Sunday, January 28, 2007

January 28, 2007 (short one)

-- Steeltown visits the Pirates Winter Caravan in Uniontown and chats it up with Greg Brown.

-- Penguins rolling

-- Preliminary Superbowl thought

---Greg Brown: Crooner---

On Monday, January 22, WMBS was at the Uniontown Mall for some live check-ins from the Pirates Winter Caravan. My boss and I were there for a couple hours as Jack Wilson, Jim Tracy, Salomon Torres, and Freddy Sanchez were signing autographs for several hundred fans. We got to chat on the air with color commentator John Wehner and broadcaster Greg Brown.

I know that I'm not overly fond of Brown as a broadcaster, mainly because he has a tendency to repeat himself, but he's a very nice man.

Apparently, he's also a crooner. Or a karaoke king. Or something. You decide.

I've liiiiived...a life that's fuuuullll...

Of course, he's totally bought into the "LaRoche is the bat we've been missing" theory (I'm optimistic, but not invested...remember the last lefty power bat the Pirates brought least LaRoche is younger...). We discussed lineups off the air, and he's still got Jack Wilson batting second, pretty much citing "conventional baseball wisdom" that you put your best hitter in the 3rd slot.

Now, while I'm not quite with Pat at WHYGAVS that Wilson is a "black hole" in the lineup, I can definitely agree that you don't want Wilson batting 2nd. A .273 average isn't that bad (it was just 2 points lower than the league average). Unfortunately, his inability to draw a walk makes him a not-so-good choice to put before the heavy hitters. Naturally, I didn't have this info in the front of my mind to suggest during our discussion.

However, he made a smooth segue emphasizing that the success of the club revolves around the starting rotation; an assertion with which I completely agree.


I gave away a couple of passes to Piratefest on the air Saturday morning that my good friend Justin at Sports Events International hooked me up with but I couldn't use.


I'm afraid I'm actually getting a bit excited for the season. The team may actually be just good enough to help the franchise avoid that historical mark for losing seasons. There are a couple reasons for my fear.

1) The team is not well-run enough to warrant such hope.

2) It may be one of those "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me fifteen times..." type of things.

---Pens on a Hot Streak---

Rapid fire:

Sidney came up empty during the All-Star game, but apparently won one of the skills competitions. But I'm sure he'll take winning 5 out of 6 games that count over kicking ass in an exhibition game (that 6th game, they still got a point out of).

And the Pens actually won a shootout.

How hot have the Pens been? Last night, the Yahoo! Fantasy Sports window on the NHL page had 3 Penguins as their "Hot Forwards".

And finally, my favorite hockey columnist, Kara Yorio, strikes again with this wonderful assertion that the NHL should convince some franchise to come to Las Vegas. Were it not for her picking the Hurricanes at the outset of last year's playoffs, I would have rooted for Carolina. That's how much I love her.

---XLI (part I)---

-- Great offense is favored to win Superbowl XLI over great defense. Of course, "great defense" has been absent in Chicago since week 11 or so, so it may not be a stretch.

In any case, how well Indianapolis is expected to do has remained about the same. What I've been hearing is, "For Chicago to succeed" this and this and the other thing need to happen. The one constant as far as that is concerned is based around Rex Grossman. It seems that shortly after Chicago's wins in New York against the Jets and Giants, the league caught up with him, because he's been hit and miss since.

Let's not forget that Peyton Manning, while largely a surgeon against the New England secondary, has not had a good playoff run overall. Indy should have beat Kansas City about about 300 in the Wild Card round. A superior defense in Baltimore left it to Adam Vinatieri to be the hero.

I'll take Chicago's offense over Baltimore's.

From the bettor's angle, the line has not budged from 7 points, nor has the over/under changed from 48.5. Money appears to be on Chicago (55%) to cover the spread, and 70% is on the over.

Given that, I think the Superbowl is going to resemble the IND/BAL Divisional Playoff game. Personally, I'm taking Chicago to cover the spread. Not sure yet if I think they're going to win the game.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Saturday, January 20, 2007

-- Pirates potentially help themselves mightily with the LaRoche deal, my proposed lineup, and an interesting parallel in sports ownership.

-- Grimm and Tomlin are going to have to wait until Rivera interviews.

-- Penguins can't win shootout to save their grandmothers. Putting things into perspective with regard to the past and future

-- Dixon's boys ranked about where they belong, but true test coming against the Golden Eagles (nee: Warriors) of Marquette.

-- Wannestedt's recruiting class another success, meaning he must make a Bowl Game next season.

---Worth the Wait---

There are few people in Pittsburgh Pirate fandom who are outright condemning General Manager Dave Littlefield's pulling of the trigger with the trade that sent Mike Gonzalez and minor leager Brent Lillibridge to the Atlanta Braves organization for minor leager Jamie Romak and coveted left-handed power-hitter Adam LaRoche.

Some of the naysayers are jaded (and rightfully so) fans who have come to despise everything DL has done since the Ramirez Gaffe Heard Round the World. Or maybe Lillibridge was too good of a prospect in an already-thin system to give up. Some just liked Gonzalez, while others just simply refuse to get excited about anything Pirates until a quality season is evident. One person I talked to says that this trade only looks good because it wasn't Kip Wells for Jesse Chavez or Craig Wilson for Shawn Chacon. Or maybe that DL, didn't pull the trigger; Atlanta did.

Whatever others might think, and I agree with cautious optimism, there is nothing but upside to this trade, so long as the oft-monikered "Lefty McThump" stays healthy. This means no back-breaking run-ins with John Mabry or anything. Or, Heaven forbid, getting hurt in spring training.

Word on some of the Atlanta wires is that LaRoche is not the defensive glove that those in the Pirates organization think he is or could become. Consider that last year alone, platooning experienced and inexperienced gloves at that position, Pirate 1B committed 9 errors (Sean Casey did not commit any as a Pirate). LaRoche has committed 17 in 3 seasons. All the players who were at 1B hit fewer homeruns combined (as Pirates) than did LaRoche last year alone. And of those 1B, only two of them were (or could bat) left-handed (Casey with 3, and switch-hitting Doumit with 6).

I'm not that excited about the whole "short porch" thing, and never really have been. It's much easier to hit a home run to the left field corner than the right field corner (after you factor in the vertical for the Roberto Clemente wall), but it is a little shorter most of the way across right center vs. left center. If that's what they mean by short porch, then OK, maybe I'm with 'em after all.

What I'm most excited about is the potential lineup. Pat over at WHYGAVS has a couple of interesting lineups scenarios as well as a program to calculate the runs per game a lineup will get you. Mine's a bit different. Maybe I should plug mine into the program and see what it yields.

Duffy - CF
Sanchez - 3B
LaRoche - 1B
Bay - LF
Castillo - 2B
Paulino - C
Nady - RF
Wilson - SS

I heard some of your jaws hit the floor when you saw Castillo higher than 8th in the order (or in the lineup at all), so I'll start there. I find it highly unlikely that Tracy will sit Castillo to start the season, or that DL would want Castillo to stagnate on the bench. I may be living in fantasy land or having some kind of "tracer" effect off the LaRoche trade, but management has to realize that Castillo is about the farthest thing from a hot commodity out there. He has to be given a chance to boost that trade value up some. Putting him 5th in the lineup right behind the better hitters, gives him a chance to put up some RBI numbers, even if they come in the form of a sac fly. Of course, he has a tendency to hack at bad pitches in clutch situations and grounded into 22 double plays last year.

If there's a chance of getting anything valuable out of Castillo down the road, like a legitimate 5th starter, you have to try to improve some of your weaker links. Heck, we've seen him shine defensively as often as not, so it's not a bad idea. If the going gets a bit too rough (read: if the top 4 need #5 to produce), Bautista gets put in the 5th slot.

But my top 4, aside from the alternating lefty/righty/lefty/righty (man, I feel like I'm channelling Lloyd McClendon or something), this lineup gives the team the best chance for EARLY runs. Many of the team's early games last year involved trying to climb out of early holes, putting tons more pressure on the pitchers. The LaRoche addition gives the Bucs a better chance to get on the board early.

If Duffy gets on, he can steal a base and be in scoring position for Mr. Clutch, Freddy Sanchez. With LaRoche waiting in the wings, they'll have to pitch to Sanchez to try to get an out (or maybe 2) since Freddy isn't a real threat to go yard. LaRoche can either clean up or advance someone (since you pretty much have to pitch to LaRoche with Bay waiting). In certain situations, the bases could be loaded with Bay due up. He did strike out more than enough in key situations, but I have a feeling that will improve now that he won't feel like he's the only power player on the squad.

Enter Wild Card Castillo. I don't dare hope for too much, but I know that Castillo can catch fire. I pray it's early in the season: like the 1st inning of Game 1.

Paulino is the slowest guy on the squad, but I put him 6th because I want to start playing for more speed on the bases as the pitcher's spot approaches. And Paulino is no slouch with the bat (and still learning) Nady or Wilson have the offensive ability to get Paulino around or to maybe to 3rd, then advance themselves with the pitcher at the plate. It always made me cringe when the pitcher would be batting with a one-run deficit and Ronny Paulino on first.

This leaves righty Bautista and switchy (?) Doumit (who hits for more power from the left) on the bench when needed. Oh, and Jose Hernandez and Humberto Cota are on the squad, too.

On the loss of Gonzalez, there is no solid consensus. Some think that Torres' arm is better for going a couple innings of relief as a setup man and that Capps is ready to assume the closer role already. Another camp thinks Capps needs another pitch in his repertoire and some more seasoning, and Torres is the man to help him get there.

I am with the former camp, but I have to say I'd rather have the lead to possibly blow late than to have to watch the Pirates be among the worst offenses in the National League.


If you never saw "Pittsburgh, Pirates, the Movie" over at Mondesi's House, go check it out. And that will make this next revelation make a bit more sense.

Since Bob Nutting came out of "hiding" when he became majority owner of the Pirates, I took a good look at his photo and had a haunting suspicion that he looked like someone famous.


At left: Bob Nutting. Majority owner of Pirates.
At right: Daniel Snyder. Owner of the NFL's Washington Redskins.

At least Daniel Snyder has had a couple of playoff teams...Of course, he's also been willing to max out the salary cap (not wisely, I'll say, but he spends...)

---Waiting for Rivera---

Mike Tomlin interviews for 3.5 hours. Russ Grimm interviews for 6. Still no announcement from the Rooneys.

This morning on WMBS's "The Sportsline", phone-in guest Jim Wexell pretty much said that all the talk of "frontrunners" in local publications is solely B.S. and fodder just to sell papers. Any favoritism they show Grimm is just in case he gets the job so they can say they were pulling for him all along.

While Wexell wouldn't even give a gut feeling on his pick, I would say it seems like the Rooneys are not inclined to hire Grimm if there is a better choice. In the Rooneys' mind, it must be a pretty tight race between Tomlin and Grimm, and perhaps neither one is exactly what they want. Therefore, if Rivera shows he's the man when they finally do get a chance to interview him, he's in.

Wexell noted that Rivera either is from or lived a considerable portion of his time in California, which was not the Steelers "M.O."

Seriously. If you were Russ Grimm and you hadn't been hired yet, wouldn't you be under the impression that upper management was not sold on you?

And seriously. Mini-camp is still a ways off, so why is there a huge rush? Why can't you wait until after the Superbowl. I doubt Kevin Colbert and his staff are sitting on their thumbs preparing for the draft.

---Waited Too Long---

Evgeni Malkin scored two highlight-worth goals against the Bruins Thursday night but got stonewalled during the shootout. Crosby's no slouch with the stick, either. If either one of them gets a goal on their attempt, the Pens win their second shootout of the year. Correct me if I'm wrong (PensBlog guys?) but if memory serves, the only shootout they won this year was a 1-0 one; again, not beating an opposing goalie one on one. I really don't understand why they're not more competitive once they get to that point in a game.

If I weren't convinced that this is the Penguins final season in Pittsburgh, I'd be really ecstatic about this season. The Penguins are going into their 46th game this season with 48 points. At this point in the season last year, they had 31 (still better than the Flyers this year). They still can't win a shootout, but they have one of the best intra-divisional records in hockey (13-5-2). As for my "magic stat" of Shots-On-Goal Differential, the Pens have improved to the point where there are currently 8 teams worse than they are in that statistic.

If I weren't convinced the Penguins were leaving town, I wouldn't really invest too much emotion into getting one of the final playoff slots. It would be good revenue for the team, but I am just enjoying the marked improvement. General Manager Ray Shero has done a pretty damn good job of putting a team on the ice that has other teams taking notice. Picking up Mark Eaton (though he's been injured), sending John LeClair to the minors (though I don't believe he actually went), and, of course, getting Evgeni Malkin to sign. Last year, watching some of the games, it seemed like the other club was just out there going through the motions (and still pretty much winning), as though it were some kind of scrimmage. Now I see a look in their eyes that says they know they can't take the black and gold lightly. At least until they can get them to a shootout.

PA politicos must still think they have some kind of leverage to keep the Penguins in the city, or the sides wouldn't continue to keep their silence after the most recent talks that took place last week.

Arena (now), or Bust. Those are the terms. Otherwise, they're moving to a city that'll appreciate them for a few years.

And someone should remind Rendell that a new arena would also make the NCAA inclined to comeback to the 'Burgh every so often for March Madness, something I've tried (and failed) to confirm on the 'net that NCAA won't do with Mellon Arena. Yeah, it's not Philly (they'll go through there from time to time, too), but revenue for the state is revenue for the state.

---Big East Reckoning---

When the season started, I was gung-ho about the Panthers. When they rose up to #2, I really thought it was only a matter of time before UNC lost. And when that happened, I realized that UCLA was right there, too. When UCLA jumped past Pitt into the #1 slot, I began to feel I was looking through rose-colored glasses again. This team, while strong, is still not mature enough to hang on the road with strong opponents.

That said, I'm almost glad Wisconsin was able to hang on to beat the Illini today. The Kansas loss to Bobby Knight University could help Pitt mosey on up to #5, but I'm not completely convinved Pitt can take Marquette tomorrow. One of the Golden Eagles' two losses came at the hands of a Providence team that had played two days earlier and was warmed up for the game. The Eagles were a bit rusty from a five-day layoff, as evidenced by being down 9 at the half. The second loss was to a well-coached Syracuse team in their next game. They've since rattled off 3 straight, two against ranked opponents.

Pitt has the advantage of Marquette playing their second straight road game, but I fear home sweet home will make the Panthers a bit complacent after their 5-day break between games (Marquette had 6, but don't think they haven't been preparing for this game the second the buzzer sounded at Louisville). If this game is close late, I fear for the Panthers holding serve. Intestinal fortitude has been shaky against the better teams in my opinion. I'm probably just off my gourd.

---Give Him Enough Rope...---

This post is already way too long, and I'm not fully armed to discuss this in detail. But from hearsay and vague reports I've read on websites and blogs, Dave Wannestedt has himself another highly-touted recruiting class. If true, then the 'Stasche has no choice but to get to a Bowl Game next season or he's looking for a new job. I think trying to eclipse West Virginia is out of the question, but staying ahead of Rutgers and running with Petrino-less Louisville seem to be goals that are right for this program at this time.

Thoughts from the more in touch and informed?

Random link to brigten your day/night. Particularly what's on ESPN2. This is from an old "The Onion" article.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Steelers Sunset

(New: Table of Contents to lead each entry. Pretty easy to keep track of where each section begins)

-- Steelers fall short, but it's the ending they deserve. And, with Cowher's retirement, some thoughts on possible future head coaches. Also, draft needs.

-- NFL post-season predictions. After hitting only 4 of 8 division winners and 7 of 12 playoff entrants overall, you may want to just ignore this. I have absolutely no prognosticative clout this season, but making predictions comes with this territory.

---Reap What You Sow---

Objectively speaking, when a team goes 2-6 in the first half of the season, projecting a final record of 8-8, regardless of the competition level over the last 8 games, is very optimistic. First of all, if you're 2-6, even if you won it all the previous season, you are in the lower echelon of competition.

Secondly, the entire season has been overshadowed by: a phantom controversy over the validity of your own championship; the retirement of the heart and soul of the locker room; the questions surrounding your long-time head coach's future; questionable draft choices; a star quarterback having to recover from a horrific motorcycle accident as well as an untimely appendectomy; key injuries to other personnel while others underplaying from last season. I gave props 3 months ago (and will do so again) to thejim at for his rationale for his 6-10 prediction.

Cowher will formally announce his retirement tomorrow at 1PM. This is not unexpected. Several columnists, bloggers, and fans at large have referenced Cowher's lack of fire and spittle through the course of this tough season and took at as a sign of his impending departure.

Thanks to Cowher's quick decision, the Steelers front office will have plenty of time to interview plenty of candidates. In-house, they already have Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt, neither of whom made strong cases. Grimm's line was oftentimes swiss cheese against the more powerful defenses, and Whisenhunt's playcalling resembled some of the finest run, run, pass, punt series since the mid-80's. Incidentally, that same offense could not execute against the team that Whisenhunt rejected in the off-season.

The Steelers will almost assuredly interview Dennis Green because of the requirements regarding minorities, but I doubt he'll be hired.

The other head coach who has been let go so far, Jim Mora, Jr., intrigues me. He came to Atlanta and took them to the NFC Championship despite having a complete enigma (and glory-monger) at quarterback. Some folks I've talked to agree that a new system is what the old-guard Steelers players need to get them playing well again. Of course, there is that little controversy that helped get him fired in the first place, telling a Seattle radio personality that he'd be very interested in coaching the Huskies of the University of Washington.

I have a feeling that former Steeler defensive coordinator, former Saints head coach, and current Rams D.C. Jim Haslett could make an appearance in what could quickly become a circus if the F.O. decides early that going with current assistants is not the answer.

Sending the Bengals to the golf course at the same time the Steelers go was great at the time, but may come back to haunt them in April. The teams needs are ever-growing, and a head coach is not necessarily the most pressing. The offensive line and linebacking corps took huge steps backward, and the young secondary could not make up for the latter's lack of a pass rush. I'm nowhere close to the draft expert in the blogosphere, especially because my following of college ball has been very limited this season. Who's going to be out there that will be the next Alan Faneca, or, better yet, Dermontti Dawson? Who out there is going to have the potential to make an instant impact like an A.J. Hawk or Brian Urlacher. They can't play around with wideouts this year like they did with 2 of their first 3 picks.

The theme of this year's draft should be: "Protect our quarterback, rattle theirs."

---Predictions From the Hip---

Ok. I absolutely blew at predicting this season's divisional outcomes. Seven of 12 playoff participants, and only 4 of 8 division winners. I only had 2 new playoff teams in the playoff field from last year, bucking a trend I discovered after the fact. There are 7 new teams in the playoffs this year. The only one I'll say I was robbed of by injury was the Giants winning the NFC East. A host of injuries led to a late season implosion. Of course, the eked into the playoffs anyway...

The only thing that could probably save some face is if three of my final four superbowl contenders (Patriots, Colts, Seahawks, Bears) make their respective conference title games. Looking at the matchups, however, I'm going to go a different way:

Wild Card: Chiefs upset Colts, Patriots over Jets, Cowboys over Seahawks, Eagles over Giants

Divisional: Chargers over Chiefs, Patriots over Ravens, Bears over Cowboys, Eagles over Saints

Conference: Patriots over Chargers, Bears over Eagles.

Superbowl: Bears over Patriots.

Essentially, the Patriots will advance through game-planning and veteran leadership (something new, right?), and the Bears defense will re-focus now that they're playing meaningful games again. This is one of the best defensive units I've seen when they're on. It won't matter who is playing at QB.

(edit: removed future blogging plans)