Monday, April 26, 2010

Padres, A's, Nationals: Which Sleeper Team Could Be For Real?

The 2010 Major League Baseball season is still young, but a glance at the standings reveals a few unexpected teams at or near the top as the weekend came to a close.

The San Diego Padres, Oakland A's and Washington Nationals were all projected by pundits to be bottom feeders, but all find themselves turning heads with their strong starts. All three teams have been amongst the worst in baseball over the past couple seasons.

Is this a temporary alignment of the sun, moon, and stars— or could any of them be for real and find themselves in the thick of things when September rolls around?

It has happened before.

After finishing with the worst record in baseball the year before, the Tampa Bay Rays captured the AL East and advanced to the World Series in 2008.

One year earlier, two former last place clubs found themselves competing against each other in the 2007 NLCS. The Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the Colorado Rockies before the magical run ended in the Fall Classic at the hands of the Boston Red Sox.

The Atlanta Braves (1991), Minnesota Twins (1991), and Philadelphia Phillies (1993) all experienced the elation of going from worst to the World Series. The Twins took it one further when they were crowned champions of baseball.

And, interestingly, the Padres have already been down this path. After being a cellar dweller in 1997, Trevor Hoffman, Kevin Brown and Greg Vaughn led them to the Fall Classic.

Could history repeat itself?

Washington Nationals

The Nats began last season with the excitement of debuting a beautiful new ball park, then went onto rack up the most losses in major league baseball. They were buried at the bottom of the NL East from start to finish ultimately losing 103 games.

Interestingly, though, they ended the season improbably with a seven game winning streak. Could that have been a foreshadowing of the 2010 season?

The emergence of some young talent has given reason for hope. Nyger Morgan and Ian Desmond have strengthened the defense up the middle and provided a solid one-two punch at the top of the lineup. Flame thrower Stephen Strasburg and hot prospect Drew Storen are on the way.

Also, the offseason addition of veterans Ivan Rodriguez, Matt Capps, Jason Marquis, and Adam Kennedy has provided leadership and experienced talent.

Combine these players with incumbents such as Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Christian Guzman and Josh Willingham— and you might just have a legitimate team. Based on the early returns, it sure looks that way.

The Competition: Who Might Burst Their Bubble?

The NL East favorite Phillies sit atop the division with an 11-7 record, while the anticipated main challenger Atlanta Braves reside in last at 8-10.

In between lies the other three teams in the division, just 1 1/2 games off the pace at 10-9. Seeing the Nationals as part of that triumvirate is clearly a greater surprise than the rebounding Mets or the forever upstart Marlins.

After a strong start, the Phillies are leaking a little bit of oil. Some key players such as Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton and JA Happ currently reside on the DL, while the non-Roy Halladay portion of the rotation has been largely shaky.

Overall, their appears to be strong competitive balance throughout the division, especially with the Nats emergence.

The Outlook: Will It Continue?

Although Washington is clearly improved, they face an uphill struggle playing within a division filled with clubs that have improved. The current scheduling format pits these five teams against each other 18 times each.

The Phillies still appear to be the class of the National League with their best baseball in front of them when they are at full strength. However, if injuries linger and their starting pitching struggles the door could be open for another team to capture the division.

Expect the Nats to embody their name by remaining pesky throughout the season. In the end, though (even with phenom Stephen Strasburg potentially joining them), they probably do not have enough pitching to make a serious run.

But, wait 'til next year.

San Diego Padres

Competing in a division full of playoff contenders with the Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, the Padres find themselves in first place with an 11-7 record thanks to an eight game winning streak. To say this is a big surprise is a bit of an understatement.

Despite former ace Jake Peavey now wearing a White Sox uniform, the Padres are still winning the old fashioned way— with pitching. They are currently third in all of baseball with a paltry 2.87 ERA, led by Jon Garland, Kevin Correia, Wade LeBlanc, Chris Young and Heath Bell.

Good pitching is the key to any hopes they have as their offense struggles to score runs. San Diego is batting .246 as a team, but have found ways to manufacture runs and win close games.

Corner infielders Chase Headley (.371 AVG, .421 OBP) and all-star Adrian Gonzalez (6 HR, 14 RBI, .317 AVG) provide the thunder. The Padres augment that with aggressive base running and good team speed, racking up 20 steals to rank third in MLB.

The Competition: Who might burst their bubble?

The Padres have the misfortune of being in arguably the toughest division in all of baseball. The Dodgers took the crown last year and advanced to the NLCS.

The Rockies were the N.L.'s hottest team over the second half of last year on the way to capture the Wild Card slot. They were knocked off by the powerhouse Phillies in the NLDS, but the majority of baseball experts predicted them to continue their winning ways and grab the NL West title.

Tracking on both teams' heels was to be the Giants, powered by the best starting rotation in the National League, if not the Major Leagues. Like the Padres, they will be limited in run production, but stellar pitching has a way of adding to the win column.

The Outlook: Will it continue?

The other teams in the division are just too strong for the Padres to remain in contention.

The Giants have better pitching. The Dodgers have a far superior lineup and better balance. The Rockies just have an overall better team.

San Diego has solid pitching, but it is not good enough to carry an anemic offense. The team just does not have the fire power to compete over the long haul.

Speculation all winter centered on the prospect of the small market Padres moving their slugging first baseman. If the club comes back to earth and settles in where expected, chances are that Gonzalez will be moved before the deadline.

Oakland Athletics

Oakland is using a very similar formula as the Padres. Their lineup is one of the most anonymous in baseball, but their pitching provides the heavy lifting.

That formula has produced a 12-8 record thus far that puts them on top of the NL West.

Although the A's have hit just 12 HR's and are 19th with a .253 team average, they

are ninth in runs scored. The combination of scratching out enough runs to complement the fourth ranked pitching staff (2.93 ERA) has translated into their current .600 winning percentage.

First baseman Daric Barton has provided offense unconventionally considering his position is where sluggers usually reside. Barton has failed to hit a home run, but is batting .328 with a .488 OBP. Right fielder Ryan Sweeney has also been an offensive leader with a .306 batting average, but he, too, has failed to go yard.

The team's greatest strength has been its starting rotation. Justin Duchscherer (2-0, 1.82 ERA), Brett Anderson (2.35 ERA), Ben Sheets (2.74 ERA), Dallas Braden (3-0, 2.77 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 3.68 ERA) have been rock solid.

They are backed up by hard throwing closer Andrew Bailey, who turned an excellent rookie campaign a year ago.

The Competition:

The Los Angeles Angels are considered the favorite to repeat as the AL Western Division champion. The Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers were expected to give them a run with the young A's bringing up the rear.

However, this division might be the most likely for an upstart team to find success. The Angels are not the same powerhouse that won 97 games in 2009, and the others have weaknesses.

While the other teams improved over the winter, the Angels lost several key players. Vladimir Guerrerro and Chone Figgins departed for Seattle and Texas, respectively. Top starter John Lackey signed on with Boston, while valuable reliever Darren Oliver also made his way to Texas.

The Mariners made big news in the offseason when they landed former Cy Young pitcher and 2009 postseason hero Cliff Lee. He joins to existing ace Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation to form the most dominant duo in all of baseball.

The Rangers will hit bombs and score runs, but have so-so starting pitching. While the Mariners boast two stoppers, they will still labor to put runs on the board.

The Outlook:

The AL West could go down to the wire with all four teams in contention. With the Wild Card likely to come from the AL East, a postseason appearance will require ending up on top.

If Sheets stays healthy and pitches to his potential, and the offense can continue to scratch out runs without the long ball, the A's have a shot.

The "X" factor for Oakland could be two top prospects waiting in the wings. Chris Carter is a first baseman/outfielder with 30-40 home run potential. Outfielder Michael Taylor was acquired from Philadelphia, where he tore things up in the minors. Both could join the big club before long and bring some much needed fire power.

The Final Word

These three upstart teams have opened some eyes in the early going. With almost 90% of the season yet to be played, it is difficult to make too much of their performances thus far.

My suspicions are that the Padres will be the first to fall back to Earth, particularly in the rugged NL West.

The Nationals will have a similar struggle, but will draw much closer to the pack.

With possible reinforcements coming from the minors, the A's could be the surprise team of baseball. A last to first place scenario is not out of the question, but I expect them to just fall short. Stay tuned.

Gary Suess is also a Featured Columnist covering the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles and MLB for the

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Sould Resign Jayson Werth Quickly

Phillies' Jayson Werth connects for a single during game 5 of the World Series in Philadelphia

Last evening, Jayson Werth put on a "Baseball Tonight" highlight reel in leading the Phillies to a 3-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Watching him continue to evolve as one of baseball's brightest all-around stars argues that the Phillies should sign him to a contract extension right now.

As he often does, Werth displayed his multi-dimensional talents in the desert. With one out in the second inning, the bearded right-fielder with the flowing hair crushed a pitch off starter Ian Kennedy that traveled 448 feet to stake the Phils to a 1-0 lead.

In the middle innings, Werth contributed with a couple excellent plays in right field. And, he capped things of by hitting a two out, ninth inning bomb to dead center to provide the margin of victory.

Werth has swung the bat well since opening day and has mounted some impressive numbers. He currently is batting .333 with 3 HR's and 10 RBI's. Perhaps even more representative of his well rounded contributions are his .408 on base and .633 slugging percentages.

The 2010 success comes on the heels of his maturation into an everyday all-star right fielder. Since joining the team in 2007, Werth has batted .278 with an .878 OPS. His home run output continues to grow with a career high 36 a year ago and a trajectory that might take him to the 40 plateau very soon. And, did I mention 47 steals in 53 attempts?

Last winter, the Phillies wisely inked him to a two year contract extension to avoid arbitration that pays him $7 million in 2010. When the current contract expires, though, Werth will become a free agent.

As the season wears on, the price tag will continue to rise as Werth further validates his capabilities with another big season. The five-tool player has already turned heads by ramping up his performance over the past two postseason runs to the Fall Classic, jacking 11 HR's to go with a .393 on base percentage in 29 games.

Every bomb, every "reckless abandon" race around the base paths, every laser throw to nail a runner at the plate, and every diving catch in the outfield that lands on "Sports Center" will only serve to whet prospective teams' appetites for his services.

Hitting in the important five hole protecting Ryan Howard, Werth's growing reputation as one of the league's most dangerous hitters serves to mitigate opposing pitchers working around the slugging first baseman. It truly is a symbiotic relationship— as Werth's numbers go up, so do Howard's.

Ruben Amaro and the Phillies have already pushed the payroll to a level beyond their wildest imaginations just a couple years ago. Dealing Cliff Lee and letting Chan Ho Park walk over the winter serves as testimony that the team is feeling the need to control the payroll.

With the team's star studded roster, Amaro has acknowledged that he will be forced to make some tough decisions down the road. He has made it clear that he does not have the open checkbook to operate like the Yankees or Red Sox, so some decisions will be about finances over talent.

On the flip side, the Phillies are looking at the possibility of selling out all 81 home games. Additionally, they hope to make a third consecutive World Series run, which could push total attendance towards a staggering 4.2 million fans— not to mention record revenues.

It is also worth mentioning that Werth's stature as a fan favorite is ever increasing. Like middle of the order sluggers, retaining beloved talent and revenues are also a symbiotic relationship. Simply put— fans come out to see exciting players win games.

Many have compared Werth to Jason Bay, who signed a four year, $64 million contract with the rival New York Mets this winter. In terms of numbers, the comparison is solid, though the Phillies' Jayson is better defensively and on the base paths. Conversely, Bay has validated his skills over a greater period of time.

Werth has made it clear that he loves everything about Philly from his teammates to the ball park to the fans to the city itself. Although it would be unrealistic to think that he will forego such an important opportunity to monetize the unique intersection between his prime years and free agency, he might be willing to strike a balance.

Surely the signs are that a bit of a home town discount is in order here. However, the size of that break will probably shrink as the year wears on and perhaps disappear when he hits the open market.

Whether its four years, $64 million or something less— the Phillies should do whatever it takes to make Jayson Werth a fixture in right for the next 4-5 seasons. He plays hard, plays to win, is a great teammate, and possesses the type of multi-dimensional talent that suggest his best days are still ahead.

If that requires shedding payroll or raising ticket prices a dollar or two, so be it.

Although I like his work ethic and contributions, if it means moving Raul Ibanez to clear payroll, the team needs to do it during or after the season. A Ben Francisco platoon with Greg Dobbs would hold down the fort. Even better would be to allow prized prospect Dominic Brown to mature in a part-time role facing mostly righties.

In the offseason, opinions floated around to trade the right fielder before he hits the market because Brown is on the way. I buy into the latter— but rather along side Werth and instead replacing the 38-year old Ibanez.

The time is now for Amaro and the Phillies to make a bold move to keep Werth in the fold. If not, every highlight generated by their exciting, young star throughout the season will be mixed with the ambivalence of knowing the price keeps edging up.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Philadelphia Eagles Fans Hope Brandon Graham Isn't the New McDougle

Miami (OH) Red Hawks v Michigan Wolverines

The Philadelphia Eagles have a poor track record when it comes to moving up in the draft and selecting undersized defensive ends. If Eagles fans are having that same deja vue feeling again it is for good reason.

Last night, as is well established organizational practice, the Eagles made a trade to swap draft positions. This year they decided to move up in the first round to grab the apparent "apple of their eye"— namely Brandon Graham.

Graham is an outside linebacker— I mean, defensive end out of Michigan. The 6' 1", 268-pounder is the type of "tweener" that the Andy Reid era Eagles have routinely coveted and had NFL player personnel pundits slotting him as a pass rushing linebacker.

The team's previous history makes this pick a little bit troubling. And, the fact that Reid and Howie Roseman parted with the No. 24 pick and both third rounders to move up 11 places makes it especially scary.

If the Eagles were going to expend that type of ransom, getting much closer to a "sure thing" would have been more in order.

For a team that just traded their franchise quarterback for 2nd and 4th round picks just a few weeks ago, a first and two third's seems a bit steep for what amounts to a roll of the dice. Perhaps the odds are pretty good— but history tells us that perhaps they are not.

Another Reid regime pulled a similar move in 2003 when they moved up 15 slots to take Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle. Despite parting with first and second round picks, the team was ecstatic to get the 6'2", 264 pound player with the 15th overall selection.

McDougle was also considered undersized around the league and projected as a pass rushing linebacker. Apparently the consensus opinion proved right as the defensive end was oft-injured and could manage a total of three sacks over four NFL seasons. Gulp!

Of course, several years earlier the Ray Rhodes regime helped establish an ignominious distinction similar to the "Mendoza Line" in baseball by paying a king's ransom to move up five slots and draft Mike Mamula with the 7th overall pick. Mamula became synonymous with reaching way too high to get a bust.

Mamula had the length at 6'4", but at 252 pounds was usually overmatched and often appeared to be a boy amongst men. He was a classic workout warrior that vaulted up the draft rankings despite an unremarkable college career.

The team fared a little better with the Boston College defensive end. He lasted five seasons and recorded 31.5 sacks. Much better than McDougle— but hardly what the Eagles envisioned getting in return for the 12th pick and two second rounders.

Stats aside, those fans who watched his body of work know full well that Mamula was a big bust.

Now fans have Graham donning midnight green under similar circumstances. Of course, all hope that he turns out to be the next Hugh Douglas or even Trent Cole as Reid compared him.

Skepticism induced by previous experience tends to creep in, though. The first difficulty with this comparison is that Douglas was an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier. The other is that although Cole has been good, fans also see that he can be overmatched and worn down by the much larger tackles he faces.

Comparing Graham to Cole also triggers a head scratching reaction. After all, he was selected in the 5th round— which might suggest that the team could have gambled on a fast, undersized "tweener" much later in the draft. Perhaps they could have used both third rounders for that purpose?

For what it is worth, Graham described himself as "a great pass rusher, a disruptive run stopper, a high motor guy, a humble guy." Well, maybe not that humble, but the Eagles and their fans would gladly take the first three regardless of the last.

Lets hope that Brandon Graham turns out to be the type of difference maker the team would hope to get for what they gave up. Unfortunately, history is not on their side.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Philadelphia Eagles Should Boldly Move Up and Draft CJ Spiller

ACC Championship  - Clemson v Georgia Tech

All the various mock drafts and recommended selections for the Philadelphia Eagles, including my own, have centered on filling team needs. This has become the norm as opposed to the old "take the best available athlete."

The more contemporary approach is for teams to evaluate their roster and identify their specific areas of need. From there, it becomes a matter of evaluating the talent pool, predicting how other clubs may draft and projecting the likelihood of the team's targeted prospects being available in their draft slots.

Sometimes it makes sense for a team to break from conventional wisdom. This year may be one of those times for the Eagles.

Chances are that Kansas City will stay put and draft Eric Berry with the fifth pick. If not the Chiefs, Berry will likely be chosen by one of the first six teams on the board.

Assuming this to be the case, the Eagles should make a bold move to trade up to the 7th to 10th spot to select a true difference maker. They have the ammunition to do it.

With Berry most likely not an option, Andy Reid and company should shock the football world by selecting Clemson running back C.J. Spiller.

There will be players that can help them if they stand pat and select in their current slots— players who have the potential to be good to very good. However, Spiller would give them a player with the potential to be great.

The team just traded its franchise quarterback in favor of keeping a "West Coast" formula quarterback who does not seem to have the arm to stretch the field or the legs to turn a sack into a gain.

Earlier this offseason, the Eagles released one of the best running backs in team history. In his place, the team will have second year player LeSean McCoy, who is solid, but does appear to have the potential to be great.

Adding an explosive playmaker like Spiller would provide balance and open up the short passing game that the team will now employ. It would also take tremendous pressure off of Kevin Kolb by forcing defenses to always account for a running back who is a touchdown waiting to happen.

Drafting Spiller would be like going back in time and getting a healthy, 22-year old Brian Westbrook. Or, getting another Chris Johnson— the 2009 NFL Player of the Year. Like the Titans' back, he runs eye popping times (4.27 to 4.37 in the 40.)

Spiller has a resume filled with success, but often flew under the radar because he spent much of his college career splitting time. Last season he rushed for 1,212 yards, grabbed 36 passes for another 503 yards, and added another 965 yards returning kicks.

Overall last year, he found the end zone 20 times, including four TD's on returns. If that was not enough, Spiller also tossed a touchdown pass each of the past two seasons. And, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry over his four year career at Clemson.

Neither the Browns at No. 7, Bills at No. 9 or Jaguars at No. 10 would list running back amongst their greatest needs and might be inclined to trade down in order to fill a couple holes. Perhaps the Eagles first rounder and their own second round pick would get it done?

Spiller, along with Berry, appear to be best able to step into the NFL and make an immediate impact. And, even more importantly, a running back tandem of Spiller spelled by McCoy, along with DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant sure would make the transition to Kolb so much smoother.

With the Redskins' pick at the top of the second round and two more picks in the third round, the Birds should be able to get a pretty good safety, linebacker and/or defensive end.

Call me crazy, but if this team wants to win a Super Bowl, they should go for it. Find a top ten trade partner and put Spiller in midnight green. I can think of another former Clemson Tiger player who looked pretty good in those colors.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

MLB 2010: Ten Closers in Jeopardy of Losing Their Job

Cincinnati Reds vs St. Louis Cardinals

The closer role is perhaps the most difficult job in major league baseball. If not the most difficult, it surely is the most highly scrutinized and insecure position on any team.

Before two weeks of the 2010 regular season had passed, four teams had already changed pitchers filling this important role. Looking around the league, it is possible that these are just the first amongst other similar moves by teams that do not have the luxury of calling on Mariano Rivera.

In Baltimore, big free-agent acquisition Mike Gonzalez hit heavy turbulence blowing two saves in three chances before being placed on the DL for shoulder stiffness. He was replaced by Jim Johnson, who filled the role late last season after the Orioles traded George Sherrill.

Similarly, Angels lefty Brian Fuentes was placed on the 15-day disabled list and replaced by Fernando Rodney.

Injuries did not play a role in Texas and Toronto where each team's struggling closer was quickly demoted. Former Marlins and Cubs closer Kevin Gregg took over for young Jason Fraser, while flame throwing right-hander Neftali Feliz was handed the assignment previously held by Frank Francisco.

Besides the four aforementioned teams, within the near future, at least ten other clubs could conceivably change the name they call to nail down a victory. Here are those clubs and the odds they will make a switch.

1 Cleveland Indians Kerry Wood

Former Cardinal Chris Perez is currently holding down the job while Kerry Wood is on the mend. The hard-throwing right-hander has converted on four of five save opportunities, but has been a bit of an adventure along the way.

Reports are that Wood is improving and nearing a return. When he is reactivated, Wood will resume closer duties and Perez will return to late inning set-up responsibilities.

The rub here is Wood's $10.5 million salary and long injury history. The Indians are in a rebuilding mode and shedding salary, so it appears to be simply a matter of time before Perez steps back in as closer.

Unless the Tribe unexpectedly finds itself in contention, Wood will likely be dealt to a team in the hunt in need of a closer. As you will see, there are quite a few clubs with unsettled situations.

Odds: 80/20 that Wood will be traded by mid-summer

2 Philadelphia Phillies Brad Lidge

What a difference a year makes. Brad Lidge culminated a perfect season with a triumphant leap into the air to conclude the 2008 World Series—and then suffered through a nightmarish 2009 encore.

One year its 48 saves in 48 chances and a massive, diamond-studded piece of bling on his hand. The next year its 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and a meltdown in the Fall Classic that may have killed any chances of a repeat.

When the season ended, Lidge went under the knife to repair damage to both his knee and elbow. While he continues rehab in Florida, Ryan Madson is handling the closing duties.

Although Madson's performance in the role continues to fall short of his potential, Manager Charlie Manuel will likely have a much shorter rope for Lidge this season. His rehab outings have been mixed, and if he mirrors last season's performance once he gets back to the big club, Manuel might opt to let Madson grow into the closer role.

Odds: 70/30 that Lidge hangs onto the closer job

3 Arizona Diamondbacks Chad Qualls

Lidge's former teammate Chad Qualls finds himself in a similar situation in Arizona. The Diamondbacks closer also had offseason knee surgery, but was ready to go to start the season— at least the team thought so.

Qualls sports an 8.31 ERA and has blown two out of three save opportunities in the early going. Just when the cries for right-hander Juan Gutierrez to take over reached deafening levels, the setup man blew a save opportunity himself.

With many fans questioning whether Qualls has the stuff or make-up to close, expect the debate to continue in Arizona. More blown saves, or even shaky performances, could lead Manager A.J. Hinch to give Gutierrez a longer look.

Odds: 50-50 that Qualls gives way to Gutierrez or another closer

4 Chicago White Sox Bobby Jenks

Similar to his physique and that patch of hair on his chin, things are not always pretty with Bobby Jenks. So far, so good in the regular season, but a horrible spring and spotty performance in 2009 have the list of doubters expanding.

The hard throwing behemoth has held down the White Sox closer role for the past five seasons, but if he continues the trend of giving up the long ball, the team has some potential closers in waiting.

Former Mariner's closer J.J. Putz and hard throwing wannabe Tony Pena are waiting in the wings. High wire innings or walk-off homers could have Jenks in the hot seat.

Odds: 75/25 that Jenks holds onto the job

5 Colorado Rockies Huston Street

Last year's All-Star closer Huston Street opened the 2010 season on the DL with a strained shoulder and is expected to return in May. Meanwhile, lefty Franklin Morales has been shaky as the interim replacement.

Morales has flashed great potential, but everything gets a little bit tougher when the game is on the line. The pitcher became unnerved yesterday on his way to blowing his second consecutive save.

Besides having a sore shoulder, perhaps the biggest factor here is the 3-year, $22.5 contract Street signed in the winter. And, although he registered 35 saves in 2009, he had arm woes in September and struggled in the postseason.

If Morales flourishes in his absence, the Rockies might decide that he gives them more— for less. The club also has former closer Manny Corpas rehabbing from injury and targeting a mid-year return.

Odds: 50/50 that Street is traded and/or replaced

6 Houston Astros Matt Lindstrom

When Houston allowed Jose Valverde to walk this winter via free agency, they quickly traded for Matt Lindstrom and signed Brandon Lyon to take his place. The former won the spring training battle, but Lyon waits in the wings.

Lindstrom is a classic closer-type possessing a fastball that can light up triple digits on the radar gun. His downfall has been a lack of command, particularly with his secondary pitches.

Conversely, Lyon relies on pitching savvy to be effective. The fact that GM Ed Wade signed him to a somewhat shocking 3-year, $15 million contract suggests that the team envisioned him as a closer.

Although the Astros are off to a horrific start, Lindstrom has been solid. The situation bears watching, though, as at least one guy in the front office is rooting for Lyon to win the job.

Odds: 60/40 that Lindstrom remains the closer

7 Milwaukee Brewers Trevor Hoffman

At the advanced age of 42 with a fastball in the mid-80's, many wonder if this could be the year that hitters finally catch up to Trevor Hoffman? A 12.60 ERA and a couple blown saves has a way of doing that.

The Major League's All-Time saves leader has gotten off to a rocky start, failing to convert save opportunities by surrendering two-out home runs in consecutive games. It was the first time that Hoffman blew back-to-back saves since 2007.

Considering the track record of the future "Hall of Famer," there would probably be little concern if he were younger and relying on hard stuff. Similar to Jamie Moyer in Philadelphia, though, anytime a soft tossing elder statesman struggles, the tendency is to wonder if baseball's "Father Time" has finally claimed another?

Odds: 75/25 chance that Hoffman works it out

8 St. Louis Cardinals Ryan Franklin

Whenever you have a closer with what appears to be mediocre stuff, you can pretty much count on a short rope. After a pedestrian career, Ryan Franklin stepped into the closing role for St. Louis in 2008 and evolved into an all-star last season.

The 37-year old right-hander registered 38 saves for the division winning Cardinals in 2009 with a stellar 1.92 ERA. Without the aid of a blistering fastball or any signature pitches of note, Franklin instead relies on guile and precision—and possibly a diversionary ZZ Top-like goatee.

In 2010, the Cards closer has recorded four saves in as many attempts, but has skirted trouble along the way. His 6.00 ERA high wire act has many wondering if hard throwing Jason Motte might be better suited for the role.

Motte, who also sports a less than flattering chin growth, is the type of strikeout pitcher capable of escaping tough jams. The Franklin-Motte watch should continue as long as Franklin remains the closer.

Odds: 60/40 that Motte takes the job—at least for awhile

9 Washington Nationals Matt Capps

In desperate need of a closer, the Washington Nationals took a chance by signing Matt Capps to a 1-year, $3.5 million contract. Capps was coming off a rough season that saw his ERA balloon to 5.80 with hitters racking up a .324 average against him.

The Nats are hoping that he regains the form that he showed in 2007 and 2008 as the Pirates closer. The early returns are good as Capps has recorded five saves and a paltry 1.42 ERA.

The 27-year old right-hander has decided to revert to his early career approach by relying heavily on his mid-90's fastball. It appears to be serving him well, but its a long season in which hitters can adjust.

The team drafted Drew Storen out of Stanford with the tenth overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft. They hope to fast track and envision him as the closer of the future. When the Nationals fall far enough off the pace, they may decide to accelerate his arrival in the bigs.

Odds: 75/25 that Capps closes all year

10 Minnesota Twins Jon Rauch

Minnesota fans were anxiously awaiting the opening of their brand new stadium and for their beloved Twins to make another run at postseason success when something ugly happened. All-Star closer Joe Nathan tore an elbow ligament and was lost for the season.

The Twins went from having the major advantage of having one of the best closers in the business to searching their roster for a solution. Up stepped (and we mean up) giant right-hander Jon Rauch.

Manager Ron Gardenhire first contemplated a closer by committee approach, but then decided to name Rauch to fill the role. That decision has looked golden so far.

The 6' 11" Rauch has posted six saves and a 1.50 ERA in six games. The 31-year hurler has flashed potential with the White Sox, Nationals, Diamondbacks and last year in Minnesota, but has never really been "the man."

Although he has excelled early, until the sample size increases and the pressure heats up, this situation has to be considered subject to change. After all, Gardenhire had a few potential candidates in mind just a few weeks ago.

Odds: 70/30 that Rauch nails down the job (possession is 9/10ths of the law)

The Final Word

Unless your name is Mariano Rivera, job security very rarely accompanies the assignment of being a major league closer. Those pitchers that take on this difficult role understand it comes with the territory, but that doesn't make the task any easier.

Taking the ball in the biggest moments with the game on the line requires a unique mix of swagger, focus and mental toughness to be successful. Having really good stuff or laser-like precision—or both— is also an essential.

Did I mention luck? Sometimes it works in a closer's favor, and sometimes not.

It is not a job for the faint of heart.

Some will lose their edge—physically or mentally. Some will lose their job— temporarily or permanently. A new closer may be coming to a ballpark near you.

Gary Suess is also a Featured Columnist covering the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles and MLB for the

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Five Most Under Appreciated Athletes in Philadelphia History- Part 6

Philadelphia Eagles v San Diego Chargers

Part 6 of 6

1 Donovan McNabb

As even casual observers know, Donovan McNabb is now a Washington Redskins. The Easter evening trade sent the Eagles' all-time greatest quarterback to their division rival for a couple of draft picks.

The reaction in Philadelphia has been mixed, ranging from pure elation to resolve that the team needed a change to bitterness that the star player was unceremoniously dumped. Many believe that sending him to a team within the division and handing the starting role to unproven Kevin Kolb adds further insult to a tenure punctuated with disrespect throughout his days in midnight green.

From the harsh greeting he received from a small contingent of Eagles fans on draft day through the ongoing reaction to his trade, McNabb has not always felt the love from the Philadelphia community. This is not to say that he has not enjoyed a supportive and sometimes adoring segment of the fan base, but the number of detractors has continued to grow as the Lombardi trophy continued to reside in other cities around the NFL.

And, although McNabb's reaction was quite the opposite of Mike Schmidt, it similarly exacerbated the situation. Specifically, Donovan's perpetual smile and desire to focus on the positive was interpreted as nonchalance and lack of passion to achieve the same goal so desperately desired by the fan base -- namely a Super Bowl championship.

From his first season as the acknowledged starter, McNabb led the team to unprecedented success. His 657 winning percentage is just short of spectacular and far superior to any other quarterback in franchise history.

McNabb has also filled the record books with stellar numbers that place him virtually at the top of all team records and high in the all-time NFL rankings. The list of accomplishment is almost endless—just pick the category and Donovan sits at the top by usually a wide margin.

The statistical evidence makes a strong case that McNabb it's clearly the best quarterback the organization has ever employed and arguably it's overall best player. However, his critics continue to focus on only their own measuring stick of performance— the inability to win the Super Bowl.

The debate about #5 will continue to rage on for years to come without resolution. With his body of work in Philadelphia now complete, there is little that McNabb can do to turn sentiment his way. Of course, a Redskins Super Bowl championship might highlight to many Philly fans that he was deserving of more credit.

The Final Word

Sports passions run deep and fans are highly invested in its professional sports teams in the city of Philadelphia. There is clearly an emotional connection far stronger than most sports towns that can make it a very special place to play.

Just visit Citizens Bank Park for any Phillies game to experience the electricity of a tremendously supportive fan base that is truly enamored with its hometown heroes. The atmosphere is almost magical.

However, knowledgeable and highly engaged fans, helped along by a very discerning media, expect supreme effort and winning performances from its sports teams. And, the highest expectations are assigned to its most talented athletes.

Some players exhibit qualities and performances that win the hearts of Philly fans and come close to leading a charmed life. Conversely, others never seem to make the connection and win the affection of fans that is commensurate with their talents and seeming contributions.

No player is without imperfection. However, the flaws of these five athletes were rehashed and embellished to the point of overshadowing what other fans outside of Philadelphia admired and coveted.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Philadelphia Eagles 2010 Draft: Predicting Success Based On History

Philadelphia Eagles v Baltimore Ravens

The Philadelphia Eagles entered the offseason with some clear needs on both sides of the ball. As the team heads toward the 2010 NFL Draft on Thursday, the front office's activity over the past few months has served to increase both the wish list and the number of selections available to address it.

The debate in Philly continues to rage whether the Eagles are in a rebuilding mode or simply passing the torch to younger players who can maintain the same level of play. For what its worth, new GM Howie Roseman and Andy Reid have both proclaimed that the team is not rebuilding.

The Eagles organization reportedly believes that they can adequately address holes with the abundance of picks they have accumulated in a deep draft.

Most experts and fans would agree that the team needs are the following:

1) safety, 2) linebacker, 3) cornerback, 4) defensive end, 5) center, 6) guard, and 7) running back.

With the Easter evening trade of Donovan McNabb, the Eagles now have a total of 11 picks, including seven in the first 4 rounds. Here is a breakdown showing the round and placement of the Eagles 2010 draft picks:

1.24, 2.05, 2.23, 3.06, 3.23, 4.07, 4.23, 5.06, 6.31, 7.36, 7.37.

When the NFL kicks things off on Thursday night, how the Eagles brass goes about using that abundance of picks will reveal whether the team will seriously compete in 2010 or whether they are in the midst of a longer range rebuilding program?

Although the Reid era Eagles have a history of taking players that are not necessarily immediate team needs, players, fans and the front office all know that failing to address clear weaknesses will send a strong signal about what to expect this season.

Assuming that Roseman's and Reid's proclamations are not disingenuous, the question becomes what is the likelihood of the Eagles filling their many needs? And, more importantly, what are the chances that the team will draft enough difference makers to position itself for ongoing success?

Even with a good draft, the reality is that only a few picks each season make a significant impact. For every Brent Celek there are three Tony Hunt's.

In order to put it in perspective, I have reviewed the previous 11 draft classes in the Reid era. Although the number of picks and spots can vary quite a bit, assessing the impact of each year's selections helps us to predict what to expect this time around.

For purposes of assessment, the players are assigned to these categories:

Franchise Players- Perennial star players recognized amongst organization's best

Quality Starters- Above average performers who are Pro Bowl candidates

Average Starters- Legitimate NFL starter of average quality

Reserves- Worthy of earning and retaining a roster spot


1.02 QB Donovan McNabb

2.04 LB Barry Gardner

4.33 DB Damon Moore

4.35 WR Na Brown

6.03 RB Cecil Martin

6.32 WR Troy Smith

7.02 TE Jed Weaver

7.45 DL Pernell Davis


Donovan McNabb was a franchise changing selection with the second overall pick as he went on to the lead the team to a 92-48-1 record over 11 seasons. Apparently the Eagles' brass felt so good about the pick, they took off the remainder of the draft.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 1 McNabb

Quality Starters 0

Average Starters 0

Reserves 3 Gardner, Moore, Martin

Overall Impact to Team A+


1.06 DL Corey Simon

2.05 WR Todd Pinkston

2.30 OL Bobbie Williams

4.05 WR Gari Scott

6.05 RB Thomas Hamner

6.12 DL John Frank

6.26 OL John Romero


Corey Simon anchored the middle of the Eagles defensive line for five seasons, possessing the mass and leverage to stuff the run and collapse the pocket. As injuries continued to erode his effectiveness, the team moved him in 2005. Bobbie Williams turned in a few solid seasons for the Birds before joining the Bengals as a free agent. The fact that the rail thin Todd Pinkston started for the Eagles for four seasons serves as testimony that the team had a horrible receiving corps until Terrell Owens joined the team in 2004. He was surely not an NFL starting caliber receiver.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 1 Simon

Average Starters 1 Williams

Reserves 1 Pinkston

Overall Impact to Team C-


1.25 WR Freddie Mitchell

2.24 LB Quinton Caver

3.01 DL Derrick Burgess

4.26 RB Correll Buckhalter

5.16 TE Tony Stewart

5.24 QB A.J. Feeley


First round pick Freddie Mitchell had his "4th and 26" moment in the sun and was otherwise a huge bust. If he had not been a first round selection and played on the worst receiving unit in the NFL, he may have never played in the league. Caver was a deja vu second round bust like Gardner. Burgess showed potential on the Eagles before signing with Oakland and starring for a couple seasons. Buckhalter was oft injured, but a solid reserve. Birds fans once favored Feeley to take the starting role from McNabb, but he eventually proved that he belonged as a back-up.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 1 Burgess

Average Starters 0

Reserves 3 Buckhalter, Feeley, Caver

Overall Impact to Team D


1.26 DB Lito Shepard

2.26 DB Michael Lewis

2.27 DB Sheldon Brown

3.26 RB Brian Westbrook

4.26 OL Scott Peters

5.27 WR Freddie Milons

6.26 LB Tyreo Harrison

7.27 DL Raheem Brock


This was the best draft in the Andy Reid era. Lito Shepard started five out of his seven seasons in Philly and was mostly a Pro Bowl quality corner. Contract squabbles eventually put him on the bench and punched his ticket out of town. Michael Lewis turned in a few strong seasons as the starting strong safety, including 2004 when was selected for the Pro Bowl and All-Pro Team.

Although he did not receive the same level of league recognition, Sheldon Brown turned out to be the best of the three D-backs. He became a fixture at cornerback before money issues led to his departure this month. Brian Westbrook proved to be an absolute steal and went on to become one of the Eagles all-time greats before getting the fateful ring from Andy Reid on his cell phone in March.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 1 Westbrook

Quality Starters 2 Brown, Shepard

Average Starters 1 Lewis

Reserves 0

Overall Impact to Team A+


1.15 DL Jerome McDougle

2.29 TE L.J. Smith

3.31 WR Billy McMullen

4.34 DL Jamaal Green

6.12 OL Jeremy Bridges

7.30 DB Norman LeJeune


The Eagles traded up to take Miami's Jerome McDougle with the 15th pick hoping that he would terrorize opposing quarterbacks. After registering two sacks in his three seasons, the team cut him loose. The "high ceiling" L.J Smith spent six seasons in Philly dropping passes and missing blocks before being released.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 0

Average Starters 1 Smith

Reserves 1

Overall Impact to Team F


1.16 OL Shawn Andrews

3.26 DB Matt Ware

4.33 DB J.R. Reed

4.35 OL Trey Darilek

5.30 RB Thomas Tapeh

6.20 QB Andy Hall

6.27 DB Dexter Wynn

7.26 OL Adrien Clarke

7.41 RB Bruce Perry

7.42 OL Dominic Furio


The Eagles chose mammoth Shawn Andrews with the 16th pick despite having a reputation as being an under-achiever lacking drive. It appeared to be a brilliant move as he appeared headed for Canton until the wheels came off the bus with multiple injuries and bouts of depression. Thomas Tapeh filled a full-back role for a few seasons, while Reed hung on as back-up. After one season in Philly, Ware still plays for the Cardinals.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 1 Andrews

Average Starters 0

Reserves 2 Ware, Reed, Tapeh

Overall Impact to Team C+


1.31 DL Mike Patterson

2.03 WR Reggie Brown

2.31 LB Matt McCoy

3.13 RB Ryan Moats

4.01 DB Sean Considine

4.25 OL Todd Herremans

5.10 DL Trent Cole

5.36 OL Scott Young

6.37 OL Calvin Armstrong

7.33 DL Keyonta Marshall

7.38 LB David Bergeron


Similar to this season, the Eagles stockpiled 11 picks. Mike Patterson continues to provide a solid presence on the interior of the defensive line and Todd Herremans is a versatile starter on the offensive line. Fifth round steal Trent Cole is one of the top picks in the Reid era as the team's best pass rusher over the past five years. Reggie Brown, Sean Considine and Ryan Moats are all hanging on elsewhere.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 1 Cole

Average Starters 2 Patterson, Herremans

Reserves 3 Brown, Moats, Considine

Overall Impact to Team B+


1.14 DL Broderick Bunkley

2.07 OL Winston Justice

3.07 LB Chris Gocong

4.02 OL Max Jean-Gilles

4.12 WR Jason Avant

5.14 WR Jeremy Bloom

5.35 LB Omar Gaither

6.35 DL LaJuan Ramsey


Although the team has gotten substantial mileage out of six players from this draft and all have started, none are above average. Broderick Bunkley is a solid part of the defensive line rotation. Winston Justice and Max Jean-Gilles emerged as starters in 2009. Omar Gaither and Chris Gocong appear to be falling short of their projected potential, with the latter having been traded in the offseason. Jason Avant is a sure-handed, tough possession receiver and possibly the best of the bunch.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 0

Average Starters 3 Bunkley, Justice, Jean-Gilles

Reserves 3 Avant, Gaither, Gocong

Overall Impact to Team B


2.04 QB Kevin Kolb

2.25 DL Victor Abiamiri

3.23 LB Stewart Bradley

3.26 RB Tony Hunt

5.22 DB CJ Gaddis

5.25 TE Brent Celek

6.27 DB Rashad Barksdale

7.26 RB Nate Ilaoa


This could prove to be one of, if not the, best drafts for Reid—or his undoing. Brent Celek emerged as a Pro Bowl caliber tight-end who has the potential to be one of the league's best. Stewart Bradley was asserting himself as a scheme diverse linebacker before tearing up his knee. Victor Abiamiri has flashed potential, but cannot stay on the field and is wearing out his welcome.

The variable that could push this way up the list is Kevin Kolb if he realizes the potential envisioned by his coach and many fans. Of course, if he turns out to be an AJ Feeley facsimile, this draft class could have tremendous negative impact on the franchise for years to come with McNabb now in a Redskins uniform.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 1 Celek

Average Starters 2 Bradley, Kolb

Reserves 1 Abiamiri

Overall Impact to Team B (semester still in session)


2.16 DL Trevor Laws

2.18 WR DeSean Jackson

3.17 DL Bryan Smith

4.10 OL Mike McGlynn

4.18 DB Quintin Demps

4.32 DB Jack Ikegwuonu

6.18 OL Mike Gibson

6.34 LB Joe Mays

6.37 LB Andy Studebaker

7.23 OL King Dunlap


DeSean Jackson stands out in this draft group with a strong rookie campaign, followed by a Pro Bowl season in 2009. His explosiveness makes him the key component of the team's revamped offense. Quintin Demps showed potential in his first year, but has struggled since. Trevor Laws has the makings of a bust, but the team is going to give him a shot in training camp to prove that wrong. Mike McGlynn, Joe Mays and King Dunlap continue to hang on as reserves for now.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 1 Jackson

Average Starters 0

Reserves 5 Demps, Laws, Mays, Dunlap, McGlynn

Overall Impact to Team B+


1.19 WR Jeremy Maclin

2.21 RB LeSean McCoy

5.17 TE Cornelius Ingram

5.21 DB Victor Harris

5.23 OL Fenuki Tupou

6.21 WR Brandon Gibson

7.04 OL Paul Fanaika

7.21 LB Moise Fokou


As the surprise 19th pick, Jeremy Maclin was solid in his rookie campaign, but did not demonstrate the same explosiveness as Jackson. LeSean McCoy is the starter with Westbrook gone, but has not yet displayed a lot of burst and falls in the bottom third of NFL starting running backs. Both are young and have the potential to blossom into quality starters, though, as they continue their NFL education.

Macho Harris was a playmaker in college, but not so much in the NFL. Although he appears a step slow to play corner, he still may work out at safety. Moise Fokou is listed as a starter on the depth chart, but the Eagles will almost surely attempt to upgrade the position in the draft. The team took a flier on Cornelius Ingram, but after re-injuring his knee last summer, his upside potential may never be realized.

Impact Report Card

Franchise Players 0

Quality Starters 0

Average Starters 3 Maclin, McCoy, Harris

Reserves 1 Fokou

Overall Impact to Team B (but could go higher)

The Final Word

Over the past 11 years, the Eagles have added two "Franchise" players (McNabb, Westbrook), eight "Quality Starters", and 12 "Average Starters." That averages out to exactly two starters per draft—with one being a star caliber player.

The impact of each year's draft has ranged from an "A+" in 1999 and 2002 to an "F" in 2003. Overall, the Eagles have averaged a B- throughout the period.

Those seeing the situation as "glass half full" will point to the number of picks that the team holds and the depth of quality of this year's draft class.

The historical perspective may tend to toss the contents of that glass on those optimists by recognizing that the draft might not yield enough impact players to adequately fill current needs.

Comparing this season with the 2005 and 2008 drafts when the club possessed a similar abundance of picks would suggest that the Eagles could come away with one star caliber player and two starters.

Of course, the team and fans hope for a 2002 type performance that, along with Kolb meeting expectations, could propel the team to continuing prosperity. If instead they fall around historical average, will the impact be enough?


1. The Eagles will draft both a safety and linebacker that will step into starting roles and eventually become impact players.

2. They will also draft a defensive end, but once again come away with a player that disappoints.

3. As they have done in the past, the Eagles will draft a cornerback, groom him next season and then plug him into a starting role for several years.

4. Lastly, with this year's depth and Reid's eye for offensive lineman, they should come away with a starting quality guard or center.

Expect the impact players to come from these names:

Safety- Taylor Mays or Nate Allen

Linebacker- Sean Weatherspoon or Navorro Bowman

Cornerback- Devin McCourty or Chris Cook

OL- J.D. Walton, Eric Olsen, Mitch Petrus, or Marshall Newhouse

And, one last note—the Eagles brass will be feeling some pressure when pick 2.05 comes rolling around. Neither Reid nor Roseman want their legacy to be that they traded Donovan McNabb for Reggie Brown or Todd Pinkston.