Monday, May 21, 2012

Red Sox vs. Phillies - A Year Of Perceptive Change

            This past Sunday, the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies wrapped up their three-game inter-league set in the City of Brotherly Love. 
            The setting was a little out of the ordinary to say the least.  Not because it was an inter-league series, which will become far less out of the ordinary next season when inter-league games take place every day.  But whereas last year the Red Sox (46-34, 2nd place) and the Phillies (51-31, 1st place) were both multiple games over .500 and atop their respective divisions at the end of the series, this year both teams are at or below .500 and in the basements of the AL and NL East.
            It's funny how much can change in a year.  Coming out of spring training last March, both the Sox and the Phils were the runaway favorites to represent each league in the 2011 World Series.  This year, after falling way short of their expectations last September/October, both teams are struggling just to find an identity.
            September’s events in Boston were well documented to say the least.  On September 3, 2011 the Sox were 84-54, held a nine-game lead in the wild card standings, and had a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs.  Twenty-seven games and a 7-20 record later, Boston found itself out of the playoffs and the owners of one of – if not the – worst collapses in baseball history.
            The collapse cost manager Terry Francona his job and had him publicly slandered in the media for his usage of pain medication on the way out.  General Manager Theo Epstein bounced.  Closer Jonathan Papelbon left.  Outfielder Carl Crawford was and still is hurt.  And nothing has seemed to go right since.
            Philadelphia’s story was the complete opposite.  The Phils ran away with the division, as they posted the most wins in baseball (102) and set a new club record in the process.  They also boasted one of the best starting rotations in history with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.  Despite all of that, they were beaten in five games in the NLDS by the red hot St. Louis Cardinals – who eventually went on to win the World Series – and were left with nothing to show for their historic season.
            Now, just 13 months after being anointed the future AL and NL champs, Boston and Philadelphia are fighting to stay afloat.
            “Sure, it can be very close,” said Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel on peoples’ perceptions and the line between winning and losing.  “There is definitely a fine line.  That’s why you play the games.
“It gets down to who plays the best and how much you want it.  I think Boston is going to be okay and I think we are too.”
With the win, Boston moves to 20-21 and has won eight of its last ten.  However, the Sox are still 6.5 games back of first-place Baltimore.  The two teams begin a big three series on Monday.
Meanwhile, the loss drops Philadelphia to 21-21 and five games back of Atlanta.  Interestingly enough every team in the NL East has a winning record.  Still, five games is far from insurmountable considering it is only the end of May.
A good sign for the Phillies is that their offense has seemed to wake up as of late.  They are 7-3 in their last ten games and have scored at least four runs in six of those contests.  Philly will host second-place Washington for three games starting on Monday.
“I think our offense is getting better,” said Manuel.  “I think we are hitting some balls good.  We only scored one run (Sunday) of course, but I think that in the last two weeks our offense is definitely getting better.”
The next month will prove to be a key stretch for the Phils.  They will play ten teams over the next 30 days, eight of which currently have a .500 record or better (Washington, St. Louis, New York Mets, Miami, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay).  Manuel acknowledged that it is going to be a make-or-break month for his team, but that he thinks they are ready for it.
“I think it is going to be a test for us,” admitted Manuel.  “I think we can handle it.  We have to play good and I think we can.  Of course we have to be more consistent.  That’s what we talk about every day.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Hamels Debate: Why He Should Re-Sign With Philadelphia

            A lot has been made of Cole Hamels and his current contract situation with the Philadelphia Phillies.
            Hamels’ current deal will end following the 2012 baseball season and will ultimately set him free onto the open market.  Since training camp, and even hopefully now as the season progresses, working out a contract with the left-hander has been the Phillies’ No. 1 goal.
            While the contract talks have seemed to subside with the grind of the early season, the thought that Hamels could potentially leave Philadelphia is still in the front of everyone’s minds.  Yes, the only ‘ace’ to bring the city its first baseball championship since 1980 four years ago, could be wearing another uniform come next spring.
            Just the thought alone makes every Phillies fan cringe.  However, trying to be as optimistic as I can, here are some reasons why I feel Hamels should stay in the red, white and blue.  Let’s all hope he reads this.
            First off, we have to realize that there is no loyalty in sports anymore.  So while I would like to think that because the Phils drafted him, groomed him, and had him become a NLCS and World Series MVP under their watch would have an impact on his decision – I’m not going to count on it.  You can’t really blame him either.  Nowadays a team will cut or trade a player the instant he stops producing at his expected level regardless of what he has done in the past.  It’s only right for the player to look out for himself.
            As always, the main sticking point seems to be the money.  As of the end of March there were reports floating around that Hamels was seeking a six-year, $137M deal.  The Phils were only looking to go four years since Hamels would be 34 by the end of his proposed deal.  Still, I don’t think that should matter.
            For the past few years the Phillies have been adamant about not going over into the luxury tax.  Nevertheless, they still went out and signed Cliff Lee before last year when all the while they were saying it wouldn’t be economically possible.  I assume they signed Lee with the intent of winning now.  Well if they are so intent on winning now, and only have a window of two-to-four years with this current group, then why not sacrifice some tax dollars to keep one of the best pitchers in the league.  I am sure they will make their money back with the way Citizen’s Bank has been filling up.
            If the Phils do sign Hamels to his $25M-a-year contract then they will almost assuredly have to say goodbye to Shane Victorino.  Victorino ($9.5M) is also a free agent at the end of this year, along with Joe Blanton ($8.5M) and Jim Thome ($1.5M).  Hunter Pence, who is currently making $10.4M, will be eligible for arbitration.  There are a bunch of other players on the team that are making under $1M who will be arbitration eligible, but the only one likely to see a substantial raise is Vance Worley.  But if the aforementioned three walk and free up $19.25M, and perhaps Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard restructure their $20M contracts for the good of the team, the money will be there to get a deal done.  It’s a lot to ask, but it is possible.
            Now I am sure the newly-owned Los Angeles Dodgers can and will offer more money than the Phillies.  It doesn’t help that the San Francisco Giants just gave Matt Cain $112M for five years.  And to make matters worse, there were reports in mid-April that suggested Hamels’ next contract could fetch between $150-175M on the open market.  The Phils definitely can’t do that, but they could give him close to what he wants ($25M-year) for the next three years.  Which leads me to my next point…
            The reverse of only being concerned about the money is wanting to win now.  If Hamels truly wants to win now, and assuming the Phillies are healthy for the next few years, there is no other place outside of Arlington, Texas that offers him a better chance of winning another World Series title.
            While Texas’ lineup may be the best in baseball, the Rangers don’t possess the starting staff or the closer that the Phillies do.  And everyone knows pitching usually wins in the playoffs.  If Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Howard and Pence can stay healthy for the majority of the time in the next three years, the Phils’ lineup will still be able to compete with the best in baseball.  Throw in Halladay, Lee, Worley and closer Jonathan Papelbon and the team’s staff is one of the best.  This group of players is enough to have the Phillies contending for the next three years.  Not many teams can say that.
            That’s why if I were Hamels’ agent, I would suggest signing a three-year deal with Philadelphia.  Not only will he get to contend for a World Series title every single year (something the LA Dodgers can’t say for sure as of right now), but he will still be young enough at the end of the run to get another big deal.  Hamels will be 31 in three years, and if he wanted to, he could then leave for LA and link up with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw while they are still in their prime.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility for a 31-year-old left-hander to still get a $100M deal.  Just look at Cliff Lee.
            Will any of these things play a factor or be on Hamels’ mind once the 2012 season ends?  Who knows.  But they are at least a few ideas he should consider before signing on the dotted line with any team for that matter.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Heartache for Hope

Over the last couple of years, concussions have been pushed to the front of the sports world.  Concussion awareness has risen dramatically mainly due to the rapid growth of head injuries in football and hockey.  Whereas years ago players would be able to talk themselves back into the game just minutes after taking a serious blow, now a plethora of tests must be done by a team’s training staff before the player can even think about going back out and competing.
Nowadays many studies are being done on both the short-term and long-term effects of head injuries.  Even high schools have started a new IMPACT test to gauge the ‘baseline’ of an athlete’s mental capacity.  Unfortunately, computer tests can only show a doctor so much.  It is only when they actually get to examine the physical brain that doctors can see the real damage taking place.
Sadly, the medical world will have yet another brain to study after Wednesday’s events.
Ex-NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who is mostly known for his time in San Diego along with his short stints in Miami and New England, shot himself in the chest at his San Diego home two days ago.  He was 43-years-young.
Seau is the second former NFL player to commit suicide in the last two weeks.  Ray Easterling, a safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s and a plaintiff in a largely-known lawsuit against the NFL for its mishandling of concussions, also shot himself back on April 19.  While it is impossible to immediately know if concussions and head trauma contributed to Seau’s death, it isn’t that hard to draw a connection.
The thing that leads me to believe that concussions definitely played a major role in Seau’s death is the fact that he knowingly shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain.  Chris Duerson, who also played safety in the 80s and 90s, was found dead last year from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  Prior to killing himself he had sent a text message to his family saying that he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine.  The University just happened to be studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological degenerative disease, caused by playing professional football.  Less than two months later it was confirmed that he had suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.  Although Seau did not leave a note or send any other texts besides “I love you” to his ex-wife and three children before committing the act, it is too eerily similar to Duerson’s actions to believe it was merely a coincidence.
It’s a shame to think that someone was in that bad of mental shape, whether he was suffering from dementia or deep depression, and still had the wherewithal to know to preserve his brain in hopes of helping the future.  Seau had decided that he didn’t want to deal with his issues any more.  Regardless of one’s view on suicide, either religiously or politically, they can’t say he did it selfishly.  He may have hurt his family members in the process, but obviously he was hurting just as much.  At least he knowingly left the part of him that could perhaps save future athletes from a similar fate.
This latest incident will only add to the ongoing media attention being given to head injuries.  The NFL currently has a large number of lawsuits being brought against it for its previous lack of concussion safety and prevention.
The NFL now finds itself between a rock and a hard place.  I would bet in the coming years that it will almost certainly be forced to change its rules even further.  Sooner or later I would expect that any player who is forced from a game with any kind of head injury will absolutely not be allowed back that day.  And if a concussion is suspected, he will be ruled out for at least a month.
Furthermore, the NFL will probably have to make even stricter rule changes.  This is where the problem comes in.  Regardless of any precaution that can be taken, football is a violent sport.  So does the NFL not change its rules and perhaps take on the perception of not taking action on the subject, or does it make more hits illegal and remove kickoffs at the expense of being called ‘soft’ by its players and fans?
I find it kind of funny that while almost every football player says they willingly played through concussions and would still do the same if they had to do it over again, they are awfully quick to sue the league once their playing days are over.  Tell me how that works.  If you knew the consequences at the time, don’t act like you didn’t know them afterward.  Instead of suing the league, how about letting them put that money toward more medical research.
Times are changing when it comes to head injuries in the world of sports, especially football.  Hopefully all of the heartache now will lead to a better understanding in the future.
RIP Junior Seau.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Phillies Battle Back To .500

            It has been an April full of questions and criticism for the Philadelphia Phillies.
            Without their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters in Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the Phils have had a tough go over the first 24 games of the 2012 baseball season. There have already been times when the offense looked so abysmal that writers and fans were ready to throw away any championship aspirations.
            Yet, after Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves, the Phillies find themselves just 2.5 games back of the first-place Washington Nationals in the NL East.
            Through all of Philadelphia’s so-called problems and deficiencies, the team has won five of its last seven games and now sits at 12-12 on May 1. The good vibes should be increased by the fact that the Phils have scored at least five runs in four of those wins.
            As one would expect, the Phillies’ recent run has improved their offensive numbers.  In just nine days the Phils have doubled their homerun total (seven to 14) and have nearly doubled their RBI total (40 to 75). In that time they have also risen in the rankings in batting average (22nd to 15th), runs scored (29th to 25th), hits (19th to 12th), on-base percentage (27th to 25th) and slugging percentage (29th to 25th). Although some of the improvements have been minimal, at least they aren’t going in the other direction.
            One main reason for Philadelphia hanging tough is closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon locked down his ninth save Tuesday night and has yet to blow a lead this season. He boasts an outstanding 0.82 ERA and WHIP and has a batting-average against south of .170. The only earned run he has allowed all year was a solo homerun to Miami’s Austin Kearns. That came in his second appearance of the year on April 9 and was in a non-save situation. On top of that, the right-hander has not allowed a hit in his last six appearances.
            Still, the Phillies’ playoff hopes will rely on their offense producing at a much more consistent clip. Things are starting to look up even without a timetable for Utley or Howard’s return. Jimmy Rollins currently has a four-game hitting streak in which he has raised his average from .216 to .247. Placido Polanco has risen his average over 70 points in the last two weeks. Catcher Carlos Ruiz (.309), left fielder Juan Pierre (.313) and utility man Ty Wiggington (.317) are all hitting over .300. That’s nice considering Pierre and Wiggington weren’t considered to be every-day starters entering the year. Lastly, Laynce Nix has even made the most of his recent opportunities and is hitting a respectable .281.
            The only Phillie that has gone in the opposite direction as of late has been Shane Victorino. Victorino has been in quite a slump, as he is just seven for his last 45. His average has fallen from .315 to .229 since April 20.
            Now is not the time for Phillies fans to put their heads down. Despite all of Philadelphia’s supposed ‘problems,’ it currently sits just a few games out of first place in the division. Sure it may be the Phils’ roughest start since 2009, but keep in mind they still went to the World Series that year.
If Utley and Howard can return sometime in early-to-mid June with the team still within striking distance, and even though that is a big ‘if,’ they will be in great shape for the stretch run. All the Phillies have to do is keep themselves afloat until that time.