We must begin with baseball: the new season approaches with great promise. The Yankees are down, balance is being restored between pitching and hitting, and the flow of new players with great skill has never been stronger. One factor contributing to the new vigor has been a further opening of the gates to Cuban ballplayers, a side effect of the relaxation of travel restrictions. The new Cubans have been primarily offensive players, offsetting somewhat a startling rise in dominant pitching in recent years. The best examples of successful Cuban immigrants are the mercurial Yasiel Puig and slugger Jose Abreu, who brought spice to 2013 and 2014, respectively; there are many more on the way, though not all will prove successful.
Ten or fifteen years ago, with a very small number of exceptions (Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, a couple of others on a less consistent basis), pitching was in retreat. To pitch the ball over the plate to the likes of Barry Bonds was, simply, a mistake pitch for most major league pitchers. So he broke all the records for walks, while he broke all the home run records. Several others, most of them having illicitly enhanced skills, contributed to the widespread fear of pitching strikes. The elimination of tolerance for steroids and other banned substances, along with the development of dozens of new talented pitchers (the reasons being a subject for another post, maybe) shifted the pendulum dramatically, to the point that hitting has become the scarce commodity.
My primary focus, as always, is on the Cincinnati Reds and their division. The Reds' outlook is not promising; they should be somewhere between mediocre and bad. Too much depends on a return to form of former National League Most Valuable Player Joey Votto, in whom the Reds have made a large investment from their middle-market-sized stock of capital, and a new group of untested young pitching arms. Meanwhile, a couple of teams in their division have risen sharply in quality: the deep Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Chicago Cubs, who have built a stock of promising young offensive players, some of whom are already producing at the major league level (Anthony Rizzo being the most prominent), and several more close to arriving. My guess is that the Cubs are still a season away, but the Pirates should challenge the division's perennial favorite, my team's nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals.
In the other NL divisions, the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers clearly look like winners, while the defending World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, will be hard-pressed to make it in as a wild card by the San Diego Padres. Recent history has shown, though, that any team that makes it into the postseason with good momentum can make a run (look at last year's Kansas City Royals' run through the American League playoffs).
Speaking of which, I would say that the Royals should fade back into obscurity, except I don't see any other teams in their division that look better--maybe the Chicago White Sox, maybe the Cleveland Indians. The AL East also looks fairly weak--the Baltimore Orioles and the renewed Boston Red Sox have the best chances. The other three playoff teams--division winner and the two wild cards--should come from the majors' strongest division, the AL West. I would pick Los Angeles de Anaheim narrowly over the rising Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A's, who always manage to put together a competitive team, but the other two teams--Texas Rangers and Houston Astros--may be much improved.
Ridiculous and premature as it is, one must be brave and complete these predictions with a World Series guess: I will pick the Seattle Mariners over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The NFL's Seahawks broke Seattle's long period without a major sports title last year, so the city's professional team self-esteem crisis should be over.
In the never-ending search for more revenue, the men's college basketball season grows longer. The real NCAA tournament (64-team, single elimination) begins on March 19 (I don't count those four preliminary play-in games, which are overdignified formally as "the first round") and will end the day after Easter. After an excessive amount of hype, the tournament brackets came out yesterday evening. There were the usual quibbles about the teams on the edge of the bubble (being outside the bubble means you're out of the tournament), but we're talking about whether #49 is better than #50, or something like that.
The biggest issue, from my point of view, was that Duke, which was not the best team in its Atlantic Coast Conference--U. of Virginia won that title handily--was awarded a #1 seed, and to all appearances the easiest path through its quarter of the draw, while U Va. got a #2. The other teams with a beef are Wisconsin and Arizona, both of sufficient quality to be #1 seeds (Wisconsin got it), in the same group--but no team can really complain about its opponent: any team has to beat all the ones in its path to win the title.
What that means, in particular, is this: can anyone beat Kentucky? The Wildcats are 34-0 and have the potential to become the first 40-game winner in NCAA history if they can sweep through the tournament. This deep and tall squad has developed its freshman talent and rounded out its weak spots while going undefeated. They were challenged in a few games, and in them they showed determination and the end-game strength which comes from poise and the depth to wear down opponents. They are a big target, and they will surely be tested--it's hard to be sure by which teams, though.
It has been almost 40 years since a national championship team went undefeated in Division I (Indiana, in '75-'76), and Kentucky's dominance--especially in the big games against the stronger teams--has brought back memories of that Indiana team, and of the classic UCLA ones a few years before. This may be the year in which UK coach John Calipari, the clear master of the "one and done" era (one year in college, then the player turns pro) finally earns some respect, if he can complete the run successfully (without some recruiting violations showing up later).
Is basketball over then? Not By A longshot! The NBA playoffs will start a few days later. In this final month of the regular season, teams fall into four categories (from worst to best):
4) Tanking for a good draft lottery pick : this looks like it will be a good draft from college, and several teams are vying for the dishonor of the worst record, which will not guarantee the first pick (the NBA has been smart enough to avoid that trap), but will get one of the top ones. If it gets too onerous, the tanking that is, the NBA has threatened to change the rules. Meanwhile, it's the Lakers, the Knicks, the 76ers, and the Minnesota Timber Wolves that are battling for the bottom, with six other teams--Orlando, Denver, Sacramento, Utah, Brooklyn, and Detroit--in the mix for lesser draft positions and a longshot chance their number will come out of the lottery bowl for the top pick (who will probably be Okafor from Duke, followed by a couple of sterling Wildcat freshmen).
3) Still grasping for a chance in the playoffs: This mess has resolved itself into three teams--Phoenix, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City--going for one spot in the Western Conference, with the latter now holding the coveted eighth position and the clear favorite for it--and three teams--Charlotte, Miami, and surprising Boston--in a close struggle for the less-prestigious last spot in the Eastern Conference.
2) Playoff-bound teams jockeying for position: The Western Conference has two three-team battles. Dallas, San Antonio, and the L.A. Clippers are in a virtual tie for fifth through seventh, while just three or four games better are San Antonio, Portland, and Houston in second through fourth. Matchups are important in the playoffs, so teams' coaches could envision doing better against some teams, worse against others, but the picture in the West is too confused for any team to have a clear strategy, except try to keep winning: all six of these teams are winning between 60-70% of their games; they are all good. In the Eastern Conference, Indiana, rising once again despite the season-long injury to its best player, Paul George, will contend with Milwaukee for sixth and seventh, while third through fifth teams Toronto, Washington, and Chicago each seem to be trying to lose a little more than the others, so as to avoid the dreaded #3 spot. I will explain why momentarily.
1) The leaders, preparing for the long grind: These are the Conference leaders, Atlanta and Golden State, and Eastern #2 Cleveland. They are resting their stars against weaker teams, developing the game skills of their bench players and trying to stay healthy and keep their winning rhythms.
Unlike baseball's playoffs, the NBA's usually separate the better teams from the weaker ones quite clearly, and surprises by substantially-lower seeded teams are rare. One mammoth one could be coming in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, if the Oklahoma City Thunder get the eighth spot and can take out the #1 seed, Golden State. The Thunder have the necessary talent--assuming possible MVP Russell Westbrook, former MVP Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka are all healthy--and they have more playoff success behind them than Golden State (though, arguably, they have underachieved in the later rounds of the playoffs in recent years). As far as Western #2 - #7 playoff matchup results, anything can happen, though one always has to respect the chances of San Antonio (most likely #4) to emerge from the fracas.
In the East, the Beast has risen, and it is the Cleveland Cavaliers. The new LeBron James/Kevin Love/Kyrie Irving combo took awhile to je;l, but it has done so, aided by a couple of good midseason trades, and they are rolling now. Cleveland will finish #2, and no one wants to be the #3 team that would face the Cavaliers in the second round. The Atlanta Hawks, which have impressed all season with their balanced team play, should be heavily favored to face Cleveland in the Eastern finals, which should be well worth the wait. Cleveland stands alone, though, as the team most likely to win the championship at the end, with about five teams (Atlanta, Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City) tied for second most likely.
Chelsea Rule OK?
My hopes for a massively successful campaign for my favorite English soccer team were dashed last week in a devastating Champions League loss (in the round of 16) to Paris Saint Germain. I say "loss", though both games finished with tie scores: 1-1 in Paris, and 2-2, in extra time, in London. PSG advanced due to the away goals rule (after the two games, if the combined number of goals is equal, the team with more goals in its away match advances), as Chelsea blew a 1-0 lead in the last five minutes of regular time at home, forcing extra time, then blew another lead six minutes from the end of extra time.
Chelsea has won the second-tier League Cup this year, and they has a clear (but not un-blowable) lead in the season-long league competition. The next ten games will probably determine the fate of its widely-detested, imperious coach Jose Mourinho (detested by opposing coaches, players, and those teams' fans, not generally by those of the team for which he is currently working). The defeat by PSG was a shock to him: he was not used to his team losing in these early rounds of the Champions League, certainly not in that fashion. I'm sure he demanded his players "take a long look at themselves" afterwards; I wonder if he did the same.
Anyway, the first game afterwards in the Premier League--now the only competition Chelsea has to worry about--didn't end well, as the Blues gained only a 1-1 draw (though the opponent, Southampton, was at least a worthy one). The good news is that their chief rival, Manchester City, also seems clay-footed (most recently losing 1-0 to Burnley, which is trying to get out of the last three spots in the league standings, failure to do so meaning relegation to the next division down). In fact, Manchester City may soon be overtaken by either Arsenal or Manchester United (or both), perennial powerhouse teams which lagged the pace last year and in the early part of this season, but which are now posting victories more consistently. The standings and schedule favor Chelsea, and I'm sure Mourinho knows it: win the Premier League, or you're fired.
I really like this Chelsea team, full of top-quality players hand-picked by Mourinho, and which normally works very well as a unit. They have to keep from letting their let-down against PSG lead into a slump, which they cannot afford at this stage in the season. I think they can even survive misfortune to almost any of their players, the one possible exception being their center forward Diego Costa. If he is lost for a week or two, and he could be--he had a nagging hamstring injury for most of the first two months of the season, and he was recently being suspended for two games for stepping, ruled intentionally, on another player's ankle--Chelsea will be forced to rely on aging stalwart Didier Drogba, who has not been effective. Still, if the defense holds up (a little better than it did against PSG), they should survive even this.
Needless to say, I like their chances, and Kentucky's--when you're backing the favorite, you have to.