August 1, 2013

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MLB Contenders Post Trade Deadline

By: Matt Bowen

Now that the dust on settled on the July 31 MLB non-waiver trade deadline, we can focus our attention on the true contenders. It’s now August, this is the time where the cream rises to the top. MLB GM’s believing that this is their year have spent the last couple of weeks trying to feverishly hammer out deals to put their team on top when it’s all said and done. As baseball fans we now get to sit back and watch the drama unfold. The next two months will be pure entertainment as every division except the NL East is up for grabs.

So, what is to be expected down the stretch? Who were the real winners at the deadline?

AL East: Per the usual, the AL East will be one of the most interesting races until the end. The Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, and Baltimore Orioles are all in contention.

The Rays were the quiet, only acquiring left reliever Jesse Crain from the Chicago White Sox. Crain is currently on the DL, but has electric stuff out of the bullpen. This was a low-risk, high-reward kind of deal for the Rays—if Crain returns healthy they win, if he doesn’t, the compensation towards the White Sox will be next to nothing.

The Baltimore Orioles proved to their fan base that they plan on winning now and forever. They traded for starting pitchers Scott Feldman from the Chicago Cubs and Bud Norris of the Houston Astros along with reliever Francisco Rodriguez from the Milwaukee Brewers. Nice work from the Orioles front office.

While the Orioles made plenty of noise, the Boston Sox stole the show in the division. The acquisition of pitcher Jake Peavy from the Chicago White Sox made headlines as the Red Sox appear to be legit. They also picked up left-handed reliever Matt Thornton from the White Sox. For a team that lost 93 games in 2012, they have certainly changed their course. The Bo Sox have Boston buzzing at the moment.

AL Central: This division is a two horse race that won’t be settled until the final days of the season. The Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers are the two best teams in the Central and only got better at the deadline. Both teams picked up necessary relief help with Marc Rzepczynski headed to Cleveland from the St. Louis Cardinals and Jose Veras to Detroit from the Houston Astros.

In the end, it was the Tigers who made out best though. They were involved in the trade with the Sox, both White and Red, that sent the aforementioned Peavy to Beantown, shortstop Jose Iglesias to the Tigers and young prospect Avasail Garcia to Chicago, along with others.

The Tigers need a shortstop with the suspension of Jhonny Peralta seeming imminent. Peralta, who is involved in the Biogenesis mess, is also a free agent as the end of the season, so picking up the talented 23-year-old Iglesias now is a stroke of genius.

While the Tigers will benefit the most now in the division, the White Sox may have gotten the best player out of the deal. Garcia has star written all over him, but with a crowded outfield in Detroit, it was a price that had to be paid.

Regarding the race in the Central, neither the Tigers nor Indians will quit. As of August 1, they’re two of the hottest teams in all of baseball. The two teams face each other seven more times in 2013 with the last game on September 1.  Both teams won at the deadline, but who will win the division?

AL West: Still in disbelief that the Oakland A’s are truly good? Don’t be, this team is for real, but did the division leader do enough? They swapped a minor leaguer for infielder Alberto Callaspo from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to shore up their defense. Where they swung and missed is in the pitching department. For decades the A’s were sellers at the deadline and this year, when they needed it most they couldn’t land a prized trade target to take the hill.

This means their rival the Texas Rangers were the true winners in the division at the deadline. They got starting pitcher Matt Garza from the Chicago Cubs and seem to be in a groove right now. True, the A’s are still the team to beat, but the Rangers won’t go away. Now that the A’s seem to have crosshairs on their back, can they hold onto the West?

NL East: No contest here—the Atlanta Braves have a double-digit game lead in the division and the small and subtle acquisition of reliever Scott Downs from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim only made them better. Overall, the NL East has been a dud this season. Maybe 2014 will bring more competition. The Braves will skate into the playoffs.

NL Central: Baseball’s best division had an interesting trade deadline this time around. While the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs were heavy sellers, and for good reason, the top three teams were rather stagnant. This is a very peculiar situation, the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, and Cincinnati Reds were all quiet. The Pirates, who currently lead the division tried but could not land a big-name right fielder. The Cardinals didn’t make a splash and the Reds needed a viable two-hole hitter to bolster their lineup but did next to nothing. Content with what they have, all teams are now on board with their current rosters. This was disappointing on all accounts. If a winner had to be chosen, it would have to be the Cards, who seem to always find a way to win.

NL West: Let’s not forget about the NL West—there’s no west coast bias here, but the deadline proved that only the Los Angeles Dodgers are the real thing. They snatched up coveted pitcher Ricky Nolasco from the Miami Marlins and had the luxury of signing charismatic reliever Brian Wilson. Since rookie Yasiel Puig was called up earlier in the year the team has been on fire. In just 50 games Puig is batting .364 as of August 1—most importantly he’s instilled some swagger in the Dodgers’ clubhouse.

The Dodgers payroll may be bigger than many small countries’ annual GDP, but they are now looking like they are worth every penny. Move over Hollywood, the Dodgers are now the big stars in town.

March 20, 2013

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Let The Madness Begin

By: Joe Williams

The best tournament of the year is under way. I’ve already filled out my NCAA Tournament bracket – thrown it away – and filled out a new one. But I don’t like this one either. Time to start over and make a final attempt. But before I do, there are a few things I’m going to keep in mind.

There are many factors to keep in mind when filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket.

A No. 5 seed is going down. You can take that to the bank. The hard part is figuring out which one it will be. UNLV looks like the obvious choice because they have a rematch with Cal and it’s only about an hour away from the Bears’ campus. VCU could be in trouble if Akron wasn’t going to play without their star point guard. So the Oklahoma State Cowboys better be on upset alert because they have to play an Oregon team that is better than its 12 seed.

We also know that there is probably going to be a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16. Some of the best candidates are Colorado, Bucknell, Oregon, Middle Tennessee St., Minnesota, and Iowa St. Look for two of these teams to make it to the second weekend. It’s Bucknell and Iowa St. in my bracket.

The Mountain West Conference will have a good showing. Five teams got in (New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego St., Colorado St. and Boise St.) and all five will win at least one game..starting with the Broncos on Wednesday night. The SEC, on the other hand, will struggle to find a W. Florida should get one but that could be it.

The key to a successful bracket is to avoid picking teams to make a deep run and then they fall to an early-round upset. That’s going to be tough this year with how even the field appears to be. Here’s one team to avoid in each region…Florida, Syracuse, Ohio State and Duke.

All four No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four just one time in history. Don’t expect it to happen again this year. Which top team will make it to Atlanta? The last nine national champs have had blue for a school color so I will take Gonzaga and Kansas to win their regions. I’ll take St. Louis to shock the top-seeded Louisville Cardinals and win the Midwest. And if I’m sticking with blue then I guess its Marquette out of the East Region. And I better be right. I can’t afford another finish at the bottom of the office pool or I’m the one that’s going to be blue.

March 13, 2013

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2013 MLB Division Winners

By: Joe Williams

MLB’s Opening day is just a couple weeks away which means it’s time for my yearly ritual of predicting the six division winners and ensuring that those teams don’t have the season they are hoping for. What can I say? It’s a gift. So let’s get on with it.

After signing multiple star players this off-season, can the Blue Jays win the AL East?

A.L. East

It’s gotta be now or never for the Blue Jays right? The Red Sox aren’t going to make a 25-win improvement over last season and the Yankees have been ravaged with injuries. The division door is wide open and Toronto has added several star players. Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle, R.A. Dickey and Melky Cabrera should be able to help the Blue Jays to the top in the A.L. East.

A.L. Central

It almost feels like cheating to pick the team that won it last year. Almost. The Tigers ought to be a hungry bunch after losing in the World Series last year. They may have the best hitter and pitcher in baseball in triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. And I don’t see anyone else in the Central making a run at 90 wins.

A.L. West

In 2012, the Oakland A’s surprised everyone and stole the title from the Rangers. Now it’s the Angels that everyone thinks will take the title after they recruited one of the biggest stars in Texas, Josh Hamilton. Adding Hamilton to a lineup with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols makes the Angels scary, but I’m going with another surprise in the West and taking the Rangers.

N.L. East

Everyone in Washington is left wondering “what if” after the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg at the end of the season and then collapsed in the playoffs. They’ll have a chance to redeem themselves this October after taking the N.L. East crown. Atlanta will fight them to the end and the Phillies won’t go quietly, but the Nats are the best overall team right now.

N.L. Central

With all the injuries in St. Louis, this looks like the Reds’ division to lose. They won 97 games in 2012 and added a dynamic player in Shin-Soo Choo. Plus…The Astros are gone. The Cubs are the Cubs. The Pirates are still trying to find a way to finish above. 500. So I guess that leaves Milwaukee. Can the Brewers make a run at Cincinnati? It will depend on what they can get from the starting rotation.

N.L. West

This will be the most interesting race I believe. There is a young up-and-coming team in Arizona; the defending world champs in San Francisco and the new Yankees in Los Angeles. The Diamondbacks are probably another year away and the Giants appear to be out-manned by the All-Stars the Dodgers brought in to win last year. A full season with guys like Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez and the addition of Zack Greinke make L.A. the pick.

February 6, 2013

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Early Stanley Cup Contenders

By: Matt Bowen

The 2013 NHL season may be just a few weeks old, but in this abbreviated season every game, period and point are critical.

Which team will win the Stanley Cup in 2013?

Considering the season is nearly a quarter complete, the crystal ball is now beginning to clarify which teams are true Stanley Cup contenders. Some teams are in a familiar situation while others face a must-win season.

Here are the early season favorites to lift Lord Stanley at season’s end:

The Darkhorse Candidates: These teams are considered sleepers, who if they catch fire at the right moment could ride the lightning all the way to a championship. One of these such teams is the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, who had everything come together at the right time to steal the deal from the No. 8 seed last season. They were one of the favorites coming into the season, but they have been plagued by injuries early on. Not to be counted out quite yet, look for Kings to right the ship.

The Edmonton Oilers are another darkhorse contender. Given, they’ve been near the bottom of the standing for three consecutive years, but have hit the jackpot in recent draft history. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov have all been the No. 1 overall selection over the past three NHL season and now all play for the Oilers. The team currently holds a playoff spot and will take their lumps as they learn the ropes of the NHL, but they’re building a winner in Edmonton.  There’s always a year when the perennial downtrodden turn the page and blossom into an unstoppable force—this is that year for the Oilers.

A team in the Eastern Conference that could go the distance is the Montreal Canadiens. The league’s most storied franchise are contenders once again. Behind all-world goaltender Carey Price, they have a real chance this season. There’s a perfect storm of youth and experience in Montreal right now, watch out for the Habs.

The Usual Suspects: To no surprise, these teams have thrown their hat into the ring—the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins look like they’ll all make deep runs in the playoffs.  Each team is well balanced and built for the long haul.

This Year’s Worst to First Contender: The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs last season, but they won’t this time around. With stars like Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, they have the skill needed to lead a franchise on the brink of greatness. They currently lead the league with a plus-18 goal differential and are scoring nearly five goals a game. Rookie Cory Conacher currently leads all first timers with 12 points and could end of the biggest surprise of the season.  He already has five games with multiple points.

Who doesn’t like a team who consistently lights the lamp?

The Lightning are simply electric this season.

The Team Facing the Most Pressure: Let’s cut to the chase—the San Jose Sharks are in a must-win situation this season. They may be somewhat forgotten about but they are stacked from top to bottom.

Thanks to the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, they can keep the opposition off balance and on edge for 60 minutes a night.

Together with Joe Pavelski, the fearsome foursome already has 10-plus points each.  Marleau is in the early running for MVP and the team’s defense is surrendering less than two goals a game.

The Sharks have been talked about early as contenders for many seasons now and without a Cup to show for it this season, the organization could decide to restructure. More than any team, they are in a do-or-die situation, but so far, they look up to the task.

April 25, 2012

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NFL Draft Predictions: Teams Bound for Big Time Success

By: Matt Bowen

The 2012 NFL draft is now just hours away, and a handful of teams are set to hit the jackpot this season. 

Some of the teams that will have success in this year’s draft had a lackluster 2011 campaign but hit a home run in free agency to set themselves up nicely for the April 26 draft. Others had a phenomenal 2011 season and are afforded the luxury of a draft full of options and calculated risks. 

Fans following these teams will have big smiles on their faces along with high expectations for the upcoming season. 

The St. Louis Rams Have Already Had Success by Trading Down in the 2012 Draft

The St. Louis Rams have done nothing but cultivate a winning franchise this offseason.

After a trade with Washington, The St. Louis Rams will have plenty of early round picks for the next few years.

Despite a 2-14 2011 season, the Rams made an intelligent decision by hiring new head coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher brings a proven track record, winning attitude and an automatic jump start to the stumbling franchise. 

He also helped lure free-agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan to the team, who gives the Rams defense an identity. 

Now the Rams turn to the draft, where they’ve already swapped the No. 2 pick with the Washington Redskins for the No. 6 pick. In doing so, the Rams also picked up another second-round pick this season.

That means the Rams will have three picks within the top 40—not bad for a franchise looking to turn things around.  

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Fans Should Be Ecstatic

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans should be more than happy right now thanks to the franchise making a splash in the offseason. 

With the signings of offensive lineman Carl Nicks, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and cornerback Eric Wright, the Bucs drastically improved in free agency. This allows the team to draft players without depending on them to make an instant impact in 2012.

With the No. 5 overall selection and six picks in total, the Bucs have the opportunity to return to their winning ways of 2010, when they finished 10-6. 

Certainly fans will expect the Bucs’ first-round pick to make a good first impression, but the pressure on that player is radically reduced by the teams’ free-agent signings. 

Although 2011 was a season to forget, 2012 should be one to remember for the Buccaneers. 

With a Strong Draft the Kansas City Chiefs Will Be a Playoff Team in 2012

The Kansas City Chiefs were decimated by injuries in 2011 but will be playoff contenders in 2012. 

With the signings of Peyton Hillis and Eric Winston in free agency, the Chiefs set themselves up for a prominent draft. The team has eight picks in total and can afford to draft the best available player with its first three picks.

The Chiefs will look like a completely new squad in 2012, so fans should be pumped.

The Philadelphia Eagles Have Plenty to Look Forward to in the 2012 Draft

With nine picks in the 2012 Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles are bound to get better. 

After a 2011 season where nothing short of a Super Bowl appearance was expected, success in 2012 is a must for the franchise and it all begins with the draft.

The Eagles have five picks in the first four rounds, including two second-round selections. With these picks the Eagles will likely look to improve with a big wide receiver and an offensive lineman. 

Eagles’ fans should be excited for 2012 as they look to erase the disappointment of 2011.

The Cincinnati Bengals Will Continue to Make a Statement with the 2012 Draft

The Cincinnati Bengals are setting themselves up for success for years to come. 

Not only did they make the playoffs in 2011, but they now have nine draft picks in 2012. These picks include No. 17 and No. 21 of the first round. And with these picks coming so close together, the Bengals can draft a combination of needs, like an offensive lineman and a running back. 

The Bengals franchise will solidify itself as a contender with a dynamite draft in 2012.

The Green Bay Packers Will Do Nothing but Improve with 12 Draft Picks in 2012

Although the Green Bay Packers didn’t finish with the championship belt in 2011, they won 15 games in the regular season. 

Just when NFC North opponents didn’t need the Packers to continuously improve, the Packers have 12 draft picks in 2012.  Even better for the Packers, six of those picks are within the first four rounds of the draft. 

This gives the Packers plenty of chances to make another run at the Super Bowl next season—watch out!