February 27, 2014

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5 Burning Questions Heading into the 2014 MLB Season

By: Matt Bowen

With MLB Spring Training underway, Opening Day can’t come soon enough. Excitement is building as fans ponder a variety of scenarios as the 2014 MLB season approaches. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest questions that can only be answered by playing 162 glorious games.

No. 5: Can Billy Hamilton Reach Base with Regularity?

There is no debate as to who is the fastest player in baseball. His name is Billy Hamilton and he may be the fastest man in all of sports. The Cincinnati Reds center fielder played in 13 games in 2013—he stole 13 bases in 14 tries. What he does on the base paths is nearly criminal, the only question is can he reach base with regularity?

Hamilton will lead off for the Reds and will get every opportunity to make a name for himself.  Many worry that Hamilton tries to muscle the ball too often. He’s only listed at 160 lbs. which tells the story that he shouldn’t try to smack the long ball.

In order to be considered a success in 2014 Hamilton must have an on-base percentage somewhere around .350. Patience at the plate and taking the ball the other way will make Hamilton an All-Star. If he reaches base early and often he may steal 100 bases and the Reds will be a playoff team. As a friendly reminder, no one has stolen 100-plus bases since Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987. That in itself should size up Hamilton’s capabilities.

Bryce Harper

Can Bryce Harper and the Nationals return to their 2012 form?

No. 4: Will the Washington Nationals Rebound from a Disappointing 2013 Campaign

Most franchises would consider 86 wins in 2013 an exceptional season. Not the Washington Nationals who won 98 in 2012 and were penned by many to reach the World Series.

This time around some things are different for the Nationals but the lofty expectations are the same. New manager Matt Williams runs a tight ship but that’s not keeping the Nats from keeping loose. Williams is well-organized and meticulous and knows a little something about the game. The former slugger hit 43 home runs in 112 games in 1994 with the San Francisco Giants before the strike-shortened season cut his run at Roger Maris’ then record 61 home runs in a single season short. Williams is a gamer and every sports enthusiast can appreciate that.

He has a slugger on his new team in Bryce Harper who seems like he might be 35 but is only 21 years old. The baseball prodigy is just now growing into his body and with 1,094 career bats already underneath his belt Harper is ready to feast on the opposition.

The Nationals also have a deep pitching rotation and should win somewhere around 92 games this season. An appearance in the playoffs should be penciled in, this team is for real.

No. 3: Will the Dodgers Live Up to the Hype?

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the best team on paper right now. Stacked from top to bottom, the Dodgers are a World Series-or-bust team this season.

Before we delve too deep it should be mentioned that the new ownership group led by Magic Johnson is doing a spectacular job. They’ve put a quality product on the field and there schedule is laced with in-stadium promotions to attract all sorts of fans. It’s a great time to bleed Dodger blue.

Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu lead the pitching staff while Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig bolster the lineup. The 2014 Dodgers have everything it takes to win the only question is do they have the recipe for success?

No. 2: Can the Seattle Mariners Make the Playoffs?

Man-oh-man is it a great time to be a sports fan in Seattle. First the Seahawks win the Super Bowl now the revamped Mariners lineup takes the field.

The Mariners decided they want to win now and dropped a bombshell on baseball when they signed prized second baseman Robinson Cano this offseason. He alone is enough to fill Safeco Field on a regular basis.

Add star pitcher Felix Hernandez and a throng of young talent to the mix and the Mariners carry positive momentum into the season. The big question is will they make the playoffs? Although it may seem like a foregone conclusion don’t forget the Mariners play in the toughest division in baseball.

There are only five playoff spots available and the AL West has the Mariners, Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim all contending for the postseason. The Mariners play divisional rivals in 22 of their first 27 games. The first month of the season will be telling for the Mariners. Are the up to the challenge?

No. 1: Will Derek Jeter Stay Healthy?

New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter announced he’ll retire after the season bringing a bit of sadness to all. The man has so many accomplishments they could be an entire article in themselves. Here’s a small taste of jaw-dropping Jeter stats—he has 200 career postseason hits. That’s simply marvelous.

The biggest question in baseball this offseason is will he stay healthy this season to play throughout his farewell tour?

He played just 17 games in 2013 but is giving it another go in 2014.

For the sake of baseball in all of its greatness let’s keep our fingers crossed that Jeter can remain healthy and play often this season.

February 25, 2014

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5 MLB Stars I’m Avoiding For My Fantasy Team

By: Joe Williams

A new MLB season is just about a month away. That means your fantasy drat is even closer than that. Are you ready? Me either. But I do know that you can’t win you fantasy league on draft day. That takes much more than one day of investment. But if you draft a few stars that don’t perform, that one day could take you out of the running. With that in mind, here’s a few guys you can be sure won’t end up on my roster on draft day.

Can Albert Pujols return to form after a down 2013 season?

Albert Pujols

His 2013 season was a big disappointment. Will Pujols be able to regain his form after all the injury problems? Maybe. But I don’t want to keep my fingers crossed all season. Besides, his numbers have dropped ever year since 2008. Let somebody else draft him for his name and you can snag somebody who will be more reliable (at 1B) like Freddie Freeman or Eric Hosmer.

Ryan Braun

Here’s another guy who had a nightmarish 2013 season. A thumb injury and a 65-game suspension will sure put a damper on your production. Braun’s probably going to put up some decent numbers, but don’t expect to draft him and get the MVP player from 2011. I’d take him with my fourth or fifth pick in the draft, but if you want that long he will probably end up on some other guy’s roster. I’m OK with that.

Buster Posey

I actually love Posey. But I don’t see him re-creating his MVP season from a couple years ago and there are a few catchers that put up nice numbers last season and should do it again this year. I’m not going to tell you not to draft him. But I’d rather wait a few rounds to take a catcher than take him with one of my first couple of picks.

Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter’s name alone will probably get him drafted higher than he should be. Somebody in your league will expect him to be the leader of a high-powered Yankees lineup and think that they got a steal with a mid-round pick. Maybe. But he’s old. And he only played 17 games last year. I doubt he’ll make it through this season without getting hurt. Only a true Yankee fan should consider owning him. That’s not me. No thanks. You can have him.

Closers

Somebody is going to pile up a lot of saves. Jim Johnson and Craig Kimbrel had 50 last year. Five other guys had at least 40. If one of them falls into my lap then that’s great. If not, that’s OK too. No stat is easier to find during the season than saves. Closers come and go so unless you know something I don’t, then let someone else waste a higher pick on the top rated closers and find somebody lat

February 24, 2014

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The Week in Sports

By: Anson Whaley

Olympics: The Winter Olympics in Sochi concluded last week with the U.S. finishing second overall in the medal count with 28. Host country Russia topped all countries with 33, including 13 gold medals. There were a myriad of disappointments for Americans, but none perhaps greater than the hockey teams falling short of their goals. The women’s team held a late 2-0 lead over Canada in the final before giving up two late goals and falling in overtime, 3-2. The men lost a disappointing 1-0 game to Canada in the semifinals and were crushed 5-0 by Finland for the bronze medal.

Daytona 500: After a delay of more than six hours, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, on Sunday. The event has seen its fair share of weather delays, but the fact that it was pushed back to the evening seems to suit more fans, anyway. For some reason, the race under the lights seems like the way the go.

Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. outlasted the rain delay to win the 2014 Daytona 500.

NBA Trade Deadline: The NBA Trade deadline came and went with a flurry of activity last week. No move was bigger than the Indiana Pacers trading away Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner. The Pacers dealt a legitimate talent in Granger, but are also in a better position with the deal. In Turner, they get a younger player who is doing more this season at a lower price. Trading away a former franchise cornerstone was difficult, but Granger was struggling through a dismal season and became expendable. It’s hard to imagine the Pacers getting even better but they did with this swap.

San Francisco Giants bring back Barry Bonds: Former slugger Barry Bonds is back with the Giants – as a Spring Training instructor. Bonds’ return will raise some eyebrows due to his past alleged steroid use, but the fact that he will only be around in the Spring means he can likely dodge those issues for the most part. If Bonds ever wants to become a full-fledged coach like Mark McGwire in St. Louis, he may need to confront the steroids topic head on. For now, though, he can offer his advice and experience for a few months and then head back out of the spotlight.

Jelena Jankovic is not happy: Tennis player Jelena Jankovic was in the middle of receiving a beatdown at the hands of Serena Williams and promptly threw a temper tantrum in the middle of the match. Then, the announcer told her to shut up. So there’s that.

Syracuse losses: After a season filled with close wins and a few miracle finishes, the luck of Syracuse’s basketball team has run out for the time being. Fresh off incredulous victories against Pitt and North Carolina State, the No. 1 Orange lost two straight college basketball games to Boston College and Duke. The loss against the Eagles was particularly ugly as Boston College is one of the worst teams in the ACC. Syracuse still has a very good chance of landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the team clearly has some more work to do – and with three of their final four games on the road, things won’t be easy for the Orange down the stretch.

Got jokes?: No? Matt Lauer does.

Jason Collins signs with Brooklyn Nets: The Brooklyn Nets made a bit of NBA history by signing center Jason Collins to the roster. Collins became the first openly gay athlete in the league to sign and then appear in a game over the weekend. With Collins and Missouri defensive standout Michael Sam set to join the NFL, the doors appear to be opening up in professional sports for gay male athletes.

Heat win statement game over Thunder: With all due respect to the Indiana Pacers who currently lead the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat game against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week was a matchup of what could be the league’s two best teams. The Heat haven’t been as dominant this season as they were last year when they won 66 games, but they continue to prove that winning a third straight NBA title is well within their grasp. The Thunder are a trendy pick to win it all this season, but the Heat walloped them (in Oklahoma City, no less), 103-81. Lebron James suffered a broken nose in the game, but the victory sent a clear message to the rest of the league – Miami remains the team to beat.

Jim Harbaugh trade: Some interesting news broke from Pro Football Talk, who reported that the San Francisco 49ers nearly traded head coach Jim Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns for draft picks. Coaches have been traded before, but it just doesn’t happen that often. And with Harbaugh leading the Niners to three consecutive NFC Championship games, it seems a bit ridiculous that San Francisco would want to part with their head coach – despite the fact that there appear to be contract squabbles between the two sides. Nevertheless, the report broke, and Harbaugh and 49ers’ CEO Jed York both vehemently denied it. Still, Pro Football Talk isn’t a fly-by-night organization and it’s difficult to imagine them getting their facts mixed up. Generally, where there’s smoke there’s fire. If nothing else, it’s possible the two sides at least discussed the idea.

LSU gets commitment … from 14-year old: You’ve probably heard of committing early, but LSU made some headlines for accepting the commitment of a 14-year old quarterback to play football for them. In 2018. Zadock Dinkelman received a scholarship offer and committed to the school despite never playing a down of varsity football. For what it’s worth, Dinkelman is the nephew of former NFL quarterback Ty Detmer, but the news is still a bit difficult to digest. The idea of parents allowing a 14-year old child to make adult decisions reeks of foolishness and it’s even more puzzling that schools have the ability to offer scholarships to kids so young. Still, as long as the NCAA allows it, this type of thing will continue to happen as coaches try to beat each other on the recruiting trail.

February 20, 2014

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5 NFL Teams Who Need to Make a Splash in Round 1

By: Matt Bowen

With the 2014 NFL Combine happening February 22-25 in Indianapolis the NFL hits full throttle once again. The Combine signifies that the 2014 NFL Draft is right around the corner. This is the time that all 32 NFL GMs begin to sweat. Critical decisions are to be made.

While many may see the combine as players in shorts and t-shirts simply running around, it’s anything but. NFL dreams are on the line. GMs are watching. Make a lasting impact now and your name will be called in May.

To no one’s surprise the quarterback position will be under the microscope in Indy during the Combine. Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and others will fill the board come draft day. Although there may not be an elite quarterback in this draft this year’s class is certainly better than 2011’s class. As far as elite goes, that remains to be seen as only time will tell.

Eric Fisher

The Chiefs made Eric Fisher the #1 pick in 2013. Who will go #1 in the 2014 NFL Draft?

Some teams will get the QB fever and reach for what they hope is a winner. Keep in mind that many teams are hungry for their franchise signal caller but quarterback is not the only position. Which team will be bold and pass on a quarterback for something else?

The following teams, whether searching for their quarterback of the foreseeable future or a  playmaker at another position have to make a splash in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft. Making the wrong moves may forever doom their respective franchises.

No. 5: Houston Texans

This is a no brainer, but it must be mentioned. The No. 1 pick in the NFL draft comes with pressure. The Houston Texans could do one of three things—draft Jadeveon Clowney, draft the quarterback which they deem the best, or trade the pick.

Once Clowney dismantles the competition at the Combine and topples the likes of Twitter by the end of February 25 the pick will be an easy one. Everyone will be talking about this kid from South Carolina. His combination of size, speed and strength is something unfathomable. At 6’6”, 275 lbs. he says he’ll run a 4.4 40-yard-dash at the Combine. If he does that there will be talks of “best ever” even before he sports an NFL jersey.

By this time next week the Texans will have made up their mind.

No. 4: San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers own the 30th selection in the first round but the heat is on. After all, the Niners have to contend with the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.

The Seahawks appear to be going nowhere anytime soon and the 49ers have to keep up. It can be argued that these are the two most dangerous teams in the NFL but speculation and proof are two separate things.

The Niners are motivated to reach the summit—their Super Bowl window is now. Expect San Francisco to select a sturdy wide receiver in Round 1.

No. 3 Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans sit in a curious position in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL draft. With pick No. 11 the team could go in any direction.

New head coach Ken Whisenhunt is a quarterback kinda guy and he’s going to give Jake Locker a chance. With that being said, it may be in their best interest to draft a quarterback with their first pick. Locker hasn’t proven himself yet and the Titans could catch an acute case of the QB fever.

A guy like Derek Carr of Fresno State or Zach Mettenberger from LSU may intrigue them just enough to pull the trigger. Even if Locker doesn’t convince the Titans brass he’s their number one his younger predecessor would have time to learn. On the other hand, the demand is high on these kids and they would be valuable trade bait should Locker pan out. This would bring interest from other teams around this time next season. A healthy quarterback with a year of NFL experience is a coveted commodity. It seems like a win-win for the Titans.

Pay attention to the Titans—their decision could shake up the rest of the draft.

No. 2: St. Louis Rams

Conveniently enough the St. Louis Rams have the No. 2 overall pick, but that’s not why this draft is so important for them. They also have the No. 13 pick in the first round.

Thanks to the trade with the Washington Redskins for Robert Griffin III in 2012, the Rams own the No. 2 pick. They will draft wide receiver Sammy Watkins out of Clemson and all will be right in the world. Combined with Tavon Austin the Rams will have two explosive receivers.

The team still believes in quarterback Sam Bradford and will spend their No. 13 pick on protecting him. Expect the Rams to select the best offensive lineman available and with possibly five quarterbacks being selected before that pick, the lineman pool should be rich.

The Rams are a team on the brink of greatness, but must protect Bradford. Let’s hope their No. 13 pick is a Week 1 starter.

No. 1: Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns are currently upside down. The front office is in disarray but better days are ahead.

The 2014 NFL draft is where it all starts. With two picks, No. 4 and No. 26 in the first round the team has to knock it out of the park.

They can’t repeat what they did in 2012. That year they also had two picks in Round 1. They took running back Trent Richardson at No. 3 and quarterback Brandon Weeden at No. 22. They acquired the No. 22 pick by trading their 2011 No. 6 pick to the Atlanta Falcons for who turned out to be Julio Jones.

Fittingly enough their second pick this year will be at No. 26—they acquired that by trading Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts early in the 2013.

The Browns need a quarterback and everything points to them selling the farm for Manziel. If a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the No. 3 overall pick threaten to take Manziel the Browns may cough up the No. 26 pick. Manziel would light a fire in Cleveland the city hasn’t seen since some guy named LeBron roamed the court. He would sell tickets and more importantly reinstall the faith.

If Manziel doesn’t fall into Cleveland’s lap the Browns have to make hay with the best available. The future of the franchise is at stake. Regardless of what happens the Browns will be the most talked-about team in the league leading up to the draft.

February 19, 2014

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NBA Second Half Predictions

By: Joe Williams

The NBA’s All Star break is officially in the rear view mirror and the trade deadline is just a couple days away. So now seems like a good time to take a look at what lies ahead this season.

Once again, the trade deadline will be a lot of talk and a lot of disappointment for the fans hoping their team will make a big splash. Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Pau Gasol and other big names have been rumored as possible trades. But they aren’t going anywhere. As always, we’ll have a few solid players finding new homes but nothing that is franchise altering. Everyone is waiting for that to happen in the draft.

Milwaukee is well on its way to having the most balls in the draft lottery. The real “battle” will be between Philadelphia, Orlando, Sacramento, Boston, Utah and the Lakers so make sure they get the second or third best chance to win the first pick in the draft.

Philadelphia 76ers

Many teams, like the 76ers, are already looking to 2015.

The division winners will be Toronto, Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, L.A. Clippers and Houston.

Indiana will finish with the best record and home court advantage in the Eastern Conference. Miami will not care. The Pacers want to play at home. Miami wants to be healthy for the playoffs. Both teams will get their wish, setting up a tremendous Eastern Conference Finals.

Miami will not pull off the three-peat. Sooner or later their ability to turn it on and off at will will be over. They are next-to-last in allowing a 51.6 effective field goal percentage. Defense wins championships right? There is no D in Miami right now and it will come back to haunt them in the playoffs.

The other stroll (I can’t call it a race when all the teams are under .500) to watch is whether Michael Jordan’s Bobcats can hold off the Knicks and Cavs to make the playoffs. These teams have been unintentionally terrible and need to reach the postseason as they try to gain some much needed respect (Bobcats), try to keep Carmelo (Knicks) and lure LeBron James (Cavs).

In the Western Conference the Thunder have been the best team and are about to get Westbrook back. They’ll be the top seed. But the Spurs, Rockets, Clippers and Blazers are going to be in a fight for the 2-5 seeds. Meanwhile, Dallas, Golden State, Phoenix and Memphis are all playing well, but someone’s going to be left out.

Kevin Durant will be the MVP. He’s led the Thunder to the best record in the league – and done it without Russell Westbrook for just about the whole season. Durant is having a career best season in scoring, assists, and shooting. He is on a mission.

In the NBA Finals, I’m seeing the Indiana Pacers taking on Oklahoma City and as long as Westbrook is healthy and returns to his old form, the Thunder winning the title.