, and I want to see it again from in 2009 before I am a firm believer. Never before in his career had he really performed anywhere near the level of last season, and I was also concerned by the major drop-off in his numbers following the all-star break last season. His OPS fell by over 100 points between his great pre-break numbers and his only a little above average post-break numbers. I do think he is definitely a nice starter around which the team can certainly build, but I don't see the urgency to lock him up. The same goes for Paul Maholm. I think Maholm is also a good piece to build upon, but I don't view him as much more than a 3 starter and think he could also be headed for a regression. He rarely gets any bats to miss, which isn't what you need from a top starter if you look at things from a statistical standpoint.
-The Pirates lost out on the Daniel Cabrera sweepstakes (oh darn...) but apparently were willing to bid quite a bit of money for his services, more even than the team Cabrera ended up signing with, the Washington Nationals, who gave him an exorbitant 2.6 million dollars. Really? The Pirates were going to offer him more than 2.6 million dollars? Who the hell thought that was a good idea. Sure the guy's got some skills, but look at these numbers! What part of those statistics offers encouragement to baseball people? Why are they constantly so enamored with Cabrera? I mean, maybe, just maybe, he just needed a change of scenery and his absolutely dreadful 2008 season was just the result of that, but is is worth 2.6 million dollars to find out? Absolutely not! This guy should be coming into major league camps on a minor-league deal, at best. If teams keep throwing this kind of dough at him, where's his incentive to improve?

-It appears as though the Bucs are more than willing to head into 2009 with Jumpin' Jack playing shortstop. Not exactly a shock at this point. And truth be told, I'm not too upset about this development, as clearly any prospect return would have been pretty minimal. My question, though, is this: Why not similarly offer to trade Freddy Sanchez? I know the Pirates just gave him an extension last offseason, but it's not like he is badly overpaid. And second base, for whatever reason, has become a much more scarce position in MLB nowadays than shortstop. Granted, they'd be trading Freddy at his lowest value in a couple years, always a no-no, but at least there are several teams out there that think he can at least return to 07 form if not his award winning 06 form. In 07, he had a .785 OPS, with a respectable .343 OBP. There are several teams with holes at second base right now where Freddy would be an upgrade at those numbers: Major upgrade for the Mets, White Sox, A's, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Royals (hard to say if they'd really be interested though), and Padres (unlikely because they're rebuilding, but still), and slight upgrade for Arizona, Cleveland (only slight because Asdrubal Cabrera is much younger and still has upside), the Twins (I'm not at all sold on Alexi Casilla and I doubt they are either), the Dodgers (Blake Dewitt has a nice upside, but is coming off a solid but unspectacular rookie campaign for a team that wants to contend now), the Giants (unlikely because they are rebuilding and have some in-house prospects). That's an awful lot of teams that Neal Huntington should be spinning his web to, and, while behind the scenes he may be, it certainly isn't a widely known fact, which makes me think it probably isn't a very active front.
-Denny Bautista will be brought back on a minor-league deal, and Chris Bootcheck was similarly signed to a minor league deal. Nothing too exciting at all on either one of these fronts, and let's hope both don't have to put on the Pirates jersey at any time after March.

-The Pirates are apparently after Rocco Baldelli, which is a surprising twist that I certainly didn't see coming. I mean yeah Baldelli has a load of talent, but he's been hurt how many times over the years, and is still dealing with the bizarre disorder that is plaguing his body and has caused him to miss a ton of time. Unless this is a very low-commitment deal, I don't like what I'm hearing. With Brandon Moss on the mend and little else in the way of outfield talent besides Nate McLouth looking major league capable (sorry I'm not at all a Nyjer Morgan fan), I'd rather put our resources elsewhere (like bringing back the now lost Jason Michaels) then pinning hopes on a deal with the enigmatic Baldelli.

-Hyzdu Headquarters has a rundown of the top 10 prospects in the Pirates system according to Kyle Stark on a recent FSN piece. I was a little surprised to see Andrew McCutchen ahead of Pedro Alvarez, but suspect that's mostly just because Stark hasn't seen enough of Pedro as a pro to fully grasp his abilities. I was also a little surprised to see Neil Walker all the way up at 6 given his struggles of the last two seasons, but then again, who else would be ahead of him? Also interesting was that Stark noted the two guys on that list to watch out for in this coming season are the two McCutchens, the aforementioned Andrew and the unmentioned Daniel. I suspect Daniel will probably not make the opening day rotation but will be among the first one or two called up when the inevitable ineffectiveness/ injury hits a starter early in the season. But I was much more excited to finally hear someone in the Pirates organization openly admit that Andrew McCutchen is close to big-league ready. Again, I don't think he is given much of a chance to make the opening day roster, but remember 2 years ago when he had a phenomenal spring and many in and around the franchise were claiming he could be up by mid-season 07? Yeah...so much for that. It seems like Cutch has been our top prospect forever, yet he just recently turned 22 years old. I think that, given the alarming lack of talent in the outfield, McCutchen will be all but forced into the bigs by the June or July when the team finally gives up on Nyjer Morgan as a everyday guy. To me this makes a world of sense, because he will be able to work out a lot of the kinks that typically plague rookies for these few months, and then should have an excellent footing established for the 2010 season. Not that any rational team would plan like this, but it would also enable the Pirates to get Jose Tabata time in Center Field in AAA, as he figures to be ready about a year after McCutchen, maybe slightly less.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Pens Win A Thriller

Rarely will you see such a hotly contested call in a sporting event. I mean that goal defined borderline. The above photo is the best one that I could find online of the goal, but if you get a chance to watch the replay, I'd highly recommend it just to see how close Sid's stick was to being illegally positioned. This made last week's Santonio controversy look obvious by comparison.

Thankfully, though, much like Santonio's catch, this one went in our favor, even though I was pretty skeptical, and it led to a very important W for the Penguins. After that lackluster loss to the Maple Leafs the other night, there was some serious concern as to the direction of this team right now. And despite the fact that it required some serious luck to put this W on the board, the good teams find crazy ways like this to win, especially against a team they are fighting tooth-and-nail against for a playoff spot right now.

It will be interesting to see how the Pens fare tomorrow night at home against Tampa Bay in day two of the double dip. I'll be in attendance, so I'll be sure to keep you posted on how they look from the first-hand perspective, let's hope its a worthwhile night.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pitt Hoops comes through for us

Whew...It was not a very aesthetically pleasing weekend for Pittsburgh sports, was it? The Pens get absolutely crushed by a very mediocre Toronto squad in front of thousands of freakin' invading Maple Leaf fans at the Igloo, the Steelers get run over by the Titans, and, even in a moment of victory, the Pitt B-ball squad picks up a W over Florida State in one of the most hideous displays of basketball the world has ever witnessed. If James Naismith had seen this coming when he invented the game, he probably would have gone back to the drawing board.

Neither team could shoot the ball to save their life, and I was quite terrified that I would be subjected to the chants of "A-C-C" from giddy ESPN analysts who love anything that can promote the glory of Duke and UNC and its even better if they can tear down the ACC's biggest competitor at the same time. I know this FSU squad is not highly regarded in the ACC, but I'll tell you this: that is a good ball club. They may not be ready to challenge Duke and UNC for ACC supremacy, but that's a tourney-bound team in my book, as they are extremely athletic, have a legit star scoring threat in Toney Roberts, and a spectacular D orchestrated by their coach Leonard Hamilton.

To the Panthers' credit, they responded well to their first extreme adversity of the season. Just as I hoped, Sam I Am Young took control of this one when Pitt needed him most with 21 points and 7 boards. Also coming up big for Pitt was Jermaine Dixon who posted a surprising 11 points after a dreadful start that saw him looking a bit too eager to shoot (and miss I might add), and Dixon was also excellent defending the perimeter, though I'm not sure he is "one of the best perimeter defenders in the country" as the announcers for the game claimed. I thought Jamie Dixon did a nice job on a night when the shots just were not falling at all for our Panthers. Let's hope this was an abberation and not the beginning of a trend. Dixon used a lot of subbing and put out some surprising crunch time lineups (Brad Wanamaker played more minutes than Gil Brown!) that somehow gelled enough to get a W on the road against a tough matchup.
The Mayor (DeJuan Blair NOT Sean Casey for those of you not in the know) had a bit of a tough night, as the athleticism of the FSU defenders seemed to fluster him quite a bit. Not that I'm the least bit worried about Blair, but it will be interesting to see how he matches up against similar defenders and game plans in the future now that the Noles achieved some success in stopping him, at least offensively. He was still a force on the block, though as he hauled in 12 boards including a startling 5 on offense.

The Panthers bench continues to worry me, though. I originally thought this had the potential to be one of the deepest teams that Pitt has ever had, but I am growing more skeptical with each passing day. Gary McGhee has made next to no progress this season, quelling any hope of getting him serious minutes next to Blair in what would be a terrifying combo, Brad Wanamaker may be solid fundamentally and can eat up minutes but has next to nothing offensively, Ashton Gibbs has looked terrible when really challenged at the point and his shot has been pretty awful when playing the 2, Tra Woodall has mysteriously disappeared, Nas Robinson is barely playing, probably because he's too similar to Gil Brown to get many minutes (though that doesn't explain why he didn't play more than 2 minutes tonight when Gil was in foul trouble), and Gil himself continues to be a freak of nature on the court, but his scoring touch hasn't evolved like I'd hoped.

The biggest glimmer of hope for a late-season bloomer among the lesser bench guys right now is probably Robinson, but that's only because he hasn't played enough to really get a good feel for him. He was pretty highly touted coming in this season as a recruit, so the skills certainly are there. I am hoping the biggest reason for his lack of minutes is because there are only so many minutes available in this lineup for a 2/3/4 ultra-athletic swing guy available, and that Gil Brown was gobbling them all up. Obviously, I'm not as sure now. I think Jamie Dixon would be wise to try to find more minutes for Robinson, as he is at least a threat to create and make plays offensively, unlike Wanamaker and McGhee, neither of whom look even remotely capable of being difference makers in Big East play. I think it's highly unlikely this actually happens, as Jamie seems to want to spend this season having Nas sit and learn and be molded into a Pitt man, and only be used very, very, very sparingly. Robinson played 81 minutes in the first 5 games of the season, but in the 7 since then, he's seen just 35 minutes total. Clearly, something is a bit off here, but its hard to say exactly what that is.

Steelers have a long way to go to be Super

In case you weren't reading all week long, I was incredibly nervous about the coronation of our Steelers coming into this game. Way, way, way too many people were claiming the Titans had peaked, that the Steelers D was the best since the Steel Curtain was falling on unsuspecting players league wide back in the '70s, that Big Ben was the best fourth quarter QB since John Elway hung 'em up, and that the Steelers were going to lay down the law against Tennessee earlier today. Whenver you hear things like that coming from just about every analyst, it usually spells D-O-O-M for the favored team. (Don't believe me? See: Giants over Pats in Super Bowl XLIII, Pitt over WVU in the '07 Brawl, Steelers over Colts in the '06 AFC Playoffs, among hundreds of other examples)

Of course, I'm not hear to say that all of those things are false. Hell, they might all end up being true before the curtain closes on this season, just not right now. The Titans, quite obviously, have not peaked. Granted, if they fall behind in a game against the Colts or something like that in the playoffs, you might as well throw dirt on that coffin, because they are dead, but with that power rushing game, a spectacular defensive scheme, and old Kerry Collins steadily running the show, this team is going to have a major say in what happens in January, and certainly appear to have gotten their groove back as the AFC favorites.

Maybe, just maybe this is what the Steelers really needed right now. I think they had become a bit too reliant on the comforting notion that, as long as they could stay close, they would pull it out in the end. Now they know that, against a legitimately good club, that can't be the case or things will turn out like they did today, with a relatively close game getting blown wide open at the end because of the Steelers' desperation.

First and foremost, Big Ben can't turn into the turnover machine we all know he can be at times. Roethlisberger has been unbelievably streaky in his career, and when things go bad for him, they typically go really, really bad, like they did today when he turned the ball over a terrifying 4 times. Obviously, we shouldn't expect to see much more from him next week than him turning around and handing off for 1 or 2 quarters, but here's hoping Roethlisberger realizes that, if this team is going to go anywhere in the postseason, it's going to fall on him to take care of the ball. Even if it means settling for a field goal instead of a TD, or taking a 4 yard swing pass in the flat instead of a 20 yard completion into coverage downfield, these are the things Ben needs to do for this team to beat teams like Tennessee, Indy, and the Giants.

But hey, let's take solace in this much. This was a very winnable game against a very beatable team, and the Steelers, I am quite certain, know this, and will remember it if they meet again in late January. Look at what could have been today, Steeler Fans. Just let me put on my rose-colored glasses first... okay here we go:
-On the play where Ben fumbled inside the Titans 5 trying to scramble into the end zone, if he had just thrown it away, the Steelers come away with 3 points.
-If Aaron Smith doesn't take one of the dumbest penalties in NFL history by barking out a snap count trying to draw a Titans lineman to a false start on their Field Goal attempt even though succeeding would have only pushed the Titans back to about a 25 yard field goal with the strongest legged kicker in the NFL, the Steelers only give up 3 points instead of the 7 they gave up two plays later. So we now have a 7 point swing...
-If Ike Taylor's able to make that tackle on Chris Johnson on 4th down, or if the Steelers are able to hold the Titans a little better on third down, that's either a 4 point or 7 point swing, I'll go 4 just to be conservative, which gives us a 11 point swing...
-Jeff Reed, normally wildly reliable, misses what for a him is a pretty darn easy Field Goal that would have given the Steelers a tie at the half. That's 3 more points, so we're up to 14 points.
-If Ben wasn't so desperate at the end, there's no way he tosses that pick to Michael Griffin, who promptly housed it on a seriously slacking Steelers squad.

That's a 21 point swing total, and there were some other possibilities there as well (specifically the opening drive which resulted in a punt but with a productive O should have gotten at least 3 because of the great field position), but it was only a 17 point Tennessee win, so you can now believe me when I say that the Steelers had a legit shot at winning this game if it weren't for the fact that they were unbelievably sloppy.

However, it's not all so easy and perky (as I take off said Rose-colored glasses), as the Titans didn't play their top two linemen and yet it was still open season on Big Ben, thanks to an abysmal day from the O-Line, especially Willie Colon and Darnell Stapleton. That line really needs to step up, and right after the play of Ben, is probably the second most important thing to Steeler success in the postseason. I mean, who would have thought that the Steelers best O-Lineman going into the season finale has probably been Max Starks? And if you thought that, how bad did you think the Steelers were going be this season?
And I can't believe I got this far without chastising the effort (or lack thereof by our D) in today's game. It's the end of the <300 yard run for the unit, and for whatever reason, the Titans were the arsenic to this squad's collective body. Let's hope, just as Jim Nantz and Phil Simms said, this is just due to the exhausting stretch of games they have been forced to play. They essentially get two weeks off, as I don't expect to see much of the first unit against the Brownies no matter what Mike Tomlin says, and then of course they have a bye following that.

Anyway, something tells me we'll be seeing these guys again in about a month's time at that same field, and if that's the case, I won't be nearly as terrified of this Titans squad as so many of the "experts" will claim I should be as a Steeler fan. The Steelers, despite a stink bomb loss, know they had a shot today, and should draw a weird kind of confidence from it. And, because I wanted to touch on the one thing that I'm sure will galvanize the maniacal Steeler nation in the coming days, I don't think anyone on the Steelers roster is going to need LenDale White's stomping of a Terrible Towel to get fired up for a rematch, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead and think that. Me, I'll take solace in the fact that I know the Steelers can beat this Titan team.

NHL Salary Cap Issues For the Penguins?

Dave Molinari has an interesting little piece in the Post-Gazette today about the NHL Salary Cap and how the recession could end up dragging it downward. As he mentions, the person this most affects right now is none other than Mr. Jordan Staal, with whom the Penguins are continually negotiating an extension that would likely have to end up in the 3-4 million dollar per year range.

As Molinari puts it, it's unlikely that next year's cap will be affected too much by this. And while that certainly is true that the cap certainly won't go down, with potential hardship on the horizon, I find it hard to believe it will go up much, either. The cap is currently 56.7 million, and in my mind, I have trouble seeing it go much beyond 58 million or so next season, a relatively small increase given the jump this past offseason.

However, even though the NHLPA is basically on life support at this point after Gary Bettman broke them in half, I'd be more than a little surprised if the NHL's power was so vast over the union that they could bring the cap downward. I'd guess it'd be more likely to remain stable at 58 million for the following season (2010-11) instead of going down.

But even if that's the case, I don't see the Pens having any more or less difficulty handling the cap than most other teams. Granted, they may have more long-term deals than most, but most of these deals seem wildly favorable (Sid and Geno for anything less than the league max is a bargain, Talbot and TK have small deals, and Fleury's is very reasonable if he continues to mature). The one deal that probably isn't too favorable of course belongs to one Ryan Whitney. While everyone (myself included) is wildly excited to see the return of Whitters next Tuesday, his deal is a little unwieldy, and I fully expect that, given the emergence of Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski this season, this will be the final season we see Whitney in a Pens uniform. If he comes back and plays well, that deal suddenly becomes a bargain for many teams in need of a top-flight defender who can contribute offensively. For the Pens, those kind of defenders seem to grow on trees, which leads to me think that if the Pens can ink Staal this summer (and I think they will as too many teams will be afraid of the same coming doom that Molinari forecasts) to make an overly aggressive pitch for Jordan, then a Whitney trade will be the accompanying move with that deal. Of course, all this also means that the Pens will continue to have to shop at the bargain bin for some of their complementary pieces, but I think that just seems to be the way of the New NHL, and it's worked out well so far for us, so I see no reason to fret just yet.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Good Old-Fashioned Notes Column

Lots of little things happening right now that have at least some relation to Pittsburgh sports, and since I didn't have any better ideas, I'm going to resort to the old-fashioned notes column, employed by lazy sportswriters the world over! And away we go...

-Not that I ever got to see him pitch, but it was surprising and certainly sad to see the passing of Dock Ellis in this morning's news. Of course, Ellis will always be known first and foremost as the guy who claimed to have thrown a no-hitter while on LSD, a truly zany sports story if there ever was one. Almost certainly because of moments like that, Ellis became a strong spokesman against drug use after his playing career ended, and certainly more than redeemed himself. Certainly the world lost a very powerful and positive presence yesterday.

-In other Pirates news, (YAWN) the team has shaken some things up in their minor league management. As always, the PBC Blog that Dejan Kovacevic runs on the Post-Gazette site has just about anything you could ask for if you really want the gory details. Typically I avoid reading too much background on these guys because it always make them sound like the second coming of Branch Rickey (if they are management) or Connie Mack (if they are field personnel), but if that's your kind of thing, go for it. The only thing that will matter to me is if these guys can get some tangible results out of the minors, and I don't mean seeing guys like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Jose Tabata make it, because they are both talented enough to do it on their own. I want to see them turn Neil Walker back around, help Shelby Ford and Jim Negrych continue their surprising developments, and work to develop the recent, promising additions to the organization, guys like Robbie Grossman, Jordy Mercer, Bryan Morris, etc.

-A big congrats is due to Paul Rhoads for his somewhat surprising hiring as the new head coach for Iowa State football. It was a very weird development that Rhoads, the former Pitt defensive coordinator who left the Panthers to go to Auburn for the same position this past season, will replace the guy, Gene Chizk, who just became the new head coach at Rhoads' now former employer, Auburn. Anyway, I know Rhoads has long been rumored for head coaching jobs, but I'm a little surprised his first job is as a head coach in the Big 12. Yikes! Good luck stopping those offenses, Paul. As much as I would like to see a former Pitt guy do well, I can't see this ending well for Paul. He was a wildly inconsistent defensive coordinator, leading me to coin the term "The Paul Rhoads special" for those games when, just as the defense looks as though it is coming together....BAM! They give up 48 points to Navy. He drove me nuts. Anyway, I don't see him having the gusto to turn around an Iowa State program that, quite frankly, is in shambles. I do think his involvement with their defense will pay off in the form of at least 1 big upset that no one sees coming, as he can put together a wildly impressive defensive game plan when you least expect it. Good luck Paul, I think you're going to need it.

-It seems like everyone is all sorts of fired up about the Steelers these days, and as I think I mentioned the other day, nothing makes me more nervous than that. Being the favorite, for whatever reason, just doesn't sit quite right with me, especially when it comes to the Steelers. I've been burned by too many AFC Championship losses I suppose. I have seen far too many people picking the Steelers over the Titans tomorrow, and that makes me equally uneasy. This Titans team didn't get here by being a pushover, and even without Haynesworth tomorrow, I'm still highly skeptical. I think tomorrow's ball game tells us a whole lot about our boys. Of course, I'll have a more in-depth preview posted tomorrow, so you'll have to wait until then.

-Bowl season is kicking off today, and I'm on the board with a 1 for 1 start thanks to Wake's very exciting come-from-behind W over Navy. Today's slate gives us three more games to look forward to, and there are few things more strangely enjoyable than watching a college game in a half-empty stadium in mid-December between two randomly thrown together squads. The BYU-Arizona game tonight in Las Vegas is a perfect example of that, yet that will be a pretty good game I think.

-Unfortunately, it looks like our Pitt football squad may soon be looking for yet another new defensive coordinator. The Trib is reporting that Phil Bennett has been contacted by some other schools (notably LSU) about their DC positions. That's upsetting if its true, because I thought Bennett did a very nice job this season with the defense after a sorta rocky start against those MAC schools, and the Paul Rhoads Special against Rutgers. Defensive Coordinator is a tough position to fill in college football, and I don't know that Pitt will be able to find someone as good as Bennett yet again, and the guess here is that the job would probably fall to current Pitt assistant Greg Gattuso, who many thought would get it last year. If that's the case, I expect Wanny to take on a greater role in the defense, as Gattuso doesn't have the clout of a Bennett or a Rhoads.

-It's a very busy weekend for all of our sports teams. Not only do the Steelers have the game of the weekend in the NFL tomorrow when they take on the Titans, Pitt hoops travels outside of Western PA all the way down to Tallahassee to take on Florida State tomorrow evening, a very athletic team that should give us a bit of a challenge even if they are not highly regarded, and the Penguins welcome the Maple Leafs into the Igloo this evening.

-Looks like Ryan Whitney will return Tuesday night against the Penguins South...I mean the Tampa Bay Lightning, who overpaid for several former Pens and are now regretting it. I am all sorts of pumped over that news, as I will be in attendance, which is great luck considering this is just the fourth game I've had tickets to all season. I'll report in with how Whitters looked, of course, and it will be interesting to see how he is handled in the first few weeks back. Expect him to be scratched a few times in the early going, as that can't be easy to skate daily on a surgically repaired foot. He is scheduled to be in Wilkes-Barre tonight for a 1 game rehab stint. Will be interesting to hear the reports on that one.
-The Pirates are just about set to sign Ryan Doumit to a contract extension that will lock him up through his arbitration-eligible years. I haven't been able to find any details about just how much this contract is for, so I will be very curious to see what the final figures are, as catchers who can hit like Doumit usually get more than they probably should because of the complete lack of hitting at the position across the board. Strangely, it appears zero progress was made in getting a deal done with Nate McLouth. I wonder if the Bucs are hesitant because of how flukish McLouth's numbers this past season look in comparison to his career. I'm not saying I don't believe in McLouth, because I definitely do, but I would be surprised to see him go over 20 home runs again (that power REALLY came out of nowhere), and I'm not sure where he fits in a good big league lineup, not that this is a relevant question for the 09 Pirates, because they figure to have a terrible big league lineup. I just don't think his OBP will be good enough to have a 1-2 spot in a contender's order, and certainly he's no ideal 3-4-5 guy, so I'd say he's a 6 hitter. And lastly, maybe the Pirates are also hesitant because they have McCutchen and Tabata on the cusp (probably June 09 arrival for Cutch and Opening Day 2010 for Tabata) and there's also a chance Pedro Alvarez ends up an outfielder as well. Or, maybe McLouth just wanted to see how this first year's process would go.

-Back tomorrow with a Steelers-Titans preview. Until then...

Friday, December 19, 2008

An Early Christmas Present for Penguin Fans Everywhere

And to think, Christmas Eve is still 5 days away and yet the Pens, in all their generosity this holiday season gave Penguins fans everywhere a very much unexpected Christmas present. That's right folks, two more years of this guy:

You can't possibly be any more excited than me to hear about the Superstar Mad Max Talbot's 2 year extension that takes him through the 2010-2011 hockey season. This is good to hear for the Pens from a hockey standpoint as well, because Max is a very nice third-line player who occasionally can be called up to play on the top two lines, and is a great guy to have for the always important chemistry purposes.

Jack Wilson Drops a Bombshell on the Pirate Ship

For the first time since their annual appearance at the trading deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a front-page story on ESPN.com, and the guess here is they probably would have preferred not to have one this time. In case you somehow missed it, Jack Wilson sounded off about the mess that is the Pittsburgh Pirates. The link to the PG's story is here, as well as a link to the Q&A coverage in the PBC Blog. It mostly seems like harmless, quite obvious stuff that Wilson says (though you wouldn't know it from my deceiving headline), and Frank Coonelly mostly confirms that in his response, though I'm sure it was a bit different behind closed doors than it was in his press release.

The most interesting thing I took from this was Wilson's quote, "The biggest thing stressed over the past year was accountability. That includes everybody in the organization, as far as having accountability for themselves and in wanting to win. It's not just the players." On the surface, this doesn't seem like much, and Coonelly more than accepts it because it is the team's mantra and claims that they have made sure that players and management is accountable, but to me, this is Wilson saying, "Yeah sure the players are held accountable, but have you seen the moves these guys are making? Have they brought in one piece at the major league level who has looked even serviceable so far? HELL NO! Where's the accountability for them? There isn't any!" Of course, this might just be me saying crazy things and overreacting, but I think Wilson, and who can blame him, is just tired of the same old crap from management. I also think, as he openly admits, that he got excited about playing for a contender in Minnesota or LA or Detroit or wherever, and now that its looking like he'll be back in the Burgh for another season, he's just flat out depressed.

Finally, one last thing I felt necessary to mention, is Frank Coonelly's laugh-out-loud hysterical (and clearly delusional) quote in which he had the gall to compare the Pirates roster to the Red Sox. It was quite innocent in all honesty, but there is no way you can seriously draw any sort of parallel between our Succos and the most successful team of the last 5 seasons. The quote was: "I am sure that Jack misses some of the players who were here when he signed his contract three years ago, but he is not alone in playing for a team that has experienced significant turnover. Indeed, only seven players who were on the Red Sox World Series team in 2004 were on the Series roster of the 2007 team." Yeah Frank, but the Red Sox holdovers were okay with that because the guys that the team brought in were guys like Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and JD Drew. Meanwhile, poor Jack watched the Pirates bring Jeff Karstens, Andy LaRoche, Chris Gomez, and Ramon Vazquez. I mean good lord. Clearly those are not equal situations.

But this is really just a case of people making a story when really, it's just a bunch of obvious quotes from a long-time, well-respected vet like Wilson. It's the off-season, so everyone's looking for even the smallest bit of info to talk about regarding our Pirates. I don't think this is anything worth worrying about if you are the Bucs, and certainly Wilson has never given even the slightest inclination he could be a locker room distraction.

Fleury Returns; Pens Post Impressive W

Even though Dany Sabourin has been excellent in relief of Marc-Andre Fleury, there was something very, very reassuring about seeing the Flower back between the pipes last night for the Thrashers game. And he didn't disappoint, either. Fleury put together a 28 save night, and on two of the three goals he allowed, the blame wasn't with him, but with deflected shots. Now, Fleury certainly had a few moments where you could tell it had been a few weeks since he'd been in net, but having a legit number 1 goalie in net again clearly got this time a bit fired up, as they unleashed a 6 goal night on the unsuspecting Thrashers.

It was also evident that they were in a lot better shape after 4 days rest than they were after getting whipped by the Flyers in their last game. Granted, the NHL schedule, by nature, will force teams to go through stretches like that one, but given the Pens' injury status at the time, it was just a case of bad timing for our favorite hockey club. The offense was very crisp last night, as Geno continued on his tear with a 4 point night, Sid chipped in with a pair of assists, and the offense's role players continued to chug along with solid productivity.

A big part of those role players has ben the minor league call-ups this season, and they continue to impress me (and obviously the Penguins as well) with their work. The elite-type prospects are basically gone from the Pens after a few years of either dealing them away or drafting players that were too talented to spend time in the minors, but guys like Jeff Taffe, Tim Wallace (who has been a very nice addition considering I had never heard of the guy until about a week before they called him up), Ryan Stone, John Curry, and Alex Goligoski (who has a ton of talent, but has been playing better than I think even the most optimistic people in the Pens organization could have imagined) have all proven they can be contributors on good teams like the Penguins, and while certainly some of these guys figure to lose playing time and in some cases even their roster spots as the Pens get healthy again, I feel infinitely better about the organizational depth than I did a few months ago.

The Pens are off today and return home to face the Maple Leafs tomorrow night and begin a stretch of 9 games in 16 days where they are confined to the northeast, including 5 home games. With the Flower in net, Whitters and Mad Max figuring to return in the very near future, this team figures to get a lot better in a hurry, and this stretch with no big trips could be a very productive one for the Pens.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Some Doubt About It: Pirates Pick Lanny's Replacement

The Bucs have themselves a new play-by-play guy, Tim Neverett, from the Colorado Rockies on FSN Rocky Mountain. Good to see we have some new blood to call our almost-sure-thing record-breaking 17th straight losing season.

I initially wondered why in the world he would leave a franchise like the Rockies, just a year removed from an NL pennant and in a bigger media market, to come to the Pirates, who are stuck in the the worst (or more accurately, tied for the worst) rut in MLB history. It turns out he was only a part-time play-by-play guy for the Rockies and was a pre-game and post-game studio host. This info was courtesy of the folks at the Trib. Hard to really have an opinion here until we actually get the chance to see how he fits in. But it's at least newsworthy, as the job of Pirates play-by-play has had some pretty popular figures in it over the years, and though Lanny may have been slipping in the last few years, he was a pretty well-known man in Pittsburgh sports.

Blair a Man Amongst Boys; The Zoo Strings Gottlieb Up From the Rafters

Although Pitt-Siena was slightly marred by refs who had apparently never seen a Big East basketball game before judging by their shock at the Panthers' style of play, and by Pitt's difficulty in going for the jugular, it was still a highly entertaining late night at the Pete for any number of reasons. What follows are some of those highlights:

-DeJuan Blair continues to be an absolute monster underneath the boards. Smaller, less physical teams are going to get absolutely obliterated by this guy. He was brilliant as a freshman, but rarely was he good enough to dominate and become the best player on the court. That has already happened several times this season, and it happened for the entirety of the 30 minutes of playing time he logged last night. He put together 21 points and 16 rebounds and was absolutely hosed by the freakin' refs in this one. He was given the Shaq treatment where, if he so much as breathed in the wrong direction the refs whistled him for a foul, yet down on the offensive end, Siena did everything to stop him short of using pitchforks and torches yet nothing was called because the refs continuously choked down their whistles. Ridiculous. The good news is, the Big East regular season typically gives us competent refs, except of course this guy:For those of you unaware, that's the Notorious T-I-M aka Tim Higgins. Anyway, Blair's progression has been eye-opening this season, and while the stats may not really show that much of a difference from last year, one look at this guy on the court and the difference is unbelievably obvious.

-If there have been any unknown government advances in cloning in recent years, I volunteer Levance Fields' cells be the first to be replicated, because the Panthers NEED to find a way to get him out there for 40 minutes a game come Big East time. I'm sorry but Ashton Gibbs had the complete deer-in-the-headlights look going tonight when Siena put the press on him. In case you weren't aware, the Big East coaches, to a man, are probably 16 of the best defensive coaches in basketball and are guaranteed to be licking their chops at the thought of sicking the dogs on him. If he's doing anything other than running the point in blowout home wins during Big East season, the Panthers are going to have some issues. And I'm not sure what happened with Tra Woodall tonight, though I'd guess he's a bit banged up, as he didn't play despite some promising efforts in recent games.

-I know he made 2 treys, but can someone please tell Tyrell Biggs it's not okay to launch threes and long-range jumpers? He does know he's a role player whose sole reason for being on the court is to grab rebounds and hustle back on defense right? The only way he should score is if Sammy or Levance clank one and he shoves the putback in.

-Jermaine Dixon may start every game this season, but mark my words, in close games he'll be popping a squat the same as Gary "The Koopa Troopa" McGhee, Gibbs, Woodall, Nas Robinson, and the white guy scrubs. That's because Gil Brown's energy, athleticism and versatility will make him the ultimate weapon late against their Big East foes and he'll be the guy playing the two spot instead of JD. Now, you may say, "Well why wouldn't Gil start then?" And my response is this: He's the perfect weapon off the bench. Around that first media timeout when Blair and/or Biggs and Dixon come out of the game and the Panthers have to work in a 2 or 3 new guys into the game for the first time that day, Gil is the ultimate spark plug to keep that lineup going and give them a bit of a different look. Then have Gil move down to the 3 (or even 4) spot when Sammy takes a quick breather and put JD back at the 2. I mean let's be honest, despite the fact that this Pitt team has as much talent as any Pitt team that I've ever seen, there is a definite hierarchy to this team. It really comes down to the Big 6 (the starters and Gil), the Small Big 1 (Gary McGhee whose enormous but small in court presence and ability), the Small Small 2 (Tra Woodall and Ashton Gibbs, who combined weigh roughly the same as the Koopa Troopa), and the Other 2 (Nas Robinson and Brad Wanamaker, both of whom have talent but are too similar to Gil to really merit serious crunch minutes). So the more minutes they get out of the Big 6, the better off this team will be.

-Although I knew Doug Gottlieb has snubbed our Panthers and the Big East as a whole in years past (though his idiocy really isn't confined to a single team or conference), I didn't anticipate the venom spewed his way tonight by the Oakland Zoo. As always I was sitting right smack dab in the middle of things, and was shocked, amused, and at times even a little uneasy over the rioting mob mentality that developed toward him. Good, clean, fun chants like "Where's my Visa?" (A reference to Gottlieb being given the boot from Notre Dame many years ago after, I think, stealing credit cards or some kind of credit card scandal) started the night off. From there, things got crazier in a hurry. Much like the Anchorman fight, "That escalated quickly, I mean that really got out of hand fast...Roc killed a guy..." After some of the self-proclaimed "leaders" of the Zoo put some inflammatory quotes on their little dry erase boards claiming that Gottlieb claimed the Zoo wasn't a tough place to play, a recurring "Gottlieb sucks" chant started and continued for much of the second half. This obviously isn't anywhere near as creative or fun as the Visa trade, and led to only more malicious stuff, such as a number of derogatory sexual slurs directed at himself, his mother, and other family members. Good times all around!

-Gary McGhee, if you can't even freakin' dunk the ball, why are we keeping you around? He was matched up against someone named Josh Duell tonight who was easily 40 lbs. overweight for most of his breathtaking 6 minutes of PT, and it's probably safe to say this clash of the titans wasn't quite what James Naismith had in mind. And the highlight (or more accurately, lowlight) came when Duell took McGhee off the dribble around the 3-point line. And by off the dribble, I mean he stared head down at the ball as he slammed it insanely hard into the ground while slowly moving forward. I'm pretty sure that was the quietest the crowd was all night long as all 12,000+ in attendance gawked in horror at what was taking place. The weirdest part of all was Duell draining two treys despite looking like he would lose to Casey Hampton in wind sprints.

-This Siena team may have been a frisky bunch that played with solid fundamentals and had a smart, if somewhat loathsome, head coach, but I can't figure out how in the hell they ever beat Vanderbilt last year if this was their team. Pitt, if this was a meaningful game, would have blown the doors off of Siena early in the second half instead of subbing in the backups, who allowed the Saints to stay within striking distance. Any half-decent squad could've beat them tonight, and I really didn't see much in the way of potential three-point ability for most of the game that so often characterizes those mid-major Cinderellas. They were 6-23 from downtown, and no one on that team, except for maybe the aforementioned fat guy, looked comfortable shooting it, either, so I don't think it was just an off night.

-Our Panthers are now 11-0, and there is no way rest for the weary, as they play an athletic Florida State team Sunday evening in Tallahassee in what figures to be a very interesting game to keep an eye on. The 'Noles may not be a powerhouse ACC program, but they know how to play with the big boys, and add that to the fact that it's outside of the 4-1-2 area code, and it's probably the toughest non-conference game the Panthers will play this season.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Power of the Big East

I'm headed to the Pete tonight to watch our beloved Panthers take on a frisky mid-major in the Siena Saints, a game that, while certainly won't give us much of an indication of Big East play, should at least be something of a challenge for the Panthers, especially early on. I'll report back in tomorrow with my thoughts on the game, and hopefully they are nothing but upbeat and cheery.

On the national college b-ball scene, the red giant known as the Big East continues to make all other conferences look like white dwarves. And yes, that was an astronomy analogy. Deal with it. In the latest Top 25 polls, the Big East has 8 teams in both polls, 6 in the top 15 in the coaches' poll and an astounding 7 in the top 15 in the AP poll. And in all honesty, I think a few others besides those 8 could see time in the Top 25 before the end of the season. West Virginia, as much as I don't like to admit it, is a pretty good team with a fair amount of talent, but that's bound to happen when you have a coach who has consistently run shady programs. Seton Hall, Providence, and St. John's look like they are programs on the rise and have gotten off to strong starts this season and will be teams to reckon with in Big East play, and Cincinnati looks to be headed back up after a few down years. Really, the only teams in the Big East that have struggled thus far are South Florida and DePaul.

I mean that's 12 squads right there that in any other conference would figure to be favorites to earn NCAA bids, yet in the Big East, they will have to fight tooth-and-nail to earn a 7 or 8 seed for most. In my mind, though the Big East deserves double digit bids, they will only get 9, which would be a record. So here's how I break it down on percentage points for the Big East's 16 teams:

UConn 100%
Pitt 100%
Louisville 99%
Notre Dame 98%
Syracuse 95%
Georgetown 85%
Villanova 83%
Marquette 83%
West Virginia 60%
Cincinnati 24%
Seton Hall 23%
Rutgers 20%
Providence 15%
St. John's 12%
DePaul 2%
South Florida 1%

Anyway, all this leads me to my long-standing question: How long can this league really stay intact as is? Though nothing has been public about any trouble in the league, you've really got to wonder how long schools like Seton Hall, DePaul, Providence, and St. John's will really want to stay at the bottom tier of the conference. Big East football will keep bottom-feeding South Florida in-conference for good, but the rest worry me. Especially the three long-time Big Easters there who have exceptional tradition but have watched their success dry up in recent years. I also wonder about Notre Dame, too, even though they have enjoyed success. The latest capsizing football season really makes me wonder if they are edging closer toward coming to their senses and joining the Big Ten for all sports. Of course, there is a slim chance they could just join up with the Big East in football, but that seems unlikely.

I think the appointment of another Providence man as the new Big East commissioner will stave this off temporarily, but it can't be easy for the lesser Catholic schools, who at this point must feel like they are buried alive. I think this peace can only last for so long no matter what, and the bet here is that this Big East, unless we see some parity start to hit the league, is very different 5 years from now. But only time will tell.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Pirates Lukewarm Stove

With moves highlighting their off-season like the following, I really can't actually continue the charade of calling the Pirates transactions part of The Baseball Hot Stove.
-Opting not to re-sign Jason Michaels
-Over-paying Ramon Vazquez for 2 years and 4 million dollars
-Spurning Chris Gomez even though he's still on the market and dirt cheap
-Pursuing the has-been Matt Clement and the never-was Daniel Cabrera
-Trading Fat Ronny for another useless catcher
-Non-tendering Denny Bautista
-Selecting someone named Veal in the Rule 5 Draft while not protecting Kyle Bloom

So instead, while everyone else deals on the Hot Stove and the Yankees deal on the Inferno Stove, the Pirates are relegated to the Lukewarm Stove until they actually do something that a real Pirate fan can pump their fist over.

But being that I'm a complete masochist, I still must follow this dreadful team as it swirls through the depths of yet another difficult rebuilding job. So, here are some of the things lurking for the Bucs:

-Yep, they're interested in Daniel "For some reason everyone thinks I'm going to be a good pitcher" Cabrera. Yeah sure he throws absolute heat, but he's essentially the real life version of this guy:
The only problem is that no one has yet realized that all they need to do is put glasses on Cabrera and...POOF! He's a superstar pitcher who is essentially the second coming. So they have that going for them. Of course, even if they do figure that part out, they should trade him after one year because he's going to get all soft after meeting some hot babe and want to learn to throw only off-speed stuff and fail miserably and then return to throwing only heat in the final game of the season because, you know, it's easy to make it in the Bigs if you only have one pitch and it's a fastball. Wait, did I take this movie thing too far?

-750K for Jason Michaels was apparently too rich for their blood even though they paid 2 million a year for this guy:
To be fair, Michaels' deal had incentives that could kick it to 1.5 million, but I mean even still, I'd rather have Nate McLouth's long lost twin brother than Vazquez. I mean LOOK AT THAT PICTURE! I know these guys may have forever given us the answer to the always pertinent question, "Which Pittsburgh athlete most looks like a sexual deviant?" But you've got to admit, Ramon Vazquez should come in second, right?

-The Buccos, in their usual infinite wisdom, waited until after the Rule 5 Draft to non-tender Denny Bautista, who had been taking up a spot on the 40-man roster that could have instead been occupied by Kyle Bloom, a young'n who was taken in the Rule 5 after an extremely promising showing in the Hawaiian Winter League.

-The Bucs may be kicking the tires on the immortal Ty Wigginton, but that seems unlikely given that, like thousands of others, he exploded into a promising player after he left the Burgh. Still I found it stunning he got non-tendered. They have also inquired about Jerry Hairston, but it's similarly unlikely anything actually happens here, too.

-It appears as though Rafael Furcal may be signing with the Braves. Or not. He might still be waiting around. Still, if he signs with ATL, then Jumpin Jack likely enters the cross hairs of the Dodgers. Also, a rumored trade with the Tomahawk Choppers that may net Yunel Escobar has been tossed about, as have rumors about Paul Maholm being involved in that kind of a deal, but that seems extremely unlikely.

-Donnie Veal, the Rule 5er that the Pirates took shortly before losing the more higher potential Kyle Bloom, struggled heavily in AA ball last season. He has a pretty fair amount of pop in his pitches, and that is something that is quite obviously pretty sacred to the new management squad. Still, that can only take you so far toward being a successful pitcher. He will also be converted, at least for this season, to a middle reliever from a starter, which could actually be something worth watching.

-And of course, I couldn't let the loss of one of the All-time great Pirates pass without at least a mention. That's right, the great John VanBenschoten has left the organization after being removed from the 40-man roster, thus ending the JVB error...I mean era. And what an era it was, as JVB and his partner-in-crime (and that crime was stealing first round money from the Pirates) Bryan Bullington have both been given the boot over the last few months. So long JVB, I hear you found employment as the batting practice pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. I'm sure your terrible soft tosses will be almost as good as whatever 90-year-old arthritic you are replacing.

Some Local Footballers Get National Attention

What an exciting day for useless fantasy teams! And no, I don't mean fantasy as in the sense you are all thinking of right now. I'm referring to the fantasy teams that the media types and the sports leagues put together at the end (or sometimes middle) of seasons to celebrate the best. In this case, I'm of course referring to the college football All-American squads and the NFL's Pro Bowl squads.

Even though there are roughly 2.4 million different All-American teams out there right now, the one that matters the most (at least in my book) is the AP's team. And that one was released today, and low and behold on the second team was Pitt's own Scott McKillop. And while I think an argument could be made for McKillop to be on the first team, I will take this and think it is probably about as good as can be expected for a player on the second-best Big East team. As for any Pitt snubs, I don't really see any huge beefs, and certainly didn't expect to have anyone else on the list. Of course Shady is as good as any back in the country on talent, but his yards didn't nearly match up with the others, even if his brilliance and his visits to the end zone did. I'd put Conor Lee up against anyone in the country for his expertise in the dreadful Heinz Field conditions, but that's a very subjective position. I also love the work CJ Davis did, but knew he wasn't going to get anywhere near an All-American spot.

And as for the professional fellas, our beloved Steelers, the team that many consider to be the best team in football and has indisputably the best defense in the league, landed just 3 players on the Pro Bowl squad. James Harrison and Troy Polamalu were no-doubt-about-it leadpipe locks, and the elder statesman of the team, James Farrior was a pleasant surprise as a reserve to the previous two's starting spots. But that's it folks. 3 players.

Now, I'm not about to get all riled up over the most useless All-Star game in sports, but I thought this team earned a little more than that. I thought after we all saw just how badly the Steelers need Aaron Smith last season his constant underrated status would vanish. But I guess not, as he was nowhere to be seen. And LaMarr Woodley has morphed into one tough outside 'backer in his first season as a starter, and I think he surpasses James Harrison as the most feared player on this D next season, but he was left off the ballot despite excellent numbers because of a shockingly great season for linebackers. Ike Taylor, because he inherited his hands from Dick Stuart, always gets a knock from scouts and doesn't have gaudy stats, but he has been a superb corner this season and I think deserved a spot. And I thought Ryan Clark was a very underrated guy. Now if these guys had performed in this way on teams that were currently 7-7, then they probably wouldn't deserve it, but when you are part of the best defense in the league that has torn through the toughest schedule in recent football history, you should earn these kinds of things.

Of course, that was before I looked up the roster to see who I thought these guys should replace, and was appalled to see that there are only 3 corners and 6 total defensive backs on the roster, only 5 linebackers, and just 6 defensive linemen. That's only 17 defenders. How is that enough? I mean they do run a 4-3-4 D, so why not have a backup spot at every position instead of like a half a backup at every position. 22 defenders so everyone can play about half the game. Whatever, that's the NFL for you, I guess this all just makes a bit too much sense.

Still, you know that in typical Pro Bowl fashion, probably 6 or 7 of those 17 defenders will end up begging out due to "injuries" like hangnails, splinters, tummy aches, and still-hungover-from-the-Super-Bowl. So, I'll be that 2 of the aforementioned Stiller defenders get the call, and the bet here is Aaron Smith and Ike Taylor.

Right about now you're probably wondering, "well what about the offense? Doesn't anyone there deserve consideration?" To which I respond: Well... if one or two of the wideouts beg out and then Randy Moss, Dwayne Bowe, and Derrick Mason all have their plane crash on the way over to Hawaii, maybe Hines Ward gets a spot, but other than that... No.

I mean I'd put Large Benjamin up against anyone and everyone as a total package QB and a winner, but the stats just aren't there this year, and that's what the Pro Bowl is all about in this day and age.