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2013 State of the Teams Report

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New England Patriots

ESPN Power Ranking: 4 (regular season)
Online odds to win the Superbowl: 6/5

Once again, the Patriots are well-positioned to win their fourth Superbowl. They should have taken care of that business in the 2006, 2007 and 2011 seasons but because of a too many men in the huddle penalty, a helmet catch and Gronk’s ankle, they have won three Superbowls, not six. They were also the #1 seed in 2010 before losing an improbable home game to the Jets in the divisional round. I don’t think there is any way that the Giants would have won last year’s Superbowl had Rob Gronkowski not been hurt. Once again, Gronk’s injury will diminish their chances of winning the title but I feel much better about New England’s chances this year for several reasons:

  1. Brandon Lloyd, not Ocho Cinco, is the third option in the passing game. Lloyd has not had the explosive season that many of us hoped for, but he still managed 74 catches for 911 yards. Obviously, no one can replace Gronkowski’s production but Welker and Hernandez won’t have to carry the entire load this time around.

  2. The Patriots have a legitimate running game. With the exception of the 2004 season when Corey Dillon rushed for 1,600 yards, this is the first time in the Brady/Belichick era that the Patriots have been able to hurt opponents with their running game. At least in a small way, this eases the pain of Gronk’s absence.

  3. The Patriots have been able to adjust to life without Gronkowski. Gronk missed five games during the regular season and most of Sunday’s playoff game so playing without #87 is not a shock to the offense’s system (unlike last year when the first game he missed was the Superbowl). Michael Hoomanawanui has filled in admirably from a blocking perspective. Daniel Fells may play a bigger role as well. Aaron Hernandez has stepped up his game with 38 catches for 389 yards in his last six games.

  4. The defense is better than it was in 2010 and 2011. The Pats run defense has been solid all season (sixth in the NFL in opponent yards per carry). The pass defense could probably be described as slightly above average, upgraded from “terrible” early this season and “shaky” during last season’s playoff run. Obviously, the addition of Aqib Talib has been huge. The Patriots blew games early in the season against Baltimore and Seattle because of receivers getting behind the secondary. That hasn’t been happening very much lately.

On the negative side, if the Patriots advance to the Superbowl they could be playing the San Francisco 49ers who are a much better team than the 2011 New York Giants. So … go Falcons.

Since this is a State of the Teams Report, I should spend a little time on the Patriots future. That future is still very bright. Tom Brady had another MVP caliber season and looks like he has a few good years left. They are set at tight end (if they can stay healthy) and running back for the next few years. The offensive line is in good shape (if they resign Vollmer). The Patriots clearly need to resign Welker and will hopefully pick up a big, physical wide receiver in the draft.

There is still room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball but it appears that Hightower and Jones were solid picks in last year’s draft. McCourty seems to be a better fit at safety and Dennard has been a pleasant surprise. The Pats have a nice mix of youth and veterans on defense but they still could use some pass rushers and another safety. Hopefully, they can resign Talib.

The Patriots are now in Year 12 of an incredible run. Few franchises in the history of pro sports have been this good for this long. Most dynasties die out because the veteran players “get old” at the same time. The Patriots have been able to mix in young talent with the key veterans and avoid that fate. The Patriots are the ninth youngest team in the league. As long as Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots should remain on the short list of Superbowl favorites.

Boston Celtics

ESPN Power Ranking: 17
Online Odds to Win 2013 NBA Title: 30/1

The Celtics are in familiar territory. Last season, they started 15-17 and looked like they might not even be headed to the playoffs. They quickly turned things around (24-10 finish) and were one home victory away from heading to the NBA Finals.

This season, they started 14-17 but have now won six games in a row and are hopefully headed for a similar strong finish. Most agree that the turnaround is the result of Avery Bradley’s return to the court (he’s played in seven games). Bradley’s return to the starting lineup has allowed Jason Terry to return to his familiar role as a key bench player. It also helps that Courtney Lee is starting to look more comfortable in Celtic green and Jared Sullinger is developing and giving the C’s some much-needed rebounding prowess (9.8 points, 9.3 rebounds per game during the winning streak). Paul Pierce is having a monster season and KG remains solid. Jeff Green has even shown signs that he can be a significant contributor.

On the down side, the Celtics are still getting killed on the boards and generally have problems when KG leaves the court (not so much lately). Rondo has had some brilliant games but his focus isn’t there every night and he’s piling up the suspensions. His immaturity with the refs means that he will probably never get a close call. Brandon Bass is also having a disappointing season and needs to upgrade his game if the Celtics are going to compete for the title.

I don’t expect a major move that will completely transform the Celtics (for example, picking up Anderson Varejao or DeMarcus Cousins) so this is more or less the team they will go to battle with in the postseason. The Knicks got off to a fast start but I still think a healthy Celtics team is better than a healthy Knicks team. Chicago could be dangerous again with Derrick Rose coming back. Atlanta, Brooklyn and Indiana have all played well but none of those teams appear to be as good as their winning percentages suggest. Despite their weakness on the boards, Miami is the team to beat in the East and it would behoove the Celtics to grab a 2 or 3 seed so they can (a) start the playoffs at home and (b) not have to worry about playing Miami until the Eastern Finals (assuming that Miami holds on to the 1 seed). The Celtics are not as good as Miami or the top four teams in the West but they are certainly capable of beating any of them in a seven game series. No team is without flaws.

The Celtics future is difficult to predict. They have a top five point guard in his prime and some promising young talent (Bradley, Sullinger, Green, Lee) but it’s not clear which of those guys will be around in a year or two. In fact, the same goes for Garnett and Pierce. Anything is possible at this point. If the Celtics don’t make a deep playoff run, we could see a total rebuild starting next season. If they have success in the playoffs, it’s possible that they keep the core intact and make a run at a big man (easier said than done). With Pierce and Garnett still playing such a critical role, my sense is that a rebuild in the next year or two is likely and that the “future is now” mentality is the best approach for this season and next.

Boston Bruins

ESPN Power Ranking: 6
Online Odds to Win 2013 Stanley Cup: 12/1

The NHL returns on Saturday with a Bruins-Rangers clash that could be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bruins are one of seven teams with odds of between 8/1 and 12/1 to win the Cup (along with the Rangers, Penguins, Kings, Canucks, Blackhawks and Red Wings). In other words, there is no heavy favorite and the Bruins are one of several top contenders.

Last year’s playoff exit was disappointing but entirely unexpected. After playing 25 playoff games (including three tough seven-game series) to win the Cup in 2011, it would have been very difficult for the Bruins to sustain the energy needed to make a similar run. This year, the Bruins will start the season well-rested and fairly healthy. There wasn’t much turnover on the roster so the Bruins will have a big advantage in the early season against teams that did make significant changes.

There three big questions facing the 2012-2013 Bruins are as follows:

  1. Will Tuukka Rask be as effective as the starting goaltender as he was as Tim Thomas’ backup last season (and as effective as he was as the starter in the 2009-2010 season when he was 22-12 with 1.97 GAA)?

  2. Will Nathan Horton be healthy all season? Horton says he’s healthy but once a player has multiple concussions you start to worry about their well-being (both on and off the ice). The Bruins faded after Horton was knocked out for the season last year.

  3. Will last year’s first round pick (9th overall), defenseman Dougie Hamilton, play a key role with the Bruins in the 2012-2013 season? He’s a potential superstar who could give the Bruins another legitimate goal scorer on the blue line.

If the answer to all three of those questions is YES (or even the first two questions) then the Bruins have a very good chance of winning their second Stanley Cup in three years.

The Bruins long-term future is also very bright. Tyler Seguin, who will turn 21 this month, is a budding superstar. Marchand and Lucic are only 24. Rask is 25. Horton, Bergeron, Krejci and Boychuk are all in their prime. Zdeno Chara is signed through 2018. It must be noted that Rask and Horton are unrestricted free agents after this season (Bergeron after next season) and Krejci is rumored to be on the trading block (more because of the Bruins overabundance of centers than anything else) so some of those guys might be playing elsewhere in the next couple of seasons. Either way, the Bruins have the talent and depth to be Cup contenders for a long time. That’s assuming that they don’t revert back to their penny-pinching ways of the past.

Boston Red Sox

ESPN Power Ranking: 24 (2012 season)
Online odds to win 2013 World Series: 30/1

For the first time in many years (maybe the first time ever), the Red Sox are the team that nobody wants to talk about. During the past two years, the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics have all reached their league’s Final Four. Meanwhile, the Red Sox gave us an epic collapse in 2010 and a 69-win season in 2011. A very curious off-season only made Red Sox fans feel worse.

I was quite pleased when the Red Sox dumped $250 million in future salary on the Dodgers late last season. This was salary that I assumed would be used to sign talented young players. Instead, they spent about half of that money on Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster (though Napoli’s contract is now incentive-based). Meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays added a 1, 2 and 3 starter, a leadoff hitter with superstar potential and a #2 hitter who batted .346 last year. The Rays somehow managed to pry one of the top prospects in baseball (Wil Myers) away from the Royals for a 31-year-old pitcher. The Yankees $200 million payroll hasn’t gone away and the Orioles are clearly moving in the right direction.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, seem to have no apparent direction. They didn’t pursue big time free agents like Josh Hamilton and Zach Greinke or even A-minus/B-plus level guys like Edwin Jackson and Anibal Sanchez in an attempt to win now. Nor did they move in the rebuilding direction by trying to acquire minor league talent like Myers by dangling players like Ellsbury and Lester. They appear stuck in baseball purgatory with players who are good enough to enable them to just miss the playoffs. In recent years, they got into trouble by overpaying for guys like Crawford, Beckett and Lackey. But Victorino, Napoli and Dempster are even more overpaid. None of it makes sense.

As is the case in every baseball season, anything is possible. The bullpen looks really good. Uehara and Hanrahan are great additions so if Bard bounces back and Bailey is healthy (two big Ifs), the Sox could have one of the best pens in baseball. Lester, Buchholz, Dempster and Lackey certainly have the talent to give the Sox a playoff-caliber rotation but the odds of all four (or even three) being healthy and having a good year seems pretty small. The Red Sox lineup should score a lot of runs when they are … you guessed it … healthy. A potential top six of Ellsbury – Victorino – Pedroia – Ortiz – Middlebrooks – Napoli would score plenty of runs but how many starts will the guys in this group average? 120? If they wanted players who are almost certain to wind up injured, they should have kept Kevin Youkilis.

I may have been able to sell myself on an AL East run before the Blue Jays went out and had probably the best “hot stove” season in baseball history. The Yankees are old and not that impressive, the Orioles didn’t make many offseason moves (and probably played a little over their heads last year) and the Rays might not score many runs unless Myers makes an immediate impact. But the Jays added a great leadoff/#2 hitter combo to a lineup that already includes Bautista and Encarnacion (those two could combine for 90 HRs) and three top-of-the-rotation starters to go with the impressive Brandon Morrow (2.96 ERA last season). They are going to be hard to beat.

The Red Sox have a few good prospects, including Rubby DeLaRosa who they picked up in last year’s mega-deal with the Dodgers, who could be with the big club this year or next but they don’t appear to have either the star power or the depth to build a winner through the minor league system. Other than Will Middlebrooks and maybe Felix Doubrount, the Red Sox don’t even really have young talent on the current roster. They are going to have to be smarter in free agency. Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are in their prime so if they can get back on track, I’d feel much better about the Sox future.

Things can change in a hurry, particularly in baseball, but if I had to pick the least likely Boston champion among the four major teams for 2013 and 2014, it would definitely be the Red Sox.

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