Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Phillies' Roy Oswalt looks good in first rehab start with Lehigh Valley

            ALLENTOWN – After having not pitched for a little over a month, Roy Oswalt got back to business Wednesday night at Coca-Cola Park.
            Oswalt, one of the Philadelphia Phillies’ quartet of aces, began his rehab assignment with the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs last night and showed flashes of his old self.  The right-hander allowed just one run on one hit in four innings of work.  It was his first action since being pulled from his June 23 start with lower back inflammation.
            “The back felt pretty good,” said Oswalt, who struck out four on the night.  “We will have to see how it feels when I get back home and rest overnight, but overall it felt much better.
            “I was trying to work on some pitches and build some stamina.  That was the biggest thing tonight and I think it went alright.  I will probably throw another one before I get back to Philadelphia.”
            Apparently Oswalt felt so good that he went over his expected 60-pitch limit.  He threw a total of 72 pitches (41 strikes) and hit anywhere between 87 to 91 miles-per-hour with his fastball.  The only mistake he made on the night came in the fourth inning when he hung a changeup to Lars Anderson on a 2-0 count.  Anderson promptly deposited the pitch into the right field bleachers for a solo homer.
            Still, it was the only hit Oswalt surrendered on the night.  He worked a 1-2-3 inning in the first and threw 19 pitches in the process.  He needed 23 pitches to get through the second due to two walks, but again got out of the inning unharmed.
            Oswalt faced his biggest test heading into the third inning.  The Iron Pigs sent nine batters to the dish in the bottom of the second and scored three runs thanks to a solo homerun, a hit-by-pitch and a walk with the bases loaded.  The inning took roughly 21 minutes and left Oswalt with nothing to do as he sat and watched.
            The prolonged wait didn’t affect Oswalt, as he came out and proceeded to have his best inning of the night.  He needed just 12 pitches (nine strikes) to get through the 1-2-3 inning and didn’t allow a ball to leave the infield.  The quick frame put his pitch count at 54 and allowed him to come out for another inning.
            “The guys did a great job that inning,” said Oswalt.  “They made (Red Sox starter Kyle Weiland) throw over the plate and we were able to get some runs.
            “I felt pretty good.  I didn’t really have any issues pain-wise.  Right now it is just about building stamina more than anything.  I want to try and get up around 100 pitches.”
            Oswalt will attempt to make one more rehab start on Monday, however it is unclear what Phillies’ affiliate he will do it with as all of the Phillies’ minor league clubs are away.  The closest team would once again be the Iron Pigs, who play in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
            Vance Worley has pitched well in Oswalt’s absence and may hold on to a starting spot for the rest of the year.  Kyle Kendrick has also done a decent job filling in for Joe Blanton.  While either could possibly give Oswalt some extra rest if he were to need it, the competitor in him doesn’t think that will be the case.
“Once you get back into the rotation you want to stay there,” Oswalt said.  “Those guys have been doing great and hopefully they keep it up.  But once I get back I want to stay in my spot.
            “We have five guys throwing the ball well right now.  It’s a good thing because then you don’t feel like you are the only one out there.  Hopefully I can get in there and help out.”
            Meanwhile, the Iron Pigs won the game 4-1 to increase their North Division lead to four games over the second-place Red Sox.  Lefty Ryan Edell picked up the win in relief.  He went three-and-two-thirds and gave up just two hits while striking out five.
The win sets a new franchise-record for most games above .500 with 19.  The five-game winning streak is the third longest in franchise history.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Five Things the Dallas Cowboys Must Address Before the 2011 Season

There is no question that for the last five years or so the Dallas Cowboys have had the talent to compete for the Super Bowl.  However, for whatever reason, the Boys have continuously fallen short of their ultimate goal.
Once again the Cowboys will enter yet another football season with high aspirations.  Sure, Dallas has the talent to eventually hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy, but is it in the right place and will it be coached correctly.  Now with Jason Garrett at the helm, most die hard Cowboys fans believe so.
Still, there are some things the Boys need to iron out before they step on the field for real on September 11 in New York.
Here is a list of five things I feel the Cowboys need to sort out before they begin their 2011 journey toward Indianapolis, Indiana and Super Bowl XLVI.

Offensive Line Depth

With the drafting of USC's Tyron Smith in the first-round, the Cowboys have attempted to address one of their needs.  However, the Boys' overall depth behind the starters is still a huge liability.
What is certain is that Smith and Andre Gurode will be starting in the trenches come Opening Weekend.  After that, things are a little uncertain.
If the Cowboys can re-sign Doug Free, arguably the team's best lineman last year, he will also start along side the previous two guys.  The focus is then moved to Kyle Kosier.  The Boys will have to decide whether they want to try to re-sign Kyle Kosier and cut Leonard Davis, or let Kosier walk and roll with Davis.  If the cap gets lowered under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the chances of the team re-signing Kosier and letting Davis go will increase.  That still leaves a hole on the line which may be filled with Montrea Holland, who played in 14 games last season, but that is up in the air as well.
Regardless of which way Dallas chooses to go, its back-ups will be very inexperienced. It is yet to be seen what the Cowboys will do with demoted lineman Marc Colombo, but after him there isn't much left.
David Arkin and Bill Nagy are both rookies.  Jermey Parnell was relegated to the practice squad last year and did not see the field.  Sam Young and Phil Costa were rookies last season and played in a combined six games (Costa started one).  Robert Brewster saw the field once.  Then there is the infamous Alex Barron, who played in 11 games, but is mostly remembered for his holding call against the Redskins that cost the Boys a week one victory.  Personally, after his play in that game, I don't think he should have been allowed on the plane.  Unfortunately, he brings the most experience amongst the back-ups heading into 2011.
Dallas will not have much money to throw around on any free agent lineman and will probably have to go ahead with what they have.  If injuries crop up on the line like they did last season, the Boys will have to rely on some inexperienced players to protect their franchise quarterback.  That could spell doom if it were to happen.

Determining the Inside Linebackers

            New Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan likes the 3-4 defense and will probably stick with the same scheme the Cowboys have been running for the last few years under Wade Phillips.
The outside linebackers are not in question, as DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are locks at the position for the foreseeable future.  The inside linebackers are the ones that come under scrutiny.
Bradie James and Keith Brooking have been the Cowboys' inside linebackers for the last two years.  Brooking signed with Dallas in February of 2009, while James has played all eight years of his career in the Silver and Blue.  While James is aging, he still has a few good years left in him as a run defender.  Brooking, on the other hand, may have reached the point where it is best for him to spell the starters for a few plays here and there.
Sean Lee is the linebacker-in-waiting and should be given the chance to show what he can do as the Cowboys' second starter along side of James.  Of the three, Lee had the highest amount of tackles-per-play (.12) and the lowest missed-tackle percentage (5.0) in 2010.  Brooking was last of the three in both tackles-per-play (.08) and missed-tackle percentage (6.7).  Furthermore, Brooking tallied 23 less tackles than he did in 2009 despite playing more snaps.
The only thing Brooking has going for him is his pass defense, as he deflected the most throws of the three (5) and has the lowest reception-percentage against (65.2).  James actually was the worst at 83.9.  He also had the worst yards-per-attempt (7.6) and yards-per-snap (4.6).  Still, all Ryan would have to do is remove James in Nickle situations and leave Lee in as the lone middle linebacker.
Meanwhile, Lee had the best numbers of the three in yards-per-attempt (4.9) and yards-per-play (.33).  He also had two interceptions.
The best starting combination appears to be James and Lee.  Lee also seems to be the best one capable of handling the inside on passing downs.  Whether Brooking will accept the new role, and if the Cowboys' coaching staff even comes up with the same philosophy, is yet to be seen.

The Running Back Depth Chart

The Dallas Cowboys have a deadly trio of running backs.  However, the order in which they use them may have to be altered in 2011.
The Cowboys ranked 16th in the NFL last season in rushing yards per game at 111.6.  That number could be attributed to a few different things, such as injuries, no holes from the offensive line, trailing in ball-games or just an overall lack of running ability.  While I do not believe it is the latter, teams that win in the post-season have powerful running attacks that they can go to late in games.
Felix Jones led the team in rushing last year with 800 yards.  Barber was second with 374 (missed three games) and Choice was third at 243.
Barber has clearly lost a step and is no longer the bruiser that he was three years ago.  Nowadays he seems to get to the line, do a little two-step dance while trying to find a hole, and dive forward for two or three yards.  The coaching staff has also seen a decline and has even given it the thought of cutting Barber.  While I do not think Dallas should cut him (unless his contract is too much), I do believe that he should be delegated to short-yardage and goal line situations only.
That said, I believe that Choice is more than capable of handling those situations as well.  Choice has shown a hard-nosed style when needed along with his ability to break long runs.  He averaged nearly a half-yard more than Barber last year (3.7 to 3.3) and had one less run of 20+ yards in nearly half the snaps.
Jones may be the favorite for the starting job and he should be.  His 4.3 yard-per-carry average tied him with the likes of Chris Johnson and Knowshon Moreno.  Still, I feel as if Choice has shown the ability to split the carries if needed.  In fact, the Boys may want to start Choice for the early between-the-tackles running and use Jones as the change-up as they did two years ago.  I would be happy either way though.
The main point of all of this is to demote Barber.  It is somewhat tough to say considering he was clearly the Cowboys' best back three years ago when he was behind Julius Jones, but it seems as if wear-and-tear has already caught up with him.
Dallas must have had this in mind, as it selected Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray in the third round.  The Boys must not have been too happy with their running game if they decided to take a back that early.
It will be up to Garrett to delegate the running duties.  Hopefully he has the testicular fortitude to realize what must be done and split the carries up the right way.

Finding a Consistent Kicker

Chris Boniol.
True Dallas Cowboy fans remember the name well.  He was the last good kicker the Cowboys have had.  His last year with the team was in 1996, so that is saying something.
Dallas has lost numerous games over the years due to their lack of a consistent kicker and it was evident once again in 2010.  After letting Nick Folk (who had a 90 percent year in 2008 before dropping to 64 percent in '09) walk, the Boys turned to kickoff specialist David Buehler.  While he certainly had the leg to hit the long ones (hit two 53-yarders), he was hit-or-miss from short-to-mid range (4-for-7 between 30-39 yards, 8-for-11 from 40-49) and finished with just a 75 field goal percentage.  He also missed two extra-points.
Buehler missed his first field goal in week one.  While that may not seem too bad, had he made the kick the Cowboys would not have been forced to go for the touchdown on their last-second play.  At the very least they could have tied the game and gone into overtime.  He missed another in a 30-27 loss to New Orleans, although most people will put the blame of Roy Williams and his fumble late in the game.  Still, the extra three points would have pushed the game into OT.  Four weeks later the Cowboys rallied to take a lead over Arizona (26-24), only to have Buehler miss the extra-point and watch the Cardinals' Jay Feely nail a 48-yarder with five seconds to go to win the game.
Jerry Jones is notorious for not wanting to spend more than $1M on a kicker.  It was the reason Boniol walked in 1997 and it is the reason the Cowboys will never have a reliable kicker.  Until Jones comes to embrace the fact that kickers have a huge impact on the game, Dallas will be stuck putting its title hopes on a guy with a strong but inaccurate leg.

Suring Up the Defensive Secondary

What once was a strength for the Dallas Cowboys in 2008 has quickly turned into its biggest weakness heading into 2011.
Whereas the Cowboys' pass defense was fifth best in the NFL in 2008 (187.7 ypg) thanks in part to a league-leading 59 sacks, it has steadily declined to seventh-worst in 2010 (243.2 ypg).  The Boys were also seventh-worst in completion-percentage allowed (64.4).  On top of all that, Dallas gave up the second most points (27.3 ppg) and surrendered a league-worst 33 touchdowns through the air.  Only the porous Houston Texans were as bad.
Terence Newman, a two-time Pro Bowler, is quickly aging and has never really lived up to his potential as a top-five pick.  Sure he had some good years (All-Rookie team in 2003, Pro Bowl in 2007), but only last year did he record more than four interceptions (five).  Newman may still have a few decent years left in him, but injuries seem to be catching up to him.  Although he has not missed a game in the last two seasons, he always seems to be popping up on the injury list with some nagging injury.
Newman's fellow corner-mate, Mike Jenkins, was more than solid in 2009.  Jenkins started 15 of the team's 16 games (including its two playoff games) and picked off five passes while deflecting 19 more.  He, along with Newman, were named to the Pro Bowl as injury replacements.  However, Jenkins took a huge step backwards in 2010.  He managed just one INT and nine pass deflections and even had his character called into question after he failed to attempt to tackle an opposing player near the goal line.
Both of these guys were getting burned left and right last season.  Still, it seemed as if the entire Dallas passing defense was getting torched, so they can't take all of the flack.  Gerald Sensabaugh, Alan Ball, Orlando Scandrick and Bryan McCann need to receive some of the blame as well.
Something happened to the Dallas D midway through the season.  Through their first five games, the Cowboys only gave up an average of 180 yards through the air and only once did they give up more than 216.  However, starting with their Oct. 25 game with the Giants, Dallas went on to allow an average of 299 passing yards over the next nine games.  Here is the breakdown:

NYG - 297
JAX - 238
GB - 277
NYG - 373
DET - 263
NO - 333
IND - 365
PHI - 258
WASH - 286

Some were 'passing' teams.  Some weren't.  For the past decade the Dallas run defense has always been in the top half of the league.  Coming into games, especially last year, teams knew that the way to get by the Cowboys' defense was to throw over them.  The NFL has quickly become a passing league and for at least the last two years it seems as if the Cowboys have been behind the curve in learning how to cope with it.  Some of it is attributed to quarterback pressure, and hopefully Rob Ryan can bring some of that back to Big D, but regardless the secondary was getting burned too often to even think about making a serious run at a title.
Of course I would like Dallas to make a run at free agent Nnamdi Asomugha.  Who wouldn't want one of the league's best cornerbacks on their team?  But I just don't see Jerry Jones going after him with 1. Asomugha's asking price and 2. the new CBA.
Hopefully Rob will borrow some of Rex's blitzing schemes and take some of the pressure off of the secondary.  Either that or just give the opposition some different looks.  The fact is is that something needs to be done because it is almost certain that teams will be looking to test the Dallas secondary once again in 2011.

Check it out on Bleacher Report here. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

McFarland’s Mid-Season MLB Awards

            With Major League Baseball’s All-Star game approaching, that lets fans know that the season is already halfway over.
            It is hard to believe that the season is 87 games old for some teams.  What once probably seemed as an eternity for the players is steadily drawing closer and closer to the magic number of 162.
            Since the mid-way point of the season has come (and gone in a sense), I would like to take the time to hand out ‘McFarland’s Mid-Season MLB Awards.’
            These are my selections for the four major awards that are handed out at the end of the season.  Some of my selections will seem like no-brainers, while some others may surprise you.  Although things can surely change between now and the end of the year, I feel as if these ‘mid-way’ awards have definitely been earned by their respective recipients.

Most Valuable Player

            Everyone has their own criteria when selecting the MVP.  Major League Baseball seems to award it to the player with the best numbers.  Some choose the player most valuable to his team, while others pick the player most valuable to the league.
            I can absolutely say that I do not agree with the MLB’s approach of handing it to the player with the best stats.  Despite his .298 average, 47 HRs and 118 RBIs in 2003, I do not believe Alex Rodriguez should have won the AL MVP.  The Rangers finished 20 games under .500 for crying out loud.  If a player can’t help his team to at least a .500 record, how valuable are they?
            I like to look at three things.  First, the numbers do have to be there.  Stats don’t lie.  In the end they will prove if the player is one of the best in the game.  Secondly, he has to be on an average to good team.  If the team isn’t at least above .500, then again – how valuable are they really?  Lastly, if the player was removed from the team and substituted with just an average player, what would happen to the team?  Could the team sustain its .500 ways or would it fall off the map?
            Keeping those three things in mind, here are my selections for MVP…

AL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Boston Red Sox
            There is nothing like starting off with a no-brainer.
            Since moving to Boston before this season, Gonzalez has emerged as the best hitter in the American League.  The lefty is in the top three in seven different offensive categories and leads the league in hits (121), doubles (28), RBIs (75) and batting average (.348).  His on-base percentage (.405), slugging percentage (.583) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.989) are also good for third in the AL.  So far, he easily passes the numbers test.
            Gonzalez is certainly on a good team, as the Rod Sox stand at 50-35 as of July 5.  Some would argue that if Gonzalez was removed from the Sox that they would still be better than a .500 team.  Maybe so, but when a team loses the league’s best hitter it is sure to drop in the standings over the long haul.  Plus, he has been the best player in the AL.  Plain and simple.
            Toronto's Jose Bautista has to garner some attention, but his team is four games under .500.

NL MVP: Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets
            At first I wanted to hand Matt Kemp of the LA Dodgers this award.  However, after looking over my criteria, I decided to give it to Reyes.
            Both of these players have great stats.  Reyes leads the NL in runs (65), hits (124), triples (15), average (.354) and is second in stolen bases (30).  Kemp doesn’t lead the league in any one category, but is in the top three in five different stats – mainly the power numbers.  This is to be assumed since Reyes is about speed while Kemp is more of a power guy.
            I feel as if both teams would suffer tremendously if each player was removed from their respective lineup.  Reyes is the lead-off man and spark plug of the Mets’ offense.  Kemp hits in the heart of the Dodgers order and leads the team in nearly every offensive category.
            The thing that swayed my vote in Reyes’ favor was his team’s record.  The Mets, surprisingly enough, are 42-40.  The Dodgers on the other hand are a measly 37-50.  If I did give Kemp the MVP then I would be going against my A-Rod argument.  While I would much rather do that than hand a Met the MVP, I am supposed to be unbiased in my line of work.  Is it snowing outside?

AL CY YOUNG: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
            This is another toss-up between Verlander and Jered Weaver of the LA Angels.
            Both pitchers have literally been lights-out so far this season.  Both have won over ten games, thrown at least three complete games with two shutouts, have an ERA under 2.26, a WHIP below 0.92 and a batting average against (BAA) of .194 or lower.
            Verlander (11-4) leads the AL in innings pitched (143.1), strikeouts (138), WHIP (0.88) and is second to Boston’s Josh Beckett in BAA (.187).  Weaver (10-4) only leads the AL in ERA (1.92), but has given up the second fewest homeruns (5) out of the 31 AL pitchers with an ERA below 4.00.
            Team records aren’t usually held against a pitcher since he pitches once every five days.  In this case it wouldn’t matter either way, as the Angels are just one game better than the Tigers.
            Here are each pitcher’s lines.  Although I personally chose Verlander because of his ‘stuff’ and his ability to go deep into games, you can decide for yourself.

            Verlander: 11-4, 143.1 IP, 4 CG, 2 SH, 95 H, 36 ER, 12 HR, 31 BB, 138 K, 2.26 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, .187 BBA
Weaver: 10-4, 131.1 IP, 3 CG, 2 SH, 91 H, 28 ER, 5 HR, 30 BB, 114 K, 1.92 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, .194 BBA

Like I said, a complete toss up.

NL CY YOUNG: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
            At 34, Halladay is still as productive as ever.  He sports an 11-3 record with six complete games (leads MLB), a 2.44 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP.  His strikeout to walk ratio is a staggering 131:17, which when reduced down is 7.7:1.  Yes, he punches out nearly eight batters for every one he walks.
            Halladay will start for the NL in this year’s All-Star game and that can only help his case for the Cy Young.  He, as some pitchers do, may win the award purely on his reputation as one of the game’s best pitchers.  After all, he is 180-89 in his career.  That winning percentage (67 percent) would rank him sixth all-time, behind Sam Leever, Whitey Ford, Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove and Christy Mathewson.
            While most people probably look at the NL Cy Young as a formality in Halladay’s favor, I am not as quick to write off his teammate in Cole Hamels.  Hamels is 10-4 and has given up nearly 30 fewer hits than Halladay (albeit in 12 less innings) and sports a better ERA (2.40), WHIP (0.95) and BAA (.213 to .241).  If the writers go purely on numbers, than Hamels has to be in the discussion.

AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Michael Pineda, SP, Seattle Mariners
            Here is that name again.  The guy I told you to look out for over three months ago.  I have always said to never trust rookie pitchers, especially in fantasy.  Well, here is the exception.
            Pineda isn’t just one of the better rookie pitchers this year, but one of the better pitchers period.  He ranks sixth in the AL in ERA (2.58), eighth in WHIP (1.01) and is just one of four AL starters with a BAA under .200 (1.93).  Only three times in his 17 starts has he given up more than four earned runs and has yet to surrender more than five.
            Of the 13 AL starters with at least 100 strikeouts, Pineda is second behind only Tampa’s David Price in strikeouts-per-inning (1.019, 106 Ks in 109 IP).  For a rookie to storm onto the MLB scene like this is truly amazing.
            The only thing going against Pineda is his supposed innings limit imposed by the Mariners.  At the rate he is going he may be shut down for the last month of the season in hopes of not completely destroying his arm.  He is only 22-years-old.
            Despite the innings limit, and even if he does get shut down, I feel as if Pineda has already done enough to earn himself the Rookie of the Year honors.

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Craig Kimbrel, CL, Atlanta Braves
            Kimbrel is another rookie pitcher that has quickly become one of the league’s best at his position. 
            The Braves’ closer is currently tied for the major league lead in saves with 26 (Heath Bell) and has given up only 12 earned runs in 44 innings.  He also sports a considerably low WHIP (1.09).
            Out of the 28 closers with at least ten saves, Kimbrel ranks first in strikeouts (69), seconds in home runs allowed (1, Heath Bell has 0), and third in BAA (.190).  That is good enough for me.

AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Manny Acta, Cleveland Indians
            The sports world was abuzz after the Indians started out the season 20-8.  Though most people thought they couldn’t keep it up (and they haven’t), Acta has still done a great job so far this year.
            Even though Cleveland has gone 25-31 since its fabulous start, the Tribe still find themselves in first place on July 5.  Of course things may not stay that way, but there are mid-season awards.
Last year the Indians finished a dismal 69-93.  They would need to win just 30 percent of their remaining games (24) to finish with the same record.  It looks like an improvement is more than possible.
            If the award was given to the manager of the best team, then Joe Giradri and Terry Francona would be winning it most of the time.  I like to award the manager that has done the most with the least.  In this case it is Acta.

NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates
            While Kirk Gibson is doing a very good job with Arizona and has the D’Backs one game out of first in the West, I have to give my second home of Pittsburgh some love.
            The Pirates are notorious for playing .500 ball for the first month or so and then falling flat on their faces.  That doesn’t seem to be the case this year.  At the mid-way point, the Buccos are 45-41 and just one-and-a-half games behind the Cardinals in the Central.
            Hurdle did a great job of improving the Rockies in his time in Colorado (including a World Series appearance in 2007) and is now doing the same thing in the Steel City.  The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992 and haven’t won more than 79 games since.  In the last decade they haven’t won more than 75 games.
Pittsburgh already has 45 wins is hoping to stay relevant for the remainder of the season.  With Hurdle at the helm, along with their current roster, the Pirates could be staring their first winning season in almost 20 years directly in the face.

Check out the slideshow on Bleacher Report here